Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvilli


I first heard about The Eighth Life a few months ago, but I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. More than nine hundred pages about a family in Eastern Europe, over six generations? More than a hundred years of a family's history? A book in translation? Yes please, this is exactly the sort of book I love. But I'm not going to lie, this book, as you might expect, is A LOT. 

I should back up a bit and give as much summary as possible. The story begins with a prologue: Nizia, Stasia's great granddaughter, is living in Berlin and gets a frantic phone call from her mother. Nizia's niece Brilka, aged 12, has left her ballet group in Amsterdam and is on a train to Vienna, alone, on some kind of wild-goose chase. Nizia agrees to find her niece and bring her back to Tbilsi. The story then goes back more than a hundred years, to tell the history of six generations of the Jashi family, beginning with Stasia, a young Georgian dancer who is forced to give up her dreams of the Bolshoi Ballet and instead marries a dashing young officer in the early 20th century. Nizia narrates the story as though she's telling her family's history to Brilka. 

She remains with her family as he goes off on assignment, then they are separated by the Russian revolution. We learn about Stasia's beautiful sister Christine, who living a fabulous life in Tbilisi society until she attracts the attention of an important party leader; about Stasia's two children: Kostya, a promising Russian naval officer; and Kitty, a talented folk singer; Kostya's spoiled daughter Elene, the mother of narrator Nizia; and Nizia's sister Daria, a beautiful actress. Along the way there are world wars, revolutions, sieges, torture, heartbreak, murder, and terrible things happen to everyone along the way. There is also a magical chocolate recipe that is supposed to be some kind of curse but is really only a very minor part of the book (and I was really hoping for a recipe that never appeared.)

Haratischvilli interweaves real events and people (named and unnamed) in the book, so I learned a bit about Georgian and Russian history and geography. I do admit to skimming over some of the politics mentioned in the book. These characters experience a lot of tragedy and heartache -- honestly, I'm shocked that everyone in Georgia doesn't have PTSD or worse. I cannot even imagine living through even a fraction of what these characters have experienced. 

Great cover on this Turkish edition
Great cover on this Turkish edition

Overall, I really liked this book and being able to spend so much time with the characters. There are a lot of great strong women in this family (though they seem to have terrible taste in men). I did prefer the first half of the book to the second -- the narrator, Nizia, is actually my least favorite character in the book. She does some things that seem really unbelievable and overly convenient to the plot. However, I was so absorbed in the family's story and all the other characters that I stayed along with it until the end. I was not disappointed, though I was hoping for more chocolate. 

The Eighth Life was first published in German in 2014, and finally translated into English in 2019. I love reading books in translation -- I know so many of my books are mid-century British and classics and I really want to expand a little bit. It is Women in Translation Month so this ties in nicely. It also ties in as my Georgian selection for the European Reading Challenge, and towards my Big Book Summer Challenge.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Classics Spin #24


I only have 21 books left on my second Classics Club list! That made it pretty easy to make my list for the upcoming Classics Spin: to participate, you list 20 books from your Classics Club List, and on August 9, we'll be assigned a random number that will select the book for it. The book is to be read by September 30 -- two whole months! Plenty of time in case it's a big long book. 

All but one are from my own shelves, so there's a good chance I'll knock off another of my owned-and-unread pile (ever growing, sigh). I've put them in order alphabetically by title this time to make things more interesting. 

  1. Beware of Pity by Stephan Zweig
  2. The Bright Side of Life by Emile Zola
  3. The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim
  4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  5. La Debacle by Emile Zola
  6. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym
  7. Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett
  8. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
  9. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young
  10. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson
  11. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  12. My American by Stella Gibbons
  13. Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal
  14. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  15. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
  16. Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope
  17. Roughing It by Mark Twain
  18. Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy
  19. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
  20. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley

The only ones I'm dreading are Crime and Punishment (it sounds so dire) and La Debacle (a war novel), I'm really in the mood for lighter reads. Roughing It might also be a bit of a slog. 

I've heard good things about Troy Chimneys and The World My Wilderness, and I've been meaning to read Jenny Wren what seems like forever! And how have I not read A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym? She's one of my favorite writers, and it's the only one of her novels I haven't read yet.

Bloggers, are you signing up for the next Classics Club Spin? What do you want to read most from your lists?

UPDATE: The Classics Spin has assigned us #18. So I'll be reading Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy. I'm looking forward to it and who knows, maybe I'll try to read even more from my list in the next two months before I post on my spin pick on September 30. 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Book Haul: Second Story Books in Rockville, MD


Last week I made an amazing discovery. I had to drive up to Rockville, Maryland, to drop off my dog for kenneling, and was delighted to discover it was literally around the block from Second Story Books, a huge warehouse of used books that I'd been meaning to visit since I moved here a year ago. I hadn't been inside a bookstore since January, so it's probably not a surprise that I spent an hour perusing the shelves. All my promises to curtail book buying went completely out the window. 

Here's what I got, in case you can't make out the titles in the photo. From top to bottom: 

The Square Egg and Other Sketches With Three Plays by Saki
The Beautiful Visit by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The Curate's Wife by E. H. Young
Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett
Fish Perferred by P. G. Wodehouse
Kilmeny of the Orchard by L. M. Montgomery
Ordeal by Nevil Shute
Emile Zola: A Biography by Alan Schom

And until I got to the checkout desk I completely forgot that everything was 50% off! So the grand total for these eight volumes (plus a book of poetry for my daughter) was less than $23! 

It was so nice to be in an actual bookstore again -- of course masks were required, and we were given plastic gloves, but it was a real treat to browse through the stacks and aisles, and climb up the ladders. Second Story Books is a big warehouse -- not as big as the Strand in New York or John King Books in Detroit, but a big space crammed haphazardly full of books, some on shelves two deep. Some of the bookshelves are probably 12 feet off the ground and I was leery of climbing the ladders that high, but it was an absolute delight to do something almost normal. 

I'm particularly pleased about the two Viragos, which are tricky to find on this side of the Atlantic, and Kilmeny of the Orchard is a beautiful 1910 edition with a lovely colored plate inside. The Saki and the Wodehouse are both from 1929, and the Nevil Shute is from 1939. They all have the previous owners' names inside which I always love, it gives such a sense of history to a book. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Paris in July: Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette



Colette's 'virile' genius . . . justified the excesses of her life. "Let us give her the complete freedom of her actions," Rachilde exclaimed. "She is is one of those who would shake the stars while falling from the skies into the mud of our poor earth."

I'd only heard of Colette as the author of Gigi and Cheri -- I'd never actually watched either of the movies, nor heard of the Claudine novels until about a year ago, when I watched the film starring Keira Knightley based on this biography. I actually saw the film in a tiny movie theater in Nice, France, while spending a long weekend while we lived in Germany; normally,  I wouldn't spend precious holiday time watching a movie, but the theater was less than five minutes' walk from my hotel, and there was a late showing. And how cool is it that I saw a movie (albeit in English) about a French writer while in France?


So, naturally, I had to order Colette's biography Secrets of the Flesh as soon as I returned home. I didn't get around to it at the time, but it's a perfect summer read, for Paris in July and also the Big Book Summer Challenge. I'm always interested in the lives of writers, but I had no idea how scandalous and groundbreaking her life was. Considered the greatest woman writer of France, she wrote 30 books, plus plays, essays, screenplays, and published hundreds of articles and reviews as a journalist. She acted on stage and was notorious for her affairs with both men and women, and married three times. 

If you haven't seen the film, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) married the writer/publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars (known as Willy), 14 years her senior, when she was just 20. Willy published a lot of books written by ghostwriters, and when the couple was in need of cash, he took Colette's notebooks, loosely based on her childhood, and published the first story (under his own name) as Claudine at School, the story of a spunky and scandalous girl growing up in a country town. It became an instant success, and three more Claudine novels followed. Colette and Willy became a celebrated couple in intellectual and literary circles. 

Keira Knightley as Colette and Dominic West as her husband Willy

They also had a troubled marriage plagued by affairs on both sides (once with the same woman!) and eventually split. (It didn't help that in 1907 Colette discovered he'd sold the copyright to her Claudine novels for a pittance). Colette scandalized society by acting on the stage, sometimes semi-nude, and was publicly out as a bisexual. In one production, she caused a near-riot by kissing her female lover onstage. 

Like the Claudine stories, much of her work was semi-autobiographical, before or after the fact. Echoing the plot of Cheri, Claudine had an affair with her stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel from her second marriage (the half-brother of her only child) when he was only sixteen, and she was in her late 40s. The scandal was one of the factors for her second divorce. But the marriage to her third husband Maurice Goudeket (16 years younger than Colette) lasted until her death at age 81.

Colette's career spanned the Belle Epoque, World War I, the 1920s, the rise of Nazism, and World War II. Weirdly, she wrote for a pro-Nazi newspaper during the War, and her last novel has some seriously anti-Semitic overtones -- though her last husband was Jewish and was actually imprisoned by the Gestapo for a few months (he was only released due to the intervention of the French wife of the German ambassador. Maurice spent the rest of the war in Paris but the couple was always in fear of a second arrest).
Colette c. 1896 painted by Jacques Humbert
I don't think Colette is someone I would have liked to meet in real life -- she sounds very self-absorbed, probably narcissistic, and some of her actions were really questionable. She was a real paradox -- she didn't believe in feminism but she wanted to work; she was bisexual but didn't approve of her daughter's homosexuality; she wrote for an anti-Semitic paper, yet her husband was Jewish. Maybe she believed that she should be the exception? 

However, she did lead a fascinating life. I found it so interesting how she was able to make a career for herself as a writer and celebrity for more than fifty years, especially as a woman in that time period -- she wrote about 30 novels, plus plays, essays, and countless articles and reviews. It's very impressive for a woman to have been such a prolific writer in the first half of the 20th century, especially in France where women couldn't even vote until 1944. It's a really interesting look at life at the time period. Even though I've still only read one of her novels I found it an absorbing piece of social history. 

I do want to finish the Claudine novels (I have the Complete Claudine edition) and eventually Gigi and Cheri. I've also checked out the film version of Gigi from the library and hope to get to it by the end of the month. How's everyone else doing with Paris in July and the Big Book Summer Challenge?

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Paris in July: The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky



I've been hard at work reading two massive books for Paris in July, and as a quick break, I picked up The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky. Her first novel, just 164 pages long, was first published in 1926. It's the story of an affair between Yves Harteloup, a young war veteran, and Denise Jessaint, a bored rich woman, the wife of another war veteran whom Yves met while both were convalescing at a military hospital. 

The two meet at the end of the summer in the resort town of Hendaye, on the south east coast of France. Yves was raised wealthy but lost nearly all his money due to poor wartime investments by his financial advisors. He's found a job and has barely enough to hold on to his family apartment in Paris, and his one indulgence is his annual holiday, to the town he visited as a child. There Yves meets the beautiful Denise when her toddler throws sand on him as he dozes on the beach. 

After he realizes she's the wife of an old comrade, Yves is initially annoyed to have his idyllic trip interrupted by someone from his past; soon, however, he begins to feel a strong attraction to the beautiful Denise. After her husband goes to London, leaving her alone (well, with the child and nanny), he becomes obsessed with Denise, who married for convenience and money. Soon the attraction is returned, and the affair begins.



Things become complicated when Denise and her husband return to Paris, and Yves has to return to his humdrum job. Denise wants more and more from Yves, but can only see him for brief snatches of time; Yves becomes despondent when he realizes he'll never be able to keep up with her wealthy lifestyle, and falls deeper into debt. It's far from a fairytale romance 

It was a quick read, and I finished nearly the whole thing in a single sitting -- a big change from the doorstoppers I've been working on this summer. Neither Yves nor Denise are particularly likable characters, but the story is so realistic, and the writing is so good that I found myself sympathizing with both of them. It's astonishing to me that Nemirovsky wrote this when she was only 22 or 23. 

This was a perfect read for Paris in July -- I could imagine myself in the neighborhoods of Paris and I even looked up some of the streets and neighborhoods on Google Maps as I was reading. I really wish I was in Paris this summer but armchair traveling through literature will have to do! I've now read six of Nemirovsky's works and would like to read her entire oeuvre. There's also The Mirador, an imagining of her memoirs by her daughter, Elisabeth Gille, published by NYRB Classics, and a biography. Her life sounds fascinating and tragic. 

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Twisted Sword: The Pentultimate Poldark Novel



I can't believe I'm on the 11th novel in this series, and I never blogged about it. I used to read a lot of historical novels, then I kind of got away from them when I got hooked on mid-century women's fiction. I only started reading the Poldark series after watching the PBS series when it first aired, the summer of 2015 when I was in Outlander withdrawal. I loved the first series which covers the first two novels, and promptly read the first ten books in less than a year. I'm not sure why I stopped there but suspect it had something to do with our big overseas move to Germany the summer of 2016. Our new library didn't have the last two novels, but on a trip to London that summer, I went to three different bookstores to find them -- and promptly left them gathering dust on the TBR shelves until now, prompted by my Big Book Summer Challenge

It is a little hard to get back into a series after a four-year reading gap (some of the supporting characters were a little fuzzy, but my edition thoughtfully included a family tree), but essentially, the book picks up pretty soon after the previous book, in the peace of 1815. Ross and Demelza's older children are grown and married, and Ross gets a summons to help out as an "observer" in France (and gets a baronetcy thrown in for good measure). Ross, Demelza, and the two youngest children head off to Paris, for what seems to be a good time, but that wacky Napoleon escapes from Elba and makes a triumphant return. [Bonus: this book also counts for Paris in July!]


This cover reminds me of a YA fantasy novel. 
Ross is on an assignment and gets separated from Demelza and the children, who flee to Brussels, where she meets up with her oldest son Jeremy and his new bride. Ross gets caught up in the war, so I had another perspective of the Battle of Waterloo, my second this year! But from the Coalition (Allied) side this time. My knowledge of French history is quite fuzzy and I didn't realize that Waterloo actually took place after Napoleon escaped from Elba, shame on me. There are a lot of descriptions of the horrors of war. I have been meaning to read La Debacle, Zola's masterful war novel, this summer, but maybe I'll put it off. 

Nice cover on this edition, I think it's the Polish translation


.
Sadly the war doesn't end well for everyone in the book. Meanwhile, back in Cornwall, the eldest Poldark daughter Clowance and her new husband are having money troubles, no thanks in part to George Warleggan. There are also some appearances by George's son Valentine; everyone's favorite doctor, Dwight Enys; and some local color with a pregnant housemaid who may or may not marry a local guy to give her baby a father. 

After a bit of confusion, I settled nicely into this 656 page chapter of the Poldark family, and ended up racing through it in less than a week. It's amazing how fast I started to remember details and characters (though a few are still a bit fuzzy and I've already requested the previous book from the library, so I can skim through it). Winston Graham was really good at creating the world of Cornwall from the time period. I loved most of the good characters and became outraged at the bad ones (George Warleggan has been carrying grudges against the Poldarks for how many years now?)

My only quibble was that the youngest daughter, Isabella Rose, is only THIRTEEN when the book starts and men are already courting her, ewww. I think Graham was setting up the story for the final book which is named after her. It's another 688 pages and I'm sure I will read it with enjoyment and more than a little sadness because the book series is ending. I've watched most of the TV series and unfortunately have gotten really bored with it, I didn't even finish the final season. Maybe I'll have to give it another try after I finish the final novel. I also own another long novel set in Cornwall called Penmarric and I'm looking forward to that one also.

How's everyone else doing with their summer reading? And can anyone recommend another great historical TV series and movies? 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Fruit of the Tree: Edith Wharton Tackles Some Big Issues


Whenever I find a little-known book by a famous author, I always wonder whether it's sadly neglected, overlooked, or . . . is it just not that good? Is there a reason why nobody reads it? This was my thought when I picked up The Fruit of the Tree, a 1907 novel written by one of my favorite authors, Edith Wharton. Written exactly between The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome (two of my all-time favorite classics) I was curious to know why this novel is so little read.

Juxtaposing both the society characters she knew so well and the social commentary, it's the story of John Amherst, a young, idealistic assistant manager at a large mill in the fictional town of Hanaford, probably somewhere in New England or upstate New York. We first meet Amherst in a hospital as he checks on the condition of a worker badly injured on the job. The doctor on duty (related by marriage to the factory's manager) stoutly protests that he'll recover, but privately, a volunteer nurse reveals to Amherst that the injured man will most certainly lost a hand, if not his entire arm.

Amherst is determined to change working conditions in the factory, and his chance arises the next day -- the factory's owner, newly widowed Bessy Westmore, is here to tour the factory she now controls after her husband's death. The factory manager is home ill, so Amherst seizes his chance to tell Mrs. Westmore the truth about the factory, and his hopes to improve it. He's young, handsome, and idealistic, and Mrs. Westmore is young, beautiful, and lonely, so one thing leads to another and they wind up getting married.

"He stood by her in silence, his eyes on the injured man."

Of course, nothing is easy or happy in a Wharton novel, and a few years later, neither John nor Bessy is happy. Bessy resents the time John spends at the factory, not to mention the money the improvements are costing, and John is disappointed that Bessy doesn't seem to share his hopes to make real changes. He's getting tired of fighting Bessy's family and the people influencing her to keep him out of the mill.

Meanwhile, the young nurse, Justine Brent has also reappeared -- coincidentally she's an old school mate of Bessy's who fell on hard times and had to make a career for herself. Amherst engages her as a personal nurse/companion to Bessy, but as his relationship to his wife cools, he finds himself more and more attracted to Justine and her sense of social justice.

There are some big, dramatic plot twists, and then it turns into a bit of a sensation novel, but much wordier (imagine Wilkie Collins and Henry James writing a novel together and stole the setting from Elizabeth Gaskell). It kind of alternated between being slow and cerebral, with dramatic events. I'd get bored but then all of a sudden something super-dramatic would happen, then it would slow down again. I don't know if it's quarantine brain, but I was having a hard time with the more cerebral bits.

The setting definitely reminded me of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and there are definitely plot elements that foreshadow Ethan Frome -- there's a sledding scene that is symbolic, but not nearly as pivotal as Ethan Frome. Wharton also touches on some issues which must have been very controversial for their time. I suppose this could be why it just isn't as popular as some of her other works.


I was also a bit put off by the fact that my Virago edition was 633 pages long! However, when I started reading it, I realized there was an awful lot of white space on each page, the margins are huge. I compared it to my Modern Library copy of House of Mirth which is less than 350 pages long. I checked the iBooks downloads, and they're really almost the same length. And there are hardly any editions in print. I checked the page count from the original 1907 copy and it's the same, so I suspect they're just using the same plates as the first edition. So I guess technically it counts toward the Big Book Summer Challenge.

I'm glad I read it because I am huge Wharton fan, but I don't know if I'd really recommend it. However, it's one more book crossed off my Classics Club List and one more off my owned-and-unread shelves. I still own Hudson River Bracketed but I might have to take a break from Wharton, maybe I'll tackle her biography instead. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Complete Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. I: East and West

Not the same edition as mine, but I love these Vintage International covers. 

One of my particular goals for the Big Book Summer Challenge is to finally read some of the enormous volumes of short stories in my unread book collection -- I probably have twenty short story collections unread, and at least eight of them are over 500 pages long! I'm hoping to finish at least one per month.

I started with the most daunting volume: a 955 page volume of the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, one of my favorite writers. I loved Of Human Bondage and The Painted Veil, and his novella Up at the Villa is one my all-time favorites, I probably read it every year. I'm pretty sure I bought this this two-volume set of his Complete Short Stories at Friends of the Library book sale, and I probably paid one dollar for each (they're 1953 reprints and I think you can find them online for under $5.) Despite the length of the book, it was easy to finish in less than a month -- my goal was one short story a day. There are 30 stories in this volume, and they're all fairly long, about 30 pages each. 

Not a particularly exciting cover, but a nice edition.

Maugham often starts his stories with a character (often himself, in the first person) meeting people and having stories told to them, as a sort of narrative framing device. It works very well in the South Sea stories, since they're often told by colonials who seem desperate for someone new to talk to. There was also a story called "The Book-Bag" which is rather dark, but has a wonderful introduction by the anonymous narrator describing his love of reading and obsessive need to travel with an enormous bag full of books, which delighted me. It's rather long but here's an excerpt:

Some people read for pleasure, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium smoker to his pipe. I would sooner read the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores or Bradshaw's Guide than nothing at all, and indeed I have spent many delightful hours over both these works.

Some the stories in this volume are among Maugham's most famous, including "The Letter," about a plantation owner's wife who shoots a family friend and is on trial for murder. It was adapted into a stage play and then into a film starring Bette Davis in 1940. I particularly loved "Jane," about a plain woman who becomes the toast of British society, much to the chagrin of her fashionable sister-in-law; and "The Creative Impulse" about a pretentious woman writer and her celebrated salons. A lot of his stories have wonderful twist endings that I nearly always wasn't expecting. 



It also includes most of the Ashenden stories, which was you can get in a separate volume (which I also own). Ashenden is a British spy, loosely based on Maugham's own work for the British government as an intelligence agent during World War I. (He spoke French and German fluently, and his job as a writer made an excellent cover for him). I enjoyed these stories but they're not exactly cloak-and-dagger, James Bond stuff. Like Maugham himself, Ashenden's job is to make contact with local field agents and pass information back to the home office, often encoded (Maugham was based in Geneva and used to encode messages in his manuscripts). Fun fact: intelligence agents nearly always get local people to spy and sell them information, they don't take on new identities and use Deep Cover, that's strictly movie fodder. Not what I was expecting, but I enjoyed them nonetheless, so I took a brief detour and ended up reading all the other stories in my copy of Ashenden, so that was one more book crossed off my list.



This volume is subtitled East and West and they're drawn from Maugham's travels, many of them in the South Seas. They were written between 1919 and 1931, during the British colonial period, and many of them are set in British colonies and islands, including Malaysia, Singapore, Samoa, and Hawaii, though of course nearly all the characters are white British people. I mostly enjoyed reading the South Sea stories but nearly every one of them had some uncomfortable racist elements -- the natives are described as heathens, there are racial epithets, and most of them don't even have names (house servants are frequently just addressed as "boy." Some of the male characters have native wives and children who are just tossed aside like yesterday's newspaper. There's also some misogyny, and some anti-Semitism in the Western stories set in Europe. There's one story called "The Alien Corn" which is particularly anti-Semitic, and another "The Vessel of Wrath" has some misogyny which left me aghast.

It's really hard to read the racism and sexism in classic books -- I love classics, but where do you draw the line? Should you stop reading a favorite author because of attitudes which were considered acceptable at the time in which they were written? How do you reconcile loving an author's work if it has racist elements? I really love books written in the first half of the 20th century, but the racism makes me really uncomfortable and some authors are so sexist I can hardly read them any more. I suppose that's why I've been focusing more on women authors. 

I still own the second volume of Maugham's stories, The World Over. It's a much shorter volume, only 681 pages, but those stories are much shorter and there are a lot more of them. I'll probably read the rest of them this summer but I think I'm going to tackle another (woman) author's short stories first. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson


Despite growing up near Detroit, spending a decade of my life in Chicago, then spending another 16 years in the American South (Texas and Florida), my knowledge of Black history is pretty pathetic. I'm really trying to educate myself about BIPOC issues and authors, and dove into another Big Summer Book a couple of weeks ago. It's a fairly long book, more than 500 pages of text, but the stories are so compelling and the writing is so good that I could hardly put it down and finished it in less than a week.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the kind of history book I love, non-fiction that reads like fiction. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson interweaves the narrative story of three different African-Americans who leave the South in the first half of the century, part of the Great Migration. From 1915 to 1970, approximately 6 million African-Americans left the South, migrating North and West, hoping for a better life for themselves and their families in states without Jim Crow laws. Wilkerson shares the stories of three people: Ida Mae Gladney, a pregnant sharecropper, stealthily leaves Mississippi in 1937 with her husband and two children to Wisconsin and then Chicago; George Starling leaves the orange groves of Central Florida in 1945 and becomes a Pullman porter based in Harlem; and surgeon Robert Foster leaves for California in 1953, since even his medical degree and experience as an Army doctor fail to protect him from prejudice and discrimination in his home state of Louisiana.

All three have very different stories, but they're equally absorbing and often horrifying. A neighbor of Ida Mae was nearly beaten to death when he's believed to have stolen some missing turkeys (who were merely roosting in a different part of the nearby woods). George tries to organize a strike of  fruit pickers working for pennies a box in dangerous conditions during the height of demand in WWII, and has to leave town after he hears a rumor he's about to be lynched. Dr. Foster works for years as a surgeon on a U.S. Army base in Austria, but he can't even find a motel for a night's rest as he drives for days on his Westbound route to California, even after leaving the South. Over and over there are stories of racial slurs, discrimination, and police brutality. Clearly, things haven't changed much.

Once they leave for the west and the north, all three still face discrimination, just less subtle. Practices of redlining prevent African-Americans from renting and buying, so they end up paying more for less, forcing them to live in crowded apartments and neighborhoods. Ida Mae and her husband are shut out of job after job. George Starling finally gets a backbreaking job as a train porter, but after years of service, is never promoted. Though a respected surgeon, Dr. Foster has to drive all over Los Angeles collecting urine samples for an insurance company to make enough money and contacts to set up his own practice.

The presence of so many black migrants elevated the status of other immigrants in the North and West. Black southerners stepped into a hierarchy that assigned them a station beneath everyone else, no matter that their families had been in the country for centuries. Their arrival unwittingly diverted anti-immigrant antagonisms their way, as they were an even less favored outsider group than the immigrants they encountered in the North and helped make formerly ridiculed groups more acceptable by comparison.

These incidents happened years ago, and it's still happening now. I'm appalled that I was never taught any of this in school -- and I grew up less than 30 miles from downtown Detroit. I didn't know that Chicago, a city in which I lived for almost ten years, is one of the most segregated in America, and has some of the most racist suburbs and the worst racial riots. I didn't know that one of the most racist cities in Florida was less than an hour from my in-laws retirement home, halfway between their house and Disney World. And I'd never heard of Juneteenth even though I lived in Texas for eleven years and my children were required by state law to take an entire year of Texas history. They were never taught it (and the Civil War was about the South "defending State's Rights." Some people still call it the War of Northern Aggression).

But this isn't about me, or my lack of education. I intend to from the real struggles and lived experiences Black Americans and other minorities are facing now and have been facing for years. I want to be a better reader and a better blogger, and read more books by BIPOC authors. I highly recommend The Warmth of Other Suns if you want to do the same. If you are looking for more suggestions, here is an anti-racist list by Ibram X. Kendi.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Paris In July 2020



It's the summer, so that means Paris in July! Hosted by Thyme for Tea, it's an annual month-long celebration of all things French -- books, movies, films, and food. I haven't participated every year, but I've always enjoyed following along. This year, I'm hopefully going to knock a few books off my owned-and-unread shelves. Some of them also qualify for my Big Book Summer Challenge.




From top to bottom: 

Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar
The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky
La Debacle by Emile Zola
Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir
The Complete Claudine by Colette
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman

That's six books, three of which are more than 500 pages long. My list includes fiction, a WWII diary, a memoir, and a biography. Of course I probably won't finish all of them but even half the list would be an accomplishment.


I also have some French language and French-themed films and TV series to watch:

Blind Date (Netflix)
The Bonfire of Destiny (Netflix)
Call My Agent! (Netflix)
Cezanne et Moi (Netflix)
A French Village (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
My Life as a Zucchini (Netflix)
Suite Francaise (No longer streaming on Netflix in the USA, but I have the DVD)
Twice Upon a Time (Netflix)


And if I get around to it I might try and make some macarons and eclairs as well!




Bloggers, which do you recommend? Or other books, movies, or TV shows about France? And what are you reading for Paris in July?

Sunday, June 14, 2020

John Caldigate: Trollope goes to Australia!

Not a great cover image, but the only OUP edition I could find online.
Strangely, my copy has a different cover.


'People who read no books are always fools to those who do read.'

Last week was particularly stressful -- the news is so dire and it only seems to get worse -- so it was time to turn to one of my favorite comfort authors, Anthony Trollope. I still have several of his novels unread on the shelves, and three of them were long enough to qualify for my Big Book Summer Challenge. I chose the shortest of the lot, John Caldigate, because the eponymous character travels to Australia, and it sounded like some nice armchair travel since I won't be going anywhere for a while.

Published in 1979, John Caldigate is one of Trollope's lesser-known works, and a standalone novel. It's the story of young Mr. Caldigate, heir to the estate of Folking in Cambridgeshire. His mother and sisters died years ago, but sadly, John's father was mourning and distant while he was a boy, so he mostly grew up on his cousin's estate. Now in his early 20s, John has left Cambridge, and is saddled with numerous gambling debts. The estate is entailed upon him, but his father has decided to disinherit him in favor of a cousin, and John takes a buyout from his father, pays off the debt, and books passage Australia with a classmate, Dick Shand, where they hope to make their fortune in the gold mines. While meeting with his father's banker Mr. Bolton, John spies his teenaged daughter Hester, and is struck by her beauty.

Anthony Trollope


Before his boat sails, John goes to say goodbye to his cousins, where his aunt pressures him to marry his oldest cousin Julia. John refuses to get himself engaged, and hightails it to the boat with his friend Dick, where they travel second-class, despite being gentlemen. On the voyage, John strikes up a friendship with a pretty actress, a widow known as Mrs. Smith. It's a long voyage and tongues start wagging, and it seems like everyone on board is aghast, including the ship's captain, and they all try to warn him off, but John is undeterred and declares himself engaged to her.

John and Dick stake a claim and start looking for gold, and after a detailed description of gold mining, he makes a trip back to Melbourne to look up Mrs. Smith. Then the story jumps forward in time several years. John is back in England, having made a fortune of £60,000. His father has missed him dreadfully and John pays off the mortgage on the estate, reinstating himself as heir. And now it's time to find himself a wife. John never forgot the beautiful Hester Bolton, now 20, and begins to court her, to the chagrin of her mother, a religious fanatic. She opposes the marriage from the beginning, but she can't stop it. All seems well until about a year later when some unsavory characters from Australia arrive, and John's world is turned upside down as he faces extortion and bigamy charges. 

I assumed this would be the standard Trollope comfort read, but elements of the plot went dark pretty quickly; particularly, Trollope's depiction of Mrs. Bolton's religious mania, (much of which I skimmed over). After John is charged with bigamy, the Boltons do something really despicable to Hester, which I would have found unforgivable. I was also distressed by some of John's relatives, especially his Aunt Polly who tries to snare him into marriage with his oldest cousin Julia. Some of Hester's relatives are pretty awful as well. 


I did enjoy Trollope's description of the sea voyage to Australia and the courtroom and trial details. There's also a pivotal side character who is a postal employee which I found delightful. Trollope worked as a postal employee for more than 20 years, so he must have really enjoyed including his detailed knowledge of stamps and postmarks into one of his novels. (Fun fact: Trollope invented the British post-box). 

This was a fast read, and a solid Trollope story. He doesn't get nearly the love of Dickens or Hardy, and of John Caldigate is definitely one of his more obscure novels -- there are hardly any editions and very few cover images. However, while searching online, I discovered that in 2015 John Caldigate was adapted into a graphic novel called Dispossession, by Simon Grennan. As far as I know, it's the only Trollope novel adapted, and it's an interesting choice because it's such an obscure novel. And I'm curious about how he condensed a 600 page Victorian chunkster into less than 100 pages. 



So -- one more Big Fat Book crossed off my summer reading list, and I've now read 34 of his 47 novels! Only 13 left to go -- I'll be sad when I'm done. I guess I'll just have to go back to the beginning and start again!

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Temptation by Janos Szekely

The cover artwork is a detail from The Morphinist by Janos Vazary (1930)

I'm trying really hard to refrain from buying books, but inevitably birthdays and other gift-giving holidays occur, so what can one do? My most recent bookish gift was Temptation by Janos Szekely, an NYRB reprint of a 1946 novel newly translated from the Hungarian. Normally new-to-me books get shoved to the bottom of the TBR pile, where they sit, contributing to my unread-book guilt. But I'd signed up for the European Reading Challenge and this one fit the bill perfectly. I read the first few pages and was instantly hooked. 

This is the story of Bela R., a young Hungarian peasant boy born into rural poverty in 1913, after his sixteen-year-old mother Anna has a one-night stand with a charismatic sailor during a church festival. At the end of the night the charming sailor disappears, leaving her alone to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. After little Bela is born, Anna goes to the city to work as a wet nurse, and later a maid, leaving him in the care of Rozi, a former prostitute who now runs a sort of foster home for illegitimate children. It's a tough upbringing because Rozi basically hands out food and favors to the kids based on how much their mothers can pay, and Anna is always struggling, so Bela is always hungry, for food as well as love and affection -- Bela is literally young, scrappy and hungry.


Bela grows up as a tough kid, but he's smart and longs to go to school. Rozi refuses, forcing him to stay home and work until Bela realizes she's breaking the law. The village schoolmaster sees that Bela is smart and gives him a lot of tough love. Eventually, Bela rejoins his mother in Budapest at the age of fourteen, where they live in a tenement shared with a prostitute, barely making ends meet. Here's a wonderful quote describing the first meal his mother cooks for him after they're finally reunited:


I started sweating, I ate so hard. My God what a szekelygulyas that was! Pools of soured cream floated on top, the soft tenderloin melted in my mouth, and the cabbage -- Lord, what cabbage! You could tell my mother had cooked it that morning, or perhaps even the night before, because only when you cook it twice can cabbage be that good. I was moved: for the rich, food only goes to their stomachs, but for the poor-- it goes to their hearts.


There are a lot of food descriptions in this book, which I always love. (Obviously, food's pretty important when you don't get enough of it.) Anna gets Bela a job as a bellboy in a fancy downtown hotel on the Danube. The first year or so he doesn't even make any money, as they work for tips only and he normally works in the elevator. Eventually, a chance encounter with a rich woman's dog changes his life, and he becomes the designated dog-walker and works his way up the ladder -- and into her bed. Bela also meets Patsy, a rich Hungarian-American girl vacationing in Budapest, and longs to leave Hungary and move to New York.
Love this cover from the British edition

Meanwhile, Bela's family is always on the verge of bankruptcy, staving off hunger and the greedy Hausmeister, the building superintendent who's constantly threatening the tenants with eviction. Bela is also struggling with his conscience about the favors he receives from his wealthy lover while he sees the poverty surrounding him. There are few options for the thousands of poor workers faced with unemployment in the late 1920s, and it's obvious to the reader how fascism begins to take hold, and the inevitable rise of the Nazi party. 

Here, peace was always more dangerous than war, because the bomb has yet to be invented that can do as much damage as poverty itself.


I loved this book. It's nearly 700 pages long and I raced through it in less than a week. I can't compare this to the original Hungarian, so I don't know if it's Szekely's original style or the translation, but I found this really easy to read, almost as if I was sitting in pub with Bela and he was telling me his life story. I found myself breathlessly awaiting the next page, laughing and crying with Bela, outraged at the injustices he faced and feeling his despair as he didn't know how to take care of his mother and find their next meal and pay the rent. I was aghast at the struggles he faced, and I only wish the story were longer. It ends when he's seventeen and I wish I knew what happened to him next. Bela's character was so real to me. According to Wikipedia this is a semi-autobiographical novel, though Szekely was born in 1901. He did leave Budapest as a young man and ended up as a screenwriter in Berlin, then moved to Hollywood in 1934, where he was eventually won for an Oscar for the 1940 film Arise, My Love. Sadly, Szekely only wrote two novels, and this is the only one translated into English. Temptation was also adapted into a Hungarian film in 1977, but I don't think it's available on DVD. 




I also loved reading about his life in Budapest. I was lucky enough to travel there for a long weekend a couple of years ago, but I never got around to posting any photos. This review is pretty long already, so hopefully I'll add some next week. Temptation is definitely one of my top reads this year and now I'm inspired to read more Hungarian fiction. Bloggers, do you have any recommendations? I still have We Were Counted by Miklos Banffy (checked out from the library more than three months ago, still unread); and I've also heard great things about Magda Szabo, several of her books are reprinted by NYRB Classics and are available as ebooks from my library.

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge and for my Hungarian selection for the European Reading Challenge.  It also counts toward the Big Book Summer Challenge