Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A Pin To See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

In the history of the world it is only we -- we who are young now -- who are really going to know about life. 

I bought this Virago Modern Classic more than five years ago, after Simon and Rachel discussed it in the wonderful podcast Tea or Books? I was going to say "I can't believe I've waited so long to read this" but who am I kidding? I have more than 150 unread books and the pile never seems to grow any smaller. But I recently joined a Goodreads book group that discusses middlebrow books and it was their June pick! (The group has also caused me to buy more books, so I don't know if it's really a win. I'm really enjoying the books though).

It took me awhile to get started, but I zoomed through this book in only three days -- pretty good since it's just over 400 pages. It's one of several books inspired by the Thompson/Bywaters murder trial in the 1920s. I knew nothing about the case other than what I'd heard on the podcast several years ago, and I remembered none of it -- I couldn't even recall who the murder victim was though I had my suspicions. 

I really liked this book but I was surprised at how long it took to get to the actual crime, more than 300 pages. It's really a character study of a young lower-class woman growing up in the Edwardian/WWI period. The protagonist is renamed Julia Almond and the story begins when she's off to school, aged about 16. As one of the upper-level pupils, she's tasked one day with briefly overseeing some younger students, one of whom has a tiny peepshow, a sort of mini-diorama you peer into through a tiny hole. This peepshow acts as a metaphor for Julia's life -- over the next ten years she's observing what she wants and will never have, due to circumstances beyond her control.

I think this is the original dustjacket.
Nice illustration but it doesn't even give a hint about the story.

Julia soon leaves school and studies fashion drawing and French, which leads her to a minor job at a fashion house in London. She's a quick study is working her way up in the business when the Great War begins. People are spending money like there's no tomorrow (and for some, there won't be) and she makes fashionable friends and hopes for a better, more exciting life. 

However, her father dies suddenly leaving Julia and her mother without enough to live on, and they are forced to combine households with her uncle and his family, including a younger cousin Elsa. It's tight quarters and they're obliged to share a room, which overwhelms Julia, and she makes the rash decision to marry an older friend of her father's, Herbert Starling, just to get out of the house. Having had a taste of independence, Julia isn't satisfied as the compliant little wife by the hearth that Herbert has envisioned, and the marriage is doomed from the start. Julia isn't a particularly likable character, but I absolutely sympathized with her frustration and lack of choices for women in the time period, particularly middle-class women who were judged by a much higher standard than lower or upper-class women of that era.  A Pin To See the Peepshow was published in 1934, about twelve years after the murder, and I wonder if it was quite shocking for its time as it covers some topics that are still pretty divisive today.

This book is very character-driven and Jesse takes a long time on developing Julia. Most of the other characters are also well drawn. The murder portion of the book is really only the last 100 pages or so and did feel a bit rushed in parts. The author does spend a good bit of time on Julia's thoughts during and after her trial, and thankfully leaves out a scene at the end which is probably best left to the imagination. My Virago edition also includes an excellent epilogue by the writer who adapted it as a 1973 mini series. (There's also a new British Library Women Writers edition which includes an introduction by Simon!) I was hoping someone had uploaded it to YouTube or other streaming service but I haven't been able to find it. It starred Francesca Annis who I can perfectly imagine as Julia. 

This is book #7 for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Big Book Summer Reading Challenge 2022

Time for another Big Book Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Suzan at Book by Book! Alas, I still have too many unread books. Let's see if I can shrink the pile just a little this summer. Here is my stack of hopeful reads: 

  1. They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy (624 pp)
  2. The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (616 pp)
  3. Night Falls on the City by Sarah Gainham (632 pp)
  4. Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood (495 pp)
  5. My American by Stella Gibbons (480 pp)
  6. A London Family by Molly Hughes (600 pp)
  7. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy (448 pp)
  8. Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir (456 pp)
  9. The Gods Arrive by Edith Wharton (454 pp)
  10. The Most of P. G. Wodehouse (701 pp)

Nearly all of them count for other challenges -- Back to the Classics, the TBR Pile Challenge, and the European Reading ChallengeI'm cheating a little this year by choosing mostly fiction which are normally much quicker than nonfiction. I do love a great big fat biography but since I'm so far behind this year I'm going for more novels instead; only three of this list are nonfiction and one volume is (mostly) short stories.  I'm hoping that most of them are fast reads. I know I won't finish them all but we can dream, right?

Which one should I read first -- and are there any I should just donate to my Little Free Library? Please let me know in the comments! And what's on your list for the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge?

Monday, May 30, 2022

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

No civilization had lasted for more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on.  

Published in 1950, The World My Wilderness is Rose Macaulay's penultimate novel, just before her most famous work, The Towers of Trebizond. I'd been meaning to read this forever and was lucky enough to find a paperback Virago copy a couple of years ago, on the free book cart in the lobby of the Ramstein AFB library. I can spot a green Virago spine a mile away so naturally I snapped it up. 

Just after the end of World War II, British expat Helen Michel is living in the south of France, in a small town near the Pyrenees, with her 17-year-old daughter Barbary, and her young son, child of her second marriage to a Frenchman. Her husband Maurice, suspected by many as being a collaborater, has died under mysterious circumstances, and Helen is living a quiet existence in their house, Fraises, when her oldest son arrives from Cambridge. After a visit, he returns to London, taking his sister back to live with their British father and his new wife. Also joining them on the trip is Barbary's stepbrother Michel, now orphaned, to live with his uncle. Fifteen-year-old Michel and Barbaray have been running rather wild with the Maquis, French resistors. 

The original 1950 hardcover edition

Not surprisingly, the move to London does not suit Barbary very well. Theoretically she's studying art but is also continuing to be rather wild, exploring the bombed-out buildings with Michel and making some rather disreputable friends. Her father, a British peer, attempts to 'civilize' her -- or rather, her new stepmother Pamela does -- but Barbary can't be bothered to put on makeup or look like a lady, much less sit in boring drawing rooms. Things take a turn for the worse when Barbary accompanies the family on a trip to Scotland to visit an uncle, a psychiatrist who would like very much to analyze her. 

I liked this novel but for a short book, only about 250 pages, it was surprisingly slow. I expected to rush through it but it really isn't that sort of book. It's quite description-heavy and the characters are really well drawn. I was surprised that as early as 1950 an author recognized the psychological effect the war must have had on so many people, including the young, since I've always thought PTSD and wartime trauma was mostly ignored -- Barbary's British father and stepmother were clearly very stiff-upper-lip type of people. 

Really like this Dutch-language edition from 1968

Barbary in particular is a very interesting character, she's both old beyond her years and also extremely childlike. I was very worried that something terrible would happen to her wandering about bombed-out London buildings alone, (and it does) but not at all what I was expecting. I also think the name Barbary is a little heavy-handed but again, it was published in 1950 so maybe that was a subtle hint for its time. 

I also quite liked the twist ending which I was not expecting at all. Overall, a very enjoyable book and an excellent summer read. 

This is my sixth book for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Zoladdiction 2022: His Excellency Eugene Rougon

To his father he owed his massive, square shoulders and heavy features; from his mother, the fearsome Felicite Rougon, who ruled over Plassans, he had inherited his strength of will, a desire for supremacy that scorned petty concerns and petty pleasures. He was without question the greatest of the Rougons.

Not one but TWO epic fails this week: I did not finish my Zola novel in time for Fanda's April Zoladdiction reading event, and I did not finish my selection for Classics Spin #29. In fact, I didn't even start my Spin selection. For both fails, I blame Zola. Sorry, Zola, but this book dragged so badly that it's squarely tied on the bottom Nana, the only one of his novels that I truly disliked.

His Excellecy Eugene Rougon is the sixth novel in the Rougon-Maquart cycle, and it's fairly short at 333 pages so I thought I'd have no trouble reading it in a week. I've owned this book for a couple of years but had putting it off because it's a political novel, which is not my favorite genre. Sadly, I was correct to be hesitant because I could barely finish it.

Basically, it's the story of the fall and rise and fall and rise again of a politician, Eugene Rougon, who makes appearances in the first two books of the cycle, one of the original Rougons, the bourgeois, legitimate side of the family . The book begins when he has resigned his post in the ministry. As he's attempting to pack up or burn documents in his office, a parade of hangers-on traipse through his office. This is the circle of friends and frenemies and political allies who are most of the recurring characters in the story. Before he leaves office, many of them are still trying to get favors or score points. 

The rest of the novel is basically Rougon and the group scheming, gossiping and back-stabbing one another to achieve their own ends (or example, one character is desperately trying to get a train line re-routed so it's closer to his factory, which will then increase its value). Often Zola will begin a novel by throwing a lot of characters at the reader, and normally they sort themselves out and become distinctive to me, but I had a really hard time keeping all the characters straight in this one, because they were all sort of awful, and not even in an interesting way as in some of the other books in the series. 

Maybe this was the wrong time for this book. There are so many political scandals right now in real life I can hardly keep them straight, and reading about them in 19th century France is even harder since I don't really understand the context very well. After reading the introduction (which I always save for last because of spoilers), I realized that many of these characters are based on real people and there's a lot of satire involved which would have been obvious to contemporary leaders but was lost on me. I didn't particularly find Rougon to be a very well-developed character and I didn't much care for the other main character, a politically savvy schemer named Clorinde who is basically a female version of Rougon. At one point she suggests that they marry but Rougon points out that two such people in a marriage would be a disaster). 

He loved power for power's sake; free from any vain lust for wealth or honours. Crassly ignorant and utterly undistinguished in everything but the management of other men, it was only in his need to dominate others that achieved any kind of superiority. He loved the effort involved, and worshipped his own capability. . . . He believed only in himself; where others had arguments, Rougon had convictions; he subordinated everything to ceaseless self-aggrandizement.

My other issue with the book was that great sections of it are Zola telling the reader what characters do or have done instead of actually describing or showing it. The parts when there are actual activities and dialogue are much more interesting than the narrator passively explaining it. Towards the end of the book there's a chapter when people are actually doing something and it was the best part of the book, but I had to get through eleven or twelve chapters to actually get there, which was a real slog. And there's SO MUCH gossip! So much scheming, it's kind of exhausting. I guess that's politics though, so maybe this just was not the book for me, or maybe it's just not the right time. But this book is definitely at the bottom of the Zola ranking for me. There are only four more books in the series left that I haven't read and I certainly hope those are better, I'd hate to finish reading Zola with a whimper instead of a bang.

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge; and as my French selection for the European Reading Challenge. 


Thursday, April 21, 2022

1954 Club: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns


Within a few weeks funerals were to become a common occurrence in that village; but at this time they were rather scarce and looked forward to eagerly.

I've read several books by Barbara Comyns and was delighted to find out one of them had been published in 1954 -- perfect for Simon and Kaggsy's 1954 Club event. Even better, I found out my local library had a copy of this book, a weirdly twisted take on village country life. 

Set in Warwickshire during the early part of the 20th century, the story begins with a flood so high that ducks are swimming through the windows of the Wildweed family home, a large household consisting of Ebin Wildweed; this three children, Emma, Dennis, and Hattie; the matriarch, Ebin's cantankerous mother; and two servants, sisters Norah and Eunice. The banks of the nearby river have overflowed into the house and caused havoc throughout the surrounding villages.

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.

It's the beginning of June and the floodwaters soon subside. What follows that summer is slightly sordid and increasingly unsettling; quirky and eccentric behavior among the village residents turns dark, violent, and tragic. I should probably give more details about the plot but I don't think I can without giving too much away.

This book was a quick read, less than 200 pages in a smallish paperback format. I could have probably read it in one sitting, but I did have to take breaks because I found it a little creepy. I've read six of Comyn's books and they've all been darkly quirky in a similar way. 

Some of her other novels have recently been reprinted by Turnpike Books and also by Daunt books; I've already ordered one of them, Mr. Fox. A couple of her works are nearly impossible to find, hopefully the reprints will find an audience and the others will follow. 

Thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for organizing this reading event! I'm hoping to read two or even three more novels so fingers crossed I'll get them finished and posted in time. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

1954 Club: Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse

It is both amusing and amazing to me that P. G. Wodehouse was able to recycle his own plots and characters over the course of his seventy year writing career. By my count, I've now read 25 of his works, as novels and short story collections. Wodehouse tropes abound in Jeeves and The Feudal Spirit. I'm always looking for an excuse to read more Wodehouse, and the timing couldn't have been better as I could count it for Simon and Kaggsy's 1954 Club!  It runs this whole week from April 18 to 24. 

Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves return for their eleventh adventure and with them some beloved returning characters and situations. Somehow Bertie just never learns to avoid young upper-class women who want to marry him and mold him into respectability, their jealous ex-fiancés who want to sock him, and devious aunts who want him to commit petty crimes. Naturally the faithful Jeeves with his superior brain power is there to save the day (and Bertie's skin).

In this installment, Bertie has been summoned to help Aunt Dahlia out of yet another scrape -- she's desperately trying to unload her women's magazine, Milady's Boudoir, to a wealthy publisher, and has enlisted Bertie to help wine and dine him, in London and at Brinkley Court, her country estate. She has also tasked Bertie with picking up a pearl necklace for her in London from a jewelry store. Little does Bertie know that Aunt Dahlia has made a cheap copy of some extremely valuable pearls, which she has subsequently pawned to infuse cash into her insolvent periodical. She is in a panic because her husband Tom is planning on showing off the pearls to another weekend guest, Lord Sidcup, a supposed expert of antiques and jewelry.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Nicholas Palliser as Stilton Cheesewright from the 1993 TV adaptation, the episode entitled "The Delayed Arrival." Jeeves does not approve of Bertie's mustache.

Bertie is also in the soup, so to speak, because the Brinkley Court guest list includes Florence Craye, a strong-willed young writer who has managed to entangle the unwitting Bertie into an unwanted engagement. She's on the rebound after jilting her overbearing fiancé, D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright, who has appeared to have it out with Florence and wring Bertie's neck. It also includes the aforementioned publisher, Trotter; his social-climbing wife; and his stepson, Percy Gorringe, a playwright who is adapting Florence's novel for the stage, and is madly in love with her. 

You always know what you are getting with Wodehouse, and therein lies the charm. I don't really want to time-travel to aristocratic England between the wars, but it would be amusing to be a fly on the wall and observe the hapless Bertie in all his slapstick charm. It honestly doesn't bother me that Wodehouse recycles plots and character types -- they're so beautifully drawn and so funny, just the thing if you need a light read, and who couldn't use some diversion right now? 

And now time for a little bonus Wodehouse! If you like musical theater, I strongly recommend watching the upcoming TV broadcast of Anything Goes, airing in the US this May on PBS Great Performances. It had a short run on the big screen in US theaters in March and I was lucky enough to go see it. It's a professionally shot recording of the 2021 West End production starring Sutton Foster (currently starring on Broadway in The Music Man). Wodehouse co-wrote the original book, lyrics by Cole Porter. The plot is classic Wodehouse, about wacky characters on an ocean liner in the 1930s. There are mobsters, star-crossed lovers, a ridiculous English lord, and an American cabaret singer, giving ample opportunity for hijinks and great musical numbers. It was an absolute joy to watch and I can't wait to watch it again. I suspect I'll save it on the DVR so I can watch the fabulous tap dancing numbers again and again. 

Here's the preview from Youtube: 

So -- my first read for the 1954 Club! I have two or three more I'd like to read for this event, hopefully I'll get through them all. What are you reading for the 1954 Club?

Monday, March 21, 2022

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford: An NYRB Classic with a Dark Twist

Detail of "The Shower" by William Herbert Dunton. 
The original is in the American Museum of Western Art in Denver, Colorado

The Mountain Lion is one of several unread NYRB Classics that have been accumulating on my TBR shelves. I've probably owned it for a good ten years and it seemed like a good choice for the TBR Pile Challenge. I try to mix up my reading with different genres and it seemed quite different than my previous read, plus it's short -- a good choice when I'm behind on my annual reading goal already! However, this book was nothing like I expected.

Published in 1947 but set about 20 years earlier, it is the story of a young brother and sister living in California, Ralph and Molly Fawcett. The book begins when Ralph, aged ten and Molly, eight, are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their Grandfather Kenyon, the stepfather of their widowed mother (so, technically, their step-grandfather). They live with their mother and two older sisters in a walnut grove in suburban Los Angeles, and their Grandfather's visit is the highlight of the year. Grandpa Kenyon is quite a character, a world traveler who owns various properties including a ranch in Colorado, managed by his son Claude, their mother's half-brother. 

Ralph in particular is stifled growing up among a lot of females, but ostensibly for their health, Ralph and Molly begin to spend extended trips on the ranch with Claude. Ralph's world changes as he leaves his repressed childhood in California to a heavenly freedom in Colorado, where he learns to ride and shoot and fish. 

The original 1947 cover.
I love the illustration, like a reverse woodblock print. 

This seems like it could be a wonderful and ideal way to spend summers, but it's not ideal for Molly, who is precious, awkward, and bookish. It also takes a rather darker turn as they begin to grow older. What at first appears idyllic is actually not. Jean Stafford is masterful at describing life, both on the ranch and in California, but she doesn't leave out any details, including butchering animals and a really grotesque incident of self-harm. The characters are really well-drawn, but none of them are particularly likable; however, I absolutely had to keep reading to the ending which left me gobsmacked and very unsettled. My edition had a forward by Stafford with a major spoiler so I should have seen it coming -- I was still rather shocked but if you want to be completely surprised, I'd skip it.

Having read the forward, I had an overwhelming sense of dread. It actually reminded me a bit of the film The Power of the Dog, -- not so much the plot, but they're both Westerns set in the 1920s with dark undertones. I actually saw it the theater a few months ago and it's a great movie but it made me deeply uncomfortable because I knew something dreadful was going to happen. If that is the type of story that puts you off, I would probably not read The Mountain Lion. I gave it four stars on Goodreads (there is some racism besides the disturbing parts) but I don't think I would read it again. 

From the 1983 edition. This cover is SO 1980s!

Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Short Stories, and a couple of other novels. I'm not sure if they're as dark as The Mountain Lion but her writing is very good and at some point after I've recovered from this one I might look for them later.

This is my fifth book for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Last Year When I Was Young by Monica Dickens

Wow, this cover is TERRIBLE. 

I'm not going to spend too much time on this post, because to be perfectly honest, I don't think anyone will read it -- it's about a book from the 1970s that no one has heard of, by an author that hardly anyone reads anymore (despite her famous name) and it has one of the WORST COVERS OF ALL TIME. Seriously, who looked at that cover and thought, "This book will sell!" Did her editors secretly hate her? It is a mystery.

Anyway. I'm sure that I would never have picked up this book in a store, but this copy somehow ended up with the donations at my library about ten years ago.  As I was sorting through them I recognized Monica Dickens' name, and kept it aside for myself (these were books donated for the Friends of the Library sale, and employees got first crack at them. All books were $1 and I did pay for this). There was another Monica Dickens as well called One of the Family, whose plot I have instantly forgotten. 

I finally got around to reading this last week -- I added it to my TBR Pile Challenge list so that I would be inspired to read it. As it is just over 200 pages long and I'm way behind on my reading quota for the year, I thought I'd give it a try.

Published in 1974, Last Year When I Was Young is the story of Richard, a twentysomething private nurse who is working at the home of an elderly man who is fading fast. The family are all pretty awful except for a granddaughter named Fanny who turns up from Australia, where she'd been on an assignment for the BBC. Richard had a past love that ended tragically several years before and I knew instantly that Fanny was the new love interest. I predicted that the elderly client would pass away and leave all his money to Fanny, and she and Richard would end up together. I was wrong.

This cover is not much better

I expected the whole story to be about this particular assignment for Richard, but it ends rather abruptly and he moves on to other jobs. But over the course of a couple of years, he and Fanny drift in and out of each other's lives as Richard takes on private nursing assignments. Some are sad, some are amusing, but overall this book is just sort of melancholy, but it didn't end at all how I was expecting. In retrospect there were hints all along that made perfect sense as I read the final paragraphs. 

Like I was hoping, it was a pretty quick read, and I think I read it all one day (we had some unexpected bad weather and I was stuck inside the whole weekend). It was a fairly good read but I don't suppose this will be reprinted anytime soon -- it's very middlebrow but not really interesting enough to get picked up by Persephone or any of the other indie publishers who are reprinting unappreciated fiction right now. I don't read that many books from the 1970s and parts of it are very much of its time, i.e. a couple of pretty cringe-worthy racial slurs. 

An OK read but I suspect it will end up in the Little Free Library down the street. But it's one more book knocked off my TBR pile. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Classics Spin #29

I've been very bad the past year or so about my Classics Club list -- I have thirteen books left on the list, and just about a year left to complete them! I did add several of them to the TBR Pile Challenge, and some of them would work as selections for other challenges (including my own Back to the Classics Challenge). Enter the latest Classics Club Spin -- I do love having other people choose books for me, so I've selected seven from my list that would work nicely with my other scheduled reading for the year. 

Next Sunday, March 20, the Spin will randomly assign a number from one to twenty, and whichever number is chosen, I'm pledging to finish that book by April 30! Here's my list:

1. My American by Stella Gibbons
2. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
3. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley
4. Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal
5. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young
6. The Bright Side of Life by Emile Zola
Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig
8.  My American 
9. A Pin to See the Peepshow 
10. The World My Wilderness 
11. Noli Me Tangere 
12. Jenny Wren 
13. The Bright Side of Life 
14. Beware of Pity
15. My American 
16. A Pin to See the Peepshow 
17. The World My Wilderness 
18. Jenny Wren 
19. The Bright Side of Life 
20. Beware of Pity

My top choices would be Jenny Wren (for my Back to the Classics Challenge); The World My Wilderness (TBR Pile Challenge); or The Bright Side of Life (Zoladdiction; also counts toward the European Reading Challenge and the Back to the Classics Challenge). I'd be happy with any of them though I'm a bit hesitant about Noli Me Tangere as it sounds rather dark. I've been putting it off for so long, though, I should just suck it up and give it a try.

Anyone else signing up for the next Classics Spin? What's on your list? 

Updated: The Classics Spin has assigned me. . . Number 11! So I'll be reading Noli Me Tangere, wish me luck!

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Castle Richmond by Anthony Trollope

It is impossible that these volumes should be graced by any hero, for the story does not admit of one. But if there were to be a hero, Herbert Fitzgerald would be the man. 

A Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope, set in Ireland? This book could not be any more in my wheelhouse. For the Back to the Classics Challenge I needed a book from the 19th Century and I still had five unread Trollopes on my TBR shelve. Two of them were set in Ireland so that seemed like an obvious choice for March.

Trollope spent nearly twenty years in Ireland working for the post office, and began his writing career there. His first two novels are set in Ireland, and were written during the Great Famine. Castle Richmond, his third novel set in Ireland, was published in 1860, but is set several years earlier. It does use the Great Famine as a plot point, but much less so than I was expecting. 

Basically, it's the story of a love triangle between two cousins of the landed gentry, Owen and Herbert Fitzgerald, and the girl they both love, Clara Desmond, the beautiful but poor daughter of Countess Desmond, a young widow whose marriage was less than happy. There's also a complicated plot about the inheritance of Castle Richmond, the seat of the wealthy Fitzgerald family. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

Owen Fitzgerald is the young squire of Hap House in County Cork -- technically gentry, but the poorer branch of the Fitzgerald family, and untitled. He is handsome and dashing, and befriends the young Earl of Desmond, acting as a sort of older brother. They go hunting and fishing and whatnot, and Owen also notices the young Earl's older sister, Clara, who is about sixteen. Eventually he declares his love for her, and she returns his feelings. However, her young widowed mother, who is not yet forty, quashes all her hopes -- Owen is too poor and lacks a title, so she refuses to acknowledge any engagement and forbids Clara to see or write to Owen. (The reader is also aware that the young Countess is also crushing on Owen and secretly wanted him for herself). 

About a year Clara is befriended by two of Owen's distant cousins, Mary and Emmeline Fitzgerald, from the wealthier portion of the Fitzgeralds -- the family living at Castle Richmond. She spends time with them and is much thrown together with their brother Herbert, the heir and future Baronet. He's younger and more bookish than his dashing cousin Owen, who considers him a prig. It would seem that Clara and Herbert would be a perfect match -- she's beautiful and he's rich, and they're both gentry. But that would make for a very short novel, so there must be complications -- which arrive with some nasty characters from London, Mr. Matthew Mollett and his son Abraham, who have come to County Cork to stir up trouble for the wealthy Fitzgeralds.

Before marrying Lord Fitzgerald of Castle Richmond, his beautiful wife Lady Fitzgerald had made an unfortunate marriage with a ne'er-do-well named Talbot who deserted her and her child and ran off to Paris, where he was supposedly killed in a fight over a gambling debt. Eventually, she met and married Lord Fitzgerald. Now the Molletts have arrived with the intent of blackmailing the Fitzgeralds, claiming that Lady Fitzgerald's husband is still alive and that her children are illegitimate. . . making Owen Fitzgerald the rightful heir of Castle Richmond and the title. 

I liked this novel, though the love triangle and the blackmail plot lines are the strongest. But these characters are basically wealthy Protestant landowners. There's actually not that much in the story about Ireland and the famine -- that's mostly a peripheral plot point only in how it affects the main characters. As landlords, the Fitzgeralds are trying to help the starving population, and there's some infighting between the Catholic and Protestant clergy about how to best help everyone which is pretty infuriating, but that's not a large part of the story. 

I also found Clara to be a very undeveloped character -- both of these men are in love with her, but she's mostly a flat character, just very pretty and sweet. She gets a little character development writing letters to both of the men in love with her, but not much. She's not as annoying as some of Dickens' ingenues, but not nearly as interesting as some of the women in Trollope's later novels. 

Overall I did enjoy the novel and sped through the 500 pages in just about a week. I'm getting down to the last few unread books by Anthony Trollope. I can proudly say that I've now finished 38 (!) of his 47 novels. When I've finished them all I'm sure I'll be sad but I guess I'll just have to start reading them all over again!

This is my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and my Irish read for the European Reading Challenge.

Friday, March 4, 2022

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster: Metafiction Mysteries

Everyone knows that stories are imaginary. Whatever effect they might have on us, we know they are not true, even when they tell us truths more important than the ones we can find elsewhere. ("The Locked Room")

More than ten years ago I received a big box of 24 Penguin Deluxe Classics as a prize from the publisher. As of this year I still had four still unread so I added The New York Trilogy to my TBR Pile Challenge list. I brought it with me, appropriately, to a recent trip to New York, but this book was not what I expected at all. This is an odd book, and I don't even know if I can describe it accurately.

It's a collection of three novellas, originally published in 1985 and 19867. Each of the protagonists is either a private investigator, or someone who becomes caught up in an investigation. Ostensibly they are all detective novels, but they're hardly the mystery/detective fiction of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.They all begin as traditional detective novels, but it quickly becomes apparent that they're all much more than that, as the narrators begin to question what they're doing and the nature of their existence within the investigations. 

In the first novella, "City of Glass" a mystery writer named Quinn who is between projects gets a series of mysterious phone calls for a "Paul Auster," asking for help. Out of boredom and curiosity, he decides to impersonate Auster and ends up taking on a case and descends into a Kafka-esque spiral. 

The second novella is titled "Ghosts," in which a private investigator named Blue is hired by the mysterious White to follow a man named Black and monitor him 24 hours a day. Eventually he starts to wonder who is observing who and what it all means. (All the characters are named after colors, shades of Reservoir Dogs.)

The final novella of the trilogy, "The Locked Room" is the story of a nameless young writer contacted by the beautiful wife of his childhood friend Fanshawe, who seems to have disappeared, leaving behind boxes crammed with his writings. She asks the narrator to fulfill her missing husband's request to try and get his writing published and he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to his old friend while becoming more involved with the wife. 

I really liked these novellas but they were so much more than I expected. Instead of the hard-boiled detectives of the mid-century, the protagonists all begin to question their own existence and sometimes their own reality. They're all actually interconnected and it took me quite a while to figure out how they were related, other than being set in New York. (I had put the book down for a couple of weeks before the first and second novellas so that definitely made it harder.)

They're also quite different from writing style of the traditional detective novel. There are so many insightful and beautiful quotes adding little sticky notes so I wouldn't forget them. Some favorites: 

New York was the nowhere he had built around himself, and he realized he had no intention of ever leaving it again. (City of Glass)

For the first time in his experience of writing reports, he discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say. (Ghosts)

He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough -- to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others. But if the book were an interesting one, perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. He could get caught up in the story, so to speak, and little by little begin to forget himself. But this book offers him nothing. There is no story, no plot, no action -- nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book. (Ghosts)

Stories happen only to those who are able to tell them, someone once said. In the same way, perhaps, experiences present themselves only to those who are able to have them. (The Locked Room)

A man does not spend his time hiding from the world without making sure to cover his tracks. (The Locked Room)

We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another -- for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (The Locked Room)

That's a lot of quotes but they're all so good that I couldn't cut a single one. I'm not a huge fan of post-modern or meta-fiction but I can't stop thinking about this book. It did have some sexist tropes that I could have done without but I understand why Penguin added it to their Classics list, despite being published in the 1980s. If I had a mystery book group I would absolutely recommend this because there is a LOT in here to discuss. I'm not even sure I understand the ending. 

This is my third book for the TBR Pile Challenge and I'm really glad that it inspired me to finally read this novel. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

Last May I wrote this post in which I described my desire to complete reading all of William Shakespeare's plays in a year. At the time, I'd only read a dozen of the 37 plays definitively attributed to Shakespeare, and assumed I would easily finish the other 25 in a year. Riiiiiigght. It is now exactly 10 months later and I have only read another four plus I've just started the fifth. 

I have realized that I really prefer watching Shakespeare's to reading them -- which I don't think is terrible, because, honestly, they were meant to be watched! I have been lucky enough to attend several performances since then, including two plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. And I'm going back in April! In exactly one month I'm going to Staunton for a two-play weekend: Romeo and Juliet and The Comedy of Errors.

With that in mind, I decided to brush up my Shakespeare and give The Comedy of Errors another try on audio. I'd started listening a few months ago and just couldn't get into it, but I tried again, with an audio download from my library (I like the Arkangel Audiobook series). It's Shakespeare's shortest play and I easily finished listening to it in a day. 

For those who don't know the plot, it's basically a slapstick farce about two sets of twins and a lot of mistaken identity. Possibly Shakespeare's earliest play, it's set in Ephesus, Greece (now modern-day Turkey). Egeon, a merchant, has been arrested and has one day to raise bail or be executed for the sin of being a Syracusan who dared set foot in Ephesus (due to some bad blood between the two places). The Duke of Ephesus asks why he has taken such a risk, and Egeon gives us some back story. Many years before, Ephesus had a wife and twin sons, plus another set of twin boys, born the same day as his own children, that he had bought as bonded servants from their impoverished mother. However, one of each set of twins, with his wife, had been separated from him in a shipwreck and never seen again. He raised his son Antipholus and the servant Dromio, who have since gone off seeking their lost brothers. Five years later Egeon is searching for them when he arrives in Ephesus. 

The Duke takes pity on him and gives him one day to raise a thousand ducats or forfeit his life. Meanwhile, Antipholus and Dromio, both of Syracuse, have already arrived, not realizing that Egeon is looking for them, and more importantly, that both of their identical twins have been living there for years -- and are also named Antipholus and Dromio. (Apparently, the younger of each pair of twins remained with Egeon, and took his brother's name when they go out searching for their elder twins).

Since the older Antipholus and Dromio have lived for some time in Ephesus, they naturally have established relationships, including wives. Naturally this causes confusion and hilarity ensues when the second Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse arrive. It's all very slapsticky and yet it never occurs to any of these people that there are two pairs of twins, including the pair that are literally looking for their lost twin brothers. And are they identically dressed? I'm extremely curious to know how this play is staged -- I'm guessing very few theater companies have been able to cast two actual pairs of twins in the principal roles. It was a little confusing the first time I tried to listen to the audio version -- you have to be able to remember which voice goes with which part but eventually I got it. I suspect it would be easier watching the play instead of just listening. 

I did like the play but it really doesn't have that much depth to it. It's one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and you really don't get much of the metaphors and themes of the later works. But it is a pretty fun read if you like slapstick and mistaken identities. I'm very much looking forward to my weekend in Staunton when I can see it performed live.

The Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA

This is my Pre-1800 Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge; also my Turkish read for the European Reading Challenge.

Monday, February 21, 2022

The Matador of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

Years ago while living in Texas I was at the Half-Price Books in San Antonio whereupon I found this bought this adorably wee little volume of short stories (6.5 x 5 inches/17 x 12.5 cm) by Arnold Bennett. I had just completed and loved his novel The Old Wives Tale so why not? Well, at least ten years and three moves later I finally gotten around to finishing it. One would think that a small volume of 22 short stories shouldn't take that long, but you know how it is.

If you haven't read Arnold Bennett, he seems to me a sort of transitional writer between the 19th and 20th centuries. This volume is copyrighted 1912, but many of the stories had a more Victorian feeling. Most of his stories are about working-class and middle-class people, just slices of life set in his fictional Five Towns which are modeled on the six Pottery towns in the Staffordshire area of Northern England. 

Once started, it still took me awhile to get into this book -- it's divided up between "Tragic" and "Frolic" with the majority in the latter category. The first stories is the eponymous "Matador of the Five Towns" and it's also the longest, which is probably why it seemed to take forever to get into. But once I started I found that I really enjoyed them, mostly the lighter comic "Frolic" stories. I won't go into each story into detail but just a few highlights:

"Catching the Train" -- a man and his brother are repeatedly thwarted on a train journey to a Very Important Destination which isn't revealed until the end. It's one of those trips where anything that can possibly go wrong, does so in the worst possible way. 

"The Blue Suit" -- a woman slyly manipulates her nephew's wardrobe choices while on a seaside holiday in Wales, with unexpected results.

"Hot Potatoes" -- the mother of a violin prodigy desperately tries to keep her son's hands warm for a concert on a cold day.

"The Long-Lost Uncle" -- a young man has an opportunity for romance after the sudden departure of his miserly uncle.

"Why the Clock Stopped" -- a pair of aging siblings have secrets from one another. 

I definitely preferred the lighter comic stories to the tragic (though they weren't so terribly tragic) and I found that many of them had delightful twist endings. They reminded me a bit of the short stories of Edith Wharton, a bit like O. Henry, and even a little like Trollope, so if you like any of these authors, you might enjoy exploring Arnold Bennett. This volume is also available on iBooks and on Project Gutenberg, as are most of Bennett's early works. To be honest, I actually ended up reading most of it on Gutenberg via my laptop because as cute as this volume was, the print was really tiny! (Plus I have become used to reading while I eat my lunch and it's so much easier while reading on a screen).

Overally I did enjoy this book and will definitely read more Arnold Bennett, I have a vintage copies of both Hilda Lessways and Buried Alive and would love to read both or either of them this year. 

This is my second book for the Back to the Classics Challenge, also counting this as my UK read for the European Reading Challenge

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden (with bonus giveaway)

Cover of the 1975 edition, of which I now have 2 copies

As I read a lot of middlebrow fiction, Rumer Godden is a writer that's been on my reading radar forever. Last year I was browsing on the cart outside Alabaster Books in New York, a tiny used and rare bookstore that is often overshadowed by the much more famous Strand Bookstore on the opposite side of the block. I found a 1976 copy of Peacock Spring and paid the bargain price of $1. 

Then last weekend I was killing time in another used bookstore in Pittsburgh (touristy post to follow soon) while waiting for a rideshare. Lo and behold, I found another copy of Peacock Spring and started reading it as I waited. I felt guilty about spending so much time there so I felt compelled to buy the second copy (only $7) and read it that night and on the plane home the following day. That didn't work out exactly as planned but I did finish the book this week and HOO BOY.

Cover of the 2004 paperback edition.
A new copy can be yours via Amazon $632. Or $695. I did not omit the decimal point.  
(Or a good used copy for 16 cents.)

Set mainly in post-Independence India, this is the story of Una Gwithiam, the teenaged daughter of Sir Edward Gwithiam, a diplomat newly appointed to a post in Delhi. Una and her younger half-sister are at boarding school in the UK when the headmistress tells her that she and her sister Halcyon (nicknamed Hal) are to leave their school and join their father in India, for reasons unexplained. Hal is thrilled but Una, more studious, is not, especially after she meets her new governess, Alix Lamont, a half-caste Eurasian who seems under-qualified. Una had had hopes of entering Oxford or Cambridge but now it seems those are dashed. Miss Lamont seems more interested in taking them sightseeing and socializing, and Una is forced to attempt higher mathematics on her own. This leads to a meeting with Ravi, an attractive young gardener who promises to secretly help her study. Meanwhile, Una and Hal aren't getting along with their governess Miss Lamont who seems to have secrets of her own. 

Rumer Godden was born in the UK but grew up in what is now Bangladesh (then colonial India), and moved back and forth before and after both world wars, so she knew India really well. The descriptions of India and of colonial life are really interesting, the highlights of the book for me. The book began rather slowly and it took awhile for me to get into, but by the second half I sped through it to find out what would happen -- which was sort of predictable, if somewhat problematic. And I don't mean problematic because of racism or classicism, which are definitely addressed pretty well, but problematic because of the age difference between Una and Ravi. Una is only 15 when the book takes place and though they never specifically Ravi's age, he's at least seven or eight years older than her which is pretty icky. There are definitely some consent issues in this book which made me absolutely cringe and want to throw the book across the room. 

Cover of the 2013 edition. These do not cost $632.

I did, however, complete the book and I was not surprised at how it ended up. Overall it's interesting and I loved the descriptions of India, a country I've always wanted to visit, but it's definitely problematic. It was first published in 1975 but I'm not sure of the exact year in which it's set. There was a PBS Masterpiece adaptation in 1995 which set the story in 1959, but I don't remember it being specifically mentioned in the book, not that it really matters. 

And I discovered the adaptation is streaming on Amazon Prime! I couldn't find any stills but here's an image from the website. Might have to check it out soon. 

That's a very young Hattie Morahan as Una, in her first TV role. 
I know her best as Elinor Dashwood in the 2008 adaptation of Sense & Sensibility

And now that I have two copies of the 1975 hardcover, I have an extra to share. (The $1 copy, not a $632). If anyone is interested in a free copy of this book, drop a comment below. If I have more than one person interested in the next week, I'll draw a name at random. Make sure you leave contact info so I can get a good mailing address! 

This is my second novel completed for the TBR Pile Challenge.