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.