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! 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Classics Spin #26

Time for another Classics Spin, #26! I'm getting close to the end of my second Classics Club list. A week from today, April 18, the Spin will assign me a random number which will determine the next read from my list. 

I only have 17 books left, and I also eliminated a few that I know I won't read right now. Therefore I have doubled up most of them to make it an even 20. To make it a little more interesting, I've put them in reverse order alphabetically by author. Here's my list:

  1. La Debacle by Emile Zola
  2. La Debacle 
  3. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young 
  4. Jenny Wren 
  5. Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope 
  6. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym 
  7. A Few Green Leaves 
  8. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley 
  9. The World My Wilderness 
  10. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson 
  11. The Little Ottleys 
  12. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
  13. Invitation to the Waltz
  14. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  15. A Pin to See the Peepshow
  16. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  17. Westwood by Stella Gibbons 
  18. My American by Stella Gibbons
  19. The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim 
  20. The Caravaners 
I'm really hoping for Jenny Wren or The Caravaners. I will also probably read La Debacle for Fanda's Zoladdiction

Bloggers, have you read any of these? What's on your list? I'm looking forward to my next Spin selection! 

Friday, April 2, 2021

America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

I knew that as long as there was a hope for the future somewhere I would not stop trying to reach it. I looked at my brother and Alfredo and knew that I would never stay with them, to rot and perish in their world of brutality and despair. I knew that I wanted something which would ease my fear and stop my flight from dawn to dawn.

I really feel it's important to read more classics by people of color, so last year I decided to make that a permanent category in the annual Back to the Classics Challenge. I know I don't read nearly enough books by nonwhite authors, and this year I really wanted to read a classic by an Asian author. I was really happy to discover America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino-American author. It's a really personal connection to me because my husband is Filipino, and I'm always trying to learn more about his culture.

Published in 1946, this semi-autobiographical novel is the story of Carlos, a young man from the rural Philippines who tries make a better life for himself in America. It's been compared to The Grapes of Wrath, and since Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, I was even more intrigued. 

The story begins after World War I, when young Carlos is just a boy and his oldest brother returns to the family in Binalonan after several years' absence as a soldier. The family struggles to keep the family farm and pay for the education of another brother, Macario -- basically, the only way out of poverty. The family endures hardship and heartbreak, and Carlos is badly injured more than once, just trying to make a little extra money to keep from losing their land. They are too poor for him to go to school regularly but he picks up what education he can, and reads on his own. 

At just 17, Carlos makes his way to America, but there are few jobs for Filipinos other than canning factories and migrant work, picking crops. He makes his way up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to California, sometimes barely managing to stay alive. Eventually he reconnects with Macario and another brother who had previously emigrated. Carlos also gets involved with Filipino union organizers who are fighting for better working conditions. His English improves and he also begins writing. However, the attempts to organize labor unions is violently opposed, and Carlos and the other organizers are constantly threatened by arrest and violence. He also becomes ill with tuberculosis and at one point is hospitalized for two years.     

This was a tough read for me. The writing isn't difficult, but it was really painful to read about how badly Carlos and the other minorities were treated -- terrible working conditions, no benefits, unable to find housing in any place but the worst parts of town, unable to own property, unable to become a citizen. The racism is just appalling. For me, it was even worse than reading about the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath because at least the Joads had some rights -- and they wouldn't be subjected to generations of racist bigotry because of the color of their skin. It's so infuriating that Filipinos and other Asians had so few rights -- Asians weren't allowed to become US citizens until the 1940s, and there were still immigration quotas until 1965.

It's not a long book, 327 pages in my edition, and there are lot of very short chapters. But the subject was so difficult to read that it took me a long time to finish for such a short book. This did make it harder to keep some of the recurring characters straight -- Carlos would run into an old friend or colleague and I couldn't always remember how they'd met. But I'm really glad I finished it. Immigrant stories are really important and this was especially personal to me. 

Carlos Bulosan

I glanced out of the window again to look at the broad land I had dreamed so much about, only to discover with astonishment that the American earth was like a huge heart unfolding warmly to receive me. I felt it spreading through my being, warming with its glowing reality. It came to me that no man -- no one at all -- could destroy my faith in America again. . . . It was something that grew out of the sacrifices and loneliness of my friends, of my brothers in America and my family in the Philippines -- something that grew out of our desire to know America, and to become a part of her great tradition, and to contribute something toward her final fulfillment. I knew that no man could destroy my faith in American that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.

I'm counting this as my Classic by a BIPOC author for the Back to the Classics Challenge.