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 board, 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.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: Fight Club to The Age of Innocence

I don't post about as many memes as I used to, but I'm in the middle of several different books. Six Degrees of Separation is a challenge to connect six different books in a chain. This month my chain has an underground boxing ring, dystopian fiction, and a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. 

So, the starting point is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. Never read it, never want to, nor seen the movie. But I have read another book by Palahniuk, Diary, about an artist living in a family-run hotel on a island resort. 

It was really weird and I didn't enjoy it much, but I was living in Japan in the time and we didn't have many books to choose from, so when I saw it at the Base Exchange I bought it. I remember reading most of this on various train journeys around Tokyo. Which leads me to my next book, also read while riding the Tokyo trains. 

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I don't remember much about this because it's been more than ten years since I read it, but I do remember it's a story within a story and that I really liked it. I think I bought it for $1 at the library sale, and that I read most of it on a series of train rides from Tokyo to the suburb of Saitama, where I went to see the John Lennon Museum. It closed in 2010 so I'm really glad I made the trip to see it. 

Of course Margaret Atwood's most famous book is The Handmaid's Tale. I remember reading it back in the 1990s, around the time of the original movie adaptation, which I've never seen. I have since watched the first season of the TV adaptation and it's absolutely chilling. I was hoping my book group would read it this year. We only choose about two months ahead so hopefully we'll get to it before we break for the summer. 

My book group leads me to the next book in the chain, It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. It's another classic with a timely twist that would be great for discussion. Published in 1935, it's about the rise of fascism and a fictional president who becomes a dictator to " save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press." This is another book I would love to read with a group, though I'm a little scared to read it, it sounds almost too timely. 

Sinclair Lewis leads me to Main Street, which I finally got around to reading in 2016, just after I moved here. I can't imagine why it took me so long to read it, as it's about a young librarian in the Midwest which is right up my alley. I don't know why I was so surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I just read somewhere that this book was favored to win the Pulitzer Prize but narrowly lost to Edith Wharton for the next book in the chain.

Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for The Age of Innocence (the first woman to be awarded the prize). It's her most famous novel, about a wealthy man named Newland Archer, and his love for a scandalous divorcee. It was the first novel I read by Wharton, and I liked it but I didn't become a fan until I read The House of Mirth, which got me completely hooked on Wharton. I've since read nearly all her novels, plus her novellas and many of her short stories. I'm currently reading The Children and will most likely tackle her biography next. The Age of Innocence isn't my favorite of her books but I should probably give it another read. 

So -- from Fight Club to The Age of Innocence. Not what I was expecting at all when I started this post, but sometimes that's how reading leads you, right?