Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Frenchman’s Creek

I couldn't choose between these two books for the Back to the Classics Challenged so I read them both.😀

I was pretty curious to try the Anne Bronte title. I’d only read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte previously. One can’t help but compare the sisters’ novels when reading them, though whether that is fair or not is debatable. I can see where readers might not like Anne aka Helen in this novel. She can be a little strident at times. But I did like this book and particularly (despite its absurdity of a man writing an impossibly long letter to a friend, quoting verbatim huge chunks of dialog and in the very center, inserting the lady’s diary entries) its nutshell like structure. Enormous chunks of conversation “remembered” verbatim in letters and diaries is a pretty common narrative technique in Victorian novels in my (albeit limited) experience. Sometimes, I don't mind an info-dump.

The novel is narrated by Gilbert Markham, a young gentleman farmer in 1827, who at first makes light of his mother and sister’s obsession with their reclusive new neighbor, Helen Graham, who is the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall. But when Gilbert observes the young widow himself at church the following Sunday, he too finds himself mysteriously drawn to her, much to the chagrin of the vicar’s flirtatious daughter who has set her cap at Gilbert. As the book progresses, Mrs. Graham’s reputation suffers due to local gossip and she fears she may need to leave the neighborhood.  But before she goes, she provides Gilbert with parts of her diary which explain just why she is so reserved and mysterious and also why she must flee. The middle of the book is then almost entirely Helen’s diary recounting her youth and the years leading up to her move to Wildfell Hall.

I liked the story quite a bit. Anne Bronte’s depiction of alcoholism, Victorian machismo, and manipulative men was very realistic…uncomfortably so at times. It many respects, the kind of psychological manipulation that Helen endures in her marriage is completely common and still happens today. Only now, at least in the West, it is usually somewhat easier for the wife to legally extricate herself from a marriage…and yet modern advice columns are full of letters from women (and men) who stay and stay and stay…

My only real complaint is that I didn't like Gilbert as a character. It is perhaps unfair to compare him to Rochester or Heathcliff and yet, there are some (negative) qualities in all three of these (anti-)heroes which maybe speak more to the idea of the Victorian man or maybe more to the Bronte sisters' idea of men. That said, as a romantic foil, he just can’t stand next to those other two awful, yet compelling men. Gilbert was a spoiled boy grown into a spoiled man. He had none of Heathcliff’s or Rochester’s cunning or intelligence. I understood Helen’s passion for Huntington, even though he was clearly a manipulative jerk, but I found Gilbert Markham simply boorish. Dunno, maybe that says more about me and my bad taste in men! I will have to ponder that one a bit. LOL.

Frenchman’s Creek was fun but more a romance novel (albeit with an un-traditional ending I think) which just isn’t my cup of tea. I much prefer du Maurier’s psychological suspense novels like Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel. But I have long been interested in reading it ever since I read the delightful he said/she said debate between Simon Thomas and his mother waaaay back in 2012 on the blog Stuck in a Book.  I am afraid I fall down on the side of Simon: I found the heroine, Dona St. Columb, often selfish and insufferable and the pirate no real Robin Hood. But I will say, on the plus side, the dialogue is usually pretty snappy and well done...funny and sexy. 

I also understand that women in the Restoration Era didn’t have a lot of options, even the wealthy ones, but I kind of felt that du Maurier was mostly paying lip service to the historical aspects of the book. It did not work for me as a historical novel at all.  Frenchman’s Creek I feel is pure escapist romantic fantasy with a heroine who feels fettered by conventions of her class and era so she runs away and falls in love with a pirate.  Even though I’ve not read it or seen the T.V. show, I was strongly reminded of Outlander while reading it. I think it was the idea of escaping one’s responsibilities and commitments via adventure and romance that made my mind go there. Only Clare in Outlander does so by stepping through a time-travel portal and Dona does so by hanging out with pirates who are camping out in the back yard of her husband's ancestral home.  Definitely a great book for the right reader, I am just not that reader.


I read both books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 Classic with a Place in the Title category.


Sunday, April 12, 2020

The 1920 Club - In Chancery by John Galsworthy

“He had long forgotten how he had hovered, lanky and pale, in side whiskers of chestnut hue, round Emily, in the days of his own courtship. He had long forgotten the small house in the purlieus of Mayfair, where he had spent the early days of his married life, or rather, he had long forgotten the early days, not the small house,-a Forsyte never forgot a house - he had afterwards sold it at a clear profit of four hundred pounds.”

Having read A Man of Property a couple of years ago, I was really pleased to find I could read its sequel In Chancery by John Galsworthy for the 1920 Club.  These books are volumes one and two respectively of The Forsyth Chronicles which compromises a total of nine novels. Pictured are my paperback copies of the first six that my mom bought at a church rummage sale many, many years ago which I inherited, so to speak. The Scribner box set has the price of $11.70 on it and I am sure my mother would have paid less than a dollar for them in circa 1975 at the rummage. This set was issued by the publisher to take advantage of the T.V. series broadcast on National Educational Television (the precursor of PBS) in 1967(?)which actually kicked off/created that venerable institution in American Television "Masterpiece Theater". Pictures from the T.V. show are on the box. 

I don’t want to say too much about the plot of In Chancery since it is a sequel, but in terms of its main characters, both books are set at the end of the 19th century and focus mainly on Soames Forsyte and his beautiful but aloof wife Irene and Soames’ first cousin “Young” Jolyon Forsyte. 

The Forsytes as a clan have humble beginnings. Two generations earlier in the late 18th century their forefather was a modestly well-off farmer. But his son, through the acquisition of property and subsequent investment, prospered so much so that his progeny, the third generation, became very comfortably middle class and by the mid-1800s their children, the fourth generation, go to all the right schools, dress in all the right fashions and dine at all the right places.  As they say, money begets money. 

Soames is the titular "Man of Property". All Forsytes appreciate money and possessions and one of Soames’ most prized possessions is Irene, who does not love him. Soames can and does meet, if not exceed, all of Irene’s material needs but she cannot love a man who does not see her as a person but rather covets her as an object to be admired and envied by others. Soames contrasts with his cousin, Young Jolyon who is estranged from the family because he left his first wife after he fell in love with another woman. To make matters worse, he has designs on becoming a painter. Young Jolyon’s father and the patriarch of the Forsyte clan, Old Jolyon, longs to reconcile with his disgraced son, but doesn’t quite know how to go about it.  In Chancery takes place 12 years after the first book, still with its spotlight on the doomed relationship between Soames and Irene, but it also ushers out the old generation of the family and brings in the new, fifth generation who will come of age in the new 20th century. 

All in all, this is a very soapy series, full of affairs and intrigue. But I think it is intelligently written and I find it often quite moving emotionally and also not without plenty of sharp satirical commentary. In particular, Galsworthy reminds me of Trollope in his depiction of the plight of married women in the Victorian and Edwardian era when such women were legally the property of their husbands. Galsworthy doesn’t quite have the charm of Trollope, but I imagine a reader who likes the one will probably like the other. I’m not sure when I’ll get to the rest of the books but I am looking forward to finishing out the series, or at the very least, these six books I own. 

Many thanks to Simon and Karen for hosting The 1920 Club. I can't wait to hear what year will be chosen for November 2020. 😄


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS 2020 - THE WINNER IS...

Oliver models my 2020 TOB t-shirt.
I hope all my blogger friends are staying safe and healthy during these strange days.  I am currently (a) still employed and (b) able to work from home, so I consider myself lucky in that respect. I know that some of you, like Kathy at Reading Matters, are still interfacing with the public the service sector, which must be unnerving. I also have friends and family who work in hospitals, which is also a cause for worry, as well as friends who are laid off or furloughed without pay. It's hard not to let our panicky lizard brains take over too much. 

But we still have each other via the internet and we have books to read and discuss and for that I consider myself especially lucky. And I have The Tournament of Books which absolutely can be enjoyed while maintaining a six foot distance from other humans.

I did end up reading all 18 of the shortlisted 2020 Tournament of Books.  And the winner was Normal People by Sally Rooney. It wasn't my favorite from the list. My top favorites were:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo: This was this year's Booker Prize winner and it features 12 characters, almost all exclusively female, black and British. It was a real joy to read and suss out the links between the characters. I think it is a real credit to the author that I was both irritated and empowered by every character’s opinion or actions at times. Evaristo compellingly presented each person in all their contradictory glory, warts and all.  No one person is representative of anything other than themselves and their own unique trajectory. The only thing that spoiled it for me what the epilogue. I thought the book didn't need it.  

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha: This was a taut novel that rolled out like a Greek tragedy. It is based on a real life shooting of a young African-American woman by a Korean-American convenience store employee in Los Angeles in the 1990s. The book starts with a similar incident and then fast forwards 25 years focusing on the families of both the victim and the perpetrator and showing how this crime has affected them. As the story progresses, the events conspire to bring the incident back to life and the reader is asked if one can ever reconcile one's pasts with the present. It wasn't always easy reading but I thought it was a thoughtful portrayal of a tragic situation.    

Normal People was a fine book. I would encourage any reader to give it a try if it sounds interesting to them or if they are curious about Sally Rooney, who isn't even thirty yet and has two best sellers under her belt along with much critical acclaim. I read Normal People last summer before the TOB shortlist was published. It is about two young people in Ireland who meet in high school and maintain a strong bond, though not necessarily a relationship (friendship or otherwise) up through university. What brings them together and what pulls them away from each other is the novel's focus. Their communication is so deep on many levels and yet completely inadequate on others. If it weren’t for the fairly explicit sex scenes, I would consider this YA. It often read like that to me, in any case.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 - Dombey and Son

I’ve actually read three books thus far for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 but the first one I am going to blog about is Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.  This as the last completed novel from Dickens that I had to read. I haven’t yet made up my mind if I want to read the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood or not. 
I am really happy to write that I ended on a real high note.  I wonder why this title isn’t better known among the 14 completed novels? It has many of those classic Dickens attributes that we fan boys and girls love about Boz. I would certainly rank it in my top ten. 

The main story is that of Paul Dombey, Sr. and his monomania about raising a son to be his heir and thereby to continue the business of Dombey & Son (I’m not sure exactly what that business was, but I think it was some sort of import/export). He is reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge, only his is not miserly with his money; it is his love and affection that he withholds from all others with the exception of his son, Paul Jr.  Generally, Dombey Senior is unaware that he also has a daughter, Florence, unless it is to be jealous of Florence’s relationship with her younger brother Paul.  This is the story of a dysfunctional family in the extreme. Their emotional impoverishment is only accentuated by the loving depiction of the lower class Toodle family and the wonderful ersatz father/son relationship between Soll Gills and his nephew Walter Gay, who works for Mr. Dombey.

I wrote earlier of classic Dickens attributes. He loves coincidences and this book is full of them. He believed wholeheartedly in the redemptive power of forgiveness and this novel is a classic example of this. He used his books as a platform for social criticism an there is some of that here as well; in particular, I feel he equates marriages made purely for financial gain to be akin to prostitution. He also really loved writing deathbed scenes,  I think, and he wrote two very fine ones in this tome. I did personally find that Florence occasionally edged on Little Nell-like saccharine devotion and she is, as many of Dickens’ heroines are, a cipher whose one personality trait is saintliness. However, it grated less in this novel because Florence has been so ill-treated psychologically from childhood; I could believe she would develop a masochistic like devotion to the hand that bites her.

But aside from the tragic and touching main plot, Dombey and Son, as are all Dickens’ novels, is replete with humor and many side plots. I laughed out loud more than once. Possibly my favorite thing about Dickens novels are the colorful side characters and they were absolutely top notch in this book: Cap’n Cuttle (“Stand by!”), Mr. Toots (“It’s of no consequence”), Miss Nipper, Miss Tox,… they are all amazingly well constructed and well employed in the plot and development of the novel. Also, honorable mention goes to little Paul, that old-fashioned child. And the villains are equally wonderful, Major Blagstock (that de-vilish old soldier, J.B., Josh, Joey B., J. Bagstock, as observed by his royal highness, the late Duke of York on more than one occasion), the horrifically eternally youthful Mrs. Skewton, and Mr. Carker with all his intimidating white teeth (I’m not the first to notice it but Carker is very much a progenitor of Tulkinghorn in Bleak House).

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 category: 19th Century Classic. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

March Mystery Madness 5.0 TBR


For the third year in a row, I will read books for the March Mystery Madness read-along which was created by booktubers Lizzy Faye Loves Books and Troi Towel and is co-hosted by them along with many other equally fantastic booktubers.  Below are the prompts which all correspond to the number five because this is the fifth anniversary of the read-along.

→ Read the 5th book in a series
→ Read a  book with 5 or more words in the title
→ Read a book with a page count divisible by 5
→ Read a book with the number 5 or Fifth in title
→ Read a book first published in a year divisible by 5
→ Read a book published in May of any year
→ Since the 5 year anniversary gift is wood, read a book with something made  of wood on the cover.

Honestly? I’m skipping the prompts this year.  Too much math is involved. 😜  At a minimum, all one needs to do is read five books in March that fall in to any mystery genre/sub-genre.   I can count that high and here are the books I have chosen:

1. The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith.  This is ACTUALLY the fifth book in the Ladies Number One Detective series, it has five words in the title,  AND it has a wooden cupboard on the cover. *mic drop* 

2.  Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie – I’m always down to read something from the Queen of Crime.

3. The Minotaur by Ruth Rendell – This book has been floating around my house for years. It’s gonna get read. 

4. Sunburn by Laura Lippman – I’m going to check this one out from the library.  I know nothing about it, I’ve enjoyed her books in the past and this was on the Tournament of Books longlist in 2019.

5. The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz – Should be a fun and quick read.  Horowitz wrote for T.V. before authoring mystery novels and I think he has the formula down pat.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

THE 2020 TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS

My favorite sporting event of the year is gearing up for its March smack down. That's right, it's time for the 2020 Tournament of Books. 

Detailed information can be found on the Morning News website.  However, to summarize if you've not heard of it before, the Tournament  is a semi-serious, semi-tongue in cheek, on-line book prize. The winner wins an actual rooster - though I believe all previous winning authors have donated said prize via a charity to a family in need. 

The books go head to head in this competition using bracket eliminations.  Each reader-judge reads two books and makes the call, allowing only one book to move forward. The reasoning behind the judgment is posted on the Morning News’ website and commentary from the booth (the website organizers or their assigns) and the crowd (anyone on the internet with a Disqus account) follows.  I really enjoy the transparency of this book prize.  Unlike the Pulitzer or Booker prize, we know exactly why the judge advanced one book over another, whether we agree with such reasoning or not.  

Below is the shortlist showing what I have read and what I have yet to accomplish. 
TITLE
AUTHOR
READ?
All This Could Be Yours
Attenberg, Jami
YES
Fleishman is in Trouble
Brodesser-Akner, Taffy
YES
Girl, Woman, Other
Evaristo, Bernardine
YES
Lost Children Archive
Luiselli, Valeria
YES
Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen
Palmer, Dexter
YES
Normal People
Rooney, Sally
YES
Nothing to See Here
Wilson, Kevin
YES
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Vuong, Ocean
YES
Optic Nerve
Gainza, Maria

Overthrow
Crain, Caleb
YES
Saudade
Peres da Costa, Suneeta

The Testaments
Atwood, Margaret

Trust Exercise
Choi, Susan
YES
The Water Dancer
Coates, Ta-Nehisi

Your House Will Pay
Cha, Steph

Golden State
Winters, Ben H.
YES
Oval
Wilk, Elvia
YES
We Cast A Shadow
Ruffin, Maurice Carlos
YES

The Tournament doesn’t start until mid March 2020, so I still have plenty of time to read the titles I’m missing. The majority of my contemporary reading is a direct result of following this contest.  

Of the titles I've read so far, my favorites have been Girl, Woman, Other (the writing is quite stylized but once I got used to it, I found myself swept up in this stories of black British women of all backgrounds, ages and opinions), Mary Toft (slightly quirky historical fiction but with a serious look at groupthink and human inclinations to believe in the unbelievable), and Trust Exercise (when I first read this last summer I was ambivalent about it but it has really stuck with me and so gone up in my estimation).

Have any of you read any of the shortlisted books or would you like to? Do you follow the Tournament or any other book prize?  Let me know! 

Friday, January 3, 2020

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2020

I am sure you are all now aware that Karen at Books and Chocolate has decided to host the challenge in 2020 *cue applause and noisemakers*.  It is the only on-line challenge I take seriously.  I find it a great aid in structuring my reading (and blogging) and checking off many titles that I otherwise would put off reading.  Below is my preliminary list of what I might read for the proposed 2020 categories, as ever with an eye on books I already own:

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899. 
- I think I will read Dombey & Son by Charles Dickens which was published in 1848.

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1970. 
- I would like to give the four books in Laurence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet a go. They were published in the 50's and 60's. Four books might seem like a lot, but I don’t think each book is particularly long...something like in the 200 page range.  I will have to check the books out from the library BUT they are also on the Modern Library list so I need to read them anyway.

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
I think it might finally be time to read The Dud Avacado by Elaine Dundy. It gets compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s often. Let’s see if I agree with that. 

4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language. -  I was gifted a copy of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) in German this fall but am not sure I have the fortitude to attack it this year, dictionary in hand. I might end up taking the easy route and read something in English from Balzac or Zola instead which I will probably end up reading from the library or downloading from Project Gutenberg.

5. Classic by a Person of Color. Any classic novel by a non-white author. - I really want to read Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. Another book I don’t own and will have to get from the library.

6. A Genre Classic. Any classic novel that falls into a genre category -- fantasy, science fiction, Western, romance, crime, horror, etc. – Sci-Fi is the genre, possibly Ubik by P.K. Dick or Bring on the Jubilee by Ward Moore will be the book.

7. Classic with a Person's Name in the Title. First name, last name or both. – I could read either Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser or Evelina by Frances Burney.

8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Any classic with the proper name of a place (real or ficitonal) - a country, region, city, town, village, street, building, etc.– Will this be the year I finally read something by Anne Bronte like The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall? I could also try Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier.

9. Classic with Nature in the Title. A classic with any element of nature in the title (not including animals).  -  The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens will fit nicely here. 

10. Classic About a Family. This classic should have multiple members of the same family as principal characters, either from the same generation or multiple different generations. - I have long wanted to try Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I would have to check it out from the library, however since I don’t own a copy.

11. Abandoned Classic. Choose a classic that you started and just never got around to finishing, whether you didn't like it at or just didn't get around to it. Now is the time to give it another try.- I started and never finished The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce years and years ago. I don’t even remember what happened to my copy of it.

12. Classic Adaptation. Any classic that's been adapted as a movie or TV series. If you like, you can watch the adaptation and include your thoughts in your book review. It's not required but it's always fun to compare – I have The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope left to read from the Palliser series and then I plan to watch the 1970s adaptation of all six of the Palliser novels. It is 8 discs and over 22 hours long...I will break out the popcorn and see if it is true to the books or not. If nothing else, it will be worth watching for the costumes.

Now I am off to see what everyone else has listed so far. I think I know most of you blogging friends because of this challenge.  Will you be participating in 2020 as well?