Sunday, August 29, 2021

Back to Classics Challenge 2021: Sister Carrie

"When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility.

This book is as much about Carrie Meeber, the young woman who comes from rural Wisconsin to Chicago in the 1880s as it is about George Hurstwood, the older married Chicago business manager who falls for her. This book was controversial when first published since Carrie lives what would be considered an immoral life when she shacks up with men who are not her husband. But the book also bucks convention (and probably pissed off critics of it) because Carrie is not punished for this. In fact, despite certain challenges, she thrives. 

The book opens with 18 year old Carrie on a train from her small town in Wisconsin on her way to Chicago sometime in the late 1880s. She meets a flashy but charming salesman, Charles Drouet, who will later play a great role in her life. But at this point, she is basically a country hick with no idea of what a city like Chicago has to offer and also to take from a fresh girl like her. Her married sister lives in the city and the expectation is that Carrie will get a job and help them by paying room and board out of her salary. Her sister’s husband is a dour Swede who has no imagination or interest in what a young girl might want out of life. His expectation is that she should be happy working in any of the various factories employing cheap labor. Carrie’s sister is slightly more sympathetic, but not much. Carrie soon finds that almost all her earnings are eaten up by room and board and the cost of transportation to and from work. She has no money at the end of the week, nowhere to go and no one to go with her.  Her chance meeting with Drouet will later pay off in taking her away from this existence, which serves only to grind her down. Drouet can offer her something better. 

Drouet, in turn, is very admiring of George Hurstwood, the manager of a local “resort” (sounded like an upscale bar to me). George is older, successful and surrounded by local celebrity and big wigs who come to the bar. He is also unhappily married with two grown children. When George meets Carrie (Drouet introduces them almost as if he is showing Carrie off as a possession, though he calls her his wife) he falls head over heels in love with her. 

Definitely this is a realist novel along the lines of Emile Zola (which fits nicely with The House of Ulloa and the Zola title I read earlier this year). I’m not that particular about language or prose but I have to say, Dreiser’s dialogue and description is sometimes pretty flat and matter-of-fact. 

What I liked most about this book was its time capsule quality. Dreiser really brought the streets of the nascent Second City to life and later those of New York as well. He gave me a glimpse of how some people lived during those times and, sometimes down to the penny, what a dollar could get you and where. I liked those details. The plotting was a little hackneyed maybe, but overall I appreciated this classic novel and especially I appreciated Dreiser’s non-judgmental stance. Also, I learned that “out of sight” meaning “terrific” or “great” was a common phrase in the last 19th century! I had always assumed it originated in the 1960 or '70s, but no. The trivial things we readers learn, right?

Chicago in the late 19th century

Another book from the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels published during the 20th century. I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “20th Century Classic”. Sorry for those of you who were looking forward to me reading the next book in the Alexandria Quartet for this prompt, but it just didn't work out. I will read it, for sure. But not in time for the 2021 challenge, alas!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - His Excellency, Eugène Rougon

Inspired by Karen at Books and Chocolate and her enthusiasm for the novels of Emile Zola, I decided a few years ago to read all of his Rougon-Marquand series - 20 books total - in the recommended reading order (as opposed to the order of publication). This initial bout of enthusiasm lead me to read The Fortune of the Rougons waaay back in 2013.  The best laid plans of mice and men as some one once said…it only took me eight years to read the next book.  At this rate, I will be 120 or so when I am done with the series. 

His Excellency, Eugène Rougon takes place fairly soon after the events of The Fortune of the Rougons. Eugène Rougon is a lawyer from the provinces who went to Paris to make his fortune and luckily (or shrewdly) put his faith in Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851 when Napoléon, who was then President of France, staged a successful coup and crowned himself emperor Napoléon III.  When the book opens, while the Empire is still at the height of its powers and popularity, Rougon is resigning his influential post in the national assembly. All those who relied upon him and his political power are astonished and disappointed; one by one they desert him. 

But it would appear Rougon is playing a long game and when he finds the opportunity to insert himself back into the Emperor’s good graces, he strikes and soon becomes, next to the Napoléon III, the most powerful man in the country. His sycophantic hangers-one soon flock him again and all are given power, favors and positions accordingly, but eventually things go too far and Rougon, or rather one of his cronies, oversteps the bounds of his office and Rougon finds himself politically walking a fine line.

I liked this book, though it was pretty heavy on the politics and I don’t think with either this or The Fortune of the Rougons (it has been too long since I have read Germinal to remember if it is any different), that Zola is a particularly subtle writer. The best thing I found about this title was the character, Clorinde de Babi, a young, beautiful Italian noblewoman with whom Rougon becomes obsessed and to his peril, he underestimates. The introduction I read suggested Clorinde was based on the mysterious, real-life Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione, who was one of Napoléon III’s many mistresses and a fascinating person historically. Clorinde is as politically astute as Rougon in this novel, if not more so. However, as a female, her options are limited and her power necessarily more indirect and behind the scenes. 

Definitely these first two books have been a great window for me on the Second Empire historical period in France and I expect as I read on, my view will only be deepened. Though, it is very clear that Zola was no fan of the Emperor and this isn’t an unbiased view by any means. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, much of the political  practices criticized in the novel, the cronyism, the corruption, the abuse of power, etc. is not something left in history or unique to France or the 19th century, I’m afraid.

I read this title for the category "Classic in Translation" in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 hosted by Karen. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - The Wind in the Willows

I need to get crackin' if I am going to successfully complete the Back to the Challenge this year. I am reading the books just fine. But when it comes to actually blogging about them, I am challenged.

Apparently in a different edition from the one I read, the intro/afterword by Jane Yolen points out that The Wind in the Willows is really three distinct sets of stories: (1) Mole and Ratty, (2) the Adventures of Mr. Toad and (3) the Pan interlude.  I found this break down to be completely accurate and as an adult, I much preferred the snuggly comforts of Mole and Ratty. There’s lots of eating and being cozy and warm by the fire in their chapters. Mr. Toad, while amusing, is likely going to appeal more to readers who are children.  Toad is very naughty and usually gets away with whatever he gets up to, despite his occasional attempts at repentance.  The Pan chapter reminded me of C.S. Lewis in its religious overtones and it is actually the part that gives rise to the title of the book.  

According to the introduction by Margaret Hodges in the edition pictured above that I read (with absolutely stunning illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard), the book was written for Kenneth Graham’s son and was based on bedtime stories he made up for the boy.  Mr. Toad, is in fact based on the young Alistair Graham as a small child, which accounts for much of Toad’s petulant and impulsive behavior…if you have ever met a four year old human, you will know what I mean.  And I did like Mr. Toad’s adventures and found them occasionally laugh-out-loud funny – particularly when his mansion is overrun by piratical stoats and weasels. 

I can also understand why, when this book has been adapted for stage and screen, that only the Mr. Toad parts are included in the adaptation. Mole and Ratty’s tales are really just a succession of meals and naps. But that isn’t to down play them at all. They were absolutely my favorite part and I spent a lot of time thinking about just how I would arrange my cozy den if I were an anthropomorphized mole, water rat or badger. As someone who falls somewhere on the very introverted side of humankind, good friends, delicious meals and a comfortable bed are paradise –just add books to make it perfect. It is interesting that Mr. Toad is the only character who actually gets a proper, human like house, which is spacious, multi-storied and rambling, not close and warm. It also helps that I read this back in February. It doesn’t get that cold in my part of Southern California, but February is typically rainy and, in the evenings at least, chilly. This is a wonderful book to snuggle up to.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 Children’s Classic category. Many thanks to Cleo at  for giving this book such a glowing treatment last year. It totally lived up to that post and my expectations.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021- Orley Farm

 “For many years this prosperous gentleman had lived at a small country house, some five-and-twenty miles from London, called Orley Farm. This had been his first purchase of land, and he had never given up his residence
there, although his wealth would have entitled him to the enjoyment of a larger establishment. On the birth of his youngest son, at which time his eldest was nearly forty years old, he made certain moderate provision for the infant, as he had already made moderate provision for his young wife; but it was then clearly understood by the eldest son that Orley Farm was to go with the Groby Park estate to him as the heir. When, however, Sir Joseph died, a codicil to his will, executed with due legal formalities, bequeathed Orley Farm to his youngest son, little Lucius Mason

The above paragraph is the third one on page one, where Trollope sets up the major plot of the novel. That codicil to the will is contested but ultimately upheld and the mother of the infant Lucius Mason is able to keep Orley Farm for her child and away from the grasping hands of her angry and covetous adult stepson, Joseph Mason Jr. However, some 20 years later, the case is re-opened and the still beautiful Lady Mason isn’t so sure she has the strength to endure yet another lawsuit and trial. Lucius Mason has now reached his majority and wishes to be his mother’s defender in this matter and yet she refuses his assistance and instead relies on that of the family solicitor Mr. Furnival as well as that of their neighbor, Sir Peregrine Orme.   

Ultimately, the question is less is Lady Mason guilty of forgery or perjury and more will she be found guilty of such at the trial. One of the larger questions Trollope is looking at in this novel is the amorality of the law and whether a lawyer is supposed to care more about the truth and justice than they are about their client’s innocence or lack thereof in the eyes of the law. 

Also, of course, there are also multiple romantic subplots and much gentle humor among the handwringing drama. This is a Trollope novel, after all. I found it interesting that Trollope introduces some lower class characters into Orley Farm with the commercial travelers, Mr. Mr. Kantwise and Mr. Moulder. It isn’t unheard of in his novels, but usually he sticks quite closely to the upper middle and upper class in his books. Another interesting character normally not seen in a Trollope novel is the “moulded bride”, young Mary Snow, the low born fiancée of the impoverished yet brilliant lawyer, Felix Graham. Felix, who becomes part of Lady Mason's legal team, is involved in a sort of love quadrangle between himself, Mary Snow, the beautiful Madeline Staverly and young Perry Orne, grandson of Sir Percival. Also among the potential romances are the shenanigans of Lucius Mason and the wily and sly Sophia Furnival and Madeline's brother, Augustus.

I really enjoyed reading Orley Farm. It is a very long novel, but those are often my favorites from Trollope…wherein he introduces many subplots and characters with whom I can get acquainted and involved. There is also some nice continuity with other novels with Mr. Chaffenbrass, another member of Lady Mason's defense, who was previously seen lawyering in The Three Clerks and Phineas Redux.  

I totally gave in to my whim and read Trollope for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “Classic by a Favorite Author”. Unfortunately, in this book as in so many others, Trollope betrays his ugly anti-Semitic attitude, which is a real black mark on him. Not uncommon for the time but I feel I should always call Tony out on this, because there were writers and other people of that era who were not nasty anti-Semites, regardless of the prevailing sentiment. Despite this flaw, Trollope remains next to Charles Dickens, my favorite Victorian novelist. Once a reader is in his thrall, there is no going back, I fear.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - A Grain of Wheat

 Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24

My first novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o but definitely not my last. Ngũgĩ came to my attention sometime around 2010 when I was becoming better acquainted with book prizes and he was rumored to be a front runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature for that year. Mario Vargas Llosa ended up winning instead, but perhaps Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o will win it in the future at some point.

Set on the even of Uhuru (Freedom), Kenya’s official freedom from the colonial powers of the British Empire in 1963, the story is more or less of centered around the reclusive Mugo. Mugo is so introverted and quiet that those around him fill his silences with what they want to think and hear. What they don’t know is that Mugo is harboring a secret that has been plaguing him for many years, driving him even more away from village society and into a self-imposed isolation. 

Apart from but also connected to Mugo are Gikonyo, a local business man, his wife Mumbi and his rival, the Karanja, who works at the local research station and who is considered a collaborator since he did not fight but worked for British during the war. Mumbi was sister to Kihika, a local hero and Mau Mau freedom fighter who was betrayed which lead to his capture and hanging. The village leaders are trying to get Mugo to give a speech at Uhuru because they believe him to have been a fervent supporter of Kihika and in his own quiet way, a hero of the rebellion. All the characters come to Mugo, in part to try and convince him to speak, but also to confide in him their own troubles and cares. Because Mugo is so quiet, they assume he is sympathetic to them and their feelings. Everything comes to a head on the day of Uhura when old rivalries are settled and the truth about Kihika is revealed.

There is a much smaller side story of the white district officer, John Thompson and his unhappy and unfaithful wife, who will be leaving Kenya after independence because he frankly does not want to be subject to and governed by blacks. His story intertwines with the others because during the war of independence, Thomson was an officer at a detention camp where Mugo was held.  

I really enjoyed this book. It was a great look at Kenya and its history, looking very much at its future and already noting the cracks in the foundation of self-rule. To paraphrase The Who, “meet the new boss, just the same as the old one”. And what to make of this biblical analogy of the death of the seed which brings life to the plant? Is Ngũgĩ using this to remind the reader that the death of colonialism will bring forth the flowering of Kenyan independence?  Or is he referencing the death of the rebel leader Kihika who will bring forth the fruits of self-rule which was achieved in part because of his sacrifices? It is interesting to think about.

I had to read this book quite carefully, because there were a lot of subtle time shifts in the narrative. Also, there was the occasional use of untranslated Kikuyu/Swahili and Kikuyu names took some getting used to in order to differentiate one person from another. But I really enjoyed that aspect of the book because it made the experience more immersive. 

I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “Classic by a POC author”.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - Setting Free the Bears

For the Back to the Classics 2021 category “Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title”, I read John Irving’s debut novel, Setting Free the Bears which I have owned for many years... ahem… decades.  I think like a lot of readers, if they have read any Irving at all, the first Irving I read was The World According to Garp, after seeing the movie which came out in 1982. For many years thereafter, up to the late ‘90s I was a huge Irving fan and had read his novels (six) published between 1978 and 1998.  I wouldn’t say I am no longer a fan, but for whatever reason, I stopped reading him in the new millennium; well, until recently. 

Anyone who has read a few Irving novels will notice some of his signature trademark tics across his books: Vienna, bears, wrestling, orphans, bizarre deaths, etc. Not every book has every peculiarity in it, but they all have his special brand of epic tragicomedy I believe, at least the seven that I’ve now read. I didn’t encounter any Charles Dickens until 2005, but after having re-read The Cider House Rules in 2019 and now Setting Free the Bears for the first time, it is clear to me that “Dickensian” is an adjective that can be applied to Irving’s novels. 

Published in 1968, Setting Free the Bears is a frame story narrated by Hanne Graff, a Viennese university student. When Hanne flunks out of university, he takes up with the slightly unhinged Siggy Javotnik, a radish eating, salt stealing maniac, and they decide to take a motorcycle road trip. Their goal is to go all the way to Italy and the coast. The opening and closing of the novel are set during their journey in present day mid-1960s Austria, but the middle section is the life history of Siggy’s parents during World War II interspersed with Siggy’s current day obsessive plans to free the animals from the Vienna zoo (hence the title). Also central to the story is a young woman Hanne meets along the way called Gallen at an alpine hotel. Basically, however, Hanne is the straight man to the farcical Siggy and the real story within the story is the history of the Anschluss in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria and the politics and betrayals of the partisan guerilla forces in Yugoslavia during and after the war.  

The book has its charms and hit a number of the Irving markers (Vienna, bears, orphans) but on the whole, I found it awkwardly plotted, often stilted and generally it felt overly long. All John Irving books are pretty chunky, but as a reader, I don’t normally feel it; in this one I did. I think this book is maybe best left to Irving completists, though possibly had I read it a few decades ago at the height of my love for Irving I would have liked it more. I suspect some of what made it awkward and long was just the creakiness of a debut novel.  Irving was warming up to hit his later stride starting with Garp. I am glad to have read it, however. I particularly appreciated learning more about the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 and the political makeup of Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation. I’d never heard of Draža Mihailović and the Chetniks but I think I should have, as should everyone. He was on the cover of Time in 1942, for goodness sake! Google him, I ask you all, if you’ve not heard of him. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The 1936 Club: A Shilling for Candles

After missing out on the 1956 club in 2020 because I can’t read a calendar apparently, I am really glad I managed to both READ a book and POST about it for the 1936 Club hosted by bloggers Karen at Kaggsy and Thomas at Stuck in a Book I was super pleased to find I actually owned a copy of A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey which was first published in the UK in 1936. I have now read all but one of Tey’s mysteries. On the whole, her books are in my opinion a little hit and miss, but so far all have been well worth reading, even if every title didn’t always blow my socks off.  If you like Golden Age crime fiction, Tey should be on your reading list for sure. 

In the opening chapter of A Shilling for Candles, a man taking an early morning walk on the beach finds the body of woman in a bright green bathing dress who has clearly drowned. He hurries to the nearest coastguard station to phone the police. Unfortunately suicides are not uncommon in this particular area of costal Kent, but eventually the police determine that the woman drowned most likely at the hands of a person or persons unknown based upon a couple of small details about the body. The police also determine that the woman was renting a nearby cottage and that the obvious suspect is her “house guest”, a young man named Tisdall whom she impulsively invited to stay with her when she discovered him about to pawn literally the clothes off his back in London a few days earlier. It turns out that the drowned woman was the famous movie star Christine Clay and that generous, impulsive action of helping a person in need, such as the house guest, was characteristic of her. Who would want to kill her? Was Tisdall? Or her explorer husband who was allegedly out of the country at the time of death? Or was it the composer Jacob Harmer, who was working with her on her current film and who wagging tongues rumor was her lover?

I enjoyed reading it this book. I gulped in down over the course of two days, which was very satisfying. However, I didn’t think this is Tey’s best mystery. The resolution was a little out of left field for my tastes. But up until that point, I enjoyed the investigation along with its obfuscation and red herrings.

There are quite a few colorful characters in the book. There is a really awful journalist, Jammy Hopkins, dogging the detective's, Inspector Grant, heels. The readers are introduced to Grant’s friend and connection to the theater world, actress Marta Hallard who will feature in at least two future books. Grant is an atypical lead detective when compared to literary detectives created by Tey’s contemporaries like Christy, March, or Allingham; he isn’t in and of himself very interesting or quirky. Not that this detracts from the books, however. It is just something I’ve noticed. 

The real highlight for me in A Shilling for Candles was the eccentric Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the local Chief Constable, who does some mighty good sleuthing in the book.  Tey could have easily spun off a series featuring teenage Erica solving crime, having romantic escapades and cracking wise. 

Interestingly enough, Tey calls out class consciousness front and center when Grant finds out the husband of the victim is a lord and is loath to question him in a confrontational manner. I found it noteworthy that Grant recognizes this behavior and knows it’s not “right” and yet, it’s how one is expected to behave. On the other hand, one of the characters is Jewish and Tey uses some weird backhanded comments on this as an ethnicity which is not atypical for a book published in the 1930s but it is always jarring when I encounter it.