Sunday, May 21, 2017

Over-the-Top Victorian Melodrama by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Since I started seriously exploring Victorian literature, I've made some unexpectedly delightful discoveries. One of my favorite surprises was Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a Victorian writer who is best known for her Victorian sensation fiction. Author of more than 80 novels, she's best known for Lady Audley's Secret, which I read several years ago for the RIP Readalong. When I saw that the library had her debut novel available as an e-book, I couldn't wait to download it. 

First published in 1860 as Three Times Dead, Braddon reworked the novel and republished it in 1864 as The Trail of the Serpent. Basically, there are three intertwining plots. The first is the fate of Richard Marwood, a somewhat ne'er-do-well scamp who is trying to turn his life around, and is mistakenly accused of the brutal murder of his wealthy uncle. Following a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, he's sentenced to life in an asylum, while a sympathetic deaf police detective tries to prove his innocence and catch the real killer.

The second plot involves a psychopathic schoolteacher named Jabez North, who was fished out of the river as an orphaned baby. He believes he deserves better than working as a teacher in a second-rate boarding school and is merciless and diabolical. 

The final plot is a wealthy Spanish heiress, Valerie de Cevennes, who lives in Paris and is secretly married to a star opera singer. A manipulative adventurer named Raymond de Marolles manipulates and blackmails Valerie, forcing her to become his wife and control her fortune. Eventually, all the threads tie up together into one super-dramatic plot.  There are swoons and fevers and poisonings and dopplegangers, and of course, lots of Big Secrets and dramatic reveals. 

If this sounds really over top and melodramatic, well, it is. There's a lot of swooning and mustache-twirling, and I wouldn't call any of the characters well-developed. It's not so much a mystery of who the criminal is, but really how they did it and more importantly, will they get away with it? 

Nevertheless, the plot is really great and it's a fun, fast read. It's one of the earliest British detective novels, published a full eight years (in its first incarnation) than The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. And it always pleases me to realize that women authors in the 19th century were just as prolific as some of the men (which then leads me to wonder why the male authors are studied as canon, yet many of the works by women have fallen out of print and are largely forgotten). This is the Victorian equivalent of a vacation read and I really enjoyed it.

I'm counting this as my 400+ pages novel for the Victorian Reading Challenge and as my Classic by a Woman author for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Top Ten Books My Mom Would Love

Flowers for Mom!
(Actually, it's the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands).

I'm a couple of days early for a Top Ten list, but in honor of Mother's Day, here's a list of books I think my mother would love. We have quite similar taste in books (and I'm pretty sure she's read some of these already). But this is my Top Ten List of Books My Mom Would Love.

Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, and Josie Lawrence in the film version of Enchanted April.

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. Four Edwardian women rent a castle in Italy for a month. Beautiful gardens, a castle, and ocean views. And Italian food! What is not to like? (Also has a great movie adaptation).

2.  Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Probably the most popular book in the Persephone catalog, and with good reason. A down-on-her-luck spinster accidentally gets the wrong assignment from an employment agency, and is swept into a whirlwind when she works as a secretary for a glamorous nightclub singer. The movie adaptation was brilliantly cast with Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as her employer, Delysia LaFosse. (McDormand also narrates the audio version, also wonderful).

The ladies of Wives & Daughters: from left, Cynthia, Molly, and her stepmother Hyacinth.
3.  Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. One of my favorite Victorian novels, it's the story of young Molly Gibson, whose life is upturned when her widower father remarries because he thinks she needs a woman's influence. She's not exactly a wicked stepmother but she's very misguided, and Molly also gets a stepsister Cynthia in the bargain. A great story about class and the role of women in 1830s England. And yet another great TV miniseries, one of my all-time favorites. (Also stars the brilliant Michael Gambon as the local squire).

4.  Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope. My mom is actually the one who introduced me to Trollope, but I don't think she's read this one. One of Trollope's romantic comedies about the course of true love never running smoothly. It's one of his shorter novels and it's not one of his two famous series, so it's a great introduction to Trollope if you're daunted by the Pallisers and the Barsetshire Chronicles. One of the few books on this list that hasn't been adapted for TV or movies, but I wish it were! 

Prunella Scales, left, as Miss Mapp; and Geraldine McEwan as Lucia.
5.  Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson. The fourth in the Lucia series, and my favorite (though they're all really funny). Set in the 1930s, two middle-aged social climbing women in an English village  constantly try to one-up each other, with hilarious results. There have been two TV adaptations so far. I haven't seen the 2014 version, but the 1980s version is brilliant -- Nigel Hawthorne is especially delightful as Lucia's best friend Georgie. 

6.  Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson. Another delightful book reprinted by Persephone. Like Miss Pettigrew, Miss Buncle is a spinster in financial straits, but she makes her own luck by publishing a thinly-veiled humorous book about her friends and neighbors in the small town of Silverstream, and life soon begins to imitate art. Stevenson wrote more than 40 novels and was a bestselling author with over 7 million copies of her books in print during the mid-century. Most of them are currently out of print but a few have been reprinted by Persephone and Sourcebooks and there are a lot of used copies for sale online. 

Dorothy Whipple

7.  The Priory by Dorothy Whipple -- well, pretty much anything by Dorothy Whipple, one of my favorite Persephone writers (though I already I forced a copy of Someone at a Distance on poor Mom on a previous visit. She did enjoy it!) Whipple is one of Persephone's most popular writers and her novels and short stories are just wonderful, though they're often tragic tales of mid-century domestic fiction. She's very middlebrow but there's nothing wrong with that. 

8.  84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. A charming true story of a postal friendship between a sassy New York journalist and a reserved London bookseller. Hanff was looking for particular classics in the 1950s  and couldn't find them in New York, so she began writing to a second-hand bookstore in Charing Cross. What followed was a long friendship based on books but is so much more. Ann Bancroft stars as Hanff in the movie adaptation -- she loved the book so much, her husband Mel Brooks bought her the film rights. Now, that's a lovely gift!

9.  The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. OK, this is an entire series, not just one book, but they're so good I have to include the whole series. It's the story of an extended upper-middle class family starting just before WWII, and how they react to the War and what follows. A great saga with well-developed characters, and I loved all five volumes.

10.  The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. Part Pride & Prejudice, part Emma, this Regency farce is pure fun, and just the thing when you've finished all of Jane Austen. Heyer's books are great escapist fiction -- and unlike Jane Austen, she wrote about 50 books, so it'll take a long time to finish all of them!

I could go on and on, but these are books I know my mother (and many other mothers) would love. Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Four days in Florence

View of the Duomo from the Campanile.

Part 2 of my Italian vacation -- on to Florence, where we spent four days, filled with art, gelato, and climbing hundreds of steps (therefore justifying all the gelato, of course).

I took this photo just off the Ponte Vecchio. I like how the buildings are reflected next to the gelati.

We had mostly good weather, except for the first day when it was scary and overcast just as we were about to climb the Campanile, or tower, in the main square by the Duomo. (We had to make a reservation to climb the Duomo another day). Naturally, it started to rain (with thunder AND lightning) when we reached the top of the tower. It made for some good photos, but it was a little scary. 

Not the tallest tower, but the best views in Florence. 

Like the tower in Pisa, there are several different levels where you can stop and admire the view, plus catch your breath, so the climb wasn't as difficult as I thought. Plus, I think I'm much more used to walking stairs and hills than my last trip to Italy; living in a four-story house, in a hilly neighborhood, you tend to get better at it. 

That's the Piazza Vecchio in the foreground, and in the far left you can see Santa Croce (famously visited by Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View.)

The next day I went inside the Duomo, which is surprisingly plain -- apparently they used up all the money and resources to decorate the outside. Inside the actual Dome it's quite elaborate, with all kinds of Biblical images, especially hellfire and damnation. 

At the opposite end is this amazing clock, which is clearly not telling time how I learned it. Here's an explanation if you're curious.

We did climb the Duomo a couple of days later but it was less fun than the tower because it was really narrow and crowded, because people are climbing up and down the same staircases (some towers have designated up and down routes, in different stairwells. Also, the Duomo is the most beautiful thing in Florence, and obviously, you can't see it when you're inside. But the views of the countryside are pretty spectacular. 

Naturally we had to visit a couple of museums. My daughter isn't a huge art fan but even she found David to be pretty impressive. 

Her favorite thing was to take photos of statues and give them snarky captions on her snapchat account. I was able to save a couple of them.

Aside from towers and museums, my other favorite place in Florence was the Boboli Garden, part of the Palazzo Pitti, the mansion of the Medici family on the opposite side of the Arno. It's a bit of a walk from our hotel but it was worth it. It's a huge, beautiful garden (supposedly the inspiration for the gardens of Versailles) and it's on a hill, so the view is amazing. 

As you'd expect, the food was amazing. I am eternally grateful to have children who will eat just about anything. My daughter discovered she loved one of the local specialties which is crostini with chicken livers. We had crostini almost every day. 

At this restaurant, it was more of a DIY crostini, but it was really good. 

I only had pizza once the entire trip. It was pretty amazing.

We also enjoyed the Florentine steak, which is served in a large piece by weight. The smallest we could get was 600 grams -- for you non-metric readers, that's about 1 1/3 pounds. We shared but it's still a big portion, especially if you've already been eating crostini. 

Nearly every restaurant in Florence has Vin Santo and Cantucci on the dessert menu. Vin Santo is a traditional sweet dessert wine and cantucci are twice-baked cookies that Americans call biscotti (technically, biscotti just means any cookie in Italian; cantucci are always twice-baked). These had chunks of chocolate baked into them and they were the best I had in Florence.

And finally, here's one of my favorite photos, a view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery:

It was my second trip to Florence and I loved it just as much as the first time. Next up: Siena!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Mrs. Oliphant Is Just Getting Started With The Rector and The Doctor's Family

Snapped this stairwell mural discreetly. Shhhh.
Last year I went to Detroit for Spring Break to visit family (not nearly as exciting as Italy, it's true.) One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to John King Books, a former glove factory which is now a treasure-trove of used books on multiple levels. It's dim and dirty and you're not supposed to take photos. Don't tell.

I did, however, come home with a large stack of books, including some classic green Viragos:

The skinny little one in the middle is The Rector and The Doctor's Family by Margaret Oliphant, the Victorian writer who created the Chronicles of Carlingford. She's not much read nowadays but wrote about 120 books and was a best-selling author. A couple of years ago I read and loved Miss Marjoribanks which was described as very Jane Austen-ish, so when I saw this green Virago I bought it. 

Anyway, The Rector and The Doctor's Family are second and third  in the Chronicles of Carlingford, and they're so short that the combined edition is only 192 pages. I tucked it into my bag on a recent weekend trip because it was so small I could carry it around town without any trouble.

Originally published in 1863, the first novella, The Rector, is only 40 pages long, and it's really closer to a short story. It starts out with a young curate, Mr. Wentworth, visiting two sisters named Wodehouse -- a nod to Jane Austen, perhaps? There's a new rector in town, the middle-aged Reverend Morley Proctor, and naturally, conversation turns to whether he is a single or married man. The two miss Wodehouses are single, and the elder remarks that perhaps Reverend Proctor will someday marry her younger sister Lucy! Now, I'm not sure if she meant that Rev. Proctor is intended as the groom, or that he'd officiate at the ceremony, but young Lucy is about 18 and quite taken aback (as is Mr. Wentworth, who clearly has feelings for her). The elder Miss Wodehouse is 20 years Lucy's senior, and naturally there's speculation that she would be an excellent companion to Rev. Proctor. 

Now, I thought this was going to be a sweet story about Rev. Proctor choosing between the two sisters, but it isn't. Soon Rev. Proctor has a career crisis and can't decide if Carlingford is the place for him, and the story ends pretty quickly. I wasn't much impressed except for some very amusing parts with Mrs. Proctor, Morley's elderly mother, who is rather deaf and isn't shy about speaking her mind. I was a little perturbed that they implied how ancient she was when she's only 70, and Miss Wodehouse as rather elderly -- she's not quite 40! 

The second book in the volume, The Doctor's Family, is the far superior story. Dr. Edward Rider, a youngish single man, has started a practice in Carlingford and is tolerating an extended visit from his wastrel older brother Frederick, who seems to do nothing but lay about, read novels, and smoke. There's some implication that Edward had to leave a previous position because of something that Fred did, but it's never really explained. Edward's life seems sort of dull and hopeless until one day two strange women turn up, claiming to be Frederick's wife and sister-in-law, whom he abandoned in Australia -- with three small children! 

As soon as he gets over this surprise, Edwards discovers that Fred's wife Susan is whiny and self-absorbed, but her sister Nettie is forthright and assertive; also, young and pretty. Edward has never met anyone like her and is instantly smitten, but Nettie is only concerned about taking care of her sister's family, especially the children. Edward desperately tries to think of a way that he and Nettie can be happy together without the baggage of his family, but then a disaster occurs. I was really rooting for Nettie and and Edward to get together.

The second novella was far more interesting than the first, and I wasn't quite sure how it would all play out. The turn of events was pretty satisfactory, but Nettie's character seem to change dramatically. It does seem that some of the characters in the Carlingford series seem to repeat (Miss Marjoribanks is mentioned quite a lot, though I don't think she actually has any dialogue) so I'm hoping that if I read more of the series I'll find out a bit more about what happened to them. 

These novellas were entertaining, and the second was definitely an improvement over the first, though neither was nearly as good as Miss Marjoribanks. I do want to read more of the series and fill in the gaps about the Carlingford Characters. 

I'm counting this as my novella for the Victorian Reading Challenge

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Classics Book Tag

Robert Carlyle is pretty much perfect as Rumplestiltskin.
I was recently tagged by Jillian with a fun meme about classics. And what is not to like about two of my favorite things, classics books and lists? So, here goes:

1. An over-hyped classic you really didn’t like: 

Without a doubt, Wuthering Heights. I think Heathcliff and Catherine are just awful and deserve each other for all of eternity.  The runner-up is On the Road by Jack Kerouac. 

2. Favorite time period to read about? 

Victorians! It's such a great time period, transitioning to the modern age. And it's such a long period, so there were so many great books written. 

3.  Favorite fairytale? 
Probably Rumplestiltskin. It was my favorite fairytale to tell my kids when they wanted a bedtime story that wasn't from a book.

4. Most embarrassing classics that you haven't read?
I still haven't read Les Miserables! Shocking, I know -- I hope to get to it this year. I'm really scared by the length, and I've never read anything by Victor Hugo.

5. Top 5 classics you want to read: 
  1. The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope (I just bought the newly restored version)
  2. Jane Austen's juvenilia
  3. Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
  4. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
  5. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
All of these are for challenges, either the Back to the Classics Challenge and the Victorian Reading Challenges, and they've all been on my TBR list for a long time. 

6. Favorite modern book/movie/TV series based on a classic?

I'm not a huge fan of modern adaptations of classics. However, I really do love Clueless which is an adaptation of Emma. Alicia Silverstone is great as Cher Horowitz, and I love Dan Hedaya as her father, who is not clueless (unlike Emma's father). And Paul Rudd! What's not to love about this movie?
"That was way harsh, Tai!" Best teen movie EVER.

7. Favorite movie version/TV series based on a classic? 

That's tough, there have been some really good adaptations! I could only narrow it down to four:
  •  the classic 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice; 
  • the 1995 Persuasion; 
  • Wives and Daughters
  •  the 2005 Bleak House, which is an absolute masterpiece. 
In general, I think books are better adapted to mini-series than movies, though I do love watching them on the big screen.

Gillian Anderson was brilliant as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House.
8. Worst classic to movie adaptation?

For movies, I'd have to say the 2011 Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. Michael Fassbender was way too good-looking to be Rochester, and they really hacked up the ending. I was also disappointed with House of Mirth -- it's one of my favorites and I was bored to death. 

Gillian again, as the tragic Lily Bart. 
She deserved a better adaptation, but that hat is fabulous.
The worst TV adaptation was a The Paradise which is an adaptation of Zola's The Ladies' Paradise. I couldn't get through the first episode. It probably didn't help that they changed the location from Paris to north England. I think they were trying to compete with Mr. Selfridge.

9. Favorite editions of classics that you'd like to collect:
I really like Oxford World's Classics, and I love the covers of the Penguin Clothbound Classics! It's tempting to buy all of them. 

10. An under hyped classic? La Bete Humaine by Emile Zola -- it's a real page turner and I think it would make a great miniseries!

Bloggers, tell me about your favorite classics -- and your least favorites. I'm tagging anyone who wants to participate!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Invisibility Is a Terrible Career Move

I love this cover, it's from a 1949 edition.
I'm not a huge science fiction fan but The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells is so short I thought I'd give it a whirl. I'd actually started it a few years ago and for some reason never read past the first couple of pages, which was a mistake. I recently found a downloadable audiobook from my library, and was amazed that I was absolutely gripped by it -- it reads like a thriller and I couldn't wait to find out how it was going to turn out.

The story starts with a mysterious stranger, covered in a coat, hat, scarves, and goggle-ish sunglasses, who arrives at a boarding house in Surrey, where he takes rooms. The landlady begins to wonder if her new tenant has had some terrible accident or is disfigured because she never sees his face or hands uncovered, and he never eats in front of anyone else. He has mysterious boxes and parcels delivered, and is working on something scientific. She finds him eccentric but ignores it, because he pays well and on time.

Eventually, people become suspicious, especially after a break-in at the local vicarage coincides with the stranger's inability to pay the rent on time. After a confrontation, the locals realize his secret and he's on the run. After some plot twists and turns, he finds refuge with an old schoolmate who coincidentally lives nearby (it's a Victorian story so there has to be at least one amazing coincidence, right?) Wells uses this meeting with the old classmate to give the Invisible Man a chance to explain the back story of how he became invisible, and we finally learn his name. 

Of course things take a turn for the worse and it becomes quite thrilling. Anyone who thinks Victorian novels are boring has clearly never read this book, because it's quite a page-turner. I think H. G. Wells was very clever to start the novel in the thick of the story, so you become intrigued by the mystery of the Invisible Man, and curious about his history. I was also really sympathetic towards the Invisible Man until I learned the back story; then it was all action and I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. I did listen to the entire thing on audio and found myself walking just a little longer so I could find out what happen next. I actually preferred it to the print version because the narrator was so good. (It was the OneClick Digital version narrated by Victoria Morgan, in case any one is wondering).

The first edition -- what a great cover!
I think I've now read all of Wells' most famous science fiction works except The Time Machine (I still haven't read that one because I was terrified by the Morlocks in the 1960 film version which I watched all alone as a child. I am still scarred by it.) This one is by far my favorite -- I found The Island of Doctor Moreau to be creepy and disturbing and War of the Worlds was a little boring in parts. This one was very engaging and I was only slightly bored by the technical explanation of how the Invisible Man actually became invisible, which is rather short and vague anyway. This was so good I may give The Time Machine a try after all. I also want to read Ann Veronica which is one of Wells' social satires. I've also read Kipps a few years ago and really liked it.

I'm counting this as my Book I've Started But Never Finished for the Victorian Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Retro Book Covers

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is all about the book covers. One of my favorite themes the past few years have been retro-styled book covers. I've noticed that quite a few of them seem to reproductions of classic travel posters, or in a similar style. Here are some reprints from Virago by Winifred Holtby that I just love.

Then there's this one by Vita Sackville-West. I actually liked the cover more than the book.

And I am absolutely drooling over this new series of British Library Crime Classics. I want to buy all of them for the covers alone. I couldn't resist buying a couple of these on my recent vacation, though I've yet to read any of them yet. Not all of them are travel-themed but here are some highlights:

And how about these beautiful reprints of Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire series from Virago?

Not quite so travel-inspired, as I think they're all set in the same village, but they do have that lovely retro quality. I think these are modern illustrations but I still love them. I've picked up quite a few Thirkells at library sales and used book shops, though I've yet to read any of them (I want to finish the Pallisers and the Poldark novels before I start the twenty-nine books in Thirkell's series!) 

Most of my Thirkells are Moyer-Bell editions but it's tempting to buy all the Viragos! Which I suppose is their intent, isn't it? I think publishers are working harder to create beautiful books to collect, maybe to offset the ebook sales? Bloggers, what book covers can you just not resist?