Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

According to my Goodreads account, I joined on March 3, 2008, and started making a list of books (mostly classics) that I wanted to read. Some of those book are still on my TBR shelves and have been haunting me for more than ten years. Two of them are less-famous works by Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree and A Pair of Blue Eyes -- which I recently discovered were available on audiobook download from the library. After ten years, I was finally inspired to take a crack at Under the Greenwood Tree, which sounded like just thing to listen to while walking the dog in my pastoral neighborhood.

Hill near my house.

Some of the neighbors.

The book begins with a group of local musicians in the rural village of Mellstock. They're out making the rounds on Christmas Day, as one does. There are fiddlers and singers from the choir, and as they're out and about, one of the members named Dick Dewy sees the young schoolmistress and is instantly smitten. Fancy Day (her real name) is beautiful and educated, and the local vicar is planning on replacing the traditional choir with Miss Day as the new organist. The vicar is also very attracted to Fancy, as is Frederic Shiner, a local farmer. It seems like the odds are against Dick and Fancy's match, especially because Fancy herself is rather flirtatious with other men, and seems to take Dick's love for granted.

This is Hardy's second published novel, and though I enjoyed it, there's not that much to it. The writing was good (despite my dislike of dialect) but the plot isn't terribly complex and I didn't think the characters were particularly well-developed -- it almost felt like this could have been part of a longer novel with more back story or plot complications. This book had some good points but I really expected more drama given the circumstances. It's a very quick read, under 200 pages, and it wouldn't be a bad place to start with Thomas Hardy if you're a little intimidated by Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure.

I still have Jude on the TBR shelves and I've just started A Pair of Blue Eyes so I plan on making lots of progress with my Hardy reading list. I'm also intrigued by Desperate Remedies which is apparently more of a Victorian Sensation novel, which sounds like fun. 

Anyone else read Under the Greenwood Tree? How do you think it compares to other books by Hardy? 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Blog's Name in Books

This meme's been going around the blogosphere, I'll play. All of these are books from my TBR shelves. I did not know until I wrote this post that my blog name has 18 letters.

B: Bella Poldark by Winston Graham. The twelfth and final book in the series, I still have two left to go. I was a little disappointed by the third season of Poldark so I haven't really been inspired to pick up the eleventh book, The Twisted Sword. Which is also on the TBR shelves, naturally.

O: One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens. Bought at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, from the used book table out front. My edition has an inscription "Wishing you a very happy Christmas and to visit England in the New Year, with love from Arch, Joan & the children -- Christmas 1952." I love it when old books have names and dates of the people who previously owned them.

O: Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Postwar Britain by Simon Garfield. I'm fascinated by this period of history.

K: Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope. That's a terrible cover (her face is so white compared to her ears which are really pink!) but I only have two books on the TBR shelf that fit for the letter K, and the other one is also by Trollope (The Kellys and the O'Kellys).

S: Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I still haven't read any of her books other than the Cazalet series, which I loved. It sounds like she had a fascinating life.

A: At the Still Point by Mary Benson. I know nothing about this book other than it's a green-spined VMC and it's about South Africa under apartheid. Bought at the wonderful John King Books in Detroit.

N: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I love this retro pulp-fiction inspired cover. It's one the last of the books I won in the Penguin Classics drawing a few years ago that are still unread (I've pretty much given up on The Metamorphosis as I cannot bring myself to read a book about a giant bug).

D: La Debacle by Emile Zola. Still working my way through the Rougon-Macquart series. This is supposed to one of the best war novels ever and was his bestselling novel during his lifetime, but I keep putting it off. It's really long and it looks rather dire, I feel like it's going to be full of extended battle scenes which are my favorite.

C: The Caravaners by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It's supposed to be very funny so I'm saving it for next year when I include Classic Humor as one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

H: The Hireling by L. P. Hartley. I've only read The Go-Between by Hartley but it was really good. I found this at Shakespeare and Company a couple of years ago and still haven't read it.

O: An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope. Probably my next Trollope, simply because there's an audio for free digital download at my library.

C: The Children by Edith Wharton. One of the books that's been on the TBR pile the longest. I would love to cross this off my to-read list.

O: The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple. Bought after hearing about it on the wonderful Tea or Books? podcast hosted by Simon and Rachel. It was a little pricy, and I suspect Persephone may reprint it now that they've published all her novels and most of her short stories.

L: Love Among the Ruins by Angela Thirkell. I have about a dozen Thirkells unread on my shelves. This is #17 in the series so it'll be a while before I get to this one, I've only read four so far.

A: Antidote to Venom by Freeman Willis Crofts. I bought four of these beautiful British Crime Classics on a trip to London last year and still haven't read any of them. I think I chose this one because the main character is a zoo director.

T: Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy. A Virago I found in a Charing Cross bookshop last year. Historical fiction written in 1953, about a Victorian man researching a scandalous Regency-era ancestor. Midcentury, Victorian, AND Regency, all in one book!

E: East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck. I love the covers of these Moyer-Bell editions.

Looking over these selections I realized how many of them are British authors so I did a quick count -- less than 25% of my unread books are by non-Brits! I suspect I bought them all because I tend not to buy books anymore unless I can't get them in the library.

I wouldn't mind reading any or all of these in the next couple of months -- bloggers, which of these books should I read first?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

After watching the Masterpiece drama Indian Summers in 2015/2016 I became fascinated with the British Raj. I was really annoyed when the series wasn't renewed so to comfort myself I searched for as many books as I could find about the period, and The Jewel in the Crown was at the top of my to-read list. I received the first book of the series for Christmas last year and realized is almost 500 pages of tiny print and it is dense. Luckily, it was also available on audio via digital download from my library! It took me more than a month to listen to the audio on 1.25 speed, but I finally finished it.

Here's the setup: most of the story takes place in 1942 in Mayapore, a fictional place in India, towards the end of the British Raj, or authority over India. It's pretty obvious the Indian population is ready for independence but the British are resisting, using the war with Japan as an excuse -- they are afraid that a Japanese invasion will loosen their final hold on India. After the Indian National Congress votes to support Gandhi, riots break out, and a young English woman named Daphne Manners is raped and a group of young men are arrested by the local police. The police sergeant has ulterior motives because he is in love with Daphne, but she's actually in love with an Indian journalist, Hari Kumar, who is among the group of innocent men arrested and tortured. The same evening, another British school teacher named Edwina Crane is attacked by a gang as she drives back to Myapore from a remote village. She isn't physically harmed but her companion, an Indian teacher from the school, is beaten to death by the gang as she looks on in horror.

The format of the book is unusual, not told in traditional chapters, but in different long sections which are alternately third person narration of different characters, police reports, interviews, and diary entries. It seemed a bit disjointed at first, changing viewpoints every 50 or 100 pages, but the reader begins to get a more complete picture of the complicated relationship between the British and the Indians in the years before the end of the Raj. The narrators and writers are both Indian and British, and though I liked the audio version (which clocked in at more than 22 hours), but the narrator has a very clipped, posh accent for the British characters, but I didn't much care for the accent he gave the Indians. 

Overall, though, I really found the story fascinating, even though the central event is quite brutal (though it's never described in specific detail). I feel like Daphne and Hari's relationship was symbolic of the relationship between India and Britain, and how things could go horribly wrong. It's always tricky reading colonial literature written by white people but Scott takes a really unflinching look at the British in India, and it isn't very flattering. He also takes some serious jabs at both the British and Indian class systems, and the racism between the British and Indians is just devastating and extremely timely. 

I found Hari and Daphne's story really heartbreaking, but the book is really engaging as soon as you get used to the format and I'm eager to read the next three volumes. The other three are also available on audio digital download but I think I need to take a break before diving into the next one as they're equally long -- the final volume is more than 600 pages in print and more than 27 hours of audio! There was also a TV adaptation filmed in the 1980s that was voted one of Masterpiece Theater's all-time favorites, but I will probably wait until I've finished reading (and listening) to the books before I watch it.  

I'm counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Monday, May 7, 2018

Classics Spin # 17: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

So I'm nearly a week behind with Classics Spin #17, but better late than never. My spin pick was One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a slim novella of a mere 184 pages. One would think it would be easy enough to finish this book in time --I was so confident that I could zoom through this book in a day that I literally left it to the last minute. Of course, I was wrong.

It's a short book, but not one that I would recommend rushing. As the title suggests, it's a single day in the life of Laura Marshall, who lives in Wealding, a fictional English in Sussex. It's shortly after the end of the war, and her husband Stephen commutes by train to his job in the city; daughter Victoria, about 9 or 10, is off to school and then visiting a friend afterward for tea.

Laura goes about her early summer day, filled with the normal tasks of cleaning, cooking, shopping and errands. The family live in a big house that once had several servants, but now must make do with a part-time daily charwoman and elderly gardener. Her tasks that day include asking a local youth to help out with the gardening maintenance; putting an advertisement in the local paper for a cook.

The reader really gets a feeling of what life was like in the aftermath of the war. The book was published in 1947 and it's very obvious that WWII is still very fresh, with rationing, queueing, and German POWs still working on local farms. Laura picks a basket of gooseberries for her husband's work assistant who lives in London; there are mentions of the sudden availability of oranges, and daughter Victoria longs to live on a farm where milk and cream are there for the taking.

It seems like any ordinary day, it's really a microcosm of how life was changing in England, neatly encapsulated in less than 200 pages. Much of the story is also focused on how life was before the war and how it will never be the same due to changes in class and social structure. Laura and her family are faced with the impossibility of finding help, as all the working-class people are no longer interested in service. Laura's snobby mother can't understand why her daughter has to -- gasp -- do housework! but the local squire's wife has faced reality and is moving off her crumbling estate to smaller housing and has given over her mansion to the National Trust. The young man asked for gardening help has no interest in sticking around the little poky village, and is ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Overall, this book is just beautifully written, too good to zip through in a single sitting.

How hot it was! The midday heat was rising to a head, like milk to the boil, singing in a clotted hum of bees, of crickets among the sorrel and daisies, of gnats dancing above the cresses tugged all one way by the trickle of water running under the hedge. An old woman came out with a pail, hobbling across the lane to the tap dripping among the moss. She had lived to see men flying overhead like birds; to stand among the hollyhocks watching bombs spluttering across the stars to kill a family forty miles away; to turn a switch and hear the great voice from Westminster correcting her kitchen clock. 

I loved this book and it was the perfect read for a beautiful spring day. I read a good chunk of it on Saturday afternoon sitting outside in the Japanese garden in Kaiserslautern. I didn't take any photos this time but here's one of my favorites from last year.

Mollie Panter-Downes worked for years as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine and as a short story writer; sadly, she really didn't write many novels. However, I've read and enjoyed both of her short story collections published by Persephone, and I also own London War Notes, a collection of her wartime columns which was thankfully republished (also by Persephone) because the previous edition from the 1970s was terribly expensive.  It's on my TBR Pile Challenge list so I'm hoping to get to it before the end of the summer.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel: Anthony Trollope Finally Disappoints

Sorry for the poor image quality.
Not a lot of editions of this book.
For a reason.
It was bound to happen eventually: my favorite, most trusted, most reliable author has disappointed me. And not just with a book I found mediocre -- a book that made me so annoyed, so frustrated I nearly threw the book across the room. The culprit? Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel, two short novels published in one volume by one of very favorite authors of all time, Anthony Trollope. Harrumph.

This wasn't even my top choice of Trollope novels to read, but I chose them simply because they were short, and because they're the only two of Trollope's works not set in England. Nina Balatka is set in Prague (which I was lucky enough to visit last year); and Linda Tressel is set just down the road (well, 3 1/2 hours) in Nuremberg.

So. Nina Balatka is the story of a young woman in Prague who is in love (gasp!) with a Jewish man, to the horror of her family. Her mother has long since died and her aged father has fallen on hard times, and signed over the ownership of his house to the Trendellsohns, the family of his former business partner. Nina's father is ill so she has been dealing with the Trendellsohns, particularly the son, Anton. One thing has led to another and they fall in love, to the displeasure of both families. Nina's cousin Ziska Zamenoy is in love with her, and his mother is dead set against her marrying a Jew. She vows to do everything within her power to split them up, planting seeds of doubt in the minds of the two lovers. The big issue is that Anton never actually received the deed which is rightfully his.

This was not Trollope's best work. I thought the dialogue and writing seemed rather stilted, quite unlike Trollope's easy style, and the plot seemed to go over and over the same points repeatedly -- interfaith marriages are hard! Relatives are manipulative! It was like Trollope was beating a literary horse to death; also, there was one character in particular who was so saintly as to be unrealistic. It took me nearly a month to read this 200 page novella because it really wasn't that interesting -- I actually started it at the end of April and it just didn't grab me.

On the other hand, I zipped through Linda Tressel in just over 24 hours.  Right away, this novella held my interest -- the writing was much better and faster-paced. Aha, I thought, now this is the Trollope I know and love. Young Linda Tressel, about 20, was orphaned at a young age and is under the care of her aunt, her mother's sister. They live together in Nuremberg, Germany, in the house left to Linda by her father. To make ends meet they have a lodger, the 50-something Peter Stenimarc, who works for the burgermeisters. Linda's Aunt Charlotte is very religious, a strict Calvinist who basically has sucked all the enjoyment out of Linda's life. She's not allowed to have any friends, dance, read novels, and heaven forbid she should have a suitor or make any kind of decision for herself. 

Aunt Charlotte has decided that Linda needs a stabilizing influence and that she should marry Mr. Stenimarc, who is old enough to be Linda's father. Mr. Stenimarc is flattered by the suggestion and begins to think that young Linda would be lucky to have him. He's very interested in controlling pretty young Linda -- and her property! He and her aunt decide They Know Best and pressure Linda to accept his hand in marriage, even though she's horrified. 

Meanwhile, there's a young man named Ludovic, a distant cousin of Peter's, who is also in love with Linda, but it turns out he may be disreputable -- or is this just what Charlotte and Peter say to keep him away from Linda? It seems like Linda has only a faithful servant to turn to, and there were some pretty surprising developments. The plot in this novel moved along much quicker than Nina Balatka, but I kept wanting to shout at her to grow a spine and tell Aunt Charlotte where to shove it (it's very hard for me as a 21st-century feminist to see people try to control women's decisions, even when they are fictional). Aunt Charlotte was masterful at using guilt to pressure Linda. And then PLOT TWIST [highlight for spoilers] after resisting Charlotte and Peter for months, Linda finally walks out and takes a train and a boat to Cologne to some distant relatives BUT CATCHES COLD ON THE BOAT. AND DIES. THANKS, TROLLOPE!!!!

I was so angry I can't stop thinking about this. It is a terrible thing when one's literary hero falls short. I'm taking it very personally. Anthony, I know you've been dead for 136 years, but seriously, how could you do this to me? I admit, after reading 28 of Trollope's novels (and his autobiography), I've been kind of spoiled because the quality is so high -- there have only been a couple so far that have been just meh -- all but one of them (Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite) have had at least parts that I really enjoyed. I did mostly like Linda Tressel but the ending made me so mad, I don't know if I want to read any more Trollope for a while.

Trollope, you hurt my soul.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Zoladdiction: A Love Story by Emile Zola (And a Giveaway!)

The trouble with polyreading is that when I jump around from book to book, it takes me forever to finish anything -- and then I have a pile of books to review! I finally finished another book by Emile Zola -- A Love Episode, the eighth book in his Rougon-Macquart series. I know it's the very end of the month, but I definitely wanted to finish this for the Zoladdiction readalong hosted by Fanda.

It's the story of Helene Grandjean, a young widow who is about thirty in the start of the novel. After the death of her husband, Helene and her young daughter Jeanne move to Passy (which is now part of the 16th Arrondissment of Paris, on the northwest side of the city). In the beginning of the novel, the sickly Jeanne has a life-threatening seizure, and the frantic Helene bangs on the door of her neighbor who is also her new landlord. Luckily, her new landlord is a physician, the handsome Dr. Deberle. He attends Jeanne and pulls her through the crisis, sitting by her bedside for hours with her mother.

During Jeanne's recovery, Helene and her daughter are often invited to the home of the Deberles and to spend time in their beautiful garden. Helene also spends time with some of the poor parishioners in the area, including a crafty old woman called Madame Fetu, who is also attended by Dr. Deberle. Helene and the doctor spend several days together after Mme Fetu falls ill, and they begin to form a bond.

Portrait of Emile Zola by Felix Vallotton

This becomes awkward as Helene is also friendly with Deberle's wife, the kind if somewhat flighty socialite Juliette. Helene struggles with her growing feelings for Deberle, and meanwhile her friend Abbe Jouve, the priest, is pressuring her to marry his brother, the faithful and patient Monsieur Rambaud. Meanwhile, her daughter Jeanne can sense something is happening between her mother and the doctor.

It's a good story, though not my favorite of the series. It's one of Zola's slower novels, and it's definitely a domestic drama. There are some lighter moments that I really enjoyed, especially with Helene's servant Rosalie, and her fiance, Zephyrin, who provide most of the comic relief of the novel. They were actually my favorite characters and I wish Zola had written more about them. 

A Love Episode is also a love letter to Paris. Helene spends a lot of time gazing at the view of the Paris from her apartment -- apparently she could see all of Paris, including the Seine, Les Invalides, and the Pantheon. It must have been a spectacular view, especially at night: 

In the dormant sea of blackness before them, there was a glimmer of light. It was below them, somewhere in the abyss, in a place they could not precisely identify. And one after the other the different lights started winking. They came to life at night with a sudden start, all at once, and remained there glittering like stars. It seemed as though there was a new rising of heavenly bodies on the surface of a dark lake. Soon there was a double row of them making a pattern which led from the Trocadero towards Paris in little leaps of light. Then other lines of luminous dots cut into that line, you could make out curves, a whole constellation that was getting larger, strange and magnificent. 

A Love Episode is the twelfth book I've completed in the Rougon-Macquart series -- so far I've read fourteen of his works altogether (the other two are Therese Raquin and The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories. Compared to the rest of the series, it's pretty good, though not quite up to the quality of Germinal, L'Assommoir, or La Bete Humaine. However, I'd say it's definitely a good introduction to his work if you're looking for something shorter and slightly less intense.

And now for the giveaway! A couple of years ago, the nice people at Oxford World's Classics starting sending me copies of some of their new releases, mostly Zola (and thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book for passing my name along.) Somehow I received two copies of A Love Story and so I'm going to share my good fortune and give away my extra copy! All you need to do is leave a comment below telling me why you want to read this book. The winner will be chosen in a completely unscientific manner -- I'm going to pick my favorite response, so be creative!

Guidelines for the drawing are as follows:

  • Winner must live in the United States or Europe (due to postage costs)
  • If your blog doesn't have an email link so I contact you, include an email in your comment 
  • The deadline to enter is 11:59 p.m. Western Europe Time Zone (GMT +1) on Monday, May 7.
I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

. . . she still kept to her rules -- one did not drink sherry before the evening, just as one did not read a novel in the morning, this last being a left-over dictum of a headmistress of forty years ago.

The 1970s is kind of a dead zone for my reading -- I was pretty young back then and I hadn't really read any adult novels written in that decade except some fairly trashy mainstream books when I reached high school (Stephen King, the John Jakes historical novels, and dare I say it, some Danielle Steel!) When Simon announced that next readalong was The 1977 Club, my heart sank a little -- I was afraid I'd end up reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull (wrong year!) or something by John Le Carre. 

I was delighted to realize that one of my favorite authors, Barbara Pym, had published a novel in 1977 -- and it was sitting on my shelves unread! Eureka -- my choice was made, Quartet in Autumn.

The book -- a novella, really, at just 218 pages -- follows approximately a year in the life of four co-workers, most likely aged in their late fifties or early sixties. Letty, Marcia, Norman, and Edwin all work together at an amorphous office, where their work is never really defined. None of them are exactly friends, but what they have in common is that each of them is essentially alone. Edwin is a widower and spends a lot of time with vicar and his church; Norman lives in a bed-sit and has brother-in-law, his late sister's husband; Letty has a friend in the country, Marjorie, and they plan to retire together to Marjorie's cottage; and Marcia, a breast-cancer survivor, seems to have nobody since her cat Snowball died. The only thing she seems to look forward to is her regular check-ups. 

There isn't really much of a plot in this book, just vignettes about the characters and their interactions.  You couldn't describe the four as friends, and after Marcia and Letty retire, there's a very awkward lunch reunion for the four of them. Yet, they're somehow connected -- I suppose these four are almost like a vague sort of family. 

This is rather different than the other Pym novels I've read, in that the characters are all much older than the usual protagonists in Pym's novels, and there isn't really a romantic element plot among any of the main characters. It's rather bittersweet compared to some of the earlier novels I remember. Quartet in Autumn was the first novel Pym published since 1961 when No Fond Return of Love was published; her published dropped her after that novel and she was rejected by other publishers. She was rediscovered in 1977 after two influential writers named her "the most underrated writer of the 20th century" in the Times Literary Supplement. Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Pym was able to publish two more novels before she died in 1980. (Several of her unpublished works were published posthumously. 

I think I have all the Moyer-Bell editions of Pym's novels except this one. It's a little pricey.
I did like this book but it took a little while to warm up to the characters. The story didn't really grab me right away but the characters were really well drawn, though the plot is a little sad. It does rather make sense given the circumstances regarding Pym's publishing career, and the fact that she did die of breast cancer just three years after this book was published.

I have just one more of Pym's novels unread, A Few Green Leaves, and I also a copy of A Very Private Eye, a collection of her diaries, letters, and notebooks. I'm very happy to have completed this one for the 1977 Club. Thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for organizing it!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau: A WWII Love Triangle

I really like the cover of this paperback -- it's Table Devant Une Fenetre
(Table Under a Window) by Henri Le Sidaner.
I really cannot resist going into a used bookstore -- for the past few years I've been really disappointed by most of the newer fiction and I always find myself much more satisfied with backlist titles, especially from the mid-century. It's always really nice to scan the shelves at a used bookstore and see a green-spined Virago Modern Classic, which I would normally snatch up immediately. A few years ago I was lucky and found quite a pile of VMCs at John King Books in Detroit, and one of my finds was The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau.

Published in 1949, this is the story of a young actress named Caroline Seward and her love affair with a surgeon, Michael Knowle, from the late 1930s until after the war. Caroline has a promising future on the stage until she meets Michael, who is separated from his wife Mercedes, an artist and set designer. Caroline struggles whether to give up her career and devote her life to Michael, and the complicated relationship between Michael and Mercedes casts a shadow over their relationship, before and during the war.

I mostly liked this book though it did take some time to get into it. I thought it was going to have a lot more about Caroline's theater career, but it's really mostly about her relationship with Michael with some sub-plots about the peripheral characters, like Caroline's childhood friend June; Vera, Mercedes' former secretary who becomes obsessed with finding her former employer during the war; and the Aynsteys, American friends of Michael and Mercedes who eventually tie all the characters together. I liked all the secondary characters and thought they were really well drawn. 

The book is divided into three sections: before, during, and after the war. I think the best section by far was set during the war, when Michael is working as a military surgeon and Caroline has signed up to do her bit. I'm really fascinated by how WWII affected people still in England, much more than battle scenes and that sort of thing. I also really like that this book was written pretty close to the end of the war -- it must have been very fresh in Frankau's mind and as much as I love historical fiction, I think it would be really difficult to recreate it if you haven't experienced it.

I also think the writing in The Willow Cabin was really good. Just after I finished it I started reading a novel for my upcoming book discussion group, a fairly recent historical novel about three women in WWII. I couldn't even get through the first 50 pages because I think it was utter crap, the writing was really weak and the characters so poorly developed I put the book aside in disgust. 

Anyway, here's a bit I found really poignant and insightful: 

He could see nothing ahead for any of them, the tight little circle of temporarily-favoured persons to whom all this was important. "It is the last spring; the guillotine is coming down. And after that it won't matter who loves and who is unloved; we are for the dark." How foolish not to be happy now, when there was so little time left. (p.75)

It's short, but I really feel like it captures the essence of what people must have been feeling when it was so obvious another massive war was inevitable. 

There were several plot twists in this book that I wasn't expecting, but unfortunately the VMC edition has a massive spoiler for a big plot element in the description on the back. (If you're interested in reading this, I would advise against reading the back cover and the desciption on Goodreads). My least favorite part of the book was the aftermath of the war, when the setting shifts to America. I don't want to go into any more detail for fear of spoiling it for anyone else. 

Overall I really did like this and I've heard other good things about Frankau's novels. Apparently she was quite a prolific novelist and published more than 30 works from the end of the 1920s until her death in 1967. A Wreath for the Enemy is her best-known novel and is also a Virago Modern Classic. I'll definitely look for it after I've made some more progress on the TBR shelves. 

This is my sixth book this year for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018 -- I'm halfway through my list!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather is Beautiful and Tragic

After making up my list for the TBR Pile Challenge, I realized that quite a few of my selections were in the 500+ pages range. I was planning to read Testament of Youth in March for Women's History Month, but I'd just finished Wives and Daughters and was rather hesitant to start another 700 page behemoth right away. The answer was of course a nice short book -- Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. 

One of her later works, it's set at the turn of the century but actually written in 1935, and is her penultimate book. The story begins in the small town of Haverford, Nebraska, somewhere west of Lincoln. Young Lucy Gayheart is home for the holidays. She's 18 and is a talented pianist, and has been working in Chicago. The story begins as she's out skating with Harry Gordon, the most eligible young man in town. He fancies himself in love with Lucy, and plans on marrying her and making her his most prized possession, but unbeknown to him, Lucy has dreams and aspirations that don't include spending the rest of her life in a small town.

The moment she shut the door on the baggage man, she seemed to find herself again. Out there in Haverford she had scarcely been herself at all; she had been trying to feel and behave like someone else she no longer was; as children go on playing the old games to please their elders, after they have ceased to be children at heart.

After the holidays, Lucy returns to Chicago, where she teaches piano and finds another job as a part-time accompanist to a famous singer named Sebastian Clement. Lucy is dazzled by his talent, and eventually falls in love with him, despite a large age difference, and the fact that he is married. She's unsure if he returns her feelings, but Harry visits her from Nebraska for the Opera season and she's forced to make a decision between a secure future with Harry and her dreams of Sebastian and a musical career. 

There's a major plot twist about halfway through the story, and it appears that Lucy's dreams are shattered. The second half of the novella deals with Lucy's attempts to comes to terms with her past decisions, and with her future. 

I had expected this to be similar to her earlier book The Song of the Lark, which is about a young woman from Colorado who also moves to Chicago to study music, but they're actually quite different. It's been several years since I read it, but The Song of the Lark deals much more with a young artist dealing with a developing career and interacting with other people. I think Lucy Gayheart is much more about there personal relationships than about her career -- it's the personal aspects that drive the story, not her career aspirations. I would say they're two different possibilities of how a person's life could change. 

Some people's lives are affected by what happens to their person or their property; but for others fate is what happens to their feelings and their thoughts -- that and nothing more.

I actually enjoyed Lucy Gayheart much more than The Song of the Lark -- it's definitely one of her best works, though I wouldn't have minded if it were longer (I actually thought the final section was a bit rushed and would have liked to have seen a little more character development among some of the secondary characters). I did love all the descriptions of both Nebraska and Chicago, two places where I've lived and loved. I particularly enjoyed some of the mentions of Chicago -- there's a scene where Lucy and Harry visit the Art Institute, and Cather mentions the famous lions on the front steps, and the French Impressionists (which don't impress Harry much!). Parts of the book also reminded me a little of Ethan Frome, which is one of my all-time favorite books. 

This is my fifth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018, and I've now read all of Cather's works except the short stories and Alexander's Bridge, which is her first novel. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR List

After finishing the massive Wives and Daughters I'm somewhat between books at the moment. I did just start something a couple of days ago,but this seems as good a time as any to make another list. Spring break is less than two weeks away and I do plan to get a lot of reading done. Here's what I'm hoping to finish this spring:

1. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. I'm only about 50 pages in to this novella, one of Cather's last works. It's about a young musician living in Chicago which is also the setup for her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark. This one was published 20 years later so it will be interesting to compare the two.

2.  One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. Chosen randomly for me by the Classics Club Spin. I've heard wonderful things about this novella, set just after the end of WWII. Also it's blessedly short, since I have some really chunky books on this list.

3. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. On my TBR Pile Challenge list. It's about 700 pages long and I've heard it's wonderful. I've wanted to read it since 2014 when there were lots of great lists of books about WWI.

4. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym. I've only got two Pym works left before I've finished all her books. This one fits in with Simon's 1977 Club which should be sometime in April if I remember correctly!

5. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik. I don't read much current fiction but bloggers seem to love this book. On a recent trip to Paris I picked this up at Shakespeare and Company.

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens. The follow-up to One Pair of Hands, Monica Dickens' memoir of working as a nurse in WWII. Also purchased at Shakespeare and Company, they also have used books. This one was a bargain at only 6 euros.

7. Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher. I was absolutely gripped by the TV adaptation of this historical crime series, set in Berlin during the wars. It's streaming on Netflix and if you haven't seen it, you should drop everything and WATCH THIS. I'm trying really hard not to buy any more books but I broke down and ordered a copy online. I suspect I'll get hooked on the series and have to buy all of them as soon as they're translated into English.

8. The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse. Another book from the TBR Pile Challenge, it's Virago Modern Classic about a young woman who goes to Burma in the 1880s. I thought it would work nicely for Asian Pacific Heritage Month in May.

9. A Love Story by Emile Zola. It's been a while since I read a Zola novel but Fanda at Fanda Classiclit is hosting Zoladdiction in April, in honor of Zola's birthday. I got a lovely new translation from the nice people at Oxford World's Classics so this would be a good time to read it.

10. The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. This is on my list as a possible read for the Back to the Classics Challenge (it squeaks in just under the wire as a 20th Century Classic). There's a free digital audio download on Overdrive from my library so this is a win-win!

Bloggers, have you read (or listened to) any of these? And what's on your to-read list for spring?