Friday, May 01, 2015

Framley Parsonage

Well, I finally finished Framley Parsonage, fourth novel in the Anthony Trollope Barsetshire series.  I've been reading it all month, and I chose April to read it in because April 24 was the bicentennial of Trollope's birth.  I actually liked it very much until the ending.  My problem is that I found the final 20 pages to be unrelentingly tedious.

Trollope resolved the main story thread, that of Mark Robarts' financial difficulties and the romance between Lucy Robarts and Lord Ludovic, very nicely in chapter 46, "Lady Lofton's Request," but then he went on with two more seemingly endless chapters, neatly tying off and tucking in all the other loose story threads.  I think the other threads could've been dealt with in two pages, and if so, I would have come away from the book satisfied and happy.  As it is, all I can remember is how desperately boring I found the final stage of the book.

Perhaps I am more of a modern reader than I think I am, but I tend to like stories that aren't totally put to bed at the end.  And, in a series like this, the stories don't need to be completely resolved because we're presumably going to encounter some of the characters again in the subsequent novels.

Anyway, enough grousing.

I've blogged twice about the book before.
Characters you can relate to
First impressions

I found myself thinking about George Eliot's Middlemarch a good deal whilst reading Framley Parsonage.   Mark Robarts finds himself head over heels in debt, just as Dr. Lydgate does in Middlemarch.  The way they get into debt is much different and how their wives react couldn't be more different, but the moral and ethical dilemmas that both men face were similar.

I also couldn't help thinking about Gaskell's My Lady Ludlow when I read about Lady Lofton, and I kept on picturing Francesca Annis as she appeared as Lady Ludlow in the Cranford BBC series.

I recently heard that Julian Fellowes, who has blessed us with Downton Abbey, is going to be doing an adaptation of Dr. Thorne--the third novel in the series--and I hope that he makes it a double feature, and continues Dr. Thorne's story through to its logical conclusion in Framley Parsonage. My dear Dr. Thorne doesn't shown up in Framley Parsonage until the last third, but I enjoy his character so much that I did a little happy dance when he did make it on the scene.  I think there's quite enough material in these two books for at least a good six episodes of a mini-series.  And I don't think Fellowes could resist bringing Lucy Robarts to the screen--the only problem would be that she would steal the show from Mary Thorne, Dr. Thorne's niece, and the heroine of Dr. Thorne.

My prediction for who could play Miss Dunstable, one of my favorite characters in both books, is the incomparable Emma Thompson.

Framley Parsonage is part of my 2015 Back to the Classics challenge, filling the 19th century category.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top Ten ALL TIME Favorite Authors

I love the Top Ten meme hosted by The Broke & the Bookish, especially when I'm currently mired in long books, making topics for posts slim pickings.

This week's topic is everyone's favorite...all time favorite authors.  I have a lot of favorite authors, so my criteria became who do I like to reread.  After all, it's one thing to read everything by an author, but it's real commitment to reread everything two or more times!

Austen - I've seriously stopped counting how many times I've read all of Austen's novels.  
Gaskell - I have read all of Gaskell, and a few (N&S, W&D) more than once and I plan to revisit others as well.  
Gabaldon - I have read the Outlander series, and have reread the series at least once, and the first book three times.
Dickens - I'm still working on reading all his works, but have read more than half, and several novels multiple times.  We have a complicated relationship, but we're good friends right now!
Shakespeare - Read/watched the entire set of plays, except the ones with dubious authorship towards the end, and never tire of revisiting the plays.
Steinbeck - I started reading Steinbeck early and while I haven't read everything he wrote yet, I regularly revisit old favorites (Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, Cannery Row).
Jude Morgan - I actually haven't yet reread any of his fabulous novels, but I know I will.  He fictionalizes literary types better than anyone else.
Edward Rutherford - I absolutely love his novels about places and regularly reread my favorites (London, Sarum, The Forest, New York); Paris is on my reading list for this year.
Tracy Chevalier - there is something about her subjects and writing that just click for me; I have yet to read one of her novels that doesn't do it for me.  From Girl With the Pearl Earring, to The Lady and the Unicorn, to Remarkable Creatures, to The Last Runaway, they're all great.
Daphne duMaurier - the grand dame of the psychological thriller, a genre that I love, she is superb and her stories, even the spooky ones like Don't Look Now, are always satisfying.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Classics Salon - Character You Relate To

Saari at Mangoes and Cherry Blossoms is hosting a weekly Classics Salon wherein participants chat about the classic works of literature we are currently reading.  She posts a discussion prompt, and for this, the 2nd week, her prompt is:

If you could be any character in the current classic you are reading (or in the last classic you read) who would you be and why? In other words, tell us something about any character you find yourself relating to or empathising or sympathising with. 

Since I'm reading two classics at the moment, Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, I'll respond with thoughts on both books. Framley Parsonage - the heroine, Lucy Robards, definitely is the most attractive character of the lot.  She is quietly witty, keeps her own counsel, feels deeply, tries to do what is right and just, is loyal and interesting.  I'm not sure that I empathize with her as much as I admire her, but there's a lot there to like.  By contrast, her sister-in-law, Fanny Robards, has many of the same qualities but indulges in hero worship more than is wise, at least with regards to her relationship to Lady Lufton, her husband's patroness.  I'm finally starting to see the Pride and Prejudice connection with Framley Parsonage, with Mark Robards as Mr. Collins, though without being the writhing buffoon that Collins is, and Fanny as the practical Charlotte Collins, Lady Lufton as the overbearing patroness, Lady Catherine, dear Lucy in the role of Elizabeth Bennet, and Lord Lufton as love-sick Mr. Darcy.

Lord Lufton and Lucy Robards
Now, on to David Copperfield - I can't say I particularly empathize with David, though I enjoy his journey to maturity and root for him heartily.  I'm neither a Clara Copperfield, nor an Agnes Wickfield, nor a Dora Spenlow, and I hope I'm not an Aunt Betsey.  I can't imagine rejecting a nephew because he wasn't a niece, nor do I think donkeys are plagues upon respectable people, but her generosity and embrace of the disenfranchised, both David and Mr. Dick, make her wonderful in my eyes.  I suppose the character to whom I can connect most on a personal level is dear Peggotty, David's nurse and lifelong friend.  All she really wants is a comfortable home and a quiet, purposeful life.  She values her family and is fierce in her protection of them and her friends, whom she makes into family.  

Aunt Betsey and Peggotty

Monday, April 13, 2015

Life After Life

Two covers - I read the one on the left, but prefer the one on the right.

I read Kate Atchison's Life After Life with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Read Alongs group.  It's not a book that was on my TBR list nor radar, but I am so glad that it was selected and that I found the time to read it.

I am a big fan of time-travel books, and have loved this notion for as long as I can remember. Life After Life is time-travel with what was to me a unique twist.  Actually the premise is really akin to that of the Groundhog Day movie in that the protagonist, Ursula Todd, repeatedly dies and is reborn on the same day in February 1910 and to the same parents in the same place in England.

Sometimes she lives for a number of years, sometimes decades, and sometimes she dies shortly after birth.   Over time she starts to remember previous lives--not completely or mostly even consciously, especially at first, but more in a deja-vu sort of way.  She develops an instinct for avoiding the circumstances that ended her life previously, and so is able to chart the course of her life to some degree, although she cannot control all the variables, and sometimes avoiding one situation either makes no difference or actually causes something else to happen with similar or worse consequences.

Ursula lives through (sometimes) WWI as a young child, the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, the rise of fascism, and WWII (that's a particularly deadly time for her!).  She has a couple of brothers, a wonderful sister, friends, lovers, parents, and employers.  Some people she encounters in every life, some are only present in certain threads.

This is a terrific premise, and Atchison did a masterful job in creating a narrative arc that incorporated the multiple threads of the same life being lived repeatedly but with variation.  I was fascinated by both Ursula's lives and how Atchison handled this very difficult narrative.

There were a few confusing elements--it really helped to have a weekly session in which I could discuss my thoughts and debate certain plot points with others reading the book (i.e., great book club book!)--but overall this book really gave me a lot to think about, such as how much does one specific reaction or event affect the overall course of your life and that of others.  If I had the chance to "do it over," what would I actually try to do differently?

It was interesting to compare this book to Stephen King's 11/22/63, in which the time-travelling protagonist consciously sets out to change the course of history by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Ursula does not try to repeat her lives--she doesn't have control over the fact that she is reliving her life--but she does try to change things, once she realizes, however vaguely, that she can.

I couldn't help but see a moral or spiritual  lesson in Life After Life.  On the one hand, it seemed to boil down to the notion "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," but I also thought there was a sense of being on the path to nirvana through self-awareness and then self-sacrifice.  My interpretation of Ursula as she matured through living her life multiple times was that initially the changes she made were to make her life better, but later the changes were to make the lives of her family and friends better, and then finally to make the world a better, safer place.  Like just about everything in this book, though, this is open to interpretation.

As you can tell, this is not a cut-and-dry novel.  No real wrapping up of loose ends.  Certainly no closure.  But, a well-written, creative, thought-provoking story that I found very satisfying despite its ambiguity.

I'm eager to read more by this author, and already got a copy of Case Histories, from 2004.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Classics Salon: First impressions of current classic

Saari at Mangoes and Cherry Blossoms is hosting a monthly Classics Salon wherein participants chat about the classic works of literature we are currently reading.  She posts a discussion prompt, and this month (her inaugural month of the Salon) is:

What are your first impressions of the current classic you are reading?

I'm about a third of the way into David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, and three chapters into Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope.

This is my third or possibly fourth time reading DC, but it's been >30 years since I last read it, so while I remember the basic story arc and most of the characters, there are plenty of scenes and situations and descriptions that I certainly don't remember.  I have to say I am falling in love with the book all over again.  Since my last reading of DC, I've read quite a few other Victorian novels, including a fair number of Dickens' other novels, and it's really shining through as a masterpiece.  It is tighter than most, although still long, and it rambles less than the others, with nary an extraneous scene that doesn't relate to David's personal journey.  

I'm reading this on a strict  three chapters a week schedule, and I'm quite amazed at how many memorable scenes are packed into these three chapter segments.  Dickens really moved David along in his journey to manhood at a reasonable pace (okay it did take 300 pages, but still, that's only a third of the book!).  It's like each segment of his life is a novella with its own cast of characters and story arc, and then he moves on.  

On the other hand, I'm not sure what to think about Framley Parsonage yet.  I'm still meeting everyone and trying to remember who's who from the previous Barsetshire novels.  The Bishop and Mrs. Proudie have already made their appearance.  I'm actually not even sure that Mark Robarts, the vicar of Framley, is the protagonist as he marries within the first chapter, and my expectation was that this was a P&P-esque novel, so who are the characters who become couples?

My biggest problem with Trollope is that once I finish reading one of his novels I can never remember the names of his characters or their defining characteristics, with a few exceptions.  I'm really trying to pay attention early on but I've met so many characters in just the first three chapters that I feel I need to resort to a Wikipedia article to review who's who.

I like Trollope's novels when I'm reading them, but they (the characters and their fate) just don't seem to stick.  Not the way the Micawbers, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Peggotty, Mr. Murdstone, Mr. Dick and Aunt Betsey (all from DC) do.  I'm rereading David Copperfield decades since I last visited them, and I remember all of them pretty clearly.

I think I'm going to enjoy this monthly Classics Salon.  Hey all you classics readers out there, care to join us?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros - The Guns of August

Diane, the Bibliophile By The Sea, hosts one of my favorite memes, First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros. It's a great way to get a taste of a lot of different books by authors you may not have tried yet.

Here is the marvelous opening to Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Guns of August, which details the first stage of World War I.  This paragraph describes the 1910 funeral of Edward VII, which brought together all the leaders of Europe and beyond who four years later unleashed their dogs of war.
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens--four dowager and three regnant--and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
Tuchman is marvelous at describing the political and economic forces as well as the personalities of the leaders and their staffs.  She is opinionated, biased, and makes her subject understandable and compelling.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Risi e Bisi - Spring, Venetian Style

A few years ago I was reading Friends in High Places, a Guido Brunetti mystery by Donna Leon, and I came across these lines...

She was in the kitchen when he came in, seated at the table, shelling peas. 
"Risi e bisi," he said by way of greeting when he saw the peas, the irises held out in front of him.
Smiling at the sight of the flowers, she said, "It's the best thing to do with peas, isn't it, make risotto?" and raised her cheek to receive his kiss.

If Guido and Paola Brunetti weren't already one of my all-time favorite fictional couples, this scene would have sealed it.  I immediately looked up Risi e Bisi and found the recipe below and a bit of info on the dish.

I try to make it every spring because I love Venice (maybe really going there this October), I love peas, I love making soup, and I love being connected to a cultural tradition.

This dish is considered by the Italians as a soup, but it is even thicker than most Italian thick soups. It is a specialty of Venice and said to have been served to the Doges of Venice at banquets to celebrate the feast of St. Mark. As with all traditional dishes, there are several versions. It is eaten with a fork, not a spoon, and basically should be rice with a green motif.

Risi e bisi (Rice and Peas)

3 cups shelled green peas 
3 T butter 
2 1/2 T olive oil
2/3 cups diced lean bacon
1 green onion, sliced  
10 cups chicken stock
1 2/3 cup rice  
salt to taste
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
2-3 sprigs parsley

Heat the butter and oil together in a large pan, and gently saute the bacon and onion. When the bacon is brown, add the peas and moisten with a few tablespoons of the stock. Cook gently for 15 minutes. Add the rest of the stock, which must be hot, and bring it to the boil. Pour in the rice, stir well, lower the heat and cook gently for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender and still fairly moist. Add salt if necessary, and sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese and parsley.
Serves 4 to 6.

Buon Appetito!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dombey and Son

I've been putting off writing a post about the most recent Dickens novel that I finished, Dombey and Son, because I can't figure out what I want to say about it.  This is one of those "leap-of-faith" posts where you sit down and start typing and hope that something coherent emerges.

Overall impression - I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, although it is not my favorite Dickens of the ones I've read so far.  It's not as good as A Tale of Two Cities, or Little Dorrit, or David Copperfield, which I'm currently rereading.  But, it's infinitely better than Hard Times, which I disliked.  I think it's really a 4-star book, but the Dickens name counts for a star on its own, I suppose.

The best place to begin with a Dickens book is the characters--he was brilliant at populating his books with an extraordinary number of well-drawn, interesting characters.  My biggest problem with the book is that I don't think Mr. Dombey was a convincing character.  I loathed him, which as a reader, I was meant to do.  But, I never really got why he shunned his sweet daughter, Florence, until it was almost too late.  I know that he was disappointed that she wasn't a thriving boy, ready to step into the role of son and heir, but that wasn't enough to explain to me why he couldn't get over it.  I really think Dickens should've given us Mr. Dombey's backstory.  We get to meet his sister, Louisa Chick, but their relationship tells me nothing about the forces that shaped him into who he was.

I loved Florence, and was absolutely thrilled that Dickens didn't kill her off as he seemed threatening to do with some red-herring foreshadowing. Maybe he meant to, but since this was a serialized work, he could have changed his mind after tossing out some hints that she was as fragile in health as her brother, Paul.  

Speaking of Paul, I went into the book thinking that he made it to adulthood, and I was pretty disappointed that he died before he could convince his father than money was a means and not an end.  He was a sweetie, though, and his deathbed scene was all that I expected of Dickens, whose pathetic scenes are the stuff of legends.

Edith Granger was another character that I never really got.  As with Mr. Dombey, I understand that she hated being in the role of being auctioned off to the highest bidder in marriage market, but for the life of me, I don't get why she didn't tell her mother to back off.  While Mrs. Skewton was a money-grubber, Edith was no door mat and could have managed her.  Again, more of Edith's backstory would have been helpful.

James Carker was a wonderful villain--I liked seeing him as a prototype for Uriah Heep insofar as he was also an underling who ingratiated his way into controlling the firm.  Carker's white teeth were extremely creepy and terribly effective as a way of encapsulating Carker.  Again, I wanted details about his relationship to Alice.  Did he seduce her?  And what were the details of brother John's transgression?  It's amazing that in a book this long, there were so many unanswered questions.  I loved their sister, Harriet, and wished I knew more about her.

Captain Cuttle, Major Bagstock, Rob the Grinder (what is a grinder, anyway?), Polly, Walter and his uncle, Susan Nipper, and Mr. Toots were all wonderful characters and I enjoyed spending time with all of them.

My conclusion is that Dombey and Son was a bit of a proving ground for a lot of what came to perfection in David Copperfield.  Their plots are very different but some themes are similar--make-shift families, surrogate parents, for example.

Dombey and Son fulfills the category of "A Very Long Classic Novel" in my 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Top Ten Books on my Spring Reading List

I am currently reading 5 books but haven't finished anything recently, so no fodder for posts, so I was thrilled when I discovered that today's Top Ten Tuesday theme (at The Broke and the Bookish) was about books we are excited about reading this spring.

Turns out, my reading lists are about to being thrown out the window because there a so many great books that just appeared on my horizon that I am very excited to read.

1.  Girl on a Train - I am planning to listen to this using a library copy, which means it might actually be Fall before my turn comes, but I am eager to read it.

2.  Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania - I really enjoy Erik Larson's books and since I am currently reading a lot about WWI, the timing on this couldn't be better.

3.  The Buried Giant - I'm a new Kazuo Ishiguro fan, having only fairly recently read Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and this latest novel sounds intriguing and I know the writing will blow me usual.

4.  Emma: A Modern Retelling - I have mixed feelings about the quality of the novels that have emerged from the Austen Project (i.e., modern retellings of Austen's 6 novels by well-known novelists), but I like Alexander McCall Smith and I like Edinburgh and I love Emma and I'm hopeful that he has done right by Austen and her Emma.

5.  My Brilliant Friend - I always seem to be planning a trip to Italy, but whether I actually get there or not, I love to read about Italy.  This is the first novel in Elena Ferrante's trilogy about life in modern Italy.

6. Bring Up the Bodies - Wolf Hall is about to start on PBS and it's high time I read Hilary Mantel's sequel, which has been languishing on my TBR shelf for far too long.

7.  Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall - in keeping with letting the PBS broadcast schedule serve as an impetus to read, I am excited to read this first book in a series by Winston Graham.  It premieres in June, so I just might get to it!

8.  As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of 'The Princess Bride' - my husband received this Cary Elwes memoir for Christmas and it's just the kind of fun book that spring reading calls for.

9.  Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais, A Ritual Walk - I love walking and I love the Bay Area, and I would like to go on one of the ritual walks around it.  My brother has done this a couple of times and lent me this book so that I can get inspired to put it on the calendar.

10.  Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women - I've had this non-fiction book by Jenny Hartley for awhile now, but since I've been reading a lot of Dickens lately, I'm reenergized to read it.

What are your spring reading plans?

Monday, March 09, 2015

Travelogue: San Francisco

We visited our daughter in San Francisco over the weekend to see her in Stop Kiss, an amazing play performed by the A.C.T (i.e., American Conservatory Theatre) Fellows.  But before we saw the play Saturday night, we did a little sightseeing.

First stop was Muir Woods National Monument, just north of the city in gorgeous Marin County.  We did a wonderful 5.5 mile hike—half along the floor of the valley gazing up at towering redwoods, and the other half elevated above the floor but still dwarfed by these magnificent trees.   Signs throughout the park request visitors to be quiet, and the grove really does impart a sacred feeling. 

After our hike we headed down to Stinson Beach where we had a wonderful lunch at the Parkside Café (both the fish tacos and crab cakes were sublime) before heading out to walk along the beach and sun ourselves, like seals, on the rocks.  We were blessed with beautiful clear blue skies and warm weather with just a soft sea breeze.  Heavenly.

Saturday took us to the Farmer’s Market and then Fisherman’s Wharf for taking pictures of all the sailboats jockeying for position under the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the afternoon we headed to South Beach to see the tall ships, Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, which were docked at Pier 40.  We chatted with the crews and watched Lady Washington cast off with a deck full of tourists for a spin around the SF Bay.  If you are interested in the schedule of these beautiful ships, visit Historical Seaport.

We finished up Sunday with a stroll through Golden Gate Park--birdwatching, peoplewatching, and enjoying the wonderful warm sun and first flowers of spring before we headed to the airport and home.