Saturday, March 17, 2018

Wives & Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is the Ultimate Victorian Novel

I love this cover, it's a detail from a painting called Waiting by John Everett Millais.


OK, I guess I've said that about other novels before -- probably about Bleak House. But this is one of my all-time favorite books -- I think I've read it three or four times in the past 10 years since I discovered it, in print and audio, and I've seen the TV adaptation multiple times. It's just wonderful. I have so many books that I want to read that I don't re-read old favorites nearly enough. This is worth making an exception.

If you're not familiar, here's the setup. Basically, it's the story of two families, the Gibsons and the Hamleys, living somewhere in the town of Hollingford in the late 1820s (it's before the Reform Act of 1832, and there's mention of a King but not Queen Victoria). Mr. Gibson, a widower with a young daughter Molly, is the local surgeon, and the Hamleys are one of the oldest families in the county, even older than the local gentry. Squire Hamley has two sons off at Cambridge and an invalid wife. The two families become closer when young Molly, aged 17, goes to stay at Hamley Hall because one of her father's medical apprentices has decided he's in love with her. Mr. Gibson realizes Molly is too old to be unchaperoned in the house with the two medical students while he's out taking care of patients, so she goes off to spend time with Mrs. Hamley. 

Molly endears herself to the Squire and the kind Mrs. Hamley, but the old-fashioned though kindly squire has no intention of either of his sons falling in love with Molly. During Molly's visit, her father spends a lot of time at the Towers, the ancestral home of the local gentry, the Cumnors. There he meets the widow Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a schoolmistress and former governess of the Cumnor family. He decides pretty quickly she'd make a suitable stepmother for Molly. 

Molly, Cynthia, and Mrs. Gibson nee Kirkpatrick from the TV miniseries

Molly is less than thrilled to acquire a stepmother but is happy to be getting a new stepsister, Cynthia, who's been off at school in France for pretty much her entire life since her father died. The new Mrs. Gibson isn't the stereotypical evil stepmother, though she is pretty self-centered and mildly annoying. However, Molly and Cynthia really and truly care for one another. 

Meanwhile, the Hamley sons have returned from Cambridge, and are much thrown together with the Gibson family. The elder son Osborne is dreamy and poetic, with a Big Secret, and his loyal brother Roger is clever and scientific. 

Molly with Roger Hamley. He's supposed to be the less-attractive brother. 

There is tragedy, there is comedy, and there are secrets. It's a really great domestic story with lots of charming characters. It's very reminiscent of Jane Austen without being a knockoff, and has the added bonus of weighing in at about 650 pages, much longer than any of Austen's novels. It's lovely to spend a good long time with these characters in their world. 

I loved all the characters, even Mrs. Gibson who often made me roll my eyes and practically throw something across the room. (I listened to parts of it on audio while driving and walking the dog and sometimes yelled out loud at her). Squire Hamley has no patience for Mrs. Gibson and is rewarded with the best line in the entire book: 

"I'm not saying she was silly, but one of us was silly, and it wasn't me."
(Yes, that's Michael Gambon [AKA Dumbledore] as the Squire).

And I haven't even talked about the miniseries, which is BRILLIANT -- so many great actors! If you've watched a British TV series in the past decade, you'll recognize nearly all the leads and much of the supporting cast as well. I actually saw the miniseries first and I've since read the book three times. It never gets old and Elizabeth Gaskell has become one of my all-time favorite Victorian novelists -- North and South is also wonderful, and Cranford is a hoot. I only wish Gaskell had lived long enough to write more books! Wives and Daughters is actually unfinished as she passed away before completing the final short chapter of the book; however, it had been serialized and she had left detailed notes with her publisher which are included, though the ending is pretty much self-explanatory. 

I'm counting this for the Re-Read a Favorite Classic category for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Effi Briest: The German Emma Bovary, But Less Interesting

I had really high hopes for this book -- a classic book, in translation, and a German classic no less! I really want to read more German books in translation (of course I don't read the language well enough to read the originals.) Sadly, there just aren't that many German books translated into English -- I guess the proliferation of American and British books just makes it that much harder to get attention from the English-reading public.

Anyway. I had heard about this book years ago and this felt like the right time, as I'm now living in Germany and Persephone Books reprinted Effi Briest last year, though they don't often publish books written by men. I'd heard it was sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. Well, to be honest, it is and it isn't. This review includes spoilers, so stop now if you don't want to know what happens.

The book begins with Effi Briest, seventeen and unmarried, still very much a schoolgirl. She's basically playing in the yard one day when she receives a proposal of marriage from a civil servant, Geert Instettan, a man more than twice her age who was once in love with her mother.  No, that's not creepy AT ALL. (Of course he was about her mother's age and obviously too young, as Madame von Briest naturally married an older man).

Anyway, she's very young and he's basically middle-aged and serious. They move off to town on the Baltic coast (which actually sounds lovely) and after giving birth to a daughter, Effi becomes bored. Naturally her head is turned by a military officer named Crampas and they have an affair, which is basically them going on rides and walks together in the dunes. Eventually, her husband is transferred to Berlin so the affair ends. Years later, Effi is visiting a spa for her health and her husband finds a bundle of letters from Crampas and the inevitable happens. Naturally it ends badly for Effi.

Somehow this book disappointed me. I suppose I was expecting it to be more like Emma Bovary, whom I found a fascinating train wreck, but this book just dragged. I don't know if it was the translation or the writing style, but it took me nearly a month to finish this book which is just over 300 pages. Effi was certainly a sympathetic character, but I really didn't get a sense of great passion for Crampas. It was all very matter-of-fact -- I was expecting more scandal or dramatic tension, I guess. Even the ending wasn't terribly dramatic. I haven't read much German literature but I do remember that the writings of Goethe caused such a sensation that young people were literally committing suicide after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther (which I did try to read a few years ago and just could not get through). 

I haven't given up on German literature yet -- I do have a copy of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks that looks interesting, though quite long. And recently I got completely hooked on the TV series Babylon Berlin which is set in 1929 -- I do love the time period between the wars, and I'm curious to learn more about the German perspective. It's based on a series of books and some of them have been translated into English, so I'll try to get my hands on a copy. (It's streaming in the U.S. on Netflix and it's really good, I highly recommend it). Can anyone recommend any other German books available in translation?

I'm counting this as my Classic By a New To Me Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas by Edith Wharton

It's been quite a while since I read anything by Edith Wharton. She's the author of some of my favorite novels, and I've read nearly all of her most popular works. When you get to the little-known works of a famous author, it's always something of a crapshoot -- are they less popular because they're simply overshadowed? Or is it because they're just not that good? My last two books by Wharton were The Glimpses of the Moon, which I loved, and Twilight Sleep, which was just okay. 

Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas includes four of Wharton's shorter works from various times in her career. I actually read these out of order, mostly because they were also available on iBooks and I read them in bits and pieces, mostly on my phone. It's kind of hard to review them all in one post, but I'll give it a go. 

Bunner Sisters is probably the most well-known of the novellas. Written in 1892 but unpublished until 1916, it's one of her few works not about upper-crust New York society. Spinster sisters Ann Eliza and Evelina are existing in near-poverty, working and living in a tiny shop where they make and sell hats, bonnets, and trimmings. Ann Eliza splurges and buys Evelina a clock for her birthday, and the two sisters both fall in love with the local clockmaker, the meek Mr. Herbert Ramy. What seems like a way out of poverty for at least one of them ends badly, of course. If you've ever read anything by Wharton you'll know her books rarely have happy endings. 

In Sanctuary, Kate Orme seems to have it all -- youth, beauty, position, and she's engaged to marry eligible bachelor Denis Peyton, who recently inherited a pot of money from his scandalous stepbrother. However, Kate learns the terrible secret behind the inheritance, and struggles to decide if she should marry someone with such a lack of character -- and if she does, will her children inherit their father's morals, or whether she her influence will be enough. This one was my least favorite. 

This cover is sort of creepy and really has nothing to do with the story.
The Touchstone is another story about a moral crisis. In this case, Stephen Glennard, a young lawyer, is in love but struggling financially. He wants to marry, but doesn't have enough to support a wife, and to keep the woman he loves from moving abroad with a rich relative, he struggles with a decision to publish some very personal letters written to him by a very popular writer who has since died. It seems like the right thing to do, but eventually he has a crisis of conscience.

Madame de Treymes is actually the shortest of the four, only about 80 pages, but I ended up reading it last. While in Paris, a wealthy American, John Durham, has reconnected with an old acquaintance, the former Fanny Frisbee, who had married a French nobleman but is now separated from him. Durham wants her to divorce her ne'er-do-well husband and marry him, but Fanny is certain his family would never permit the scandal of a divorce. Durham appeals to her sister-in-law, the eponymous Madame de Treymes, and doesn't know whether he can trust her to assist them in persuading the family to allow the divorce.

Overall, I enjoyed the novellas, but I'd forgotten that Wharton can be kind of wordy and very introspective, and her plots tend to move rather slowly. All the novellas have themes about decisions and moral crises, though Bunner Sisters seems rather the odd book out simply based on the class and financial circumstances of the subjects.

I still have three more books by Wharton unread on my shelves -- The Children, Hudson River Bracketed, and The Fruit of the Tree. I was thinking about reading one of them for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Bloggers, have you read any of them? Which do you recommend?

This is my fourth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018. Eight left to go!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Classics Club Spin #17

I've narrowed my new Classics Club list down to 20 books for the next Classics Club Spin. On Friday the Classics Club will randomly choose a number from one to twenty. The number from this list that corresponds will be one of my next reads, and I'll post about it sometime in April. Wish me luck!

Four books I really want to read: 

1. Bond Street Story by Norman Collins
2. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
3. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
4. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

Four books I've been putting off forever:

5. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
6. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
7. Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
8. The Pumpkin-Eater by Penelope Mortimer

Four Virago Modern Classics:

9. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
10. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
11. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson
12. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley

Four by Anthony Trollope:

13. Is He Popinjoy? by Anthony Trollope
14. Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
15. Linda Tressel and Nina Balatka by Anthony Trollope
16. An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope

Four by Emile Zola:

17. La Debacle by Emile Zola
18. The Fortunes of the Rougons by Emile Zola
19. A Love Story by Emile Zola
20. Money by Emile Zola

Updated: The Classics Spin has spoken, and I've been assigned #3 One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes -- I'm so pleased! 

Bloggers, which do you recommend? And is anyone else participating in the next Spin?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Classics Club Redux: The List

Last year I pretty much gave up on my Classics Club List -- from my original list of 75, I had six left to go which I'd been putting off forever. I'd tried reading all of them at least once and just couldn't get into them. Since I started with 75 I thought that I'd done pretty well and decided to take a break, though I had made a tentative second list.

I forgot all about it and the Classics Club, but I've been blogging a lot more lately (around the end of the year I usually get revved up again while planning the Back to the Classics Challenge). This week a lot of bloggers are signing up for the next Classics Club Spin, which is always really fun. Basically, participants pull 20 books from their list and number them, then a random number from one to twenty  is chosen, and everyone reads whichever number book corresponds. It's a really fun way to choose a book off your list and I always enjoyed it.

Well, I do love making lists, and it's always fun to have someone else choose your next read. But before I can choose a list of twenty for the spin I had to come up with another Classics Club List. Some of the titles are more obscure classics because in the past 12 years or so since I seriously started reading, I've read a lot of the major works -- I'm getting down to the less-well known titles and authors. Also, I've really stopped buying classics that I can get for free from the library or digital download. Nowadays, I usually only buy books that I can't find otherwise.

This time, I've chosen only books from my own shelves, and I didn't choose any books from the TBR Pile Challenge because I know I'm definitely going to read those -- I really want to make some progress with my owned-and-unread books and I think this will really inspire me. Without further ado:

  1. Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett
  2. East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck
  3. The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck
  4. Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather
  5. Bond Street Story by Norman Collins
  6. One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens
  7. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  8. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
  9. My American by Stella Gibbons
  10. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
  11. Living/Loving/Party Going by Henry Green
  12. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  13. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
  14. Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
  15. The Hireling by L. P. Hartley
  16. The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
  17. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  18. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  19. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
  20. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson
  21. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley
  22. Whiskey Galore by Compton Mackenzie
  23. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  24. The Pumpkin-Eater by Penelope Mortimer
  25. In Confidence by Irene Nemirovsky
  26. The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky
  27. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  28. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
  29. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym
  30. Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal
  31. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
  32. Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell
  33. Is He Popinjoy? by Anthony Trollope
  34. Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
  35. Linda Tressel and Nina Balatka by Anthony Trollope
  36. An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope
  37. Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope
  38. Roughing It by Mark Twain
  39. The Children by Edith Wharton
  40. The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
  41. Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
  42. Frost in May by Antonia White
  43. Barmy in Wonderland by P. G. Wodehouse
  44. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young
  45. The Misses Mallett by E. H. Young
  46. La Debacle by Emile Zola
  47. The Fortunes of the Rougons by Emile Zola
  48. A Love Episode by Emile Zola
  49. Money by Emile Zola
  50. Beware of Pity by Stephan Zweig
Bloggers, which have you read and loved -- or hated? Should I just get rid of some of these and not waste my time? 

I'll pick out twenty of these and post my Spin list in a day or so. On Friday the Classics Club will post the number and who knows what I'll read next!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Peony by Pearl S. Buck: Not so Much About Flowers

Already a contender for Prettiest Book Cover of the Year
I'm still really trying to read as many books as possible this year from my own shelves. I made a pile of books that I could count towards the Back to the Classics Challenge, and one of them was Peony by Pearl S. Buck that I received as a Christmas gift several years ago. I really liked The Good Earth; also, I'm really enamored of all the beautiful covers of Buck's novels that were published a few years ago by Moyer-Bell. I think they're out of print now but most of them are still reasonably priced. 

Published in 1948, Peony is set approximately 100 years earlier. It's the story of a young bondwoman who was adopted/indentured from an orphanage to a Jewish merchant family living in Kaifeng. At the beginning of the story, Peony is about 17 and is in love with the only child of the household, the handsome David who has been unofficially betrothed since infancy to Leah, daughter of the rabbi.

David's mother is pushing the match but David's father Ezra, who is half-Chinese (by his late father's concubine) is less concerned. David thinks he is in love with Kuelan, whom he's never actually met but is the daughter of successful Chinese merchant. Ezra realizes this would be a strategic business move. Meanwhile, Peony has to hide her love for David, realizing he can never marry her, but she begins to manipulate the situation so that she can guarantee a place in the house as long as possible.

David is torn between pleasing his other and marrying Leah, whom he likes but doesn't love, and following his own heart and marrying Kuelan. He's also torn between his Jewish faith and continuing the family heritage, or assimilating further into the Chinese culture that has welcomed his family. There is mention of atrocities done to Jews in other lands, particularly Palestine, and there may also have been pogroms at that time period to which they are referring. Meanwhile, Peony doesn't have many choices as a bondwoman -- I'm really not sure if she ever had the ability to leave the house or if she was actual chattel. 

The best parts of Peony are the descriptions of life in China. Pearl Buck really knew her subject, but I don't think lyrical writing is really her strong point, compared to Graham Greene which was my previous read. The dialogue in particular is pretty stiff. And the character development in this book is really not great. In particular, Leah has very little character development except for being Beautiful and Good, plus some other throwaway characters and mustache-twirling villains with little or no explanation. 

However, the book has a really interesting premise -- I knew there were ethnic Muslims in China, but I didn't know about the history of the Jews. It was actually really refreshing to read about Jews who weren't being persecuted and were accepted. Overall, I think it was either too short or overly ambitious. There were a lot of unresolved storylines and characters that weren't especially developed, and the ending seemed pretty rushed -- Buck basically wrapped up years of family history (and the Jewish population of Kaifeng) in just one or two chapters at the end. I almost feel like either it should have been longer, or she should have narrowed the focus. 

The original 1948 cover. The asymmetrical hair is making my eyes twitch, but that's how it's described in the book.

Buck did base the story of the Kaifeng Jews on historical research, and my edition did have some really interesting end notes with the history. I also own East Wind, West Wind in a Moyer-Bell edition, plus a couple of her other novels in mid-century editions -- you can find them pretty cheaply at used bookstores and library sales.  I think I have Imperial Woman, The Living Reed and The Three Daughters of Madame Liang. Hopefully I'll get to one of them in May for Asian-Pacific Heritage month.

I'm counting this as my Classic with a Single-Word Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Parisian Mini-Break

There are a lot of long weekends for my daughter's American school on the military base, and one of the best things is that they rarely coincide with European holidays. The weekend before last was President's Day which luckily is not a local holiday, so we took the express train to Paris Friday night. I say "express train" but due to unforeseen circumstances it arrived very late, which I detailed in my previous post

After our 3 a.m. arrival we slept late on Saturday. We skipped breakfast and went straight to lunch, then took to Metro to Montmartre. It was a beautiful day so we climbed the hill to Sacre Coeur, which I think is the most beautiful building in Paris. 

It's about 140 steps up the hill. Yes, I counted. We could have taken the funicular but why would we?

This is the back view as you walk down the side streets to Montmartre, which has lots of tourist shops and restaurants. It's also known for artists and there are always sketch artists and people selling watercolors and little oil paintings in the square. We also enjoyed the street art. 

If you've seen BBC's Travel Man with Richard Ayoade, this seahorse is from the Paris episode with Mel Giedroyc. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. You can find all the episodes on YouTube and they're hilarious.

I always love doorways. I especially love the blue color one on this one, and the arched columns.

This is from the Pariosse St. Jean church in Montmartre. It's reddish brick church from the 12th century, with lots of mosaics. I didn't go inside but I found the outside really unusual. 

As we were walking around Montmartre, we decided to stop for a break and a hot beverage. A bakery with AMAZING eclairs was conveniently located on the street heading towards the famous Moulin Rouge.

We did quite a lot of walking and were still tired from the previous night, so after a nap, we went out for cassoulet, the famous bean casserole with lamb, sausages, and duck confit. This enormous pan is meant to serve three people. 

Next day we went to the Ile de la Cite, the island in the middle of the Seine, to climb the Notre Dame tower. We had to reserve our ticket time because only a limited number of people can climb up at any given time. We had a couple of hours to kill so we crossed the street to look for lunch. 

This arcade had a Mexican restaurant which I found very amusing. We did not eat there. 

Instead we found Le Procope, which was also featured in the same episode of Travel Man. It was founded in 1686 and is the oldest restaurant in Paris. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson ate here,  and they have all kinds of neat stuff, including one of Napolean's hats which is on display in the vestibule.

We ate lunch on the first floor, but the second floor has lots of really cool artifacts including this bust of Voltaire. 

Some traditional escargots. Le Procope also serves boiled calf's head but we decided to pass.  

On the walk back to Notre Dame we saw some more street art. I particularly enjoyed this Star Wars tribute.

Before climbing the tower, we did a quick circuit inside the cathedral. The rose windows are really impressive. 

We still had a few minutes before our timed tickets, so we walked through the garden and had a lovely view of the back of the cathedral. 

Then it was time to climb the tower! I'd done this climb about 10 years ago on my first visit to Paris and I thought it would never end. I've been climbing a lot more hills and stairs since we moved here so it really wasn't that bad. First you climb about 100 stairs to the gift shop to buy tickets, then it's up to the first level.

I think it's the best view in Paris, plus I love all the gargoyles.

There's the Seine river and off in the distance you can see the Eiffel Tower.

Then we walked up to the second level which is above the bell tower. I realized that I could see Shakespeare and Company, the famous English-language bookstore. It's on the first floor of the white building on the corner, in the left of the picture. The front of the building is in shadow, but that's the cafe is on the corner, and the actual bookstore with the green awning is to the right. 

The bookstore was really busy and there was literally a line to get in. It's really quite small and it was very crowded, but I did manage to find some books. They also sell used books at the bookstore and on some shelves outside. 

The next day we meant to go to the Musee D'Orsay, which has the best collection of Impressionist art in Paris. However, we realized too late that it's closed on Monday! So instead we went to the Palais Garnier which is the opera house. It was grey and rainy so it was a good day to do something inside.

The opera house isn't really that big, but the lobby and stairwell are really impressive. 

We couldn't actually walk through the auditorium but there are two open balconies where you can overlook the inside and the stage. 

My favorite thing was the ceiling painted by Chagall. If you've ever seen Moonstruck, you know that Chagall was a very great artist. 

If you walk around to the left side, Box #5 is the one that the Phantom of the Opera always requested in the famous novel. If you zoom in, you can see the brass plate that reads "Loge du Fantom de L'Opera." I'm not a huge fan of the story but it was another literary connection for the weekend.


The Palais Garnier also has its own library which was pretty impressive. 

Finally -- we ended the break with a lovely bistro lunch. I had steak frites and in the corner you can just see the appetizer for the table to share -- smoked duck breast and foie gras! 

It was a lovely break and I hope I can go back to Paris again before we move back to the U.S. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Orient Express by Graham Greene: More Murders But Fewer Mustaches Than Agatha Christie

Over the past weekend we took a mini-break to Paris, which is in theory only three hours away by high-speed train. Unfortunately a technical problem cause our train to stop a mere 10 kilometers away from the station. After much radioing and banging and conductors walking back and forth, a backup train had to come out and literally drag our train into the station, causing our arrival to delay by nearly four hours -- at three a.m. instead of the more reasonable 11 p.m. !! Seriously, I probably could have walked to the station in the time it took. Not fun.

It was especially ironic since my choice of reading material for the trip was Graham Greene's novella Orient Express. I'd chosen it because I thought it would be fun to read a book set on a train while actually riding a train. Not so funny at the time, however. Ultimately, we did have a good trip and I did enjoy the book. (I'll post photos from the mini-break later this week).

Set between the wars, Orient Express is of course about a group of disparate characters who get to know one another while on the three-day journey from Ostend, Belgium to Istanbul; ultimately, the trip changes the lives of all of them, for good and for bad. The major characters include Coral Musker, an English chorus girl; Carleton Myatt, a wealthy Jewish businessman; Dr. Richard John, a British doctor with a mysterious past; an aggressive journalist named Mabel Warren with her companion Janet Pardoe; and a German robber named Josef Grundlich.

Greene does an excellent job of showing just how a small incident can connect these people and how this will change the direction of their entire lives. Coral, the chorus girl, falls ill and Myatt gallantly offers her his first-class sleeper cabin, and he asks Dr. John to assist her. The journalist Mabel Warren had come to see Janet off for a holiday, but recognizes Dr. John, and boards the train at the last minute, hoping for a scoop that will become the story of a lifetime. Greene weaves all the characters together with a plot that doesn't seem at all contrived or forced, and the writing is really wonderful. He's really good at describing scenes and character's inner thoughts without the writing getting too flowery.

I also found it very interesting that Greene tackled anti-Semitism in a time when it was so prevalent. He also touches on Communism, revolution, and is pretty open about a lesbian relationship between Mabel Warren and Janet Pardoe, which I found surprising considering it was published in the 1930s. Of course the book shifts the focus between the characters, but I much preferred the relationships between the people over the a subplot about political drama, but then political thrillers have never really been my genre. Also, I wish it had been longer, as it got even more interesting at the end and I would have liked to learn more about what happened to everyone.

I'd always wanted to read this because I love Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, my favorite mystery of all time. If you are interested in this book because the title is nearly the same as Christie's, you may be disappointed. Both books are written and set in the 1930s, and both take place on the Orient Express with disparate characters thrown together -- that's to be expected in a story set on a train -- but that's the end of the similarity. There are two murders, but they both take place off the train, and there's no mystery about them, and certainly no detective like Hercule Poirot. This could even go so far as to be called a crime classic (I did think briefly about using this for the crime classic category in the Back to the Classics Challenge, but I still want to use one of my British Library Crime Classics for that one). Also, Greene's novel begins in Ostend, Belgium, and travels east to Istanbul; Christie's novel starts in Istanbul and travels to Calais, France. Greene's novel was originally titled Stamboul Train and there is a very interesting explanation about the similar names here.

I'm counting this as my Classic Journey Narrative for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Miss Mole by E. H. Young: Not Exactly Mary Poppins for Grown-Ups

I am always envious when bloggers mention how they just happened to find a Persephone at a charity shop or a used bookstore. Other than the Persephone Classics, which don't have the distinctive dove-grey covers, they are is nearly impossible to find in the US, new or used. However, it's not unheard of to find Virago Modern Classics, both the lovely green-spined editions and the earlier Dial press editions with the black covers. There's a wonderful Half-Price Books location in Austin, Texas that is massive and I remember walking out with at least a half-dozen on one visit a couple of years ago. I also found quite a few at John King Books in Detroit back in 2016. 

One of my finds (from Austin, I think) was a black spine copy of Miss Mole (circa 1985). First published in 1930, Miss Mole won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and is considered her masterpiece. I was inspired to add this to my TBR Pile Challenge list after Rachel and Simon discussed it on their wonderful podcast Tea or Books? 

So, Miss Mole is set between the wars and is the story of Hannah Mole, a fortyish spinster who ekes out a living as a companion or housekeeper -- she has a sharp tongue and quirky spirit that sometimes get her into trouble. At the beginning of the novel she's returned after a long absence to the fictional town of Radstowe (which is a thinly disguised portrait of Bristol). Miss Mole is not getting along well with her current employer and after a few days in a boarding house, gets a new job via her cousin Lilla, who is from the wealthier side of the family and has some good contacts. Without revealing the family connection, Lilla recommends her for a job as a housekeeper of sorts for a rather stuffy, pompous minister named Robert Corder, whose wife has recently passed away. 

The household consists of Reverend Corder, a nonconformist; daughter Ethel, who's rather desperately looking for a man so she can escape the house; leaving two daughters; young Ruth, who is still in school and longing for a mother figure; and their sassy cousin Wilfred, who's attending medical school nearby. Wilfred's presence in the house is rather awkward and raises a few eyebrows, but his mother is wealthy and the Reverend can't risk offending her. A spinster housekeeper/chaperone is exactly what they need to keep the house respectable. Or so they think. Miss Mole moves in and simultaneously elevates their lives and yet turns things upside-down. She's comforting and yet slyly subversive, and Reverend Corder doesn't quite know if he should appreciate her or fear her, as Hannah is smarter than he is. Wilfred takes to her instantly, recognizing her sharp with, and Ruth grows to love her. Eventually, though, there are whispers about Miss Mole's background which much be addressed, and we learn the real reason for her long absence from her hometown. 

The writing in this book was really great, very insightful, and the dialogue between the characters is especially sharp:

There was every reason why Ethel should have been an inefficient housekeeper, and every reason why Miss Mole should be a good one. At forty, all distracting desires, ambitions, hopes, and disappointments must have passed away, leaving the mind calm and satisfied with the affairs of every day, a state for which Ethel sometimes envied Miss Mole, more often pitied her. . . . They were all too young or too self-absorbed to understand that her life was as important to her as theirs to them and had the same possibilities of adventure and romance; that, with her, to accept the present as the pattern of the future would have been to die.

Mr. Blenkinsop was a solemn infant who asked for what he wanted and Robert Corder was a spoilt one who expected his needs to be divined.

"I often envy women," Robert Corder said. "They have useful and not exacting occupations for their hands, and no labor need be dreary."  Riiiiight.

Cover image from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog 
I loved this book but for such a short novel (288 pages) it took me a surprisingly long time to finish it. The writing style is a bit quirky, but it took me more than three weeks to complete. This puzzled me but I realized part of the reason could have been the edition. The print was quite small, and there are a lot of pages that are one solid paragraph, or nearly so, which I find off-putting (fun fact: there is a Gabriel Garcia Marques novel that is ONE SOLID PARAGRAPH WITHOUT CHAPTER BREAKS. It's The Autumn of the Patriarch, and I can tell you right now that I will never, ever read it.) Also, this book is 40 chapters, most of them quite short, so there were a lot of breaks. I wonder if that made me more likely to put the book down instead of plowing through it.

This is my first book by E. H. Young, and I also own two others in the Virago imprint, The Misses Mallet, her first novel, and Jenny Wren, which apparently has a sequel also published by Virago. I also want to read Chatterton Square, which was beloved by both Rachel and Simon in the Tea or Books? podcast. I'll have to buy it but I feel like I work through some more of my unread Viragos (25 at last count) before I buy another which could just end up collecting dust on the TBR shelves.

This is third book for my TBR Pile Challenge 2018

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Persephone Readathon: Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary

I love it when I can combine online reading events like the Persephone Readathon with my annual reading challenges. This week was the perfect time to cross another book off my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge List -- Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary. I actually had THREE Persephones on this list, plus one possible read on my Back to the Classics Challenge list. (The others were Heat Lightning, London War Notes, and Effi Briest). To be perfectly honest, Lady Rose won out because it was the shortest, and because it was owned-and-unread the longest. 

Basically, Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary is a sort of a fairy tale about a little girl growing up in Victorian times on a massive Scottish estate called Keepsfield. Published in 1937, it starts out in the period between the wars when three tourists, two American and one British, stop to tour the empty house that belongs to Lady Rose, who has lived abroad for years. One of the tourists, a British woman, begins to engage the elderly housekeeper about the little girl who grew up there and begins to imagine what she was really like.

Even this cover looks a little twee.
This book starts out rather saccharine and almost twee. Lady Rose as a child was so annoyingly perfect I almost gave up -- in fact, I did try to read this a few years ago and was so put off I put the book down and it was gathering dust until this week. All the reviews implied it would get better, so I stuck with it. It does get better after Lady Rose goes off to boarding school, then her life takes some interesting turns when it appears it isn't such a fairy tale after all. 

Overall, this book was charming, but with a sad undercurrent about the position of women. It made some very good points about the choices women had in the late Victorian period -- but mostly didn't have, even the very wealthy and privileged. My basic impression is that the writing is a little flowery and there wasn't a whole lot of character development. Some parts actually felt more like broad outlines of a story than the finished product. There was some definite foreshadowing that I completely missed -- if you're clever you'll predict some of the plot twists. I wasn't especially observant at the time so I was pleasantly surprised by some of them.

The best bits are Lady Rose's appreciation for the beauty of Scotland, and for Keepsfield, the estate on which she's raised. In the preface, it's described as "a love letter to Scotland," which is absolutely correct -- Keepsfield and Scotland itself are the best-developed characters in this book. (This is nothing like Outlander, though there are very brief mentions of men in kilts. Just in case anyone was wondering). 

There are also some interesting descriptions of what it was like to come out in society in the Victorian era, and to be presented at court. However, there's a huge gap in time about Lady Rose's life after she leaves Keepsfield which I really wish had been more developed. I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

Many people love this book. I enjoyed it, but I have to admit it's not my favorite Persephone. It was a charming, light read, and I could see it might be just the thing if you're having a bad day and need something escapist. It's a quick read and there are some quirky little illustrations. I think I read somewhere that it was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth's mother. 

The Persephone endpapers for Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary
So -- Persephone fans, have you read this book? Did you enjoy it, or was it just a little too sweet? And which Persephone should I read next off my list -- Heat Lightning, Effi Briest, or London War Notes?