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?