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 Amazon.de. 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 are 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 Amazon.de 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)

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. I don't know much of the history of France beyond the French revolution. 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's depiction of the African-American characters as mostly lovable but childlike and easily manipulated by those terrible Yankees (with the exception of Mammy), and 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 of 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 which 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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Fenny by Lettice Cooper: An Expat Living in Italy


I bought Fenny almost three years ago, after reading and loving Lettice Cooper's National Provincial. I never got around to reading it until last week when I was going on a short jaunt to Dubrovnik -- I do try to bring books on holiday that have a local connection. I couldn't find anything on my shelves set in the Balkans or on the Adriatic, so I decided a book set in Italy would have to do.

Set in the 1930s through the 1940s, Fenny is the story of an Ellen Fenwick, an English schoolteacher who gives up her job at a girls' school to take a temporary post as governess to a little English girl living in Tuscany. The story begins in 1933 when Fenny arrives in Italy to begin her new post at the Villa Meridiana, a house loaned to the Mr. and Mrs. Rivers. The husband travels back and forth from his work in London, so most of the time it's just Ellen, nicknamed Fenny, with her charge Juliet and her mother Madeleine, the daughter of a famous stage actress. They tend to socialize with the Warners, another ex-pat family, and Fenny finds herself much thrown together with Daniel, tutor to Warner's the oldest child. It seems like an obvious romantic interlude but things take a very unexpected turn. The rest of the book details Fenny's life until the late 1940s, and how it is entwined with members of the two families, before and after the war.

Though it's primarily a domestic story, Fenny does include the rise of fascism and WWII, and how expats were affected. The book is divided into four parts, and the second part jumps forward about three years, just before the war; then to 1945, as the war is ending; and finally 1949.


The Tuscan countryside, near Siena.


I really enjoyed this book but I think I would have liked it even better without the time jumps -- I really wanted to know more about Fenny's story, especially during the war. Also, I feel like some of the side characters' outcomes were only mentioned as afterthoughts. I know there seem to be a lot of books where characters miraculously show up years later, and it's completely realistic that people disappear from your life entirely, but still, it felt a little unresolved. Of course it would have made for a much longer book but I'm quite sure I would have enjoyed that! National Provincial is about 600 pages but I was thoroughly engrossed.

I do want to read more of Lettice Cooper's work, but I don't know a thing about any of her other novels except National Provincial and The New House, both Persephone reprints I loved. Most of her novels seem to have plenty of used copies available online, except for one called Desirable Residence, copies of which start at around $35 US, and have price listings upwards of $200! However, there seem to be library copies available through WorldCat, so I'll have to wait and check it out via ILL after I return to the U.S.

I'm counting this as my book set in Italy for the Reading Europe Challenge

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller by Jennifer Kloester


I'm not much of romance reader, but back when I lived in Texas I read The Grand Sophy for my Jane Austen book club and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Georgette Heyer wrote 50 novels, mostly historical. They're rather light and fluffy, but mostly great fun and they're very well researched. I was poking around Half-Price Books in San Antonio and found this biography, so I thought it would be a good addition to my TBR Pile Challenge list. Georgette Heyer wrote 50 novels. in 72 years. Starting when she was just 17, she published a book nearly every year of her life, sometimes more. Most of them were romances and historical fiction, but she also wrote mysteries and a few contemporary novels, and nearly all of them are still in print. 

Heyer's first novel, The Black Moth, began as a story she made up to amuse her younger brother, who suffered from hemophilia. She continued writing after her marriage to a mining engineer, with whom she moved to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Macedonia. They moved back to the UK and Heyer mostly supported the family with her writing while her husband made some career changes (he and her son both became lawyers). Heyer's commitment to research and her literary output are pretty astonishing -- her historical novel An Infamous Army is now considered one of the best historical works on the battle of Waterloo. And once she had completed the research and settled on the plot and characters, she could write a book in a matter of weeks. 


Though she's now best known for her historical romances set in the Regency period, she actually only wrote one (Regency Buck) before WWII. Her most successful novel before that time was about the Napoleonic Wars, but she couldn't bear to write a war novel during the Blitz. Heyer was afraid that it was frivolous to write a light historical romance, but she needed a distraction and wrote a Regency novel, Faro's Child. It was just what the public wanted and was a huge success. Thereafter she continued with mostly Regency novels until her death. 

This book is very fact-heavy, especially on issues of publication and tax payments -- often she would write a book specifically to pay off a debt. She also sometimes made unwise decisions to sell off the rights to books for what now seems a pittance. I would have loved to read more about her creative process, but Georgette Heyer was an extremely private person and gave almost no interviews, so Kloester had to rely on letter and papers. However, I found it an extremely fast read. There were some surprises, like the fact that Heyer's publishers did essentially no editing -- she would just send them the title and some basic information, then her manuscript would arrive and that was pretty much it! She did have some fights with printers who would take it upon themselves to change spelling without consulting her -- then had the nerve to charge her! 

Even if you're not a fan of Heyer's romances, this is an extremely interesting look at the life of a prolific writer (it also inspired me to read two more of her books while I was reading this one!) I still  have literary biographies and memoirs of three other writers on my TBR Pile Challenge list: Margaret Mitchell, Edith Wharton, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. Bloggers, which should I read next?

This is my second book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2019. Only ten left to go!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Children by Edith Wharton : Lifestyles of the Rich and Selfish


"If children don't look after each other, who's going to do it for them? You can't expect parents to, when they don't know how to look after themselves."

This quote basically sums up the entire novel in two lines. Middle-aged bachelor Martin Boyne is an engineer traveling by ship from Algeria around Italy and up the Adriatic to Venice. Before the ship leaves port, he reflects that there's nobody interesting on bored, and is convinced he will be bored for the entire two-week journey. Soon it becomes apparent that nothing could be further from the truth, when he meets a party of seven children on board who will change his life. 


The Wheater children are a collection of siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings, headed by Judith, aged 15 and wise beyond her years. The pack also includes baby Chipstone, their father's favorite; the clever yet delicate Terry, the eldest son; his twin sister Blanca; a half-sister Zinnie; and the two step-siblings, nicknamed Bun and Beechy. The Wheater parents are old acquaintances of Boyne from his youth, so naturally he takes an interest. Apparently, Cliffe and Joyce Wheater had the oldest three children then divorced, whereupon Cliffe fathered Zinnie with an actress. Meanwhile, Joyce married an Italian whereby she acquired two step-children, Bun and Beechy. Eventually, the Wheaters split with their respective spouses and remarried, producing baby Chip. Got all that? 

Martin first meets the children when he discovers young Terry, aged about 11, will be sharing his cabin; meanwhile Joyce is assigned the adjacent deck chair. He gets to know the children and their governess during the voyage and is swept into the delightful chaos of their lives. When they arrive in Venice he spends a few days trying to help find a suitable tutor for Terry, and gets the full picture of their family dynamic when they meet up with their parents. 

The adult Wheaters are essentially shallow, wealthy Americans living abroad who flit from one luxurious resort to another, dragging their children along. They're so self-absorbed they can't see how much damage they're doing to their own children. Meanwhile, it's the eldest, Judith, who has taken on the role of mother and protector, and she is determined to keep all the children together, despite the disappearance and reappearance of absent parents, step-parents, and potential step-parents, as Cliffe and Joyce seem to be constantly on the verge of affairs, breakups, and reconciliations. 


After leaving the Wheaters in Venice, Martin goes up to the Italian Alps, where he meets up with an old flame, Mrs. Sellars, who is recently widowed after an unhappy marriage. He's hoping to take their long-distance romance to the next level when the reappearance of the Wheater children interrupt their domestic bliss. Martin has to decide whether his loyalties lie with Mrs. Sellars or with this boisterous brood of children who really need a responsible adult in their lives. Also, it becomes apparent that Martin's feelings for young Judith may be not just fatherly. 

Published in 1928, this was a best-seller at the time, though it's now one of Wharton's lesser-read novels (less than 700 ratings on Goodreads, compared to more than 125,000 for The Age of Innocence and nearly 100,000 for Ethan Frome). I really enjoyed it -- it's a quick read and I finished it in only three days. I found the plot interesting and the characters engaging and well-developed, and parts of it are quite funny -- in particular, there's a chapter when Martin is trying to negotiate with the Wheater parents to keep the children together permanently. The parents keep putting off the discussion because they're far too busy amusing themselves with their society friends, and when they do meet, they're constantly interrupted by all the ex-spouses, step-parents and hangers-on trying to put their two cents in.  Cliffe and Joyce Wheater are so easily distracted by their social calendar they seem less mature than 15-year-old Judith. Edith Wharton spent much of her life as a wealthy expat so I'm sure she had plenty of first-hand knowledge of this sort of shallow, wealthy American living abroad. 

If you've ever read anything by Wharton, you know that her books rarely have happy endings. This book isn't as tragic as most of them, but it is still ultimately rather sad, though there are many lighthearted moments. The only thing I didn't like about the book was Martin's relationship with Judith -- he's in his mid-forties and Judith is only 15. I realize this book was published 90 years ago and it wasn't uncommon for middle-aged men to marry very young women, but it made me uncomfortable -- not as bad as Lolita, but more uncomfortable than Emma. 


I'm very glad to have finally read it -- I've owned a copy since about 2010. I started reading Wharton more than 10 years ago and have since completed most of her novels and short stories, and I've enjoyed nearly all of them. I still have two unread on my shelves, Hudson River Bracketed and The Fruit of the Tree (which are even more obscure than The Children); plus a massive biography of Wharton by Hermione Lee which I'm planning to read soon for the TBR Pile Challenge -- it's more than 700 pages long so it's rather daunting. 

I'm counting this as my Classic From the Americas for the Back to the Classics Challenge.