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