Friday, October 21, 2016

Back to the Classics 2016: Challenge Wrap-Up Post

Have you finished the Back to the Classics Challenge?  Congratulations!  This is where you'll link up to your Challenge Wrap-Up Post, after you've completed a minimum of six different categories from the original challenge post.  This post is only for Challenge-Wrap Up Posts.  If you do not have a blog, or anywhere you post publicly, please write up your post-challenge thoughts/suggestions/etc in the comments section.  Please read the directions carefully. 

By linking or commenting here, you are declaring that you have completed the challenge; that each book reviewed fits the correct definition of the category, and was published before 1966 (except for posthumous publications); and that your reviews for each category are linked to the correct post. If I cannot find links to your reviews, I cannot give you credit and thus enter you into the drawing.  THIS is where I will look at the end of the year and randomly choose the winner for the bookish prize. 

Please remember to indicate within THIS post how many entries you have earned for the prize drawing and include links to your reviews. If you do NOT include links to your original reviews IN THIS POST, I CANNOT ENTER YOU INTO THE DRAWING.

  • If you've completed six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!
  • Thank you again for participating, and congratulations again for completing the challenge!

    Tuesday, October 18, 2016

    Back to the Classics Challenge Check-In

    How is everyone doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge? This is just a quick reminder, there are about 10 weeks left of the year to finish the challenge (I can't believe it's almost over!) I've finished nine of the twelve categories and posted eight reviews so far, so I need to buckle down and finish up! Remember, you only have to have read six classics to qualify, and they can crossover with other challenges you may have signed up for (just not within this challenge). 

    Also, I wanted to let everyone know that I'll be posting a page where you can link your Wrap-Up Posts. Remember, you need to write a short post with links to all your reviews -- if I can't find all your reviews, I won't be able to enter you into the drawing! You don't have to read books from all 12 categories -- a minimum of six books and you'll be entered! 

    And if anyone is wondering, yes, I will be hosting the challenge again in 2017! I have some fun new categories that I'm very excited about and I hope everyone will like them! 

    Has anyone finished the challenge yet? Which books did you like so far? And is everyone still interested in the challenge for 2017?

    Saturday, October 15, 2016

    The 1947 Club: Sisters By a River by Barbara Comyns

    In honor of The 1947 Club I bought not one, not two, but three books published in 1947. I hope to complete all three of them this week, but let's start with Sisters By a River by Barbara Comyns.
    Sisters By A River is a semi-autobiographical story narrated by the middle of the sisters growing in a rather odd household. They live in a country house near the River Avon, in the early part of the century, I'm guessing between the wars though it never really specifies. Their father is quite a lot older than their mother, who married him quite young and then went deaf when the girls are fairly young. There are a succession of servants and governesses, but overall these children seem to run quite wild.

    It's not so much a story as a series of vignettes about their lives as seen through the eyes of a child, with all the misunderstandings and misspellings you'd expect if she was telling you her life stories in bits and pieces. Many of the tales are just a couple of pages long, and some of them start out as amusing stories but wind up finishing with a sentence that's quite dark and sometimes unnerving. I couldn't figure out the point of the book until after I'd finished it and went back to read the introduction, which I normally leave until last for fear of spoilers. It all made sense when it explained that this is based on her own life; hence, the lack of plot. It also mentioned that Comyns was a terrible speller in real life (obviously due to her sketchy education) and the publisher left that in and even added to it to make it seem more childlike. 

    Sisters by a River is Comyns' first novel, but it's the fourth of hers I've read so far. I think it's safe to say her novels could be described as quirky.  All of her books are quite short, and some of them have surreal elements. I think I've read all of them simply based on recommendations from other bloggers, mostly Simon of Stuck in a Book and Thomas from Hogglestock. So far my favorites by Comyns were Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Skin Chairs. I've also read The Vet's Daughter which is definitely surreal, but I didn't like it nearly as much as the others since it has a much darker tone.

    With the exception of The Skin Chairs, those books are all still in print, but it's not difficult to find Comyns' other books online as some f them were published by Virago. . She wrote eleven books altogether and I'm definitely hoping to read more of them, though it might take a little searching.

    Bloggers, have any of you read anything by Barbara Comyns? Which do you recommend? And are you enjoying The 1947 Club? 

    Wednesday, October 5, 2016

    Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

    On my recent visit to London, I was fortunate enough to visit a whole slew of bookstores. I saw this brand-new edition of an NYRB Classic: Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum. It ticked off a lot of boxes for me:
    • Nice cover
    • Set in a hotel -- so lots of characters thrown together 
    • Woman writer
    • Translated into English -- I'm always trying to widen my literary perspective
    • Set in Germany
    • Between the wars -- one of my favorite time periods

    So, basically, this was a no-brainer -- I had to buy it. It took a couple of chapters to get into it, but once I got started it was great. Set in 1929, it's the story of a different guests at the posh Grand Hotel in Berlin: the aging ballerina Grusinskaya, who is worried that she's losing her appeal; the sexy playboy Baron von Gaigern; the tragic Dr. Otterschlag, whose face was destroyed by a bomb during the Great War; Herrr Preysing, the director of a family firm who's desperate to secure a manufacturing bid; and the meek clerk Kringelein, who's worked for thanklessly for years for Preysing's firm. He recently had a terminal medical diagnosis and has decided to spend his last few weeks enjoying life. Some of the characters have a slight connection, like Preysing and Kringelein, but after a few days in the same hotel, their lives interconnect and are changed forever.  

    I really enjoyed this book. I love how Baum intersected all the characters' lives, and I thought the plot was great ending well done. I do think the strength of this book was the character development. I do love any book that has a variety of characters -- I really love books set on trains and sea voyages; I think it started with my love for Murder on the Orient Express. In this book I was concerned at how many characters she was going to introduce, but it was easy to keep them all straight. I do wish there had been a better ratio of female to male characters (there's also a beautiful young stenographer who shows up about halfway through the book) but Baum made a point with both of the women about the limited choices they had during the time period. 

    I also found the writing to be very insightful. The whole book is full of great quotes that I kept marking with little scraps of paper as I read. Here's one of my favorites:

    Then the doors closed throughout the hotel. Everyone locked himself in behind double doors and each was left alone with himself and his secrets.

    And here's Dr. Otterschlag using hotel as a metaphor for life:

    The whole hotel is only a rotten pub. It is exactly the same with the whole of life. . . . You arrive, stay for awhile, and go on again. Passing through. Isn't that it? . . . and what do you do in life? A hundred doors along one corridor and nobody knows a thing about his next-door neighbors. 

    Originally published in German as Menschen im Hotel, this was an international best-seller and was adapted as a stage play and an Oscar winning movie in 1932, starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford -- it's the source of the famous Garbo line "I want to be alone." I've never seen it but it's available on Netflix so it's at the top of my DVD queue.

    Greta Garbo and John Barrymore. She just wants to be left alone .
    Vicki Baum wrote about 50 books altogether, some in German, some in English after she left Europe during WWII. As an Austrian Jew, her books were banned by the Nazis, so I'm counting this as my Banned or Censored Classic Book for the Back to the Classics Challenge

    Tuesday, October 4, 2016

    Classics Spin Pick

    The Classics Spin has revealed my next read from my Classics Club and it is. . . . #1. So here's what I'll be reading:

    A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell. It's fairly long because it's the first three volumes of the twelve book series -- 718 pages! However, the print isn't too tiny and the margins are fairly large, so I don't think it will take me the entire two months! I'll be posting my review on December 1. I'm hoping to finish three or four of the last books on my Classics Club list by the end of the year, so this should help keep me on track.

    Bloggers, did you sign up for the Classics Spin? What books did you get, and how do you feel about them? 

    Friday, September 30, 2016

    Classics Spin #14 -- and is it too late to change my Classics Club list?

    Now that I'm back to blogging again, I definitely wanted to sign up for the latest Classics Club Spin! Basically, next Monday, someone from the Classics Club will post a random number between one and twenty; the corresponding book from the numbered list below is my next read.  (It's all explained in great detail here.) I'm down to the final seven books on my list -- my target finish date is March 24, 2017, just under six months away, so the next Spin pick should help me finish on time. 

    These were the final seven books from my list:

    • The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
    • The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
    • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
    • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
    • The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
    • A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
    • Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.
    However, as I'm getting close to the end, there are several books I've been dreading, mostly because of their length. I have tried a couple of times to read  Lark Rise to Candleford and it seems excruciatingly slow, but I watched a couple of episodes of the TV adaptation and liked it, so I haven't given up yet.

    The other books I'm really dreading are the two French novels -- I've tried a couple of times to read Hunchback, but I just couldn't get into it. I even downloaded an audio version this summer and tried to listen to it as I was out walking the dog, and it was just glacial. I'm going to give it one more shot in print, and if I still can't get through fifty pages, I'm going to drop it from the list and add something else. This is my list, and even though I'm close to the end, I'm just not going to torture myself reading something I hate, just for the sake of reading it. I might try Les Miserables instead, or a different French writer -- I really liked Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant, so I might try Pierre and Jean. Or I could substitute something by Emile Zola, I still have several of his books instead. 

    Back view of Notre Dame cathedral from my visit to Paris in July.
    I didn't go inside this time but did get some nice photos , especially of the garden in the back.
    I've also decided to switch The Man in the Iron Mask for The Black Tulip -- when I made up the list almost five years ago, I didn't realize The Man in the Iron Mask is the fifth books of the D'Artagnan series. I'm kind of a stickler about reading series books in order, and though I've read The Three Musketeers but I don't think there's any way I could get through the other three books in time with all my other reading. Besides, I'm kind of interested in the history of Holland and the tulip mania of the 17th century (there's a movie coming out next year called Tulip Fever and I'm really looking forward to it. 

    So, here's my spin list which I'm just choosing at random, including repeats so I have an even 20:
    1. A Dance to the Music of Time
    2. The Mystery of Edwin Drood
    3. The Portrait of a Lady
    4. The Four Feathers
    5. The Black Tulip
    6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
    7. Lark Rise to Candleford
    8. The Four Feathers
    9. The Mystery of Edwin Drood
    10. The Black Tulip
    11. Lark Rise to Candleford
    12. A Dance to the Music of Time
    13. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
    14. The Portrait of a Lady
    15. The Four Feathers
    16. The Black Tulip
    17. The Mystery of Edwin Drood
    18. A Dance to the Music of Time
    19. The Portrait of a Lady
    20. Lark Rise to Candleford
    I think my top picks would be The Black Tulip, Edwin Drood, or A Dance to the Music of Time. The books I'm dreading most are Hunchback and Lark Rise, and I'm nervous about Portrait of a Lady. I'm fairly neutral about The Four Feathers because I don't know much about it, but if nothing else, it's pretty short.

    Anyone read any of these books? Which ones should I be hoping for? And has anyone else abandoned books on their Classics Club list? Which books are you hoping to read? I'd love to hear your comments!

    Tuesday, September 27, 2016

    Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

    I'm finally down to the single digits in my Classics Club list, but I realized that I have less than six months to go before my deadline! The other day I was at the library and just for fun, I looked to see if they had any of the books on the list on the shelves. Lo and behold there was Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. I'd tried to read it about a year ago but just couldn't get into it, mostly because I was listening on audiobook and couldn't stand the narrator, who sounded like she was reading to small children. Anyway, I gave it another shot and it was so worth it, because this book is brilliant.

    Main Street is a satire of small-town life in the Midwest about 100 years ago. Carol, a bright young librarian living in St. Paul, meets a doctor at a party. He's about 12 years older and from a small town called Gopher Prairie. After a bit of a whirlwind courtship, they marry and return to Gopher Prairie, population 6,000. Carol has many good intentions and is convinced she can make the town into a place of beauty and culture, but she is foiled at every turn, by nosy neighbors, gossips, and people who think life is just fine as it is. Over a period of years, she tries to improve by volunteering on the library board, joining literary societies, and even directing an amateur theatrical. 

    She is also the subject of much gossip, about her clothing, her interior decorating, and her choice of friends, whether they be working-class servants, socialists, or well-dressed arty types. World War I erupts, and there are some painful reminders of racism and political backlash that are incredibly timely. There's also a character who is mocked for being effeminate which made me really uncomfortable and a terrible incident about a woman who is basically run out of town after a boorish young man ruins her reputation with gossip. It made me furious but incidents like this still happen today. 

    I thought Sinclair Lewis drew a brilliant portrait of small towns -- his characters are really well developed and the descriptions of scenery are wonderful. It reminded me a little of the winters in Little House in the Prairie. There's also lots of snappy dialogue and great quotes. I don't usually include this many quotes in a review but these three were so great I had to include them. This one is my favorite and I forced it upon my family with great delight: 

    Carol drove through an astonishing number of books from the public library and from city shops. Kennicott was at first uncomfortable over her disconcerting habit of buying them. A book was a book, and if you had several thousand of them right here in the library, free, why the dickens should you spend your good money? After worrying about it for two or three years, he decided that this was one of the Funny Ideas which she had caught as a librarian and from which she would never entirely recover.

    I imagine many book bloggers can relate to this as well!

    Here is another of my favorite quotes that made me laugh out loud. Carol is at Sunday dinner with some annoying relatives: 

    Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible.

    Lewis had his snarky moments, but he's also incredibly insightful:

    There are two insults which no human being will endure: the assertion that he hasn't a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble.

    I raced through this book in less than a week and highly recommend it if you're looking for a well-written, insightful American classic. I'm sure it will be one of my top reads of the year, and now I have only seven books left on my Classics Club list!

    Sunday, September 25, 2016

    Back From a Blogging Break and Literary London

    View of the Rhine valley and Bacharach from Stahleck Castle.

    It's been several months since my last post.  We did move to Germany, near Kaiserslautern, which is in the Rhineland-Palatinate in the southwest part of the country. The transition has been more complicated than I expected, especially since we didn't have internet in our new house for two months. The one upside was that I had lots of time for reading; hopefully now I'll get caught up with my book blogging.

    Before I start posting reviews again, I thought I'd share a few photos. I haven't done too much traveling around Germany yet, but we did make a quick trip to beautiful Bacharach, along the Rhine.

    I also had two amazing trips with my girls, one to Paris (just over 2 hours by express train from Kaiserslautern!) and London. I thought I'd include some photos of literary landmarks. 

    One of our first stops was the V&A and we thought we'd stop by Harrod's. Walking along Cromwell road I realized I was passing Brompton Square, where Lucia lives in E. F. Benson's Lucia in London, which I'd finished just a few weeks before. I googled the address and lo and behold, there it was with a blue historical marker:

    Closer inspection revealed this was Benson's own house!

    We also saw THREE West End plays while we were in London, two of them classics:

    I loved all the plays, each was completely different. I had to include The Mousetrap which I saw as a child while visiting Toronto. I was delighted to find this marker honoring Agatha Christie in the theater district:

    The Mousetrap played for years at the Toronto Truck Theater, a converted church. It's no longer running in Toronto but it's still going strong in London. This counter in the lobby shows exactly how many performances:

    Of course I knew the ending but it was still a great show and my girls loved it. 

    Naturally, we visited multiple bookshops. We went to Waterston's at Trafalgar Square and in Piccadilly Circus; Daunt Books in Marylebone, and Foyle's near Charing Cross. I can't remember exactly how many books I bought but I wanted ALL OF THESE classic mysteries:

    And I couldn't have missed a pilgrimage to Bloomsbury where I finally got to visit the Persephone Book shop. It's covered in scaffolding but still open. 

    I arrived on a Saturday morning and my heart dropped when I saw the shop was closed! However, we double-checked the hours and it didn't open until noon that day, so I wasn't disappointed. I bought three more books, some bookmarks and a lovely Persephone tote bag. 

    And no literary trip to London would be complete with out a trip to Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross!!

    People line up to have their photos taken and sometimes it's quite a long wait. We went the first day of our trip and the lines were long, so we tried again the last morning of our trip and were pleasantly surprised by how quickly it moved. The employees were delightfully enthusiastic and of course there's a Harry Potter shop full of all sorts of souvenirs. (Also a great restaurant close by with a delicious Full English Breakfast.) I adored London and there's so much I didn't see, so I hope to go back soon. 

    I hope to post more photos soon and actual reviews of books I've been reading this summer! 

    Tuesday, May 17, 2016

    The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

    I've really had a hard time sticking to a book lately -- we have so much going on with our upcoming move, it's really hard for me to concentrate on anything -- it's definitely time for those non-challenging comfort reads. Luckily, the list of my unread Persephone books included The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I actually own a copy from 1907 just like the one picture above. I'd put off reading it because it's just over 500 pages long, but it's in the public domain and readily available for download on my smartphone. I started reading it in bits and pieces, and by the fourth or fifth chapter, I was completely hooked and couldn't stop reading it.

    Basically, this is the story of a society marriage gone wrong, and the dramatic aftermath. Like Downton Abbey's Cora Crawley, Rosalie Vanderpoel is a wealthy heiress wooed by a titled Englishman in financial straits. Rosalie is young, tenderhearted, and impressionable, and she agrees to marry Nigel Anstruther though she doesn't realize quite how desperate he is. Her younger sister Betty, though a child of nine, sees right through him and dislikes him instantly.

    Sadly, no one realizes what a good judge of character Betty is, and the marriage takes place. Once Rosalie reaches England, her husband becomes a very different person. He's furious that he can't control her money, so he becomes abusive and cuts Rosalie off from her family with little explanation.

    Twelve years later, Betty is now a beautiful, intelligent, confident young woman, and she is determined to find out what really happened to Rosalie. With her father's blessing (and his virtually unlimited resources) she sails to England on a mission. On the boat over, she also has a chance encounter with a second-class passenger, James Salter. She is impressed by his forthrightness and strength of character (not to mention his good looks), but assumes she'll never see him again.

    After finding her sister and young nephew in terrible circumstances, Betty takes matters into her own hands and is determined to put things right at their crumbling estate, with her diabolical brother-in-law, and finds true love along the way. It's a bit of a fairy tale, but what I really liked about this book is what a great character Betty is -- she doesn't wait around for a man to save her, she's frequently the one doing the saving. Of course the fact that she comes from a rich family makes it much easier, but I got the sense that this is a woman that would have done great things with or with out the money. She's a real go-getter.

    I also loved reading how Betty took charge of improving the derelict estate. The book is a bit like a cross between Downton Abbey (but with an abusive Lord Grantham) and an episode of This Old British House. There are also some fun quirky side characters, like local villagers, the vicar Mr. Penzance, and a traveling American salesman named G. Selden. Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in England but spent much of her life in America, crossing the Atlantic numerous times, and her characters from both countries seem lovingly portrayed.

    Burnett clearly loved England and you can also see hints of her future novel, The Secret Garden, when Betty Vanderpoel admires the beautiful countryside of Kent and plans improvements with the estate gardeners. Burnett rented Great Maytham Hall in Kent and the gardens inspired her. I haven't read The Secret Garden since I was a child so I think it's time for a re-read.

    Great Maytham Hall garden
    "One feels it so much in a garden," she said. "I have never lived in a garden of my own. This is not mine, but I have been living in it—with Kedgers [the gardener]. One is so close to Life in it—the stirring in the brown earth, the piercing through of green spears, that breaking of buds and pouring forth of scent! Why shouldn't one tremble, if one thinks? I have stood in a potting shed and watched Kedgers fill a shallow box with damp rich mould and scatter over it a thin layer of infinitesimal seeds; then he moistens them and carries them reverently to his altars in a greenhouse. The ledges in Kedgers' green-houses are altars. I think he offers prayers before them. Why not? I should. And when one comes to see them, the moist seeds are swelled to fulness, and when one comes again they are bursting. And the next time, tiny green things are curling outward. And, at last, there is a fairy forest of tiniest pale green stems and leaves. And one is standing close to the Secret of the World! And why should not one prostrate one's self, breathing softly—and touching one's awed forehead to the earth?"

    I only have a few tiny quibbles with the novel -- as much as I loved Betty, she really doesn't seem to have any faults, and Sir Nigel Anstruthers is a bit of an over-the-top, mustachioed villain. Also, the ending was a little melodramatic for my taste. But overall, this was a very enjoyable read and it's one of my favorite reads so far this year. 

    I'm counting this as my Classic by a Woman novelist for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and also for Reading England Challenge.

    Sunday, April 17, 2016

    The 1938 Club: National Provincial by Lettice Cooper

    Just in time for the end of The 1938 Club, I finished National Provincial by Lettice Cooper. I'd read and loved The New House several years ago, so when I realized she'd published another book that fit the parameters, I put in an ILL request immediately. It arrived in time but took me much longer to finish than I expected. 

    Set in the 1930s, this is an ambitious work about several families living in the fictional town of Aire, in Yorkshire. The book begins with a egg woman named Mary Welburn, who's leaving her job as a journalist in London to start work at a smaller regional paper close to her childhood home, mostly so she can help with her disabled mother, since her sister is about to get married. The reader begins to learn about the local residents of different classes and their intertwining lives. Mostly, the characters and setting are a microcosm of British society, examining the conflict between the classes and the ongoing changes in society, both social and political, against the backdrop of the late 1930s, just before the war. 

    As Mary begins reporting, we learn about some of the prominent families and events going on in the area. The Harding family used to be the wealthiest landowners, but one half the family lost money (but not status) after a business failure during the depression. The younger son, Stephen, took a job with a local factory owner, Mr. Ward, who was born poor but created a manufacturing empire by dint of hard work and determination. His wife would love nothing more than to be accepted by the local gentry, but sadly, she's viewed as a social climber and not the right sort. She and her husband try to keep a tight rein on the lives of their two young adult children. Mary befriends the daughter, Marjorie, who has left school and can't join the family business since it "wouldn't be ladylike." Her brother Leslie is at the local university, and befriends two of the younger professors and their wives, with mixed results. 

    Mary's sister is engaged to marry a local cricket star, and she's close to her childless aunt and uncle. Uncle John is the union rep for Ward's clothing factory, and has a young protege, Tom, but the two begin to disagree about wages at the factory. Tom also has a shallow, self-absorbed girlfriend named Olive, who's embarrassed by her brother's girlfriend who works as a domestic for one of the Harding's sons.

    This book covers about a year and a half and follows real events, including the death of George V, the abdication of Edward VII, and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. It's very interesting to read this knowing that Cooper didn't know exactly what was going to happen in Europe, though some of the characters definitely suspect that war is looming on the horizon. This was such a contrast to the other Cooper novel that I read, The New House, which took place entirely over one day with one family. National Provincial was more than 600 pages in my edition, and includes several extended families as well. (One of my few quibbles about the book is that there are so many characters I sometimes confused them, and there were a few stories that I found unresolved). 

    Overally, I really enjoyed this book. I found the characters really well developed and realistic -- nobody is completely bad, and nobody is completely good either. I thought Cooper did a really good job showing both sides of various conflicts, especially some of the political struggles with the Union at Ward's clothing factory. 

    As I read this, I couldn't help being reminded of some of my favorite British novels, including Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South; Winifred Holdby's South Riding; and even a little bit of Downton Abbey. It's a really great book and I'm so glad I read it! I'm really intrigued by the novels of Lettice Cooper and I'm email Persephone books to suggest it as a reprint. I'm also going to order another of Cooper's novels called Fenny which was reprinted by Virago back in the 1980s. 

    Has anyone else read anything by Lettice Cooper that you recommend? And how did everyone enjoy the 1938 Club! Thanks again to Simon and Karen for hosting, and to Cosy Books who mentioned National Provincial as a possible read.