Monday, January 07, 2019

A Piece of the World

I have loved Christina's World, a painting by Andrew Wyeth, since I was little. My older brother gave my parents a copy of a coffee table book on Wyeth with this picture on the cover one Christmas, and I was intrigued by the painting and spent many hours flipping through the book, looking at the pictures.

Hence, it was natural for me to want to read A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline, which is a novel about Christina Olsen, the woman Wyeth used as a model for his most famous painting. It was my last book of 2018, and it did not disappoint.

I honestly don't know how much is known about Christina, apart from the fact that she was crippled and Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, stayed with Christina and her brother Al during the summer on their Maine farm in the mid-1940s. Hence, I don't know how many liberties Kline took with their story as she fictionalized it, but that sort of doesn't matter. For example, I have no idea whether the love interest is based on a real person in Christina's life, but in terms of Christina's story arc I think it is a vital element.

I thought Christina a very realistic character--she is frustrated by her physical disability, proud and determined to live life on her own terms, hardworking, resourceful, at times petty and perverse.

I also loved reading about Andrew Wyeth and how he approached his work. I am fascinated by the creative process, and Kline did a wonderful job with her portrait of a painter and the legacy he wrestled with as the son of a famous artist.

Here's an excerpt from the Prologue that I think is just splendid. A perfect opening to a wonderful book.
People think the painting is a portrait, but it isn’t. Not really. He wasn’t even in the field; he conjured it from a room in the house, an entirely different angle. He removed rocks and trees and outbuildings. The scale of the barn is wrong. And I am not that frail young thing, but a middle-aged spinster. It’s not my body, really, and maybe not even my head.
He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me. (There are many ways to be crippled, I’ve learned over the years, many forms of paralysis.) My ancestors fled to Maine from Salem, but like anyone who tries to run away from the past, they brought it with them. Something inexorable seeds itself in the place of your origin. You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Back to the Classics - 2019

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting Back to the Classics again in 2019, and I cannot resist signing up. I have most of the categories filled in, with a couple of open slots for mood-strikers.

1. 19th Century Classic: Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope
I meant to read this in 2018, but never got to it--the first in the Palliser series. Cannot wait!

2. 20th Century Classic: The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton
Unfinished, so I hope that won't bother me too much. I watched the mini-series years ago and always meant to read the novel.

3. Classic by a Woman Author: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte
My Classics Club spin for Dec/Jan - starting in January as it really isn't a chunkster.

4. Classic in Translation: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
At last, this is the year of W&P - at 15 books and two epilogues, I haven't quite worked out a good reading schedule for this, but I intend to take most of the year to read it, savor it, and live in it.

5. Classic Comic Novel: TBD
Waiting for the right book to strike my fancy--will be depending on reading reviews from others in this category.

6. Classic Tragic Novel: Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy
You can always count on Hardy for a good tragedy!

7. Very Long Classic: Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot
Since I decided to skip Felix Holt after trying it and being bored beyond belief, this is the last of Eliot's novels I have yet to read for the first time. I've heard it's great!

8. Classic Novella: TBD
Another category in which I'm waiting for inspiration.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean): A Diary of Dixie, by Mary Chesnut, or Roughing It, by Mark Twain
I need to read both of these to complete the Classics Club challenge this year. I had wanted to venture south of the US, but I do want to finish up the CC roughly on time.

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania: Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
I have wanted to read this for years and it just qualifies for the 50-year mark, being published in 1967. I might include it in my October spooky reading.

11. Classic From a Place You've Lived: Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
This was a Colorado Book of the Month book in November, and much as I wanted to read along, I just didn't get to it. Sounds wonderful. The only place other than Colorado that I've lived is Birmingham, England, and since I was a baby at the time and I can't think of any classics set in Birmingham, I went with Colorado.

12. Classic Play: St. Joan, George Bernard Shaw
I have only read Pygmalion and since I visited Rouen last August and ate dinner across the plaza from where Joan was burned, I figured this would be a good play to read. I like to watch plays while I read them, so I wonder if there is a faithful film of this one.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Wrapping up Holiday Reading

First, Happy Solstice everyone--I am thrilled that we've turned the corner and the days will start getting longer again. I crave the sun.

I can hardly believe I haven't posted since December 1, but work has been crazy busy, prepping for Christmas takes time, and what's left goes into reading to keep me sane.

Here's what I read for the holidays this year:

The Twelve Clues of Christmas, by Rhys Bowen - my friend Rae gave it 4 stars on Goodreads and she is very sparing with her stars. It was a fun bit of English Christmas set in the 1930s and featuring an impoverished young lady, 32nd in the line of succession. Nothing deep or meaningful, but I liked the premise, a serial murderer who planned the murders around the Twelve Days of Christmas song.

The Nutcracker, by E.T.A. Hoffmann - read with the Goodreads True Book Talk group. This was my second encounter with the story that provided the inspiration for Tchaikovsky's incomparable ballet (I listened to Christopher Plummer read a version of this years ago), but I still think the ballet is better than the story. The best thing about the book, and I'm not disparaging it, were the illustrations by Maurice Sendak. I would love to see a production of the ballet that uses his set design. The introduction that he wrote about his work on the production was quite good.

Winter Solstice, by Elin Hilderbrand - the fourth in the Winter Street series about the Quinn family, set on Nantucket, Boston, and New York. I love this series and am sorry that this is the last book--I enjoy the food, the clothes, the traditions, the restaurants. I find myself looking up places for the next time I go to NYC, and now Nantucket is on my bucket list of places to visit...though not in summer, I think! Hilderbrand has scads of summer novels, but they don't appeal to me. I like the winter setting. When is Hallmark going to adapt these? They would be perfect.

The Holly-Tree Inn, by Charles Dickens - the complete 1855 Christmas number of Dickens' periodical Household Words. This is the first Dickens’ Christmas number that I have read that had multiple authors, and the editor provided an excellent introduction as well as terrific notes and good biographical notes on the various authors. The stories themselves were mostly grim, with the exception of Dickens’ The Boots, but the whole was very satisfying. This is a terrific addition to my Dickens collection and well worth reading--short but not all the Christmasy, actually.

The Ghost of Christmas Past, by Rhy Bowen - I stumbled upon this title in someone's blog (sorry, I don't remember where) and it appealed to me. Another easy mystery, this time featuring Molly Murphy, and set in NYC in 1906. I love novels set in NYC, and easy is good right now! Just started it today.

Happy Holidays...Happy Reading!

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Wrapping up Fall Reading

I'm just wrapping up my Fall reading before diving into Holiday books, so here's a quickie look at what I read this Fall.

I Am the Chosen King, by Helen Hollick - read this one with the GoodReads True Book Talk Group. November was historical fiction month, and while this wasn't the book I voted for, I really enjoyed it. It's about Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who was defeated by William the Bastard in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. Having visited Bayeaux last summer and viewed the Bayeaux Tapestry and listened to the French side of the story, it was a story fresh in my mind and was cool because I had visited many of the places in Normandy mentioned in the book. It was well-written and detailed and covered a period of history that I want to learn more about.

An Infamous Army, by Georgette Heyer - this was my second time listening to the audio version of this incredible book. It is a mashup of a Regency Romance and a very detailed narrative of the Battle of Waterloo, with definite overtones of Vanity Fair. I really need to read it next time with a map in hand because listening to it in the car means I can't research all the place names. Thoroughly enjoyable, though.

Varina, by Charles Frazier - an exceptionally creative and well-written novel about Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the African-American child who was part of her household during the Civil War but who was taken from her when the Union Army captured the Davises after Richmond fell. Varina reminded me of Frazier's Cold Mountain in that both books are journeys--in Cold Mountain, Inman is going home after the Civil War whereas Varina is fleeing Richmond and trying to reach Florida so she can escape to Cuba. One of the best books I read this year.  Now, I am very eager to read A Diary from Dixie, by Mary Chesnut, who was one of Varina's closest friends before, during, and after the war.

To Die but Once, by Jacqueline Winspear - the most recent (#14) in the excellent Maisie Dobbs series. I love these books, always listen to them as the actress is so good who reads them. It's set during the Dunkirk evacuation, and is an absolutely first-rate mystery. Loved it!

The Caves of Perigord, by Martin Walker - I really wanted to visited the Dordogne region of France on my trip last summer so I could go to the Lascaux caves, but I just couldn't fit it in. So, I did the next best a novel about the region. Martin Walker writes lovely mysteries set in the Dordogne region, but this one was a stand-alone that bounced between pre-historic times when the cave paintings were done, WWII (when British, American, and French soldiers were prepping for D-Day and encounter the caves), and modern-day (when a fragment of one of the paintings is part of theft). It was okay--I loved the pre-historic story about how the paintings were done, what they meant--all conjecture, of course, but fun to read. The WWII part was also good, but the modern-day was pretty weak in terms of story and characters.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson - another second listening of this favorite book. All about how the stuff we take for granted--light, toilets, kitchens, essentially everything in a house including its structure--came to be.  I love listening to Bryson read his own works.

Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon - I'm 75% done with this reread, which I am doing while watching season 4 of Outlander. I'm a fan of the whole series and never tire of reading about the adventures of Clarie and Jamie and their family that literally spans the centuries. Gives new meaning to the term "extended family."

Now, on to Holiday reading!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Classics Club Spin #19

UPDATE - the lucky number is 1, so I'll be reading Agnes Grey by end of January.
Actually I might wait until January 1 to start it so it can count for a Back to the Classics 2019 (assuming Karen at Books and Chocolates runs that marvelous challenge again next year!).
I've never done a Classics Club spin before, but since I am done with my Back to the Classics challenge for the year, I might as well!

The drawing will be held on Tuesday, November 27 and the deadline for completion is January 31.

Since I only have 10 books left and the drawing is from 1-20, I have listed each twice.

  1. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
  2. A Diary from Dixie - Mary Chesnut
  3. No Name - Wilkie Collins
  4. Daniel Deronda - George Eliot
  5. The Art of Eating - M.F.K. Fisher
  6. The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy
  7. Can You Forgive Her - Anthony Trollope
  8. Roughing It - Mark Twain
  9. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  10. The Buccaneers - Edith Wharton
  11. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
  12. A Diary from Dixie - Mary Chesnut
  13. No Name - Wilkie Collins
  14. Daniel Deronda - George Eliot
  15. The Art of Eating - M.F.K. Fisher
  16. The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy
  17. Can You Forgive Her - Anthony Trollope
  18. Roughing It - Mark Twain
  19. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  20. The Buccaneers - Edith Wharton
The only one I'm hoping doesn't get picked is The Art of Eating because I am already reading a few non-fiction books, and am ready to sink my teeth into a good story. Even though the Mary Chesnut diary is technically non-fiction, I am definitely hoping that one wins! 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Back to the Classics - it's a wrap

This year was a very good year for classics with regards to my reading life.

I did the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate, and finished in record time. Usually I am racing the calendar to finish up before December 31, but this year I finished in November. Personal best.

Here was what I read in 2018. I completed all 12 categories, giving me 3 entries for the drawing.

  1. A 19th century classic – Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens - one of the best Dickens novels, thoroughly enjoyed this dip into dark London.
  2. A 20th century classic – A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway - part of my reading up on France before my summer vacation. Good but not great.
  3. A classic by a woman authorTo Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee - a reread, but absolutely wonderful. I hope to get to NYC and see the Aaron Sorkin Broadway version next spring.
  4. A classic in translation.  The Paradise – Emil Zola - really enjoyed this look at Paris in the late Victorian days.
  5. A children's classic. LittleTown on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder - another reread of an absolute favorite.
  6. A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction.  Murder on the Orient ExpressAgatha Christie - can't believe this was my first time reading this top of the genre story. Enjoyed it and it gave me a lot to think about.
  7. A classic travel/journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction. A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway - another Paris-based book, liked it very much and thought it gave me a good feel for Paris.
  8. A classic with a single-word title.  Villette – by Charlotte Bronte - good but it's no Jane Eyre.
  9. A classic with a color in the title.  The Black Arrow – Robert Louis Stevenson - pure adventure, a mashup of Robin Hood and Hamlet, set during the War of the Roses.
  10. A classic by an author that's new to you.  Cry, the Beloved Country - Alan Paton - heartbreaking, beautifully written, definitely a must read.
  11. A classic that scares you.  Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury - interesting, but I'm just not into sci-fi.
  12. Re-read a favorite classic. Persuasion - Jane Austen - You pierce my soul.

A few are from the Classics Club Challenge, and a couple are ones that I've had on the shelf for awhile now. I felt that I picked classics that I could really enjoy and Karen always has some new categories to make the selections fun.

Looking forward to doing this again in 2019, and I appreciate Karen hosting this challenge so much. I really like reading the others' reviews and getting inspired to read other classics.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Black Arrow - Robert Louis Stevenson

I have wanted to read The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson, since I was a little kid. One of my older brothers must have read the book, or a Classic Comics version, or somehow learned the story and told me the basic outline because I remember playing it in the big maple tree in our front yard. One of my brothers nailed boards to the trunk for stairs and I would spend a lot of my play time up in the tree, pretending I was living with a pack of outlaws in Merry England in the trees and wearing Lincoln Green.

Yes, The Black Arrow is basically a Robin Hood story, set during the War of the Roses, and the hero, Dick Shelton, actually meets Richard III, when he was still Duke of Gloucester, before his brother Edward was crowned Edward IV. The outlaws are led by Ellis Duckworth, a worthy who is robbed of his lands by the evil, grasping Sir Daniel Blakeley--a shoe-in for the Sheriff of Notingham if there ever was one. Maid Marion is Joan Sedley, who Dick first meets when she is disguised as a boy and calls herself Jack--she is brave, witty, lovely, and devoted to Dick. To complete the cast, there is a fat friar, outlaws called Lawless and Greensheave, and all are, of course, first rate archers who shoot, you guessed it, black arrows, which are their calling card.

Not only is The Black Arrow a Robin Hood story, but it's also a Hamlet story. Dick discovers that Sir Daniel, his guardian, is responsible for his father's murder. He feels he must avenge his father but first has to prove that Sir Daniel is guilty. He loses opportunity after opportunity for vengeance with his dithering. Dick also kills one of Sir Daniel's men whom he discovers hiding behind the arras (aka curtain, but RLS insists it is an arras), spying on Joan and Dick during one of their rare trysts.

The story is definitely an adventure, complete with lots of fighting (swords, arrows, daggers), stolen ships and pirates, castles, chases, disguises, and derring-do.

The biggest problem is the language. RLS decided to employ the language of Shakespeare, in both dialogue and narrative, making it more difficult to read than it needed to be. While I can get what he was trying to do, with the Robin Hood/Hamlet/War of the Roses mashup, but it would have been less tedious had the characters spoken like Victorians instead of Shakespearean actors.

The portrait of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is also straight out of Shakespeare's Richard III, showing him as an ambitious, ruthless, cold young man who will let nothing stand in his way. Grrrr.

I didn't read the version with the NC Wyeth illustrations, but I wish I had because they are so marvelous.

This is the final book in my Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, fulfilling the category, title with a color in it. I think this is the earliest in the year that I have ever finished this challenge. A good year for classics for me!

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Travelogue: Port-en-Bessin-Huppain

While visiting Normandy last August, we stayed three nights in the fishing village of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain. As land-locked Coloradans, we seize every opportunity to stay near the ocean when we can, and it was perfect for access to all the Normandy Beach sites as well as Bayeaux.

We found marvelous restaurants along the water's edge, an interesting beach to walk along, and this amazing church. I've visited many churches over the past few years, from the Vatican in Rome to tiny, unheated and unlit St. Oswald's church along Hadrian's Wall, but this one stood out as providing incredible insight into the people who worship in the church from the town.

First and foremost, Port-en-Bessin-Huppain is a fishing village, and has been so from time immemorial.

Here's a peak inside the church so you can see what I mean...

Sunday, October 28, 2018

When Gods Die - RIPXIII #3

October continues to be great fun, reading wise, with another mystery logged for RIPXIII.

Last week I read When Gods Die by C.S. Harris--#2 in her Sebastian St Cyr series. I read the first book a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it. This one was even better.

It is initially set in Brighton, at the Royal Pavilion, which I actually visited in 2000 and found absolutely enchanting in a thoroughly over the top way. The mystery involves a plot to overthrow the Hanoverians on the throne, has a marvelous chase scene through the London sewers, and gives the reader much backstory of the very charming hero, who has a penchant for ruining his beautiful clothes, much to the dismay of his valet.

It's a true Regency romp with mystery and derring-do, lords and ladies, upstairs and downstairs. The mystery itself is quite interesting--a variation on the closed door approach, this time the mystery hinges on when the murder happened and how the body got to where it was found.

I also loved the connection to Wales and the Arthurian legend, with a whole family of witchy women with names likes Morgana, Guinevere, and Isolde.

Speaking of names, I think I just got the author's pun on the hero's name--since I know that St John, as in St John Rivers of Jane Eyre, to be pronounced Sin-Jin. I assume St Cyr to be pronounced Sin-Cere...or sincere. I think that's kind of cute because, despite appearance, Sebastian is sincere.

I'm not sure whether I'll get the fourth book read to reach Peril the First level. It's a set of short stories that aren't really doing it for me, and I've set it aside for other more interesting books.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sup With the Devil - Abigail Adams rides again

Second book in my R.I.P. XIII reading challenge and last in Barbara Hamilton's excellent Abigail Adams mystery series was Sup With Devil.

The year is 1774, and the nervous patriots of Boston are awaiting the ship from London that will determine the fate of the city and Massachusetts Colony for the crime of dumping crates of tea into Boston Harbor the previous December.

Against this backdrop of tension, Abigail is sucked into life at Harvard College, where her erudite nephew is a scholar, and solves a murder of a student. The story involves pirates, buried treasure, prostitutes, alchemy, and a host of other delightful elements.

I absolutely adore this series, and am so sorry that I don't have another book in the series to read next October. The relationship between Abigail and husband John is simply wonderful, and I enjoy meeting other revolutionary notables such as Paul Revere, John Hancock, and the ever-maddening Sam Adams.

Hamilton gives them believable dialogue and characters, and I appreciate the details she piles on--Abigail having to do her housework (laundry, cooking, child rearing, cleaning, etc.) all while gadding off to Cambridge, Concord, Lexington, and other outlying villages around Boston.

The mystery itself is well-constructed and whodunit neatly hidden for most of the book

A thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery with one of America's leading ladies as the star.