Saturday, September 25, 2021

Penmarric by Susan Howatch

The original hardcover image from 1971.
Sadly my copy was missing the dustjacket.

“I was ten years old when I first saw Penmarric and twenty years old when I first saw Janna Roslyn, but my reaction to both was identical.”

One of the big fat books I meant to read this summer was Penmarric, an epic family saga set in Cornwall. Between Daphne du Maurier and the Poldark series (not to mention Doc Martin) I've developed a small fascination with Cornwall, though I've never actually visited. I do love a good multi-generational saga and the setting absolutely sold it for me. I was at The Strand bookstore in New York a couple of years ago and picked up a vintage hardcover for about $7. My edition was more than 700 pages but I had no trouble finishing it in less than a week.

First published in 1971, the book begins with the historic estate of Penmarric in dispute -- daughter Maud Castellack thinks she should inherit, but naturally as a woman in the late Victorian era, she can't -- with no immediate male heir her father has willed it away to a cousin. Maud won't give up, trying desperately to win the estate for her elder son Mark, narrator of the book's first section. On a trip to Cornwall to finally meet his cousin, young Mark Castellack sees a beautiful widow in a desolate churchyard and is instantly smitten. 

A 1980s mass-market reprint

Janna Roslyn is ten years his senior and has her own slightly checkered history, but Mark becomes obsessed with her, eventually winning her as his bride. The narrator changes for the second section of the book and we get Janna's POV.

So we learn Janna's history and it moves on to the next generation of the Castellack heirs to Penmarric. The book spans about fifty years, ending just before World War II, with five different narrators, and includes four generations of the extended family. It's definitely not literature, but nonetheless I enjoyed it. It reminded me very much of the historical family sagas I read when I was a teenager, like Evergreen by Belva Plain and The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, though both of those were published a bit later, in the late 1970s. 

A Penguin reprint from 1989, very Gothic!

I wouldn't call it a bodice-ripper, it's definitely a step up from Judith Krantz or Danielle Steele, but I can see that it's very much of its time. Even though it's mostly set in the first half of the 20th century, there are some story elements that would have been a lot more timely in the 1970s. It's not especially graphic but it would have been far too scandalous if it had been written earlier. 

I particularly liked the setting, as always, and the descriptions of Penmarric and the bleak Cornish countryside. I also really liked how the first-person narration shifted. Three of the narrators were from the same generation so the reader got two different perspectives of what was happening, which I liked. For the most part, the characters are pretty awful, but the author made me (mostly) sympathize with them while I was reading their point of view. 

Paperback copy of a French-language edition from1972. 
Nice image, but it doesn't quite capture the same feeling as the other covers.

I realized after finishing that Penmarric was inspired loosely on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and there are epigraphs between each chapter which would make sense to anyone who knew the history or had bothered to read them. (I tend to skip over those bits so I didn't get it at the time.) I do love a great epic novel and I was in a bit of reading slump, so this was just the thing for late summer (can I call it a summer read since I finished it after Labor Day?) Susan Howatch has written several other books and a couple of them are still available at my library. There was also a BBC adaptation in the late 1970s which you can find on Youtube. 

So -- a very entertaining, retro read, absolutely perfect for the summer. If I were on a vacation on the Cornish coast, this is the book I would bring with me.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky

The outside world was full of shapes and colors that were impossible to remember for ever, constantly lost, but seeking them out, pursuing them, was the most precious thing on earth.

"It's not my fault," she thought. "It's because I just can't forget certain faces once I've seen them, or certain houses, or certain sights. They're indifferent or fickle because they remember nothing. But I can't forget, I can't. It's a unique curse that makes me recall every feature, every word, every moment of joy or pain once they have struck me.

A couple of months ago I was looking for books set in the Ukraine for the European Reading Challenge, and I found The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky. I've read several of her books and enjoyed them all, and this one sounded perfect -- Ukrainian writer, set in the Ukraine and Paris (so it also counts toward Paris in July); also the title fit one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And it's just over 200 pages! It sounded like the perfect book.

Oddly enough, it was hard to track down, not a single copy in any library nearby; in fact, I don't think it's ever been reprinted in the US. I found a cheap used copy online and was looking forward to reading it. 

It's the story of four cousins: Ada Sinner; her first cousins, Ben and Lilla; and their distant cousin Harry. They're all around the same age and are born around the turn of the century in the Ukraine. Ada lives with her widowed father Israel and after her uncle dies, her widowed aunt and two of her cousins, Ben and Lilla, come to live with them. Harry, their distant cousin, is from a side of the family that is extremely rich, and they've never met him as he lives in the lower, wealthy part of town (they've seen him and his house from afar but never actually met). Their paths first cross during the pogrom when Ukrainian Jews were targeted by Russian soldiers. Ada and her cousin Ben are running from a mob when they manage to escape to their cousin's property and beg for help. 

The spoiled, cosseted Harry is aghast at the appearance of his cousins, who are poorly dressed and are bedraggled from their flight. Ada and Ben are swept away from their cousin, but are fed and introduced to an uncle, who eventually gives Ada's father some work. He becomes more prosperous and when the children are teenagers, he can afford to send them and their aunt to Paris just before World War I breaks out. Eventually, Ada learns that Harry is also in Paris. She's been fantasizing about him her entire life, and though Ben is in love with her, she's determined to find a way to meet Harry.

If this sounds like a lot for a 200 page book, well, it is. The plot was interesting, but I found it and most of the characters really undeveloped. Lilla basically disappears and I didn't get much sense of Harry's character at all -- it just seems like Ada is obsessed with him because he's rich. It almost seemed like a first draft rather than a finished novel. It was Nemirovsky's final published work, in 1940, just before the Nazis banned the publication of books by Jewish authors. (Nemirovsky was arrested in 1942 and deported to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus a month after arrival). 

What really disturbed me about the book, though, was not the under-developed plot and characters but was the shocking anti-Semitism. There are repeated stereotypings of Jews that made me aghast. I was not expecting it and I was gobsmacked. I haven't read all of her books yet but I've read quite a few and I don't remember any anti-Semitism in the others. Some of the writing was wonderful but this is not a book I really want to read again.

. . . she mustn't find more ways to feed a dream that was gradually becoming less, damaging, only half real, half imagination. As she grew up, she had become more and more distance from it, just as you forget a book you read and loved passionately when you were a child. You may still love it, but back then, you believed in it. Now you realize that it was nothing but poetry, fiction, an illusion, less than nothing. . . . 

I'm counting this as my Ukranian selection for the European Reading Challenge and as my Classic About an Animal for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Back to the Classics 2021: Final Wrap-Up Posts

Have you finished the Back to the Classics Challenge? Congratulations! This is where you'll link up to your Challenge Wrap-Up Post, after you've completed a minimum of six different categories from the original challenge post. This post is only for Challenge Wrap-Up Posts. If you do not have a blog, or anywhere you post publicly, please write up your post-challenge thoughts/suggestions/etc in the comments section below. Please read the directions carefully. 

By linking or commenting here, you are declaring that you have completed the challenge; that each book reviewed fits the correct definition of the category, and was published before 1970 (except for posthumous publications); and that your reviews for each category are linked to the correct post. If I cannot find links to your reviews, I cannot give you credit and thus enter you into the drawing. THIS is where I will look at the end of the year and randomly choose the winner for the bookish prize. 

Please remember to indicate the following within THIS POST, linked below, or in the comments section below if you do not have your own blog:

1. Which book corresponds to each category;
2. The number of entries you have earned for the prize drawing; 
3. Links to your reviews. 

If you do NOT include links to your original reviews IN THIS POST, I CANNOT ENTER YOU INTO THE DRAWING.

  • If you've completed six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!

Please be sure and include some kind of contact for me within your final wrap-up post. This year, I will be contacting the winner privately BEFORE posting their name publicly on this blog. If I cannot contact you, I cannot award your prize. If there is no contact on your blog post, please email me at karenlibrarian13 [at] yahoo [dot] com.

I can also message the winner via Goodreads, so if you are posting reviews via your Goodreads account, I can contact you that way also.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Classics Spin #27


Third time's the charm? I've failed spectacularly on my last two attempts to participate in the Classics Spin. I'm down to the last 15 books on my Classics Club list, so I've picked ten books I really want to finish this year, listing all of them twice. Hopefully next week the random spin will inspire me to actually read -- and blog about -- one of the books on the list. 

UPDATE: The Classics Spin has spoken, and I'll be reading #6, A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym. I'm very pleased and look forward to reading it August.

  1. The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim
  2. The Caravaners
  3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. Crime and Punishment
  5. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym 
  6. A Few Green Leaves 
  7. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
  8. Invitation to the Waltz
  9. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  10. Mandoa, Mandoa!
  11. My American by Stella Gibbons
  12. My American
  13. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  14. A Pin to See the Peepshow
  15. Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope 
  16. Ralph the Heir
  17. Westwood by Stella Gibbons 
  18. Westwood
  19. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley 
  20. The World My Wilderness 

Bloggers, are you participating in the next Spin? What's on your list? 

Friday, July 9, 2021

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen


I've settled in nicely for Big Book Summer, and at one point last in June I was simultaneously reading THREE giant books between 600 and 900 pages long -- not the best strategy for finishing them in a timely manner. As per usual, one of them really grabbed me and the others were neglected. I plowed through We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, finishing it in only five days. 

Originally published in Danish, it's the fictionalized story  of several generations of a fishing town in southern Denmark called Marstal, spanning just about 100 years. The story begins in 1848 when several of the local sailors are enlisted in the navy to fight the German rebels who have decided they don't want to live under Danish rule any more. Though they bring fully armed ships to blast the German port, they're utterly routed and Laurids Masden, one of the Danes from Marstal, is literally blown into the sky. Miraculously, he survives and becomes a local celebrity, until the fame (among other issues) is too much for him, and he promptly takes to the seas and essentially disappears.

When his son Albert is old enough, he also becomes a sailor, and spends years searching for his long-lost father, spanning the globe. Eventually he returns to Marsden, but is plagued by terrible visions of friends and neighbors embroiled in war. 

War was like sailing. You could learn about clouds, wind direction, and currents, but the sea remained forever unpredictable. All you could do was adapt to it and try to return home alive.

I really enjoyed this book, with some quibbles. I loved all the sailing parts, as I'm fascinated by ships and sailing, and I love traveling anywhere by boat. I also really enjoyed all the historical and travel aspects. However, I was not thrilled with how the women in this book were portrayed -- that is, hardly at all, or as mothers or romantic interests for the male characters. And one of the female characters is so sexually and racially stereotyped it made me cringe (there's also more racism and racist stereotyping than I was expecting for a book written and published in the 21st century). 

Also, the structure of this book is sort of odd. It alternates between being told in the first and third person, and it's never quite clear who the first-person narrator is -- it's almost like the author couldn't decide and just stuck with it. 

Overall, though, I did really like it and got absorbed by the characters and storytelling. A great, sprawling book for armchair traveling if you can't travel anywhere, or a perfect beach or airplane read if you can. 

I'm counting this as my Danish selection for the European Reading Challenge; also counts for the Big Book Summer Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Paris in July 2021

It's back! Hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea, Paris is July is one of my favorite summer reading events. I have six possible reads this month, hopefully I'll get through at least three of them. Here's what's on the list:

The Complete Claudine by Colette. I read Colette's biography last summer and hope to finally finish the Claudine novels this year. 

Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar. Don't be too impressed, I won't be reading this in the original French! The only English-language edition is the Persephone which just has a plain grey cover. I really love the cover image on this French edition. 

The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky. Takes place in both Paris and the Ukraine, so I can count it as my Ukranian read for the European Reading Challenge. (Also for my classic about an animal for the Back to the Classics Challenge!)

Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir. Bought at the Frick Museum bookshop at least five years ago. I've really been obsessed with art lately, so I definitely plan on reading this one. 

Emile Zola by Alan Schom. I found a used hardcover edition last year on a visit to Second Story Books in Rockville, Maryland. I don't know if it's the best biography of Zola but it was a bargain and I couldn't resist it. 

The Bright Side of Life by Emile Zola. The twelfth novel in the Rougon-Macquart cycle. I've read 15 of the 20 novels, the end is in sight! (Then I guess I'll have to go back and read them all again, this time in order). 

So that's my reading list for this year's Paris in July! I'm also planning to watch lots of French movies and eat French pastries -- might try to make some homemade macarons! Bloggers, what are you reading this year for Paris in July? 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Big Book Summer Challenge 2021

Time for another Big Book Summer Challenge! I was so happy to find Suzan's challenge last year -- I finished ten big fat books, eight of which were from my own shelves. I've been trying to whittle away at the longest books at my TBR shelves. I'm down to about 25, and if all goes as planned I'll have finished half of them by the end of the summer. Here's what I have left to read:

Nonfiction: (11)

The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher (749 pp)
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)
Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace, 1939-1949 by Virginia Nicholson (508 pp)
The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla (638 pp) [library book]
Charles Dickens by Michael Slater (696 pp)

Novels: (8)

We Were Counted by Miklos Banffy (596 pp)
The Complete Claudine by Collette (656 pp)
Painting the Darkness by Robert Goddard (608 pp)
Bella Poldark by Winston Graham (688 pp)
Penmarric by Susan Howatch (735 pp)
The Kellys and the O'Kellys by Anthony Trollope (537 pp)
Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope (770 pp)
Marcella by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (560 pp)

Short Story Collections: (7)

Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens (680 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)

I'd love to finish at least ten this summer --  I've already started The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher, though it won't count for the challenge since I've been reading it off and on for a couple of months. My goal is to read at least three from each list. Last year I finished ten, but half of them were fiction, which is faster for me than nonfiction. I also ended up reading two books that weren't on my original list. Top of my list this year include Bella Poldark (final novel in the Poldark series), Edith Wharton's biography, the Maugham stories, and the Wodehouse stories.

Bloggers, which of these should I read first? And is there anything I should skip reading and just donate to my local Little Free Library? What big fat books are on your reading list this summer?

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

He pitied widows, but he mistrusted them.  They knew too much.  As free as unmarried women, they were fully armed; this was an unfair advantage, and when it was combined with beauty, an air of well-being, a gaiety which, in a woman over forty had an unsuitable hit of mischief in it, he felt that . . . all manhood was insulted . . . But he knew how to protect himself.

I bought Chatterton Square back in 2017 after Simon raved about it on his wonderful Tea or Books? podcast, and it would probably still be languishing on my bookshelves if my book group hadn't chosen it for their May read. (Yes, I did selfishly suggest it because I've been wanting to read it for so long!). I'm not a huge fan of Zoom but I do love that I'm finally able to see members of this group face-to-face, especially since many of them live in the UK. The group meets this afternoon to discuss it but I wanted to knock out a post of my own independent thoughts. 

This is another lovely Virago book in which not much seems to happen, but also a lot of things are happening. Chatterton Square by E. H. Young is the story of two families, the Frasers and the Blacketts, who live in the eponymous Chatterton Square in Radstowe, a thinly disguised version of Bristol. The Frasers are a single-parent household headed up by the beautiful Rosamund, and her five children. It's never said exactly how old the children are but the eldest Felix is just qualifying to be a lawyer, and the youngest two, Sandra and Paul, are still in school, so I'm guessing they're in their early teens. In the middle are James, a university student, and Chloe, who has finished school and is working in a dress shop. Their father, Fergus, is some sort of writer and has been absent from the house for several years, having absconded to somewhere on the Continent.

The household is completed by Miss Agnes Spanner, Rosamund's childhood friend and a spinster of many years. Rosamund grew up in the house and Agnes was the daughter of her father's business partner. After her parent's death she moves in next door to the Blacketts, headed up by Herbert Blackett, one of the best-drawn and most annoying men I have ever encountered in literature, a self-absorbed, snobbish, judgmental narcissist, and never have I wanted to much to jump into a book and verbally slap someone. The Blackett household also includes his long-suffering wife Bertha,who seems sweet but downtrodden, and his three daughters, one of whom, Flora, takes after him exactly. 

The original cover c.1947

Mr. Blackett sneers and belittles the Frasers to his own family at every opportunity, though he's secretly attracted to the free-spirited Rosamund. He also looks down on Mrs. Blackett's cousin Piers, a disfigured war veteran who has bought farm nearby and comes into town to sell vegetables. Blackett has always disliked Piers, ever since he returned from the war on the eve of his marriage to Mrs. Blackett, when he realized his bride cared more for her cousin but would never back out of her wedding; sadly, she realized on her honeymoon that she was trapped in marriage to a pompous ass. A friendship has struck up between Piers and Rosamund, which is another reason to dislike them both.

Meanwhile, their are potential relationships brewing between the children. James Fraser and Flora Blackett are students at the same university and have developed a mild flirtation, and middle daughter Rhoda has begun borrowing books from Miss Spanner. All of this is taking place under the cloud of potential war, which Mr. Blackett insists will never happen. As the book was published in 1947, contemporary readers, like ourselves, feel the tension since we know the inevitable is coming, which ratchets up the tension in the book. 

Cover of the new BLWW series reprint

I loved this book, though it took longer than I expected -- normally I can zip through a novel in just a few of days, but this was a fairly dense read. There's a lot that's implied and unsaid, especially about current events in the novel, and I often found myself rereading passages to figure out what was going on. It was also a bit frustrating because there is a lot that is unresolved -- if you want your endings neat and tidy, you won't like the end of this book, but since it's set on the eve of WWII, it would be unrealistic to expect anything else. 

What I loved most about this book is the characters and their interactions. As much as I dislike Mr. Blackett and his daughter Flora, they are beautifully developed villains, and I also how his wife Bertha began to grow and change. I also loved his middle daughter Rhoda who is my favorite character in the book. 

This is the third book I've read by E. H. Young -- I loved both Miss Mole and The Misses Mallett. I have three more of her books unread on the TBR shelves and had intended to read Jenny Wren for the Back to the Classics Challenge; however, I may put it off a bit more and try to ration out my E. H. Young books as long as possible (I also own the sequel, The Curate's Wife, and William.) I'm so happy that I finally finished this and am so looking forward to our discussion because I'm sure everyone will have a LOT of opinions about it! 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Shakespeare in a Year?


Last year just before COVID hit I wrote this post about a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., and all the upcoming Shakespeare plays I was hoping to see 2020. Well, we all know how that's turned out. (Really, I've been extremely fortunate I don't know anyone who's been seriously ill and I'm fully vaccinated as of this week.) Nevertheless I've really missed the theater, and I've tried to fill up some of my time by reading and watching streamed plays and movie adaptations. 

My life in semi-quarantine has recently brought me to Shakespeare. One of my online book groups read Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, which I loved, and around the same time I signed up for an online class about Shakespeare in context at the Shakespeare Theater Company in DC. We didn't study his works much from a literary aspect, but it inspired me to start reading the plays I'd missed. Which is a LOT -- of the 37 plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare, I'd only read seven. Since I started the class in March I've read five more, bringing me up to a dozen, so I have quite a ways to go. Here's what I've read so far in total:

  • As You Like It
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear
  • Macbeth
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Measure For Measure
  • A Midsummer Nights' Dream
  • Othello
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • The Tempest
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Winter's Tale
It then occurred to me that I could possibly finish all the plays in a whole year, maybe even by the end of 2021! (I'd also like to go back and reread all the plays we read in college, but probably not until after I've finished the whole list). Right now I'm trying to alternate comedies and tragedies -- I'm a bit intimidated by the histories and will probably do those last, in chronological order by monarch. 

All the plays are available for audio download through my library in various editions. I really like the Arkangel Audiobook series, which has full cast recordings with amazing actors, mostly from the Royal Shakespeare Company. I've been alternating listening to the audio versions with reading the plays online and in print, often with the help of No Fear Shakespeare. 

David Mitchell as William Shakespeare. The cast includes Gemma Whelan and Rob Rouse.

Just for fun I've been watching Upstart Crow on Britbox -- if you haven't heard of it, it's hilarious, starring David Mitchell as Shakespeare. It's by the same creator as Blackadder and there are lots of in-jokes about Shakespeare and they satirize current events as well. 

And I'm also hoping to make a trip to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia! They're already started their summer series -- two of the plays are indoors (socially distant) at their recreated Blackfriars Playhouse, and there's also an outdoor production of Macbeth. It's about a two to three hour drive from my home in suburban DC, so I could easily go in a weekend!

Bloggers, which Shakespeare plays are your favorites? And do you have any favorite stage or screen adaptations? 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Zoladdiction 2021: La Debacle by Emile Zola

It's April and that means Fanda's annual Zoladdiction, a celebration of the life and works of Emile Zola (1840-1902). After putting it off for several years, this time I decided to tackle La Debacle, the pentultimate work in his Rougon-Macquart cycle. A story of fictional people in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, it's considered one of the best war novels of all time, and was Zola's most popular novel when it was published in 1892.

I've been really daunted by this one because it's by far his longest, more than 500 pages, and honestly, I am not a fan of war novels. I'm very bad at following extended action scenes in novels, and I'm much more interested in the social aspects of wartime than of military strategy and maneuvers. I'm normally good at picturing descriptions of scenery and landscapes in my head as I read, but if there's any kind of action, my mind tends to wander. So I was not looking forward to 514 pages of battle scenes.

However, I persevered. The story begins in August of 1870. After the Second Empire declared war on Prussia, the French were pushed back over the borders of western France, in the Alsace-Lorraine region. The main characters of the story are Jean Macquart, who has rejoined the military as a corporal after the disastrous events of La Terre (The Earth); and the soldiers in his regiment, mostly Maurice, who is of a higher class, but is a less experienced soldier. At first Maurice is condescending to Jean, but eventually they become close friends after Jean looks out for him during the course of the war. 

As the story begins, the French had planned to march on Berlin and assert dominance over the Germans, but are quickly pushed back by the superior and more organized Prussian army. (The French were so confident of victory they only brought maps of Germany, and none of western France, leading to mass confusion). Much of the first quarter of the book consists of various regiments basically marching around France, not knowing exactly what's going on, and trying to find food and shelter from terrified and suspicious peasants and villagers. It's pretty much a disaster. 

Portrait of Zola, 1902, Felix Vallotton

We finally get to the actual battles in the second quarter of the book, with a lot of battle descriptions in the fields outside the towns, and the siege of the town of Bazeilles, home of Henriette Weiss, the twin sister of Maurice. After Maurice and Jean take a night's rest inside the Weiss home, the story begins to follow Henriette and her husband, and his employer Delaherche, the owner of a dye factory where the military sets up a temporary hospital. There's also another side character, another soldier in their company called Honore, whose heart was broken when his father wouldn't let him marry the girl he loved, Silvine. Silvine was devastated and has since had child by a Prussian jerk named Goliath, who then refused to marry her. However, Honore still loves her and ironically, Silvine and the child are now living at his father's farm as she has nowhere else to go.

For me the book really picked up when it was more character-driven. Zola is really good at creating realistic characters, and his depiction of how the war affected the civilian population was really good. Of course I'm always more interested in the social aspect than the military and political side. My mind did tend to wander when Zola was describing all the political events and military maneuvers as the war goes from bad to worse for the French, and the Prussians take over. 

The fighting doesn't stop, however, and Weiss ends up going back to Paris. Unbeknownst to all of them is the upcoming siege of Paris and the Paris commune! Things are going to get worse! The short version is that after a months-long siege of Paris by the Prussians, overthrow their own government and all hell breaks loose inside the city, culminating in a bloody week when more than 20,000 people died and much of the city burned to the ground. I've been to Paris several times and I am aghast that I had no idea that this happened.

Despite all the politics and warfare, I ended up really liking this book, though it's a lot to take. There is a LOT of violence and pretty detailed descriptions of deaths on the battlefront, executions, wartime hospitals (including amputations), disposing of bodies, and just general unpleasant things that happen in wartime. Might not be the best choice if you like to read and eat at the same time. 

The hardest parts for me to read were definitely the military actions and the history of the politics that were going on, culminating in the Paris commune. I was a history major but I haven't read that much academic history for a long time, and Zola crams in a lot of facts, names, dates, and places, and it was tough to keep everything straight. I absolutely understand why he had to include all of it, but it wasn't my favorite part of the book.  I read the Oxford World's Classics edition, pictured above, which includes a lot of resources in the endnotes, timelines, and maps, which were great. There's also a list of the characters, the first one I've seen in a Zola novel. 

Until I started reading this, I also didn't realize that much of the action takes place a fairly short distance from where I spent three years in Germany! There's a lot of mentions of cities and towns that I actually visited, like Strasbourg and Metz, which are a fairly easy drive from our house in the Rhineland. I'm quite sorry now that I didn't read this while I was living there -- I certainly would have paid closer attention while I was on day trips and maybe even tried to trace the route of the armies. (It makes sense why the U. S. military built an enormous base nearby for its strategic location.) And I visited Paris multiple times when we lived there, but not once did I visit Place Vendome and many of the other important sites mentioned. I guess I'll just have to go back someday! 

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Thanks again to Fanda for hosting Zoladdiction 2021 and inspiring me to finally read this book!

Thursday, April 15, 2021

1936 Club: The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple


I love books written in the inter-war period; I love memoirs; and I love the middlebrow author Dorothy Whipple, so One Fine Day checks off so many boxes for me! It is the perfect read for Kaggsy and Simon's 1936 Club. 

Born in 1893, in Blackburn, Lancashire, Whipple was the eldest child of what would be eventually a large family of seven children. She seemed to have a mostly idyllic childhood, though there would be heartaches. Young Dorothy especially loved the countryside and was fascinated by stories and folktales from a young age. 

. . . the tales Kate told us got mixed up with the tales I told myself, so I could not sort them out, and walking over the wet roads between the low black stone walls and looking out to the far splendid hills with the cloud-shadows going over, I felt a deep satisfaction that the world should be so full of tales, of things that had happened and were happening. Anything seemed possible in those days, and I should not have been at all surprised if a great antediluvian beast had appeared among the browsing cows in the field, or if Mistress Nutter had overtaken us on a broomstick.

However, schools for girls in the early part of the century were spotty, and Dorothy had some pretty horrific school experiences -- a particularly nasty math teacher was constantly berating her, and at one point she's accused of plagiarizing a short story she'd written, which is so infuriating! (Obviously, her talent for writing began at a young age, since the teachers didn't believe a child could have written such a good story.

Finally her father decided to send her to a convent school, which he announced casually at the dinner table. 

It was at meals that we mostly saw him. Vital changes in our young lives have been announced to the accompaniment of knives and forks clattering on plates, the gurgle of water being poured from glasses, and requests for more bread from unconcerned parties. While being helped to vegetables one's dearest hopes would fall between dish and plate never to be recovered, or on the other hand, one would be raised to the seventh heaven of delight by some promise made while waiting for the pudding to come in.

The news of Dorothy's new school came as shock but she grew to love it, though it was difficult as a Protestant in a school run by a Belgian order of nuns, with nearly all Catholic classmates. Naturally there are some funny and embarrassing school anecdotes. 

A 1950 paperback edition cover

The book really only includes Dorothy's childhood, up to the age of twelve when the family moves permanently to the countryside. Of course Whipple was only in her forties when she wrote the memoir, but I would have loved to learn more about her coming-of-age and her life as a writer. Before The Other Day, Whipple had written four novels and a book short stories, which doesn't include some of her most popular works. 

I've been a Whipple fan since I read The Priory, one of my very first Persephones, and it's thanks to Persephone that I have a pretty big collection of of her work, nearly every book in print and out of print. Nearly all of them are reprinted by Persephone, but not this one, and I'm sorry to say that copies are scarce and quite spendy when they do come on the market. I did pay rather a lot for this one, though not nearly as much as I've seen recently. I really do hope Persephone or one of the other publishers reprints this little gem! 

And thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for organizing the 1936 reading week, it's been so lovely reading about all the wonderful books published that year. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

1936 Club: Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery

While searching for an appropriate book for the 1936 Club, I realized that Anne of Windy Poplars, fourth in the Anne of Green Gables series, was published that year. Six of the books in the series were published from 1908 to 1921, but later in her career, L. M. Montgomery went back and filled in the gaps before and after Anne's House of Dreams; (Anne of Ingleside was published in 1939.)

Anyway, it was an easy choice, especially after my previous read, which was good but a little depressing. I hadn't read any of the Anne books for a few years, so I quickly sped through Anne of Anne of the Island (volume 3) to get caught up with Anne in volume 4. I'm very glad I did because although I enjoyed the third book, I much preferred the fourth. (This post will contain very mild spoilers about Anne's career and love life, but nothing really shocking).

So, our beloved Anne Shirley, spunky orphan from Prince Edward Island, is now a graduate of Redmond College, and has a three-year job as principal of Summerside High School, also on Prince Edward Island. She's engaged to Gilbert Blythe, who is in medical school, and much of the book is Anne's lengthy letters to Gilbert (sadly, no letters from Gilbert to Anne are included). The story begins with Anne looking for lodgings in Summerside. Traditionally, the principal boards with Mrs. Tom Pringle, who has decided not to take lodgers. Anne finds a room boarding at a house delightfully named Windy Poplars, with two widows, Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty, and Aunt Kate's curmudgeonly yet lovable cousin, Rebecca Dew, who is sort of a housemaid/milkmaid/Greek chorus. Windy Poplars is just the sort of charming, romantic house that would attract Anne, situated on a road called Spook's Lane, with a tower bedroom, across from a graveyard. 

Nice cover, but Anne is far too young -- 
she'd have her skirts down and her hair up if she were the school principal! 

The reason that Mrs. Pringle won't take Anne as a boarder becomes quickly apparent. The Pringles and "half-Pringles" are the dominant family in the area, and they run the show. Before even arriving, they're mad at Anne for having the gall to be hired as principal over one of their own clan, and they are determined to make her life difficult behind her back, though they appear to be kind to her in person, inviting her for dinners, etc. But they undermine her at the school at every turn, especially with the students who are insubordinate, refuse to do homework, play pranks on her at every turn. However, Anne manages to get the better of them when they attempt to sabotage the school play. 

Of course Anne wins them over eventually, with a bit of deus ex machina. (Which is fine).There are also other recurring characters, including Katherine, a prickly co-worker who was also angling for the job; and Elizabeth, a miserable child living next door who seems to have the worst guardians and the loneliest existence in the world. Naturally, Anne's inherent sunny disposition and cockeyed optimism change their lives. 

This volume isn't groundbreaking or particularly exciting as far as Anne's story goes (or in the greater annals of children's literature). Basically, it just seems amusing filler in the Anne chronicles before her marriage. Nothing really happens to Anne other than meeting interesting and eccentric characters in Summerside, or improving the lives of everyone around her. You could even read this as a stand-alone novel if you didn't know anything else about Anne Shirley -- I actually found it easier to read than the previous novel, Anne of the Island (due to the gap in my reading I'd forgotten a lot of the secondary characters and was a bit confused at times).

Still, the fun and quirky characters are what makes this book delightful, if a little too good to be true, sometimes. But it's Anne Shirley and who doesn't need a little unrealistic levity right about now? It's just the thing for a pandemic comfort read, and I will probably finish the rest of the series this year.

In this passage, Anne is taking a tour of the cemetery and getting a little local color from one of the residents: 

The MacTabbs were all handsome but you could never believe a word they said. There used to be a stone here for his Uncle Samuel, who was reported drowned at sea fifty years ago. When he turned up alive the family took the stone down. The man they bought it from wouldn't take it back, so Mrs. Samuel used it for a baking-board. Talk about a marble slab for mixing on! That old tombstone was just fine, she said. The MacTabb children were always bringing cookies to school with raised letters and figures on them. . . scraps of the epigraph. They gave them away real generous, but I never could bring myself to eat one. I'm peculiar that way. 

I'm quite sure I will remember this story the next time I'm rolling out cookie dough!

There are many, many editions out there, and while searching for cover images, I also found this:

Apparently Anne of Windy Poplars was adapted as a 1940 movie! It's not on DVD but you can find clips on YouTube. The full movie may be online somewhere but I wasn't able to find it. I did find a synopsis of the plot on Wikipedia which you can read here, it sounds absolutely terrible. Has anyone seen it? I'd love to know! 

 I'm counting this as my Children's Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting the 1936 Club!