Monday, May 25, 2020

Big Book Summer Challenge

What's better than a reading challenge to inspire another list? Hosted by Suzan at Book by Book, I hope this challenge will help me to clear off all those enormous books I still have on my shelves. According to my Goodreads list, I still have more than 30 books on my owned-and-unread shelves that I consider Big Fat Books, i.e., more than 500 pages long (or thereabouts). I've divided them into categories. 


Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Postwar Britain by Simon Garfield (544 pp)
Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood (495 pp)
Trollope by Victoria Glendinning (551 pp)
Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard (528 pp)
A London Family, 1870-1900 by Molly Hughes (600 pp)
Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee (869 pp)
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford (744 pp)
Charles Dickens by Michael Slater (696 pp)
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman (592 pp)
Roughing It by Mark Twain (592 pp)


Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett (769 pp)

T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett (518 pp)
The Complete Claudine by Collette (656 pp)
Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens (680 pp)
Painting the Darkness by Robert Goddard (608 pp)
Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge (571 pp)
The Twisted Sword by Winston Graham (544 pp)
Bella Poldark by Winston Graham (688 pp)
Penmarric by Susan Howatch (735 pp)
Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington (493 pp)
The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson (543 pp)
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Santmyer (1176 pp)
Temptation by Janos Szekeley (685 pp)
John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope (656 pp)
Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope (770 pp)
Marcella by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (560 pp)
The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton (652 pp)
Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton (547 pp)
La Debacle by Emile Zola (536 pp)

Short Stories:

East and West: The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. I (955 pp)
The World Over: The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. II (681 pp)
The Portable Dorothy Parker (626 pp)
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (495 pp)
The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (640 pp)
The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton (640 pp)
The Most of P. G. Wodehouse (701 pp)
The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig (720 pp)

By my count, that's 37 books, and I don't even want to do the math to think of how many pages that is -- it could be an entire year's reading for me! I could just concentrate on reading long books all summer, but I still want to make my goal of 100 books, and I'm exactly on track right now. 

There are about 15 weeks this summer, if you count it as the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day (Memorial Day is early this year, and Labor Day is late, not until September 7). In theory I could probably finish one per week, if that's all I was reading, but I know that'll never happen! And I know that some of them will be much slower than others, like the Wharton biography which is more than 800 pages of tiny print, not including endnotes and the index -- it's a dense read. I can probably knock off most of the fiction books within a week each, but the nonfiction and short stories will be harder, especially since I tend to dip in and out of them, alternating with fiction. 

I'm not going to commit to any particular list at the moment, since I know I'll never stick to it. The only book I'm definitely going to read is Temptation by Janos Szekely -- it was a Mother's Day gift and I've already read a few pages, I'm already hooked and plant to dive into as soon as I finish my current read). So I guess my goal will be to simply read as many as possible, at least one from each category -- a lot of these books have been hanging around my TBR shelves forever and I should just suck it up and read them, or at least attempt -- if I'm not enjoying them, I'll donate them to the Little Free Library down the block, since the library is still closed. 

Bloggers, what do you suggest from my list of Big Fat Books? Do you have any enormous books you've been putting off forever? And do you have any reading goals this summer? 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Hester: A Novel of Contemporary Life by Mrs. Oliphant

I counted the other day and I still have more than thirty unread Virago Modern Classics on my TBR shelves (though technically, some of them are not VMC editions). I'm desperately trying to take control of the TBR shelves, so Margaret Oliphant's Hester: A Novel of Contemporary Life was my pick for the May/June prompt of the Victorian Reading Challenge (long titles or sub-titles). 

First published in 1883, this is the story of two strong women in the fictional town of Redborough. The Vernon family name is synonymous with banking and stability, and in the beginning of the novel, a scandal erupts about 30 years prior -- John Vernon, head of the bank and the grandson of the founder of the Vernon family bank, has fled the country, and rumors are flying around town that there's about to be a run on the bank (if you've ever seen It's A Wonderful Life, you know exactly what this means: word is out that the bank doesn't have the funds and is about to collapse, so everyone rushes to the bank to get out their money before it's gone). 

Mr. Rule, the chief clerk, goes to Mr. Vernon's home in desperation, and he's nowhere to be found. His young and flighty wife insists that he'll be back soon, and offers the clerk all the money she has in the house, about 20 pounds. Instead, Mr. Rule does the unthinkable -- he approaches Mr. Vernon's cousin Catherine, a spinster, who is a shareholder but has naturally never been involved. Catherine is naturally concerned and with her funds and brains, she saves the bank, restoring the family name, and thus the town's revered and powerful benefactor. 

The story then jumps forward to the 1880s, and John Vernon's widow (known as Mrs. John), is returning to Redborough after the death of her husband. Mrs. John moved Abroad and joined her husband after she was forced to give up her beautiful home in the wake of the banking scandal, and she hadn't returned since. Now living in genteel poverty, she returns to the scene with her teenaged daughter Hester, who was born much later and knows nothing about this embarrassing episode or her father's role in it. She and her mother move into the Vernonry, a great old house that Catherine Vernon had converted into multiple dwellings, normally offered to impoverished relatives. All of them are living off Catherine's generosity, but most of them are bitterly resentful and disparage her whenever they can. 

Unfortunately, young Hester gets off on the wrong foot with Catherine, who calls on her mother late on the first evening of their arrival. Hester doesn't realize how important a benefactress Catherine is, and is rather rude and protective of her mother, and from this day forward, she and Catherine don't care much for one another. Catherine finds Hester standoffish, and Hester is influenced by the cutting remarks about Catherine by her neighbors, who are a kind of Greek chorus of frenemies. The only neighbors who seem thankful and benevolent are Captain and Mrs. Morgan, who related to Catherine's later mother, and are not technically Vernons. 

Things in Redborough are fairly uneventful until Hester turns nineteen and blossoms into a lovely young woman, attracting the notice of two of her distant cousins, who have been chosen by Catherine to succeed her in running the bank -- the dull but handsome Harry, and the hardworking Edward, handpicked by Catherine as her surrogate son and heir. Harry is in love with Hester, but she's not interested, and Edward is attracted to her but can't risk incurring the wrath of Catherine, who has never liked Hester. Meanwhile, the Morgan's grandson Roland arrives, on the lookout for new investors in his stockbroking business, and Edward thinks this may be his chance to finally become independent of Catherine.

I really liked this novel -- it's fairly long, almost 500 pages, but I really got invested in the plot and the characters. I got so caught up in the story I finished it in only four days. A couple of the characters reminded me a bit of Jane Austen -- Roland's sister Emma shows up, desperate for a husband, and I found her somewhat like Lucy Steele from Sense and Sensibility, though she's not nearly as malicious.  It was nice to have a Victorian novel with strong women characters. Margaret Oliphant clearly had some ideas about working women, and expresses them through Hester's frustration:

"I thought you hated Catherine Vernon," Roland cried.
"I never said so," cried Hester; and then, after a pause, "but if I did, what does that matter? I should like to do what she did. Something of one's own free will—something that no one can tell you or require you to do—which is not even your duty bound down upon you. Something voluntary, even dangerous——" She paused again, with a smile[Pg 7] and a blush at her own vehemence, and shook her head. "That is exactly what I shall never have it in my power to do."
"I hope not, indeed, if it is dangerous," said Roland, with all that eyes could say to make the words eloquent. "Pardon me; but don't you think that is far less than what you have in your power? You can make others do: you can inspire . . .  and reward. That is a little highflown, perhaps. But there is nothing a man might not do, with you to encourage him. You make me wish to be a hero."
He laughed, but Hester did not laugh. She gave him a keen look, in which there was a touch of disdain. "Do you really think," she said, "that the charm of inspiring, as you call it, is what any reasonable creature would prefer to be doing? To make somebody else a hero rather than be a hero yourself? Women would need to be disinterested indeed if they like that best. I don't see it. Besides, we are not in the days of chivalry. What could you be inspired to do—make better bargains on your Stock Exchange?"

Margaret Oliphant was one of the most prolific Victorian authors,  probably the most prolific women author of the era. She published her first novel in 1849, when she was just 21, and published more than 120 novels, supporting her family after her husband's death in 1852. Like many Victorian women authors, only a few of them are still in printthough there are quite a few on ebook, and many are free through Project Gutenberg. I've now read six of her novels so far -- Hester; The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow, I've read three of her Carlingford Chronicles, Miss Marjoribanks and The Rector and The Doctor's Family, two novellas in one volume. Virago Modern Classics reprinted the rest of the series and I'm tempted to track those down as well. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Lark Rise to Candleford; and my pastoral life in Germany

I finally tackled one of the books I've had on my owned-and-unread pile the longest -- Lark Rise to Candleford. I bought this more than ten years ago, around the time the TV series was first broadcast, but I've been putting it off forever, put off by the sheer size of it, and by the first couple of pages which are mostly descriptive. (It's also one of the books from my original Classics Club list that I never read). It's a little tough if the first page doesn't grab you. I had watched a bit of the TV series and enjoyed it, so I thought I should give it another go. 

For those who aren't familiar, Lark Rise is a fictionalized memoir of Flora Thompson's childhood in rural England, during the late Victorian period. It's classified as fiction but definitely reads like a memoir, and most libraries and bookstores shelve it in the fiction section. There isn't really any plot, it's really a lot of vignettes and memories of Thompson's childhood in Oxfordshire, and she places herself in the story as the main character, Laura, oldest child of a stonemason and his wife who live in a poor but comfortable house in the little hamlet of Lark Rise. It was originally published as three volumes, and I read the edition pictured above which includes all of them: Lark Rise [1939], Over to Candleford [1941], and Candleford Green [1943]. Since 1945 it's been available as an omnibus and there are many beautiful editions. 

A Penguin edition of the first volume.
My copy had woodcut illustrations similar to the one on the cover, 

though they're black and white

Each chapter has a theme, so it isn't told in a specifically linear fashion. It jumps around a bit, but it's easy enough to follow. There were chapters on May Day, hog butchering, school, churchgoing, and so on. Bits of it reminded me a bit of the Little House on the Prairie series, just in the descriptions of daily life in that era. Life was hard for Laura's family and the other families in Lark Rise, but she seems to have very happy memories. It's a really lovely portrait of rural life towards the end of the Victorian era, with hints of what's to come in the new century. 

It's fairly long book, more than 500 pages and 39 chapters. I finally got around to picking it up when I was looking for something soothing to read, and it fit the bill perfectly. Most of the chapters are short, and I thought I'd just read one or two a day, but I found myself turning to it more and more often in the past week. It is just the thing to read before bedtime, to crowd out all my other thoughts of world events. I can see why it was so popular when first published during WWII. 

After reading a few chapters I was wondering how they adapted it into a 40-episode TV series (I've only watched the first season so far). Eventually, though, I began to recognize characters from the series. Some of them have much more screen time than you'd expect from the book, and a couple of them have been combined into one family. They've definitely kept the spirit of the book in the series. It's a bit like Cranford in that the TV creators have taken the essence of the characters and place and extrapolated from there. If you're expecting it to be a novelization of the series, you'll be disappointed. For example, Dorcas, the postmistress, has nearly as much screen time in the TV series as Laura, but she doesn't show up in the book until more than halfway through. 

The beautiful Folio Society edition. I would love to take a look at this one. 

I really enjoyed this book, though it wasn't what I'd call a quick read, It's definitely a leisurely read, well suited to reading in bits in pieces, and it felt more like a memoir than a novel. In the past I've described books as 'nonfiction that reads like fiction' but this was the opposite. And if you love a sense of place, this is the book for you, with lovely descriptions of the countryside and just the slowness of everyday life. It made me want to move to a cottage and cook on an open fire. 

I'm a suburban kid and the idea of living in a village surrounded by countryside has always appealed to me. Our house in Germany was in a village, though nothing like Lark Rise, though we were at the end of a street on the edge of farmland and I could literally see cornfields and livestock right outside my door. I used to walk my dog through farmland and there were cows, horses, and chickens within a short distance, and in the spring, I'd take the scenic route to see if there were any lambs. I did enjoy how peaceful it was but there wasn't much to do close by, if you wanted to do more than a movie or basic shopping we had to drive pretty far. 

So here are a few photos of the countryside near my former house in the village of Steinwenden, a tiny village in the Rhineland-Pfalz, near Ramstein air base.

Just some cows in the neighborhood.

A field of canola. Every spring the countryside would be bright yellow. 

Pasture on the hill just behind our house, I could see these sheep from the second-story window. 

Sadly they weren't permanent residents, just visiting.  

In the summer this field was normally wheat or corn, 

but one summer it was all sunflowers and sweet peas, to help enrich the soil.

Sunset over the wheat field, just beyond my house. 

Hay all bundled up at the end of the season. I took this photo from my driveway. 

I loved the peace and quiet of the countryside but I was happy to move closer to a major city. Right now I'd be really happy to be on the edge of the farms, I'm sure it would be more relaxing right about now! Well, every place has its advantages. 

Bloggers, which are your favorite books about rural life? And does anyone else feel like moving out to the country about now? 

I'm counting this as my Adapted Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge