Monday, December 28, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 - Possible Contenders


It is with great pleasure that I announce my intentions to participate in the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. Below are the categories and the books that I will possibly read:
  1. A 19th Century Classic - any book published between 1800 and 1899. Something by Dickens! I still have 5 of his novels to read...maybe I will tackle The Pickwick Papers or maybe The Old Curiosity Shop...
  2. A 20th Century Classic - any book published between 1900 and 1966. Since I am slowly working my way through the Modern Library's 100 Best List , I am going to choose one from that particular group; maybe The Grapes of Wrath, Native Son or Lolita?
  3. A classic by a woman author. I might choose another title by Dorothy Whipple, or maybe Frankenstein or Their Eyes Were Watching God or Evelina by Frances Burney...lots of good choices here.
  4. A classic in translation. Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language. This will possibly be the hardest for me to fill.. I have a copy of War and Peace, but don't want to tackle that this year. Maybe something by Collette or Zola.
  5. A classic by a non-white author. Can be African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American, etc. I have wanted to read Things Fall Apart for a long time.
  6. An adventure classic - can be fiction or non-fiction. I think I will try The Lost World by Conan Doyle.
  7. A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. Dystopian could include classics like 1984. Maybe Frankenstein?
  8. A classic detective novel. It must include a detective, amateur or professional. I have all of Josephine Tey's books, so I think I will read The Franchise Affair.
  9. A classic which includes the name of a place in the title. It can be the name of a house, a town, a street, etc. Examples include Bleak House, Main Street, The Belly of Paris, or The Vicar of Wakefield. This fits The Small House at Allington perfectly, which is the next book in the Barsetshire Chronicles that I have to read
  10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review. All three of my 20th century classic novel choices above have been banned at some point, so the one that I don't read for that category will be my choice to fill this category.
  11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college). If it's a book you loved, does it stand the test of time? If it's a book you disliked, is it any better a second time around? This one is tough for me. I don't like re-reading. I wouldn't mind, however, re-reading Wuthering Heights, but while I read it during college, I didn't read it for a class. I basically read it because of the Kate Bush song! If I have to pick a book I actually read for class, I might opt for A Separate Peace which I read for high school freshman English and about which don't much remember except for the end.
  12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories. Children's stories are acceptable in this category only. I think I will try Daphne Du Maurier The Birds since I have a copy on hand.
 I am hoping to read as many titles from my actual shelves as possible and then supplement with library books as needed. The only book that I might need to buy would be Evalina.  Below are some of the books that I already have on hand that would fill ten of the categories easily!

Sunday, December 27, 2015


I had a huge reading slump in April/May of this year and consequently it was a bit of a struggle for me to finish this challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate…but then that is why it is called a challenge, right?  However, I was ultimately able to read 12 books for all 12 categories with less than a week to spare! And despite my readers’ block earlier this year, I really did have a ball reading for the challenge and look forward to participating in the 2016 one as well.
I shamelessly used this challenge to further my adventures  in the Barchester Chronicles by Anthony Trollope by reading Framley Parsonage for A 19th Century Classic, the fourth book in the series, which I adored, as I do most Trollope.  Also at the top of my favorites list is One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, which I read as my choice for a Classic Novella; this book was just exquisite.  I also loved Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, my option for A Forgotten Classic.  Whipple writes in such a smooth way, it keeps me turning the pages.  And I can’t forget Lucia’s Progress  by E.F. Benson  which I read as my Humorous or Satirical Classic.  I adore the Mapp and Lucia series; the books often make me laugh out loud, which is rare.
The biggest surprise in the 2015 challenge for me was the play, Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde which I read for the category of A Classic Play. This was the one I was looking forward to the least and it turned out to be not only one of the easier reads, but also one of the most fun and entertaining of the 12!
I liked, but didn’t love Armadale by Wilkie Collins which I read for the category of Classic with a Person's Name in the Title, but I read this right in the middle of my slumpiest time, so had I been in a better headspace, I might have appreciated it more.  I also liked but didn’t love American Notes by Charles Dickens which was the title I chose for a Non-Fiction Classic.  I know that the trip chronicled by Dickens was specifically used in Martin Chuzzlewit, which is the first Dickens novel I read and one of my favorites. However, I think ultimately I prefer Dicken’s fiction. 
I definitely think I would have appreciated Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess more as a child. This was my pick for the category of Classic Children's Book. It was a little hard to look past some of the book’s more dated aspects regarding race and class. As a kid, I would have seen only the Cinderella storyline.
East Lynne was my choice for Classic by a Woman Author and while it didn’t live up to my expectations, I did enjoy it once I let it be what it was, which was very, very melodramatic!

My choice for a 20th Century Classic was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara which I found hard going, but since it is also on the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels in English of the 20th century, it was one that I had to cross of my list anyway.

Lastly, while I didn’t really enjoy either the Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliff which was my choice for  a Very Long Classic Novel or Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse which I chose for my Classic in Translation, as much as I had hoped, I don’t regret reading either book.  In particular I am glad to have read the Radcliff book if only because of its reference in Northanger Abbey. In fact, I probably should re-read Northanger Abbey to get the full effect now!

I am super pleased that a wopping nine of the books I read came from my shelves; for the other three, two were borrowed from the library and only one was purchased specifically for the challenge!

Saturday, December 26, 2015


Whew, I got this one read just under the wire! Charles Dickens’ American Notes for General Circulation was the title I chose to complete the Non-Fiction Classic category and the 12th and final book that I finished for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted at the blog Books and Chocolate, thereby completing all 12 categories.
I was particularly interested in reading American Notes, an account of Dickens’ visit to the U.S. in 1942, because Martin Chuzzelwit was the first novel of his that I read and it particularly contains a large section which was inspired by this journey. I was, however, also really surprised to see that Dickens’ tours of some U.S. prisons also must have inspired at least some of Dr. Manette’s incarceration in the Bastille and the repercussions of such experience in A Tale of Two Cities.
As a sort of time capsule, I found much of American Notes to be intriguing. For example, I appreciated the occasional linguistic differences that Dickens noticed between U.S. and UK English (I find that sort of thing fascinating) such as the all-purpose American usage of the verb “to fix” and making it a noun, as in “fixings” and the use of “Yes Sir” in a variety of meanings depending on context and intonation (similar to “whatever” in current usage). I also really was astounded by the sheer difficulty travel that faced anyone in the mid-1800s. What an undertaking! Sometimes one journey from one city to another was comprised of boat, coach and rail!  And there is a section where Dickens is in Ohio going between Columbus and Cincinnati and he extols the fact that the road is paved (after a fashion) allowing for a rate of travel of 6 miles per hour. Can you imagine? An able-bodied human can walk at a rate of 3-4 miles per hour! So for 6 miles per hour to be considered “good” astounds me!  
I admit that I didn’t find American Notes for General Circulation as satisfying as a Dickens’ novel. A lot of readers accuse the author of being “too wordy” which I don’t mind in a novel with a plot, but it did show a bit in this book. Also I found it a little uneven, humorous and satirical in some parts but then sermonizing and didactic in others.  Famously American Notes engendered quite a bit of controversy and ill-feeling on this site of the Atlantic at the time it was published. However, as an American reading this over 150 years later, I don’t feel that Dickens’ was particularly unfair or even mean-spirited in his critiques of the U.S. A lot of what he found distasteful: the obsession with money, regardless of whether it is earned honestly or not, the obsession with partisan politics, etc. has not changed much in the intervening century and a half. I wonder too if the book would have engendered quite the hostile U.S. reaction were it not for the last two chapters, the first of which excoriates the practice of slavery and the second which particularly takes a shot at the libelous press and the love of lucre over the welfare of others.
The picture above is from the Penguin Classic Edition that I read from. It was wonderfully annotated and has an excellent introduction by Patricia Ingham. My Dickens collection is a mix of Penguin and Modern Library paperbacks, but I think I prefer the Penguin editions because of the annotations.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Of the 11 works I have read thus far for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted at the block Books and Chocolate, this has got to be my least favorite. This was for the Classic in Translation category.

I am not a fan of allegory and Siddhartha reminded me of books like The Alchemist or Jonathon Livingston Seagull; books I fail to appreciate. I was thinking at first it is a book I should have perhaps read when I was younger, like On the Road, but I am not sure if I would have really liked this any better at 25 than at 50.

This is the story of Siddhartha, who tries on a variety of lifestyles (Brahmanism, Asceticism, Buddhism, Capitalism, Hedonism, etc.), takes each mode of living and experiencing the world to their limits and then ultimately rejects them to follow his own path. My take away from this slim book was that there is no substitute for actually living something; listening to a lecture on a concept on or being preached a hypothesis is not enough for one to internalize the idea. Ironically, I think that this might be why this book doesn’t work for me; I think I would need to experience the concepts it propounds first before I can say “aha, I get it”.

The edition I read of Siddhartha is well under 200 pages, but took me forever to read in English. I also have the German original which I am still plodding my way through now. The sentence structure is fairly simple (it reads a bit like scripture), but a lot of the vocabulary is well beyond my personal lexicon. I am still interested in reading more from Hesse, however, before I give up on him. I do want to try The Glass Bead Game and I have a copy of Narcissus and Goldmund someplace.

Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde

The category of Classic Play from Books and Chocolate's BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2015 was the one I was least looking forward to. I hadn’t read a play since high school and I had this idea that plays are meant to be performed and watched and not read in the way one would read a novel. I chose Lady Windermere’s Fan because I had never read any Wilde before, although I have seen the movie version of The Importance of Being Ernest. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with my choice and I enjoyed reading this play very much.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is a dramedy of manners about the Victorian double standard for women regarding infidelity within marriage. I know that Wilde is known for his bon mots and quips and I thought the dialogue in this paly was snappy and delightful. The play opens with the young and very conservative Lady Windermere rebuffing a would be lover Lord Darlington’s flirtatious advances. Later, she is confronted with what she believes to be proof that her husband is having an affair which so addles her and upsets her world view that she actually considers throwing her reputation, her marriage and her child out the window and running off with the besotted Lord Darlington.

I found it interesting that this is the third work from the Victorian era that I have read this year concerning the contradictory views on adultery. The other two works were He Knew He Was Right by Trollope and East Lynne by Ellen Wood and were much more serious in tone, particularly East Lynne. The Wilde play was also much more direct and obvious about pointing out the hypocrisy of the situation. I know that this play has been filmed at least once and I would like to check it out or, better yet, see an actual live stage production someday. I am also interested in reading more from Wilde. I know he wrote a lot, across a lot of mediums, so there is a lot of good stuff for me to delve into when the mood strikes!

Monday, November 23, 2015

EAST LYNNE by Ellen Wood

I think I might be laboring under the misconception that I love Victorian era literature. The more I read, the more I am coming to believe that I may just love Dickens and Trollope.

I was annoyed throughout most of the first half of East Lynne because the author heavily foreshadowed EVERY plot point. This is not unique to Victorian literature, of course. I also realize that this does not bother some readers; I know that people go to see Shakespeare tragedies performed even though they are fully acquainted with the knowledge of who dies at the end; however, when I read a new-to-me book, I LIKE TO BE SURPRISED. I was a little heartened when a murder mystery storyline was introduced, but then I figured out who the murderer was in about two pages …*sigh*.  I also found it obnoxious that in order for this tragic novel to work, the characters had to be completely OBTUSE and never tell anyone the truth, until it is too late, of course.

I did enjoy the second half more; I still knew which way the train of tragedy was chugging, but I was along for the ride by then and Ellen Wood had stopped telegraphing every move and got a little nutty it a sort of fun, soap opera like-way with characters showing up in disguise, some serious teeth-gnashing and self-recrimination and a wonderfully over the top deathbed scene.

East Lynne is considered a sensation novel, which means that people read it in the 1800s for its scandalous, scurrilous nature. I imagine Victorians read sensation novels in the same way one might now read true crime or harder edged fictional crime novels; the reader can address and “enjoy” their fears in a safe setting.  The back of the Oxford Words Classics paperback edition that I read (pictured above) suggests that East Lynne can viewed as specifically tackling Victorian ethical unease vis-à-vis divorce and adultery.  Personally, however, I found Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon or He Knew He was Right by Anthony Trollope to be better dramatizations of the difficulties that many women faced in the Victorian Era in terms of divorce laws, marriage rights and child custody.

This title was my choice for the “Classic Written by a Woman” in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted at the blog Books and Chocolate. If you like high melodrama with lots of foreshadowing, this might be the book for you, but for my tastes, it was a bit too much.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

The Mysteries of Udolpho (the beautiful Penguin paperback edition I read pictured above came in at 875 pages), was my choice for the “Very Long Classic” in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted at the blog Books and Chocolate. At first, I found this book very, very tedious.  There are ENDLESS descriptions of scenery, much of which makes the heroine, Emily, (a) cry and then (b) spontaneously compose a sonnet inspired by such landscape. These poems (sometimes pages long) are also included in the novel. 

Eventually, however, I just gave in to the silliness of it all and found it almost unintentionally funny after that. I lost count of the times our Emily fainted and/or burst into tears. It is definitely worth the experience of reading this title if you want to know the kind of books Jane Austen was mocking in Northanger Abbey as this title is one of the grandmothers of all gothic romances and was apparently very popular in its time.

The story is impossible to synopsize, so much happens to Emily St. Aubert., a young upper class woman who grew up in genteel poverty despite her father’s aristocratic background (the story is set in the late 1500s, but you would never know it except for the fact that this is stated in the first sentence of the first chapter).  Suffice it to say that there are plenty of castles and mansions with secret staircases, hidden rooms, ghostly sightings, there are mustache twirling villains and hidden agendas galore, which include forced marriages, stolen inheritances and other common misunderstandings.

Normally I prefer to read annotated versions of Victorian novels. However, this edition was published in the Pocket Penguin Classics Victorian bestsellers series and they do not have any notes or introduction. Which is just as well, I suppose, since this would have made the book even longer!  I am not sad to have read it, but I think it is safe to declare that I will never read any Ann Radcliffe again!

Friday, November 6, 2015

FRAMLEY PARSONAGE by Anthony Trollope

Framley Parsonage is book four in the Barsetshire Chronicles and it was my pick for the 19th century classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 hosted at the blog Books and Chocolate.  I have read the previous three novels in the Chronicles (naturally) and Framley Parsonage is similar to those preceding books in that it skewers the excess and/or abuse of power in the Church of England while also portraying a romance (or two).   There are  also a few reoccurring characters from the series that pop up in this title; such as the delightfully obnoxious Proudie family (introduced in the second book, Barchester Towers) and the rich but common Miss Dunstable (from the third book, Dr. Thorne).

However, the main story of Framley Parsonage mostly concerns itself with newly introduced characters who (unsurprisingly) live in the village of Framley.  These characters are the widowed Lady Lufton of Framley Court, her grown son Ludovic, the current Lord Lufton and Ludovic’s childhood friend Mark Robarts, who is the vicar of the eponymous parsonage and Lady Lufton’s protégé.  Mark is happily married to Fanny, a love match engineered by Lady Lufton and within the first few chapters, his younger, unmarried sister Lucy comes to live with the couple in the parsonage.
In the beginning, it is clear that Lady Lufton, while amiable and well-meaning, controls the lives of both her son and Mark Robarts.  The plot thickens when both young men begin to chaff under her control. Mark, who grew up decidedly middle class, yearns to hobnob with the upper classes, hopefully thereby bettering his prospects both professionally and socially. Lord Lufton, meanwhile, wants to marry whom he pleases, in spite of his mother’s matchmaking.

The sin of pride as experienced in multiple ways is what really moves the various story lines: Lady Lufton’s pride in her son which threatens to estrange her from him, Mark’s sister Lucy Robarts’ pride that would keep her from the man she loves, Mark Robarts pride which prevents him from asking for help when his ambition threatens to ruin him, or the struggling neighboring vicar, Mr. Crawley’s pride which will not allow him to accept charity despite the desperate need of his wife and children, etc.

I look forward the finishing of this series in the next year or so and then moving on to the Palliser series novels.  I am no expert on Victorian fiction, but of those authors I have read from this era thus far, Trollope is right up there with Dickens as my absolute favorite.  I love in particular his gentle humor and his well-rounded characters.  The edition I read (pictured above) is from a hard cover set published by Oxford University Press in 1989 which I stole borrowed from my father.  I hope he got them cheap since the first book had messed up annotations and the third book was missing about 50 pages (an obvious mis-print). But this title was in perfect condition. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Little Princess: Back to Classics Challenge 2015

I chose A Little Princess for the category of Children’s Classic for the Back to the Classics 2015 challenge hosted at Books and Chocolate. I am fairly sure I watched on television as a kid a movie version of A Little Princess with Shirley Temple, but I don’t remember much from it. I love Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, a book I first read at maybe 9 or 10 years old. However, I don’t know how I would feel about it if I had read it only as an adult; I can still read The Secret Garden with my child-like eyes and ignore the more dated racist and classist aspects of it.  I was unable to do that with A Little Princess, unfortunately. I am sure, however, that the 9 year old me would have really enjoyed this story of triumph over adversity.

The story is about Sara Crewe, an English girl who travels from India to England at age 6 or so to attend boarding school, because the British upper classes didn’t feel it appropriate to educate their children in the colonies. Sara is not only fabulously wealthy; she is also intelligent and kind. She soon makes friends with the downtrodden and misunderstood in the boarding school since that is just how she rolls. Sara particularly excels at imagining things and she regales the other little girls with her stories. When people are unkind to Sara, she pretends she is a princess and treats the unkind people with grace and compassion, because she imagines this is how royalty would behave.  The headmistress secretly hates her, but chokes her dislike back because promoting Sara to prospective parents is good advertising for the school and a couple of the older girls don’t like Sara out of jealousy but they can’t do too much about it as long as Sara is the star pupil. When Sara’s fortunes take a turn for the worse, however, she finds out just who her true friends are and just how much she will have to draw on her imagination and her inner princess to survive.

As I wrote above, it was hard for me to overlook some of the more dated aspects of the book. Also Sara is just a little too perfect and a little too put upon to be believable to me now.  But I can see how an adult reader could still find the magic in this story; I saw it too, but I also saw the man behind the curtain.

I kind of wish I had sprung for the Penguin Classics edition which should have an introduction or afterward, but I opted instead to borrow and read a very PINK library copy of the Harper Collins hardback edition pictured above, which had really beautiful full page color illustrations by Tasha Tudor as well as black and white sketches above each chapter.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lucia's Progress: Classics 2015 Challenge

I read this book to complete the category of “Humorous or Satirical Classic” for the Back to the Classics 2015 challenge hosted at Books and Chocolate. As I stated in my December 16, 2014 post, this was by far the easiest choice out of all the challenge categories, as I have come to love this series; these books make me laugh out loud…frequently.
Lucia’s Progress by E.F. Benson is number five in the publishing order of a series of six books, so I only have one more left, but I suspect that these books will be excellent re-reads which I hope will help lessen the pain of good-bye. I have no intention to continue on and read any of the modern day, estate approved follow up books by Tom Holt or Guy Fraser-Sampson. Not that I think they would be bad, but if it isn’t the original author, I am just not interested.  Also, while the 6th book is still unread by me, the series on the whole has been consistently good; if anything the books get better as they go on, so why mess with perfection?  There are two short stories by Benson featuring the same characters, however, that I might have to get my hands on.
In Lucia’s Progress, the Mapp and Lucia rivalry continues as Lucia and Mapp (now married) compete for a council seat, Lucia pretends to have found Roman ruins in her back garden, Mapp pretends to be pregnant and everyone one who is anyone in Tilling is thoroughly entertained by the ensuing gossip and backbiting. I don’t want to go any further in to the story  (1)  divulging the story line in book five would contain slight spoilers for those who had not read the previous 4 books and (2) I feel that these books are best read in order, so the reader comes to know Emmeline Lucas aka Lucia et al gradually. She really is an acquired taste.   Basically all of the books are satires on upper middle class village life in 1930’s England.  If that sounds like it might be up your alley (and if you like P.G. Wodehouse apparently) then try Queen Lucia and see how you get on.
The image above is from the Moyer Bell edition that I read. I have the entire set in these editions (sturdy trade paperbacks). Some have introductions, some don’t. Lucia’s Progress did have a brief introduction, but it wasn’t particularly edifying.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Armadale: Classics 2015 Challenge

I chose Armadale to fill the “Classic with a Name in the Title” category for the Back to the Classics 2015 challenge hosted at Books and Chocolate. I read Wilkie Collins’ two most famous novels The Women in White and The Moonstone over 20 years ago. I still have very fond memories of The Women in White and hope to re-read it someday. I recall enjoying The Moonstone slightly less, but maybe I need to give that one a re-read as well to see how it stacks up now.
Armadale was especially appropriate to fit this challenge category because not only is it a classic novel with a name in the title, it is actually about FIVE men who have the same name of Allen Armadale. How that comes to be is established in the prologue, as one of the Alan Armadales turns up at a remote German spa and ends up confessing his sins to the only other English speaking gentleman present and having said confession then sealed for his then infant son to read upon his majority.  I won’t reveal the contents of that confession, but suffice it to say, it drives the plot of the rest of the novel and one of the major themes of this book is whether or not the sins of the fathers are fated to be visited on their sons or if it is the individual who determines his own destiny. 
I love Victorian “sensation novels” with their convoluted plots which rest upon strange coincidences.  They tend to go to extremes; for example, the sane are deviously committed to asylums, young women or old men are duped into marriage, inheritances are stolen and family secrets are shoved under the rug only to ruin the lives of subsequent generations; all that good stuff which is maybe a little goofy from a modern perspective, but also occasionally terrifying if you think too hard about it. And in this respect Armadale did not disappoint. However, I did find that the story moved very  s  l  o  w  l  y . This slower pace is not uncommon for Victorian novels that were serialized, of course, but after reading the zippy prologue which sets up the main plot in under 50 pages, I found it hard going occasionally; mostly because I found the two main protagonists, Allen Armadale Juniors, to be fairly one-note; one is a neurotic and the other a cheerful dolt, although I did appreciate the portrayal of their friendship, which is quite touching.

However, when finally the “villain” of the novel is introduced, some 200 pages in, things finally start looking up. In fact, for me, it was Lydia’ story which was the real mystery and the driving force of the plot. It also helps that her voice in the novel is recorded in letters or journal entries. Personally, I love epistolary novels and find them easier to read than 3rd person accounts. I would actually pose the question of whether or not she is a villain at all. Granted, she isn’t a good person, she admits as much herself, but I would argue that she is as much a victim as either of the boring young Armadales.  I also found the way she held power over the poor Mr. Basherwood a reminder of the Renfield character in Dracula who catches and eats flies while locked up in a mental hospital, pining away for his master. Who knows? Maybe Stocker read Armadale and was inspired by it?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Three Clerks

My second read for the Trollope bicentennial being celebrated at Books and Chocolate was The Three Clerks.  I just finished it yesterday, so just two days before the birthday bicentennial. Of the five books of his that I have now read, this is definitely my least favorite. Coming in at around 550 pages this is one of Trollope’s shorter (HA!) works.   The story revolves around three young gentlemen, all who work for the British Civil Service in London and their relationship to three young sisters who live a genteel, middle class life in Hampton, near London.

The two clerks who work for the office of Weights & Measures are Harry Norman who is hardworking and steady and Alaric Tudor who is very bright but exceedingly ambitious. The third clerk and cousin to Alaric is Charley Tudor who is genial, but lacks direction and discipline and who works for the Internal Navigation office, nicknamed “the Infernal Navigation” for its reputation of sloth and debauchery.  

Harry and Alaric are at first fast friends and as such, Harry introduces Alaric to his cousins, Gertrude, Linda and Katie and their widowed mother, the lovable but slightly lax Mrs. Woodward. However, when a possible promotion at the office puts Harry and Alaric in direct competition with each other, their friendship begins to fray and eventually it falls apart based on a perceived betrayal that Harry cannot forgive. As the story progresses, Alaric begins his meteoric rise in the world, which ascension is not without peril due to Alaric’s hunger for power and prestige at any cost. Meanwhile, Charley sinks further and further in to debt and dallies with a bar maid, all the while wishing he could be a better man, but not knowing how to quite pull that off.
I think what put me off slightly in this case is that the title should really be “two and  a half” clerks, since Harry is so upstanding and is consequently fairly dull; Trollope had nothing much to write about him. For me, it made the narrative uneven since the same weight is not given to each storyline. Also, up to now, I have always appreciated Trollope’s fairly well rounded female characters, but with the exception of perhaps Mrs. Woodward and maybe Gertrude near the end, I didn’t find the female personalities to be particularly noteworthy. Linda and Katie were very one note, although I suppose Katie’s actions and passions were not atypical for a teenager.  Lastly, I found the last names of most of the minor secondary characters (the lawyer, Mr. Geitemthruet or the money lender, Jabesh M’Ruen) too over the top. 

One thing I love about reading books written over 100 years ago is the feeling of déjà vu. You know, “Plus que ça change…” or the more things change, the more they remain the same.  In The Three Clerks there is a bit of a scandal about stock speculation based on a bridge intended to replace a perfectly serviceable ferry which never gets built. I totally though about the Gravina Island Bridge in Alaska, or the “Bridge to Nowhere” which was a bit of a catch phrase in the 2008 election year. There were lots of other similar observations about human behavior, politics, etc. that I made while reading, but that one really stuck out to me.

Unfortunately, the Penguin edition I read of The Three Clerks this time was not part of their classics series. So it was not annotated nor was there an introduction. I had to puzzle out the Latin quotations on my own, or just ignore them (usually the latter).  So instead I have used in illustration from one of the old-timey editions showing Linda and Alaric on a rather fateful walk.

Friday, April 10, 2015

He Knew He Was Right

April 24, 2015 will mark the bicentennial of Anthony Trollope’s birthday and Karen at Books and Chocolate is planning a celebration on her blog  to encourage her readers to pick up as much Trollope as possible by then.  I had planned already to read the forth book in the Barsetshire Chronicles this year as part of Karen’s Back to the Classics 2015 challenge, so I could have doubled up, but I felt that instead I should take this opportunity to read one of his stand-alone novels instead.

I ultimately decided on one of Trollope’s better known titles, He Knew He Was Right.  Louis and Emily Trevelyan are a young, wealthy couple with a small son. Despite the fact that both are fairly headstrong personalities, they happily married until a certain Colonel Osborn starts to give Emily rather more attention than a friend of the family who is old enough to be her father should in polite society. Emily isn’t too fussed since she is secure in her knowledge that she has not and never will stray from what is considered proper. However, Louis is bothered by Colonel Osborn’s attentions and what the whisperings of society gossips might think. Emily willfully misunderstands her husband’s fears as an accusation that she has behaved immorally. Louis willfully refuses to compromise or discuss the matter with his wife reasonably and insists that it is his right as a husband (this is the Victorian Era don’t forget) that Emily cease all contact with the Colonel. And from that misunderstanding and stubborn refusal their relationship begins to unravel.

 At first I was worried that this novel would be 800 pages of a back and forth argument between a jealous husband and a headstrong wife, however, there are several other side characters with parallel story lines, almost all to do with marriage and courtship. These parallel narratives help break up the intensity of Emily and Louis’ disintegrating marriage and temper the tragic main plot with humor and romantic sub-plots. There are really too many supporting characters to mention, but probably the main ones are the Stanbury family. Hugh Stanbury is a friend of Louis who has given up all respectability by deigning to earn a living writing for a penny newspaper and who is in love with Emily’s sister Nora Rowley. Then there are Hugh’s unmarried sisters, Pricilla and Dorothy Stanbury who live with their widowed mother. And most amusingly, in my opinion, there is Miss Jemina Stanbury, Hugh’s maiden aunt who Dorothy goes to live with. Once I encountered Miss Stanbury, about 50 pages in, I knew this book would become a favorite. I just loved her as a character. She is petty, willful and obstinate, but can also be generous and kind when she wants to be. I thought she was a hoot.

He Knew He Was Right has fairly overt feminist undercurrents which touch on the absurdity and double-sided unfairness of Victorian upper/middle class society in its treatment of women. For many women, marriage was their only option for a secure future and but under the law, they had almost no rights within the marriage. So a bad marriage could be very, very bad for the wife, with little recourse for her to better her situations. And as so many have noted before me, Trollope’s female characters are so much more three dimensional than those in Dickens’ novels, which is always appreciated by me.  So, over all a really enjoyable and page turning read, in particular all the scenes in Essex, where Miss Stanbury lives. I always say I hate romance, but I sure loved this book which was virtually nothing but romance.  Go figure!

The image above is from the Penguin Classics paperback edition of this title that I read which is one of my favorite publishers for classics because the editions are annotated and contain an introduction (which I always read after I have finished the book for fear of spoilers, naturally).

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes


Typically I gravitate towards doorstoppers of books: long, involved, descriptive, etc.  However, I am often stunned (in a good way) when I read concise novels where an author has achieved so much in considerably less pages.  I have to give One Fine Day along with A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor a place of prominence on my figurative shelf of short novels that I personally have found to be brilliant and just as immersive as a 400+ page tome.
I read this book as part of the Back to the Classics 2015 challenge hosted at  as it fulfills the “Classic Novella” category.   I am not sure exactly what the line is that divides a novella from a novel, but Karen only criteria was that the book have less than 250 pages, so this fits.

Published in 1947, One Fine Day depicts a day in the life of a certain upper middle class family who live in a large house in the countryside outside of London.  There is no plot, nothing extraordinary happens really. However, every thought and observation is related in impeccable detail; every small moment echoes with larger story.  The writing is at times melancholy, at times wistful, at other times joyful.

The main focus of the book is Laura, a wife and mother, who despite her middle class upbringing, is at heart a little bohemian. She has a young daughter still in school and a husband who takes the train in to his office in London.   Laura’s dreamy, spontaneous nature is curtailed by her responsibilities in the post war era. Before the war, she had servants to manage the house and the housekeeping.   Two years after VE day, those who might have looked for a position of nanny, gardener, or cook prior to the war are now either dead or moving towards better paying, more liberating jobs in industrial areas. 
Laura isn’t only person adjusting to life after wartime of course, everyone in the village is, for better or for worse. At home, her daughter Victoria and her husband Stephan are both only getting to know one another again, since Victoria was just a toddler when the war began and Stephan left to fight in Europe. Victoria is a little bit resentful of her father’s intrusion into the cocoon she and her mother developed while he was off fighting. And Stephan seems slightly bewildered by the small person his daughter has become, no longer a baby to be tickled or to give horse rides to.  And the same is true for Laura and Stephan and their marriage after such a long separation. After the first prayer of thanks that they have been reunited when so many have lost so much, they too have to adjust their expectations of each other, now that they are older and so much has changed in their mutual absence.

One Fine Day is a beautiful story told in small instances. The take away is that life moves on and we decide how we move with it; one can decide to appreciate each beautiful day as it comes or one can stay stuck lamenting a lost past that cannot be changed.   
The edition of the book I read  (shown above) is published by Virago, a publisher that re-issues books primarily written by women which have fallen out of print. I am so glad they did for this title, because it was really an amazing depiction. I know that this book has been compared with Virginia Woolf and I think that that is fairly apt in Panter-Downes depiction of the rich inner lives of her characters.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Anthony Trollope Bicentennial Celebration in April at Books & Chocolate

So much of what I read and/or hear about in the book world is focused on the new; the latest title or author. And it can be rewarding and fun to read the buzzed about book and know what everyone is talking about.  But it is equally rewarding to “discover” older books which have stood the test of time. In particular, I find I have an affinity with Victorian novels.  I had read The Moonstone and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins back in college and really enjoyed both books, but for some reason I had the idea that Dickens would be “too difficult” (he’s not).  And Trollope? Frankly, I had never even heard of him, which is just nuts, because Anthony Trollope wrote over 45 novels, plus short stories, plays and non-fiction.

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting a Bicentennial Celebration in honor of Anthony Trollope in April  Anthony Trollope Bicentennial and I hope to take part and read and review at least one title. I have already read the first three books in the Barshetshire Chronicles but I thought for this particular event, I would try one of his stand-alone books. I have acquired copies of The Way We Live Now, He Knew He Was Right and The Three Clerks. It would be too ambitious of me to think I could get to all three by April…but maybe two? We’ll see.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

My second choice for the Back to the Classics 2015 challenge hosted at  is Someone at  a Distance which ticks the box for  the “Forgotten Classic” category.  In order to determine a forgotten classic, Karen suggested using goodreads to find books that have less than 1000 ratings or looking at the publishing catalogs of imprints such as NYRB, Virago and/or Persephone which specialize in re-publishing books and authors that have fallen into obscurity. From a Distance is a twofer, since it has under 700 ratings on goodreads and was re-published by Persephone in 1999. This is the second Whipple novel I have read, the first being The Priory, which I read last year and simply did not want to end, it was so enjoyable and I was entirely caught up in the story.  Someone at  a Distance wasn’t quite as fantastic as The Priory for my tastes, but it was nonetheless good.

I don’t want to get too much in to the plot, since I don’t want to spoil anything.   Whipple wrote domestic dramas and Someone at a Distance falls more on the side of melodrama.  However, it was a real pleasure to read even if the story isn’t too original. The book opens with the elderly widow Mrs. North who has been accustomed to being catered to her entire life. Now in her dotage, she is rather bitter and bored, even though her son and daughter-in-law live only a short distance away.  So she takes on a young French woman, Louise, as a companion for a few months. It is Louise's introduction which establishes most of the conflict in the novel, as she inveigles her way in to first Mrs. North's life and then into the rest of the family's, all the while neglecting her own doting parents back in France.

I loved Louise, even though she was detestable. And that is really a testament to Whipple’s writing, because  all of the characters, even if their actions were deplorable or unduly self-sacrificing, were understandable and fully rounded, I thought.

Someone At a Distance also has a slight feminist slant, which I think was also discernable in The Priory.  In both books certain female characters are faced with the dilemma of having to support themselves outside of marriage, a situation which offered few feasible solutions for many women in the early and mid-20th century.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

The first book I read for the 2015 challenge, filling the category of “20th Century Classic” (and also ticking yet another book off the Modern Language 20th century best of list!) was Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara.  I can see why the writing in the book is admired, O’Hara is able to convey a lot with few words, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters or what happened to them. In some ways, this book, with its exposure of small town conformity and hypocrisy, was similar to Sinclair Lewis’ novel Main Street, which I liked a lot more. Maybe this was because Carol in Main Street is a much more sympathetic character than Julian English, the protagonist (or maybe antihero) of Appointment in Samarra.  The book is also quite frank about sex, especially given that it was published in the 30’s.

The story is told in an indirect way, with detours in the backgrounds of peripheral characters interspersed within the main plot. Julian seemingly has everything going for him. He is in his late twenties, from the right family, moderately wealthy, well married, well liked etc. But one evening, he publicly insults another member at the country club and this sets off his downward spiral from respectability to persona non-grata in the town. What makes Julian do it? The book really doesn’t answer that question overtly. Is it snobbery? Is it jealousy? Does he have a death wish?  Does he feel trapped in his conventional, middle class life? Is it the fact that his business and his marriage aren’t quite as ideal as they seem? Is there a history of mental illness in his family, bad blood? Or is it his alcoholism?

Or maybe it is none of the above, since the title of the book indicates that one cannot outrun one’s fate. Throughout the book, Julian has chances to redeem himself, but he consistently chooses paths that only further ensnare him so that ultimately he feels he has only one way out.

So my first pick wasn't a favorite...but the only way is UP! I am sure that my subsequent reads will be more to my taste and enjoyment.