Friday, December 13, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: 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 1969 (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!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland!

Not actually my new home -- it's the reading room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. 

Sadly, our time in Germany is quickly coming to an end, and it's time to return to the U. S. after three years. At the end of June we're relocating to metropolitan Washington, D. C. I'm excited to be close to our nation's capital and all the culture and history, but very sad to be leaving Europe. Also I'll finally be living less than an hour's drive away from family, so that's very exciting after 24 years as a military spouse.

I feel so lucky to have been able to live in Germany -- I've visited 28 countries so far, some of them more than once, and next week I'm taking a final trip before we leave: a week-long cruise to Norway! I know I haven't posted that much about traveling, but I'll try to post after I return -- we have a week or so after the movers take everything and we actually board of final flight to return. I don't know how often I'll be able to post over the summer as things will be rather hectic finding another place to live yet again -- I'm really hoping this will be the very last move -- this will be our eighth major move in the past 24 years and I'm really over it.

And bloggers, if you have any suggestions for great bookstores, libraries, restaurants, museums or anything cultural in the Baltimore/Washington area, I'd love to hear about it! I can't wait to explore my new city!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Classics Spin #20: The Misses Mallet by E. H. Young

I love participating in the Classics Club Spins -- it's always fun to have someone else pick a book for you. I really want to read everything on my Classics Club list (and on all the TBR shelves, really!) and the periodic Spin challenges usually behoove me to read something that's been languishing on the shelves. I've had really good luck with all my Spin picks and I'm nearly always glad I read them.

This Spin pick was no different -- The Misses Mallett (originally published as The Bridge Dividing), published in 1922. I'd read Young's award-winning novel Miss Mole last year, so I was happy to finally tackle The Misses Mallett. Like Miss Mole, the novel is largely set in Radstowe (a fictionalized version of Bristol), probably around the Edwardian era.

In the first section of the book, the Misses Mallett are three sisters living in Nelson Lodge: Caroline, Sophie, and their much younger half-sister Rose. Caroline and Sophie are probably in their forties when the book starts -- they're more than twenty years older than Rose, the child of their father's second marriage. When her mother died in childbirth, Caroline and Sophie cared for Rose as though she were their own child. The Misses Mallett are from an old family and are financially independent. Neither had any desire to marry, though they spend a lot of time reminiscing about their old beaus and romantic conquests. Caroline, the dominant older sister, seems quite proud to have been a bit of a flirt in her day, and Sophie, who is shyer and dreamier, secretly pines for a long-lost lover her sister never knew about.

Rose is in her early twenties, and Caroline and Sophie think she is fit for a king. However, they really expect her to marry a local landowner, Francis Sales, who's known Rose since they were children. Rose seems indifferent to Francis, who goes off in a huff to Canada and shocks everyone when he returns with a bride, Christabel, and there's a big plot twist.

E. H. Young, 1932. From the National Portrait Gallery, UK

Later, the fourth Miss Mallett arrives: Henrietta, their niece, whom they have never met. Her father Reginald (the younger brother of the oldest Miss Malletts) is a bit of a ne'er-do-well and was disinherited by his father, though he shows up periodically looking for money. Eventually his only child is orphaned and has grown up in straightened circumstances, but her aunts welcome her with open arms.

Henrietta was her father's daughter, willful and lovable, but she was also the daughter of that mother who had been good and loving. Henrietta had her father's passion for excitement, but being a woman, she had the greater need of being loved. 

Eventually, there is a love triangle which becomes a love quadrangle, and then (I suppose) a quintangle. (Is that even a real word? Or would it be a pentangle?) Nevertheless, it all becomes very muddled, and there is another family involved, and more plot twists. The ending was a little predictable, but satisfying, though I wouldn't have minded if it had gone a different way. I really enjoyed this novel -- the female characters were all very distinctive and well-drawn, though Francis Sales was a bit flat. And the writing was excellent, with lovely descriptions. A great Spin pick!

E. H. Young was a very popular writer in the first half of the century, and published eleven novels and two children's books before her death in 1949. I'm pretty sure all of her novels are out of print, though several were reprinted by Virago Modern Classics and most of them are easily available as reasonably priced used paperbacks. I still have three more of her novels on the TBR shelves, all VMC editions: Jenny Wren; William; and Chatterton Square, which I've been wanting to read ever since Simon and Rachel discussed it on Episode 40 of Tea or Books?, my favorite bookish podcast.

Bloggers, did you participate in the Classics Club Spin? How did you like your pick? And should I just poll my readers to choose my next book?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week: The Glass-Blowers

I've been a big fan of Daphne du Maurier since I was thirteen and my mother let me stay up late with her to watch an adaptation of Rebecca on Masterpiece. I was instantly hooked, but it wasn't until many years later that I realized how many other books du Maurier had written. When I read that Ali from Heavenali was hosting a Daphne du Maurier reading week I knew I'd be participating -- but which book? 

As it happened, I had planned a long weekend in Paris that coincided, so The Glass-Blowers seemed like the perfect choice. Loosely based on du Maurier's own ancestors, it's a historical novel about the French revolution as experienced by a the Bussons, a family of glassblowers.

Published in 1963, the story begins with a prologue, as an elderly woman recounts meeting a long-lost relative who knows nothing about his family of French glassblowers. (I read this as an e-book and accidentally skipped the prologue, but I think I prefer it that way as there were some minor spoilers). She then writes the family history, beginning  in 1741 with the marriage of her mother, Magdaleine, to Matharin Busson, a master glassblower from Chenu a village south of Le Mans. After their marriage, Madame Busson quickly steps in to help with the business, from keeping accounts to managing domestic affairs of the workers and their families, in addition to raising five children of her own. The story is told in the first person by Sophie, the fourth child and eldest daughter, but most of novel is the history of the three eldest:  sons Robert, Pierre, and Michel, who all train to be glassblowers but end up taking very different paths: Robert is a speculator, gambler and royalist; Pierre is enlightened and and a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the youngest, Michel, is a republican.

The Glass-Blowers is fairly short for a historical novel, less than 400 pages, but du Maurier essentially tries to pack in most of the entire French Revolution -- the storming of the Bastille; the departure of the royalist sympathizers; and the bloody terror. I'm not nearly as familiar with the history of France as I'd like to be, so parts of this felt like a crash-course to me -- I appreciate what du Maurier was trying to do, but politics in books tend to bore me, so I wished there was more about the family than about the history. I liked the novel but I would have liked more character development; also, sometimes it felt like du Maurier was doing a lot of telling and not showing. I was more interested in the family's story than about the actual politics that were going on. It's not as creepy or suspenseful as Rebecca or The House on the Strand, though there are definitely some tense moments during some scenes set riots and when counter-revolutionaries are terrorizing a town.

However, I did really enjoy it. I was struck in particular by how much of the upheaval was stirred by gossip and rumors -- people were terrified with stories of marauding brigands and thieves; stories of foreign armies retaliating after the arrest and execution of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, and so on. It's even worse than the misinformation people are getting today on social media.

I would love to know how much of this is based on facts about her family, and how much is fiction. Du Maurier also published several nonfiction books, including a memoir of her early years and, a family history called The Du Mauriers. And last week I also finished Letters From Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship by Oriel Malet, who documents their friendship from the 1950s until du Maurier's death in the late 1980s.

I did really enjoy reading this book while I was on my trip to France -- it's not often that my reading and my travels coincide, but I actually ended up reading this on a bus trip to Versailles! It really brought the story to life, after seeing the excess of the palace and driving through the countryside, passing through a couple of villages which still had Medieval buildings and historic churches. If I have time I'll put up another post with photos of my trip. And many thanks to Ali for organizing this blogging event!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Artificial Silk Girl: A 1930s German Train Wreck

Back-to-back train wrecks! I can't remember who blogged about it, but just a couple of weeks ago I saw that Penguin was re-issuing a new edition of The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun. I'd never heard of it, but the description said it was a bestseller in 1931 and subsequently banned by the Nazis, so, naturally I was intrigued and ordered a copy from And for once, I actually didn't wait around several years before I read it! (The fact that it is only 144 pages may have contributed somewhat.)

So here's the setup: young Doris is a young German woman living in the Rhineland, but longing for excitement. She's working as a typist and living with her mother and stepfather, but dreams of a career on the stage -- preferably in a big city. She manages to finagle her way onstage as an extra in a local play, and even gets a single spoken line. It looks like she actually might achieve her dream but then a bad decision catches up with her; she then steals a fur coat left on one of the theater seats by a neighbor (for whom she has a longstanding hatred) and leaves town on an overnight train to Berlin in a panic.  

Doris manages to crash at an old friend's apartment temporarily, but she can't get work papers because the police might be looking for her due to the theft. She's living hand to mouth, depending on sympathetic men she picks up in bars to buy her food and drinks. Basically, she's looking for a rich man to support her, she doesn't care if it's as a wife or a mistress. Things naturally don't work out as planned and she sinks lower and lower. Yep, another train wreck.

The blurb on the book jacket describes this book as "very funny and intensely moving," but I didn't find it a bit funny -- I just thought it was tragic and sad. I didn't care much for Doris but I did find her plight horrifying -- I remember what it was like when I was first on my own, struggling to pay the bills (though I never went hungry and was threatened by homelessness like Doris). I know there were a lot of desperate people in Germany after the war, and the cold and the Depression meant so many people were in dire straits. 

Though The Artificial Silk Girl wasn't exactly what I expected, it was an interesting perspective to read about, especially since Keun lived through it first-hand. She was born in 1905, so she was about the same age as Doris when she wrote this, and probably knew people very much like her. 

Some of the descriptions of The Artificial Silk Girl also mention that Keun was inspired by Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to write her own story about a young woman trying to make it on her own, which inspired me to track down a copy of Loos' novella. The two books couldn't be more different and I'll be posting on that one shortly. I've also heard it's more like Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, one of which was adapted for the stage as I Am a Camera -- which I read just a few months ago. Doris is definitely closer to Sally Bowles than Lorelei Lee. 

If you're interested in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s I highly recommend the Babylon Berlin TV miniseries which was a huge success. It's more of a historical crime series but one of the characters reminds me a bit of Doris, and there are several scenes set in Berlin nightclubs, plus you definitely get the sense of desperation and the dark underbelly of Berlin society. The first two seasons are available in the U. S. on Netflix, and apparently there's a third in the works. (You can watch it either with the original German and English subtitles, or dubbed into English -- I much prefer the subtitles). It's based on a series of German books by Volker Kutscher, some which have been translated into English. I read the first volume last year but this is one of the few instances in which I actually preferred the TV adaptation to the book. 

I'm counting this as my Classic From A Place You've Lived for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann: A Family of German Trainwrecks

Having spent nearly three years in Germany, I thought it was time I really buckled down and tried to read some actual German literary classics. Published in 1901, Buddenbrooks is one of Thomas Mann's masterpieces and is inspired by the history of his own family.

The story begins in 1835, in a northern German city modeled after Mann's hometown of Lubeck. The Buddenbrook family is hosting a dinner party shortly after moving into their latest home, a large historic home sold by another merchant family whose fortunes have declined. We are introduced to the Buddenbrooks: Johann, a successful grain wholesaler (also known by his title, Consul), the older son of his father's second marriage. He and his wife Elisabeth have three children, Thomas, Christian, and Antonie, known as Tony. A second daughter will soon join the family, and there is a young ward, Klothilde, the child of a poor relation. Buddenbrooks traces the family over about 40 years, focusing on the three older children, tracing their successes and more often their failures throughout the 19th century.

It's quite a long book, divided into eleven parts (more than 700 pages in my edition). The first hundred pages or so were a bit slow, mostly just setting up the characters -- the entire first part is just the dinner party (told in great detail, including descriptions of the food). The three principals are fairly young and their story is mostly just about their education and misadventures. Things started to pick up for me in Part III when young Tony attracts an unwanted suitor called Herr Grunlich, a commercial agent from Hamburg. Tony only eighteen, but the family seems unfazed when this 32-year-old man starts hanging around their house. He doesn't seem discouraged even when Tony is openly rude to him, and to her dismay, offers her a proposal of marriage. Naturally, the family assumes Tony is too young to "know her own mind" and pressure her to accept, which made me want to throw something across the room.

What eventually follows is the first in a series of Bad Decisions by this family. It seems like they're doing the right thing at the time, but basically, all three of the elder children are on a slow, downward spiral, repeating mistakes over and over, both financially and in their personal lives. Essentially, they are a bunch of slow-moving trainwrecks. The plot of the storyline shifts back and forth, mainly concerned with Tony and her oldest brother Thomas, who has been groomed to take over the family business. (Younger brother Christian is a charming ne'er-do-well who makes occasional appearances to drag the family down even farther.)

I wouldn't have thought the story of a German merchant family would be so fascinating, but it absolutely was. After those first 100 pages I was completely hooked and could not stop reading it, and finished most of it in about three days. It's very much a long Victorian saga, as it's set up in multiple sections with mostly very short chapters. It absolutely felt as though it could have been serialized, though I believe it was published in a single volume. It also reminded me a bit of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.

I particularly enjoyed Mann's descriptions, especially of domestic life. Mann goes into surprising detail about the homes, decor, and fashions of the time, and there are a lot of descriptions of meals in this book. Here's a quote regarding a Sunday dinner attended by the suitor Herr Grunlich:

He ate mussel ragout, julienne soup, baked sole, roast veal with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, maraschino pudding, and pumpernickel with Roquefort cheese -- and at each course he offered a new tribute appropriate to the delicacy. For example, raising his dessert spoon, he gazed at a statue woven into the wallpaper and said aloud to himself, "God forgive me, I can do no other; I've eaten a large serving, but this pudding is just too splendid. I simply must implore my hostess for a second helping. 

I suppose this is Mann's way of showing how bourgeois the family is, but I love food writing so that's one reason why I was hooked -- it's making me hungry just thinking about it. I did get really invested in the characters and would stop reading and yell at them when they made bad decisions. It will definitely be one of my top reads this year and now I can't wait to read Mann's other long saga, The Magic Mountain. Also, if you're looking for a copy, I highly recommend the 1993 edition translated by John E. Woods. I actually own a Vintage International copy that was translated back in 1924, but I didn't like it as much as the e-book version so ended up not reading my print copy at all.

I've also discovered that Buddenbrooks was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1979. Used copies are available on Amazon but they're really expensive, so hopefully I can get it from a library. It's available from for a mere 20 euros but I'm pretty sure that version doesn't have English subtitles.

I'm counting this as my Very Long Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The 1965 Club: The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith

I'm always happy to join in one of Kaggsy and Simon's biannual reading clubs, and when I found out they had selected 1965 for this round, I was delighted to discover that Dodie Smith's The Town in Bloom fit the bill perfectly -- especially since I'd just bought a copy a few months ago! Win-win! It's also fairly short, just over 300 pages in a mass-market paperback, so it was the perfect read for a short road trip this week. 

Set mostly about 1925, this story begins with a woman, oddly nicknamed Mouse, receiving an invitation to small reunion of four old friends at a swanky London hotel restaurant. We don't know at first how old they are, nor how long since they first met. We do find out that one of the four, nicknamed Zelle, is unlikely to show up. Mouse spies a homeless-looking woman out the window of the restaurant and ends up following her in a taxi. 

Later, the book flashes back to Mouse first arriving in London from Manchester at the tender age of eighteen, where she takes up residence in a women's club, a sort of dormitory. She's just lost her only living relative, an aunt who was a regional actress, who has given mouse a letter of introduction to a very famous actor named Rex Crossway. Mouse makes two new friends at the Club, Molly and Lillian, who are slightly older and are working as chorus girls. 

Mouse then crashes an audition at the Crossway theater, and though she doesn't get a part, manages to snag a secretarial job, where she learns the ins and outs of the theater, doing secretarial work, prompting, and so on. Dodie Smith was also a playwright and her knowledge of the London theater world gives the story wonderful background and insider's details. 

Mouse and her two friends get into some madcap adventures and wind up meeting the mysterious Zelle, who isn't longing for a theater career, but tags along. Mouse and her friends all wind up having rather torrid affairs which I found quite surprising given the 1920s setting. Of course it was published in 1965 during the sexual revolution. I don't know much about the social history of 1920s London but it felt a bit more sixties than twenties to me. 

The original cover -- those flowers seem very 1960s! 

This was a light, quick read, though I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I Capture the Castle. I liked Mouse but I just didn't get her fascination for the man who is the object of her affection; also, I didn't much care for her two friends Molly and Lillian, who I just found rather condescending. And I found the ending so abrupt that I wonder if there is actually a page missing (especially since there are no blank pages in the book in my edition). The best parts of the book are set in the theater -- I've been lucky enough to see several West End shows since I've been living in Germany and I've loved all of them. I did a bit of theater in high school and I was absolutely terrible, but I can understand the fascination. 

I've now read nearly all of Smith's adult novels, and none of them quite measure up to I Capture the Castle, which is clearly her best novel -- I imagine that's why her other novels don't get much attention. (I Capture the Castle has nearly 80,000 ratings on Goodreads, compared to less than 1000 for all her other novels). I still need to track down A Tale of Two Families to complete her oeuvre. 

I still may try to read two other books for the 1965 Club -- Frederica by Georgette Heyer, or The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier. Thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting The 1965 Club, I'm already looking forward to the next reading club. You can find links to other reviews on Simon's blog here

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Fortune of the Rougons: The Rougon-Macquart Origin Story

"A new dynasty is never founded without a struggle. Blood makes good manure. It will be a good thing for the Rougon family to be founded on a massacre, like many illustrious families." 

I had six unread Zola novels on my TBR shelves when Fanda announced her annual Zoladdiction readalong, and although I've been reading Zola for close to a decade, I still hadn't read the very first volume, The Fortune of the Rougons. 

Published in 1871 but set twenty years earlier, The Fortunes of the Rougons sets up the story of the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart family. The story begins on a cold December day in 1851, and a pair of teenage sweethearts meet in an abandoned lumber yard in the fictional town of Plassans (loosely modeled on the Provencal town of Aix). Silviere, aged 17, tells 13-year-old Miette that he is planning to join an uprising of Republicans who are resisting a coup d'etat by Napoleon III.

The book then jumps backward in time to describe the origins of the family: a young heiress, Adelaide Fouquet, inherited land from her insane father some years before, then shocked the town by marrying a peasant gardener, Rougon. A year later, she gave birth to a son, Pierre, but Rougon died soon after. The town was further scandalized when the young widow began an affair with a smuggler named Macquart, and though they never married, she bore two more children, Ursula and Antoine. So essentially the family is split along the three children: Pierre is the first of the bourgeois Rougons; the middle-class Mourets are Ursula's children by her marriage to a hatter; and the working-class Macquarts are the descendents of Antoine.

The eldest son, Pierre, manages to marry the daughter of an olive oil merchant, and when most of the action of the story takes place in 1851, he and his ambitious wife Felicite are trying to manipulate their way into the upper part of society and local politics. Felicite has a sort of salon in apartment, and her youngest son Pascal, a doctor, seems to stand in for Zola himself as he studies their Plassans cronies:

Pascal, to appease her, came and spent a few evenings in the yellow drawing room. He was much less bored than he feared. . . . [they] seemed like so many strange animals, which hitherto he had had no opportunity to study. He looked, with the fascination of a naturalist, at their grimacing faces, in which he discerned traces of their occupations and appetites. . . . At the time, he was greatly preoccupied with comparative natural history, applying to the human race the observations he had made on animals with regard to the workings of heredity. In the yellow drawing room, therefore, he was amused at the thought that he had accidentally wandered into a menagerie. He noted the similarities between the grotesque creatures he saw and certain animals he knew. The Marquis, with his leanness and sly look, reminded him very much of a long green grasshopper. Vuillet struck him as a pale, slimy toad. He was more indulgent towards Roudier and the Commander, a fat sheep and a toothless old mastiff. The fantastic Granoux, however, was a particular source of fascination. He spent a whole evening studying his facial angle. Whenever he heard him mutter some vague insult about bloodthirsty republicans, he expected him to moan like a calf; and he could never watch him rise from a chair without imagining that he was about to leave the room on all fours. (pp 88-89)

Pierre uses the political crisis after Napoleon's coup and the subsequent uprising to try and gain power in Plassans. Meanwhile, his illegitimate brother Antoine is trying to win back his portion of an inheritance he believes he is owed by Pierre. When we get back to young Silviere, it turns out he is a Mouret, the nephew of Antoine, who strongly influences his political beliefs. Poor Silviere gets tragically caught up in the resistance and with him young Miette; naturally, things don't end well.

I enjoyed this book, but I definitely enjoyed the sections of the family history and of the Macquarts better than the political and social machinations of the Rougons. Of the volumes I've read so far, I mostly prefer the stories based on the Macquarts. I'm not sure if it's because the Rougon stories tend to have more politics, which isn't my favorite subject, or because I think that the Macquart characters are just more vivid and interesting -- they're all a bunch of fascinating train wrecks.

Emile Zola

I normally don't read book series out of order, but back when I first started, many of the twenty volumes in the series didn't have recent English translations, and the original translations from the French done in Victorian times had significant cuts. Overall, twenty novels are generally chronological, but each book really stands on its own, and some of them are only very loosely connected. I'd read twelve of the series in no particular order when I finally read the first volume, and the other books in started to fit together in my mind like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. (I was very grateful for the excellent family tree included in the book, though it does include dates of birth and death which are sort of spoiler.) I also found this great website, simply titled Rougon-Macquart Novels, with lots of background and information about the Rougon-Macquart series. It's great if you're having trouble keeping characters straight, how all the novels connect, or for me, the basic plots of the books I finished several years ago.

I've now completed thirteen of the twenty novels in the cycle, and look forward to completing the rest There's only one left in the series without a recent translation: the final novel, Doctor Pascal. But Oxford University Press has published new editions of almost every single Zola novel in the past ten or so years, so I'm confident a good translation is on the horizon.

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my book set in France for the European Reading Challenge.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Classics Club Spin #20

It's time for another Classics Spin! If you're not familiar, it's a periodic mini-challenge created by The Classics Club. Participants pick 20 books from their Classics Club reading list, and next Monday, April 22, we'll be assigned a random number from one to twenty that will determine our next read from the list. 

I haven't done one of these for awhile, so I'm looking forward to it. It was pretty easy to make up my list -- I posted a second list last March, and I've read nearly half, so there were plenty of choices. 

Here's what I came up with -- heavy on the mid-century British women authors this time around, since I'm trying really hard to read more books off my own shelves (I think half of the books on this list are Virago Modern Classics!)

  1. The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim
  2. One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens
  3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. My American by Stella Gibbons
  5. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
  6. Living/Loving/Party Going by Henry Green
  7. The Hireling by L. P. Hartley
  8. The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
  9. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  10. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  11. Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy
  12. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
  13. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson
  14. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley
  15. The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky
  16. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym
  17. Frost in May by Antonia White
  18. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young
  19. The Misses Mallett by E. H. Young
  20. Beware of Pity by Stephan Zweig
The books I'm most hoping for are The Caravaners, One Pair of Feet, and A Few Green Leaves (the very last Barbara Pym I have left to read). 

Books I'm hoping not to get this time around: Crime and Punishment, Beware of Pity, and Living/Loving/Party Going. But odds are in my favor, I hope! 

Are there any others I should dread or hope for? Which are the hidden gems? And are any of these on your spin list? 

Update: The Classics Spin number is 19, so I'll be reading The Misses Mallett by E. H. Young. I'm looking forward to it! 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Terms and Conditions: I Am SO GLAD I Never Went to Boarding School

I grew up in a very dull middle-class Midwestern suburb, so I traveled the world vicariously through books. I adored reading anything set in a boarding school -- all the neat rows of beds, made up just so with hospital corners! Uniforms (so no one would judge my lack of fashionable wardrobe)! Communal living with cheerful girls called Bunny, who would naturally want to be my friend. 

OR SO I THOUGHT. Until I read Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls' Boarding Schools, 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham.

Published by Slightly Foxed back in 2016, this small volume of recollections about 20th century girls' boarding schools was all over my small corner of the blogosphere a couple of years ago. Naturally I HAD to have a copy, so I ordered this adorable book, a beautiful little hardcover (just the size to fit in a purse or pocket). Whereupon it then sat unread for a good two years until the TBR Pile Challenge behooved me to put it on this year's reading list. Spanning the years 1939 to 1979, this is a chatty, casual look at the lives of girls and young women in British boarding schools. 

The Slightly Foxed edition, available through their website. 

This book basically shattered all my childish fantasies about the delightful years I missed by taking the bus to my suburban public school -- in actuality, many of these girls were undereducated, bullied (by both students and staff) and constantly cold. So cold, in fact, that hot water bottles froze overnight. Inside the dormitories. 

Their stories both fascinated and horrified me. Though many of the young women interviewed have fond memories of school, and made deep, lifelong friendships, this book horrified me. In reality, it seems like many girls' boarding schools had sketchy education programs, bad food, and forced the students to spend hours running around cold, muddy fields playing lacrosse and tennis. If by some miracle I'd won a scholarship (or had a benefactor bequeath me a fortune for tuition) I would definitely NOT have fit in at one of these schools -- I'm bookish, bad at sports, and no connections to famous people or aristocrats. In short, life in a boarding school would have been absolute hell for me, as it was for some of the girls interviewed -- some of them ran away, and others seem traumatized for life. 

Don't get me wrong -- this is an entertaining read, and I feel like I have a better understanding of British culture and literature. It's been described as hilarious, and though there were parts that made me smile and laugh out loud, my reaction was to thank my lucky stars that I went to that dull suburban public school system. 

The Roedean School in East Sussex.

I bought my copy from Slightly Foxed, but it's also available in a paperback edition (pictured above). And just for fun, while researching images of British girls' boarding schools, I read the Wikipedia entry about the Roedean School, pictured above (other photos show the opposite side, situated dramatically above a cliff). Apparently many famous people attended Roedean, and it's also a fixture of literary and pop culture -- fictional Roedean students include characters from P. G. Wodehouse novels and my beloved Chummy from Call the Midwife. I can absolutely picture Chummy on the lacrosse field, can't you? 

Miranda Hart as Chummy.
This is my fourth book for the TBR Pile Challenge, and I'm also counting it as my book set in the U.K. for the European Reading Challenge

Monday, March 25, 2019

Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" Letters, 1936-1939

One of the nicest perks of working in a library was getting first pick of the donated books for the semi-annual Friends of the Library sales. Gone with the Wind was one of my all-time favorites, so I was naturally intrigued by Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" Letters, 1936-1949, and was happy to part with $1 for this edition from 1976. Of course it only took me five years to get around to finally reading it.

As the title indicates, this book is a collection of letters written by Margaret Mitchell regarding her iconic novel Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936 and famously adapted into a blockbuster movie in 1939. It's a really interesting chronicle of how GWTW exploded into an international phenomenon and affected Mitchell for the rest of her life, not to mention her husband and indeed the city of Atlanta. The letters are chatty and for the most part interesting, and it's quite fascinating to see how this novel became such as sensation. 

Margaret Mitchell was a born-and-bred Atlantean, and grew up hearing stories of the Civil War and Reconstruction. She was born in 1900 and attended Smith College and originally hoped to become a psychologist, but left college when her mother died suddenly and never graduated. She returned to Atlanta to keep house for her father and eventually got a job as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal in the early 1920s. After her marriage to attorney John Marsh, she suffered an ankle injury that didn't heal, so she was forced to quit her job. Spending months bedridden, she read nearly every book in the library and out of frustration, her husband brought her a stack of paper and a typewriter and told her to write her own novel, which she did over a period of about three years. 

The novel then lay unpublished in manuscript form for several years, until MacMillan editor Harold Latham came to town. Goaded by a braggart acquaintance who claimed her own manuscript would win a Pulitzer while Mitchell's would never be published, Margaret grabbed most of the envelopes with the manuscripts and gave them to Latham as he was getting on the train, so that "at least she could claim that she'd been refused by the very best publisher." She was given a contract and merely hoped that the publishers would make enough to cover their costs, never dreaming that it would be of interest to anyone but the most hard-core Atlanta fans and Civil War buffs. 

GWTW then became a massive success, winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming one of the best-selling novels of all time. The book of letters was really interesting to me, to see her perspective and all the problems the attention from her book created, with fans constantly hounding her for autographs, other authors claiming plagiarism, issues from foreign publishers pirating the books, and then the whole circus that erupted after the movie adaptation was announced. It was an absolute circus, and I can't even imagine how much worse it would have been today with the internet and social media. Mitchell was basically hounded for the rest of her life, and never had time to write another book. With all the hullaballoo, I I'd be surprised if she weren't sick to death of it, not to mention the pressure she would have been under if she had written a second book. 

This book is very interesting to learn the context of the publishing and the movie adaptation, especially with the looming backdrop of WWII. There are also a lot of letters written to other authors that she enjoyed, mostly history but there are poets and other contemporary authors mentioned, including Betty Smith who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was also delighted to find a letter from 1946 to a writer from the New York Herald Tribune in which she requests the address of Angela Thirkell so that she can send her a holiday care package during the severe rationing in Great Britain after the war. She mentions how much she loves Thirkell's novels and is about to read Miss Bunting (#14 in the Barsetshire series, which I haven't yet read). 

For me, the collection of letters did rather slow down after the war years, I suppose because much of the attention toward GWTW had died down. The last letter included is from July 1949, just a few weeks before Mitchell's death after being hit by a drunk driver. The book ends after the last letter, without any mention of her death, or any biographical details, so I suppose I'll have to track down a biography, and of course I have to watch the film adaptation of GWTW, now that I've already re-read that book as well. 

But that's three books finished for the TBR Pile Challenge -- I still have a biography of Edith Wharton and a memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard, so that makes four books by and about 20th century female authors for this challenge. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Gone With the Wind: Problematic, But Still Wonderful

The lovely 75th Anniversary edition.

Possibly the ultimate in Big Fat American Novels, I first read Gone With the Wind as a youngster, in the sixth grade; I'd seen the movie when it first aired on network TV in the 1970s, which was a huge television event. I've since read it at least a dozen times but it has been at least 20 years since my previous re-read. I did get a lovely hardcover edition as a holiday gift a few years ago but never got around to re-reading it until recently, inspired by  by the GWTW Readalong hosted by The Book Corps and by another recent read, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind Letters," which I finished for the TBR Pile Challenge. 

As nearly everyone knows, GWTW was published in 1936 and was a runaway best-seller, and was adapted into the most successful movie of all time. The novel is more than 1000 pages long, but basically, GWTW chronicles the story of fiery Georgia debutante Scarlett O'Hara during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and her undying love for the dreamy blond and bookish Ashley Wilkes. To Scarlett's chagrin Ashley marries his cousin, the sweet, saintly Melanie Hamilton, so in a fit of pique, Scarlett marries Melanie's brother, the shy Charles. Scarlett and Melanie are thus tied together during and after the War, and Scarlett must use her wits and bravery for them to survive, along with the O'Hara family's plantation, Tara. Scarlett also has a love-hate relationship with the dashing profiteer and scoundrel Rhett Butler, in what is one of American literature's greatest tragic love stories. 

It's always really hard for me to re-visit a favorite book from my childhood -- what if it doesn't stand up the test of time? Some books are just as good or even better (like To Kill a Mockingbird) and some are truly disappointing. For me, GWTW was a really mixed re-read. As always, I find the characters indelible and the story of spunky Scarlett so compelling -- she truly is a feminist icon. However, reading it decades later, I was constantly aware of the more problematic aspects of the book. Mitchell depicts the African-American characters as mostly lovable but childlike and easily manipulated by those terrible Yankees (with the exception of Mammy); also, it definitely perpetuates the romanticized, racist version of The Good Old South in which white people know best and all the African-Americans are happy and well-cared for, glossing over the fact that all the rich white folks are living off wealth accumulated by the suffering of generations of slaves. 

The same mass-market paperback edition as I read in 6th grade. 
Mine is equally tattered, I'm sure it's still packed away somewhere in storage. 

There's also lot of usage of the n-word and variations which made me really uncomfortable. Ashley Wilkes is the only character who seems to think Emancipation is a good idea and he's depicted as a dreamy and unrealistic. Scarlett is a feminist and I'm always rooting for her survival, but she is NOT a nice character -- she's really selfish and self-centered, and often cruel. Also, sometimes Mitchell's prose is a little flowery, and there are passages in which she digresses with battle scenes and background of Reconstruction history that definitely romanticize the white Southerners as victims. Um, no. 

However, it's a fascinating story with a great plot and great characters, and I found myself really enjoying the re-read, despite all my issues with the book. (Scarlett is definitely what I would call a fascinating train wreck). I still wish I knew what happened to Scarlett and Rhett Butler. Sadly, Mitchell never wrote a sequel nor left any hints about their fate before her untimely death in 1949.  It is a great, sprawling historical epic and I do still love it, despite its flaws.

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