Saturday, February 29, 2020

European Reading Challenge 2020

Another challenge! But all of these are books that are already on the TBR shelves, or count for another challenge. How can I resist? 

Hosted by Rose City Reader, this challenge is a tour of Europe through reading, either books from European countries or set in European countries -- any kind of book is fine, they don't have to be classics -- it could even be a cookbook or a children's book. Participants can choose different levels of participation so there's no big commitment. But one lucky reader can win a prize at the end for the most countries visited! The only real rule is no more than one book per country. 

I'm signing up for the Five Star Level, at least five books. I'm pretty sure I can finish five books by European authors by the end of the year. Here's what's on my list so far: 

Austria: Chess Story by Stefan Zweig 
France: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (in progress!)
Germany: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann 
Hungary: They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy
Ireland: The Real Charlotte by Edith Somerville and Violet Martin
Italy: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassini
Russia: Crime and Punishment OR Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky 
Switzerland:  In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim
UK: The Belton Estate by Trollope OR East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood
Ukraine: The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky

I'd love to add more countries later but I really want to finish books from my own shelves or that fulfill other challenges, so I'll have to wait and see what I else I can count. Most of the books on my owned-and-unread shelves are British -- shocking, I know! I do want to read more world literature and I'm always looking for more books in translation. 

Has anyone else signed up for this challenge? And do you have any suggestions for books from other European authors? If you're interested, sign-ups are here

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: Book One, Fantine

So I've decided to take the plunge and make another attempt at Victor Hugo's epic masterpiece, Les Miserables. At 1260 pages (depending on the edition), it's quite possibly the longest book I've ever read! (I'm not sure if it's longer than War and Peace, it's tough to say based on different editions. It's definitely longer than Gone With the Wind and anything by Dickens or Trollope.) 

Since the book is so long, I've decided to write blog posts after each of the five books. The first book, Fantine, took me just about a week to finish. If you don't know the setup, here's what's happened so far:

The book begins in the 1820s, and begins with a lot of back story about a priest, Monseignur Bienvenue, who only appears in this section but is a pivotal character. (He is saintly and allows a newly released convict, Jean Valjean, into his home for the night. Valjean has spent 19 years doing hard labor onboard a galley ship after stealing a loaf of bread (his initial sentence was five years, but was extended after repeated escape attempts). Valjean steals the family silver and uses this to start a new life, eventually working his way up to become a successful businessman and the well-respected mayor of a town about five years later. Meanwhile, one of the factory workers, the beautiful Fantine, has left her illegitimate daughter Cosette in the care of the unscrupulous Thenardiers, who take Fantine's money and spend it on their own children, treating little Cosette like a servant.

Cosette's nasty co-workers discover where she's been sending her weekly wages, and get her fired from her job. She then sinks to selling her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body on the streets. Finally one day she is arrested for assaulting a man on the street when Valjean (now known as  Monsieur Madeleine) witnesses the event and stops the policeman Javert from throwing her in jail. Fantine health is wrecked and he takes charge of her care, promising to reunite her with Cosette.

Meanwhile, Javert has become suspicious -- he believes Mayor Madeleine is a former convict who is wanted for thefts after his release. However, Javert tells Madeleine his fears were averted when another man is arrested for the crimes. Madeleine realizes another man may be sentenced for his crimes and struggles with the decision to come forward. And that's only the first 200 pages!

There is A LOT going on in this book -- plot, characters, setting (Hugo loves detailed descriptions), and many asides in which Hugo pontificates about politics, philosophy, religion, etc. This seems to be a feature of books of the time -- I remember Moby-Dick included entire chapters about chowder and the color white. I've heard there are entire chapters in Les Miserables about the Paris sewer system, so that'll be . . . interesting. (Fun fact: you can take sewer tour in Paris -- there is an actual sewer museum! Apparently it's closed at the moment for renovations, so if you're planning a trip, you're out of luck). Also SO MUCH back story about the characters -- Monseigneur Bienvenue was the reason I gave up my first attempt reading this a few years ago. 

Anyway, I'm really enjoying it so far, despite all the asides. I've been lucky enough to find a digital download of the audio from the library, so I've been able to make real progress while walking the dog and driving around town. The audio version is the Charles Wilbour translation from 1862, and I like it so far. It's the same translation as the Modern Library hardcover edition, also checked out from the library. I do actually own two other copies of this book, but it's easier to keep reading the same edition. I also own the beautiful Penguin clothbound copy and the Signet mass-market paperback, both pictured. I love the Penguin copy but it's actually easier to read the Modern Library version, as it lies flat when open. The Penguin and Signet editions are also different translations. I'm sure they're equally good but I find it easier to just stick with one -- maybe someday I'll go back and reread the others to see which one I like best!

I'll be posting more thoughts about Les Miserables in the coming weeks -- I'm hoping to finish one section every week, so if all goes as planned I'll finish up by the end of March. I'm also going to include some travel photos related to Paris and Victor Hugo, and various adaptations.

Bloggers, have you read Les Miserables? Which edition is the best? And what are the longest books you've ever read?

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins

Victorian sensation fiction is SO MUCH FUN. If you read a Victorian sensation novel you are guaranteed many, if not all, of the following:
  • Secrets
  • Scandals
  • Swooning
  • Brain fever
  • Wildly unbelievable coincidences
  • Death by heartbreak
  • Misunderstandings
  • Mistaken identities
  • Wills, forged and legitimate
  • Adultery
  • Bigamy
  • Illegitimate children
  • Murder
and just general bad behavior in Victorian times. They're generally pretty long (in order to fit all this in) but they aren't difficult reads and they are absolutely worth reading. 

So. Man and Wife starts with two proper young Victorian ladies, aged about 18, on board ship. They are the dearest of schoolmates and vow to be friends for life. One of them, Blanche, is en route to India, where she eventually meets and marries a titled aristocrat; the other one, Anne, winds up in Italy, where she becomes a celebrated actress and singer.

Flash-forward 24 years later. Anne has returned to England from abroad and has married a younger man, Vanborough who is no longer as besotted with her as he once was. He's a social climber, and realizes that his wife is holding him back. He starts gallivanting about the county without telling anyone he's actually married, and finds a rich woman who would help him break into society and quite possibly, a successful career in politics. 

Vanborough finds a clever attorney who finds a loophole in their marriage paperwork: since they were married in Ireland by a priest, and Vanborough wasn't Catholic, the marriage is not technically valid. He uses this as an excuse to leave his wife and young daughter (also named Anne) and start a new life. His former wife eventually dies of heartbreak, leaving her daughter in the care of her old friend Blanche, now Lady Lundie. 

Flash-forward again, about 12 more years. The younger Anne is now governess and best friend of Blanche's daughter, also called Blanche. Both her parents have died, and she lives with her widowed stepmother, the second Lady Lundie. Blanche II and Lady Lundie are hosting a weekend party one summer at their estate in Scotland, and two of the guests include Arnold Brinkworth and his best college mate, Geoffrey Delamayn. Arnold is a stand-up guy and is trying to work up the nerve to declare his love to Blanche and make her an offer. He's very different from Geoffrey, who can't be bothered to pick up a book and is something of a bounder, a ne'er-do-well; however, he's the best rower in Oxford, and once saved Arnold from drowning. He is also, coincidentally, the second son of Sir Geoffrey Delamayn, the somewhat unscrupulous lawyer who helped Anne's father slither out of his marriage to her mother. 

History begins to repeat itself with poor Anne Silvester, who just can't catch a break. She's caught up in a scandalous relationship and is trying to make it right, and everything seems to go wrong and spiral out of control, involving her best friend Blanche, Blanche's swain Arnold, and even Blanche's Uncle Patrick, the heir to her father's title and head of the family. Much of the action takes place in Scotland, and if you've ever read of Gretna Green, (a famous destination in Pride and Prejudice), you will learn more than you ever anticipated about Scottish marriage laws. 

Like most Victorian sensation novels, Man and Wife is a real rollercoaster of a book, with many of the elements listed above. However, this book took a darker turn toward the end with the real threat of domestic violence, which I wasn't expecting. It does have some very funny moments, where the omniscent narrator injects some wry comments. Also, I particularly enjoyed the character of Sir Patrick Lundie, Blanche's uncle, who is the voice of reason in the book but also dryly amusing. I really enjoyed this book and after a bit of a slow start, I raced through more than 600 pages in a week because I just had to find out what happened next. This is my seventh novel by Wilkie Collins so far, and I really think this one is my favorite. 

There are at least five more books by Collins that I still haven't read: The Frozen Deep, Basil, Hide and Seek, The Dead Secret, The Evil Genius, and Jezebel's Daughter. They all sound really scandalous and over the top, I can't wait to read them all.

I'm counting this as my second book for the Victorian Reading Challenge, for the Love & Marriage category. I'm also counting it for my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Shakespeare in Washington, DC

One of the best things about living near Washington D. C. is all the amazing culture that is so close to me. In addition to the the history, great museums, monuments, and restaurants, there is a wonderful theater scene -- more than 100 live theaters within a two-hour drive, from small community theater companies to the National Theater and the Kennedy Center. 

I've been to a couple of events at the Kennedy Center, which is stunning, but what I like most are smaller theaters. One of my favorites so far is the Folger Shakespeare Theater, part of the beautiful and historic Folger Library, on Capitol Hill. It's closing soon for a major expansion and renovation, but I was able to get a ticket for the current production, The Merry Wives of Windsor. 

I've been reading classics on a regular basis for more than ten years now, but my knowledge of plays is sorely lacking. I've only seen three plays performed live (Hamlet, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet). I did take a Shakespeare class in college, but that was a long time ago, and to be honest I can't even remember exactly which plays we read! (I know there were four tragedies and four comedies). However, I am quite sure that I haven't read The Merry Wives. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor trailer

DC also has a regional theater company specializing in Shakespeare, though they perform other plays as well. The next play for the Shakespeare Theater Company is Timon of Athens, about which I know absolutely nothing (apparently it's not performed very often, but this production is gender-flipped and set in modern Greece). Much Ado About Nothing is scheduled for May, which sounds fun. The 2020/2021 season includes The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, so I'm looking forward to both of those.

Timon of Athens trailer

So here is my question for all my dear readers who are well-versed (or slightly versed) in Shakespeare: how important is it to have read the plays before attending the productions? Normally, I don't like to know too many details about a play before I see it, for fear of spoilers. But Shakespeare is something else entirely. I haven't read any of the plays for years, and I don't want to be completely lost before attending. 

Readers, what would you suggest? Read the plays, or be surprised? And has anyone read or seen Timon of Athens