Sunday, May 24, 2020

2020 Big Book Summer

Nothing is the same this summer...except signing up for Suzan's Big Book Summer Challenge at Book by Book.

The challenge is incredibly easy...just read a book, or more, of at least 400 pages.

Here's my list of certain, probable, possible, and maybe candidates.

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens - I started it and am on track to finish mid-summer. Goodreads Victorians group is also reading it this summer, which I am excited about because I can post thoughts there as I read.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck - I have been wanting to reread this book since high school, and this summer is the summer I make good on that wish.

Men to Match My Mountains, by Irving Stone - I always enjoy Stone's books, and this one about the opening of the American West has sat on my TBR shelf for way too long.

Devil's Brood, by Sharon K. Penman - the second half of the Eleanor of Aquitaine/Henry II story in Penman's march through English history; their sons are all grown up and ready to battle their father on the side of their mother, or is it the other way around? Putting the fun in family dysfunction. I love Penman's historical novels, and it's been way too long since I read one.

A Dance to the Music of Time, 1st Movement, by Anthony Powell - I have heard such good things about this series.

That should keep me busy while I watch the flowers grow on my back deck this summer!

Hope all my book blogging buddies are stay safe and healthy.

What are you reading this summer?

Sunday, May 03, 2020

April Roundup

April was a tough month on so many fronts, but at least I read some great books!

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson - I like Larson's books and have read most of them and this is one of the best. Focus is on the Churchill family and the prime minister's staff. Larson's primary sources were the diaries of Churchill's youngest daughters, Mary, and one of his private secretaries, John Colville. While most of the narrative is on the British experience, it was interesting to read about the German perspective of the same events. Absolutely powerful book - one of the best of 2020 for me.

Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson - the first in Atkinson's Jackson Brodie mysteries, I absolutely loved this book. Atkinson is a very literary writer and this was a very literary mystery - she did a superb job of telling 4-5 different stories simultaneously, while also introducing her main character and giving us his back story. Eager to read the rest in this series.

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo - this is part of my Maine reading project for 2020, and was a very interesting story about a depressing little town in Maine. The mill has closed, no jobs or prospects of jobs, and the main character Miles is struggling with family, his past, his faith, and his job. Nevertheless, I thought it a compelling novel, and I plan to read more of Russo. Sadly, as expected, our trip to Maine this summer is cancelled, but I am enjoying digging into the fiction of the region.

Girl, Woman, Other, by Evaristo Bernardine - just finished this incredible book last night, and recommend it to anyone who wants to get a different view of Britain than the land served up by most of the novels I read. This is a collection of short stories about women of color in Britain whose lives intersect in the most interesting ways. This was one of the Tournament of Books contenders in 2020, making it to the quarter finals. I had read a few reviews that made it intriguing to me, and I thought it powerful, well-written and inventive, and broadened my horizons considerably.

The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard - I picked this up on impulse and wasn't disappointed. A novel about the women who worked at the Oak Ridge, TN factories that processed the plutonium used in the Manhattan Project (aka the atomic bomb). A fascinating story about race, naivete, patriotism, and ambition. I liked the main character, June, and thought her coming of age story was interesting and believable.

Hope you are all staying well and healthy, practicing social distancing, and finding comfort and strength or whatever you need from the reading you are able to do.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Charlotte's Web - In Memoriam

A few years ago, I stumbled upon The Story of Charlotte's Web, by Michael Sims, on someone's blog and promptly got a copy of it. It sat on my TBR shelf until last month, when I decided to read it as part of my Maine reading project for this year.

The Story of Charlotte's Web, is subtitled E. B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic. It did not disappoint. Essentially, the book is a biography of Andy White, and despite the subtitle, his wasn't a particularly eccentric life. From his earliest years, he loved nature and animals and writing, as so it is not exactly note-worthy that he became a writer best known for his novels about animals. He was an introvert and a keen observer of both people and animals and was able to write elegantly about the world he loved.

I really loved reading about his years as a staff writer at The New Yorker--one of my favorite books is James Thurber's The Years With Ross, and it was great fun to revisit the busy magazine office of the 1930s. While still writing for the magazine, White and his wife and son moved from Manhattan to a farm in Brooklin, Maine, and it is here where he wrote his masterpiece, Charlotte's Web, modeling Zukerman's farm on his own. White spent a long time studying spiders before writing the book, and he sent his favorite sources to illustrator Garth Williams, so that he too could get the details in his drawings right.

White was a perfectionist when it came to writing, and rewrote and revised Charlotte's Web for over a year before he finally sent it off into the world. I enjoyed immensely how he crafted the story and worked diligently to find not only the perfect opening but also the perfect ending to his story. The germ of the story was always the relationship between the pig and the spider and it took White awhile to discover that he needed Fern in order to add layers of complexity to his themes of salvation, friendship, and the circle of life.

After reading this marvelous book, of course I had to reread Charlotte's Web. It was a complete joy to reread and is definitely timeless. It is a comfort read. It instills peace and hope.

While I was rereading the book slowly - just a chapter or two a day - my elderly mother fell and broke her hip. While I was finishing the book, I was also supporting my mother as she continued to decline. As you may know, a broken hip is often a death sentence for a person already frail, whose body has already started to fail.

Here is what I shared with friends and family last Sunday:
Saturday morning, in the wee small hours, my beloved Mom passed away. Just one month shy of her 97th birthday, she remained loving and generous, warm and caring to the end.
On Friday, I spent the day with her, singing the Irish songs and ballads she loved, reading poems she loved (and which she recited back to me as I read), holding her hand, and helping her find the courage to leave this world that she loved so much.
I have never known anyone who loved life the way she did and hung on to it with a tenacity that was inspiring. She always had a twinkle in her eye, as if planning some fresh mischief.

She was quick to giggle at herself when she made a mistake. She was eager to try new things--this is a woman who learned to drive when she was in her late 40s. She took cooking classes, learned to quilt, made bread, had a fantastic garden, canned everything she could lay her hands on, grew dinner plate dahlias and gladioli, kept chickens, kept bees, and literally gave away the hand-knit sweater on her back when she saw a homeless woman who looked cold.

She was generous and kind, silly and sometimes self-conscious, but she had a capacity for friendship that knew no bounds.

I am so proud she was my mother and she will forever be my role model.
Love you, Mom - give Dad a hug and a kiss for me!

Charlotte's Web will forever be connected in my mind with my Mom--they had a lot in common, and I am glad I am one of her daughter spiders who remains in the barn to greet the spring.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Mayor of Casterbridge

I'm trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in my life, and blogging about books is one of those things that has been part of my life for over ten years now, so onward.

I finally got around to reading The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy. It was on my Back to the Classics list for last year and the one book I didn't read in the challenge. Thankfully, the Goodread group The Victorians read it in March, which was incentive enough for me to dive in.

Interestingly, I really liked the book, and didn't find it as heartrending as I expected. The main character, Michael Henchard, was not sympathetic enough for me to feel much real angst at his spiral into tragedy. When it comes to tragic flaws, his is clearly being impulsive, acting before thinking and then regretting his actions almost immediately afterwards. And, you cannot simply blame his plight on drunkenness. Even when cold sober, he is foolishly rash.

Near the end of the book, it struck me that the story was really that of two mayors of Casterbridge, and as I read on it fell into place that this was basically an archetypal story, that of the new young king challenging and defeating the old king. A tale as old as time, as old as Oedipus.

Donald Farfrae is, of course, the young king, who is young, buoyant, handsome, clever, and at first Michael embraces him as a son. But then the prince outstrips the king, and the people clamor for him, and he steals the old king's woman. Michael is so threatened by Donald that he fights him, and then slinks away to the woods to die.

It is beautifully written--you can tell that Hardy saw that his true calling was to be a poet. I love his turn of phrase, the symmetry of his storytelling.

Here is one of my favorite little passages, when Michael seeks out a soothsayer to predict the weather:
“By the sun, moon, and stars, by the clouds, the winds, the trees, and grass, the candle-flame and swallows, the smell of the herbs; likewise by the cats' eyes, the ravens, the leeches, the spiders, and the dungmixen, the last fortnight in August will be—rain and tempest."

I'm not quite sure why I dreaded reading this so much. Despite the tragedy of the story, I enjoyed it immensely. It gave me much to think about, and the writing really is first rate.

For the Back to the Classics Challenge - 2020, this is for the category Classic with a Place in the Title.

And, drum roll please, this completes the 50-book Classics Challenge that I started back in 2013. I didn't complete the challenge in 5 years, but that's life! I'm not sure I want to sign up for another 50 new classics. Right now I feel the urge to reread classics I love or read so long ago they'll be like new.

Stay safe and healthy, all my book-loving friends.

Stay calm, and read on.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Notes from Colorado

I joke with my family that I've been practicing social distancing for years. My hobbies are reading and writing and gardening and birding and hiking, and I've had a home office for about ten years. My life right now is not a lot different from what it has been with the huge exception that I worry about my 96 year old Mom and my kids who are in NY and CA even more than before. I can't go to the library (I have some books that are due, so I need to check and see if they want me to drop them off), or the bookstore, or the grocery store, but I can walk the dog and pay it forward as much as possible.

I hope you all are well and being diligent about staying safe from harm's way.

I am happy to report that my time on Duolingo Italian is surging and I am leaping from level to level, though clitics and pronouns are my downfall. I now feel reasonably comfortable conversing in the present and present perfect tenses about sharks, dolphins, chickens, ducks, fish, dogs, and cats, as long as they are eating, coming and going, waiting, or traveling by train or bus. If any of you have attempted to learn a language via Duolingo, you'll know what I'm talking about :)

On the reading front, I just finished John Irving's Cider House Rules, and gave it a whopping 5 stars on Goodreads. Seriously, the books from the 70's and 80's are well worth visiting and revisiting. I picked this book because it is set in Maine, and we are still hoping to spend 3 weeks in Maine this summer...but like everything else, who knows whether that will be feasible.

Cider House Rules was multi-layered with complex, flawed, fascinating characters. It was also quirky and ironic and  the writing was sophisticated--reading it was like watching a master class on how to write. I especially loved how David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Jane Eyre provided the structural and thematic framework for this 20th century tour de force.  I cannot wait to watch the movie, which was nominated for some Academy Awards and one won.

I also reread the first book in Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mystery series, Death at La Fenice. I read with the backdrop of the virus that has paralyzed Italy and Venice providing an extra layer of pathos to the story. I love Guido and his family and hope they are safe, as well has his author, of course. I've been listening to Maurizio Marchini sing to his fellow quarantined Florentines, and now know the words to Nessun Dorma. I love Italy and dream of visiting again when we are through this nightmare.

I just finished watching Case Histories with the marvelous Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), which is based on Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie mystery series. I will be reading the first book in the series, titled Case Histories, in April. I don't usually watch the movie/TV before the book, but I did this time. It was great and I was disappointed that there were only 3 seasons with only a few episodes per season. It was great to spot Dawn Steele (Lexie from Monarch of the Glen) in season 3 as well as Gary Lewis (Colum Mackenzie from Outlander).

Speaking of Outlander, I have officially given up watching the series. I'm not sure why I started finding the series so oppressive since I've read the full book series  all the way through, but season 5 was just one over-the-top scene after another. I didn't like where they were going with the Murtagh/Jamie thread (Murtagh dies at Culloden in the books) and I was dreading Roger's story. It was bad enough to read it in the book, but I really decided I couldn't bear to watch it.

So, I just started rewatching White Collar, which is what my mood needs now!

I'm looking forward to getting into the garden. We had snow on Thursday and Friday, and so everything is muddy, slushy, and mucky right now...maybe I will find some spring flowers after it all melts. Please!!!!

Stay well--do what you need to do to get through these troubled, uncertain times--Read on!

Sunday, March 08, 2020

A Bookshop in Berlin

A Bookshop in Berlin, a memoir by Francoise Frenkel, is currently the leading candidate for best book read in 2020. Frenkel was a Polish Jew who loved French literature and in 1921 opened La Maison du Livre, the first French bookshop in Berlin. The first part of the book recounts how the bookshop became an important part of the culture of Berlin, and the anecdotes about her customers and the various bureaucrats she dealt with to open the store and keep it afloat. This part on its own made for enjoyable reading--I always love to read about books and their readers and the conversations they have about what they read.

But then, as we all know, Germany became increasingly dangerous for those deemed dangerous by the rising Nazi party. After surviving Kristalnacht in November 1938, Frenkel closed the shop and relocated to Paris. I make this sound cut and dry--it, of course, was not and Frenkel barely made it out.

The remainder of the book recounts a series of harrowing escapes from the Germans, who occupied Paris in June 1914, and were intent on deporting all the Jews they could find to concentration camps and confiscating their possessions. Thanks to friends and acquaintances who risked their own lives to help her, Francoise fled first to Nice and then to the French-Swiss border, where she repeatedly tried to escape to Geneva.

One of the many things I loved about this book was how Frenkel was able to find moments in which  she could still appreciate nature, her books, and conversations. Amid a life of extreme tension and fear, she remained who she was--a cultured, literate, sensitive person. Her gratitude as well as her fortitude was truly inspirational. She never gave up.

The book was first published in 1945, following the war, and then was rediscovered and reprinted recently.

Francoise Frenkel was born in 1889, making her 51 in 1940, which makes her survival of rough living and physical deprivation all the more remarkable. She returned to Berlin in 1959, seeking compensation for the assets stolen from her when she fled Germany, and in 1960 was awarded DM 3500 as reparation from West Germany. She died in 1975.

Francoise Frenkel

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Little Women - the March family

I read Little Women in February, counting it for the Back to the Classics challenge category of Family. So let's talk about the March family.

Four sisters surround a loving mother, right?

Jo, Amy, Beth, Meg, and beloved Marmee are the heart of Little Women. But, when you think about it, the entire cast becomes part of the family.

Of course, there is the mostly absent Mr. March, off in Washington D.C. serving as Civil War chaplain and then dangerously ill in the first part and then confined to study and silent pontificating in the second, only surfacing occasionally.

Laurie is surrogate brother to the girls for the entire first half, and is so desperate to really join their fun that he proposes to two of them, and is finally accepted so that he can officially join the family.

There is both a stern matriarch (Aunt March, the feckless Mr March's aunt) and a kindly, gruff  patriarch (Mr. Lawrence) who is a benefactor akin to Cinderella's fairy godmother, supplying feasts and pianos when they are most needed.

John Brooke, Laurie's tutor, marries into the family, but before that fills the role of dependable son, escorting Marmee to Washington when word comes that Mr March is at death's door and becomes her confidant and she his.

Even Professor Bhaer, or Fritz as I like to think of him, is always more brotherly than loverly, which suits Jo's vision of romance just fine.

Now back to the sisters--it's tempting to say that Louisa May Alcott succumbed to stereotypes in her portrayal of Meg (the homebody), Jo (the tomboy), Beth (the saint), and Amy (the flirt), but her own sisters on which the fictional sisters are based provided excellent models. However, in both real life and in the book, all four girls are much more complex than this simple categorization implies.

I love the fact that all four are part of the Pickwick Club, and play their masculine counterparts in the club without reservation. They are literate and artistic and creative, each in their own way, and they are individuals, capable of growth however painful.

It's also interesting the way the sisters pair up--Jo and Beth (opposites in almost every way) and Meg and Amy (with many similar traits but contrasts in terms of spheres--Meg stays home and Amy goes to Europe!). John and Laurie, as brothers-in-law, are also bordering on the stereotype of the older, responsible brother and the younger, frivolous one.

You can view the family and the story as an evolving set of pairs:
Mr and Marmee
Aunt March and Mr Lawrence
Meg and Amy
Jo and Beth
Jo and Laurie (Teddy)
Jo and Aunt March
Aunt March and Amy
Jo and Amy
Mr Lawrence and Beth
Marmee and John
Meg and John
Laurie and John
Laurie and Amy
Jo and Fritz
Marmee and Mr March

Despite all this pairing up, I go back to central notion that Little Women is the story of how Marmee and her girls are the nucleus of a family that they grow and strengthen by grafting strong new stock as needed. The pairing up moves the plot along and provides tension and room for themes to emerge, but the core of this family is not the traditional husband and wife pair, but a mother and her daughters.

But...then...I have to remember that this book was published in 1868, when opportunities for education and careers for women were not what they are today. I talked earlier about how literate and creative and individual the girls were. While they owe much of this to Marmee, Mr March (modeled on LMA's father Bronson Alcott) was a progressive when it came to education of both girls and boys. Much as I think that Bronson Alcott's ego sentenced his family to extreme hardship and poverty, his liberalism made the nucleus that was Marmee and the March girls (i.e., Marmee and the Alcott girls) as strong and vibrant as it was.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Leaving Cheyenne - Larry McMurtry

Last September I read Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft, by Natalie Goldberg, and in it she mentioned Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry a few times. Now, I cannot remember exactly the context, what McMurtry did particularly well with the novel, whether it was a sense of place, an insight into character, or relevance of plot, but I made a mental note that I wanted to read the book, got a copy, and was delighted to discover that its publication in 1962 rendered it eligible for a Back to the Classics challenge book.

I assumed that Leaving Cheyenne would take place in Wyoming, but no, it's set in rural Texas, closest big town is Wichita Falls, near the Oklahoma border, around 1900 to 1950s. It's dry, dusty, bleak, and barren. The wind blows and life is not easy.

The story is told in three parts, with each of the three main characters telling part of the story. Gid, short for Gideon, is a rancher's son in love with Molly Taylor, a free-spirited, lovely daughter of the neighborhood drunk, and best friends with Johnny McCloud, a cowboy with no aspirations other than to be the best cowboy around. Johnny is, of course, also in love with Mollly.

Gid's story consumes about half of the novel, and picks up the story of the threesome when they are nineteen. Gid is a hard worker, who plays by the rules, and is ruled by his conscience and code of ethics that together form a straitjacket around his life.

Molly continues the story of the three friends later in life, after they have all lost loved ones in WWII, and are facing an uncertain middle age. She is the anchor to both Gid and Johnny, giving them love and support when they need it, but not compromising her own need to be her own person.

Finally, Johnny tells of their old age, when they are wearing out and yet struggling to reconcile the desires and dreams of their youth. Despite Johnny's lack of ambition, I found him endearing in his understanding and acceptance of himself as he is.

It is a good book--the setting and characters and the way they affect and influence each other over time is poignant and memorable. I'm not sure it is a great book, and I'm still not sure why Natalie Goldberg promoted it in her own book, but it was a treat to read and think about.

I'm counting it in the Back to the Classics challenge as my genre book.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

The Buccaneers - Edith Wharton

After finishing the Anne de Courcy's The Husband Hunters, I dived straight into Edith Wharton's last, and unfinished, novel, The Buccaneers.

I had seen the mini-series quite awhile ago and liked it and sort of remembered the basic outline of the plot, but it was great to read the novel. It was actually a very easy read and a fairly straight-forward plot--four young American girls find New York society impenetrable and so, along with their mothers and their father's cash, head to England to find mates.

The protagonist of the story is Nan St. George, the youngest of the lot, naive, dreamy, artistic, romantic, and talented. I loved the relationship between her and her English governess, Laura Testvalley, who shows the girls the ropes, introduces them, and wants to protect Nan from throwing her life away on a loveless marriage to a peer.

The focus of The Husband Hunters was on the ravenous quality of the American mothers who insisted that their daughters marry aristocrats, in some cases literally forcing them to do so. Wharton, however, chose to focus on the ambitions of the girls, painting the mothers as vague, indolent chaperones who were definitely out of their league and comfort zone.

Wharton completed 29 chapters of the novel before she died in 1937. These were published posthumously in 1938. In 1993, Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring finished the novel, adding 13 chapters to mixed reviews. I only read the 29 chapters that Wharton wrote as well as her synopsis of the plot, which sketches out her intentions for Nan and Laura.

I felt that the 29 chapters I did read were extremely polished--it's hard to see them as first draft material, so perhaps Wharton polished as she wrote or they have been further edited. I don't know.

The Buccaneers is an interesting story and the ending that Wharton planned is bittersweeet--definitely less bleak for the protagonist than is usual for a Wharton novel but still not an unqualified happy ending.

This is my first book completed for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 - category Classic by a Woman Author.

The also counts in my Classics Club, leaving only one book unread on my list, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York

I met up with my brother Mark just before Thanksgiving, and he lent me a book saying "I know you have lots of books you're reading or planning to read, but drop everything and read this one next."

I took his advice and absolutely loved The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York, by Anne de Courcy, finishing it last week.

The Husband Hunters is a non-fiction account of the American invasion, when American heiresses stormed Britain in search of penniless aristocratic husbands willing to trade "coronets for cash." The stories of these young women, mostly beautiful, mostly clothed in Paris fashions (House of Worth gowns), mostly energetic, flirty, confident, and above all well-endowed with very rich fathers and socially-ambitious mothers were fascinating.

Sadly, it seems that most of the marriages were not a success--meaning that while the girls were able to use their married titles to crack the glass ceilings of New York society, they weren't all that happy and many ended up divorced and disillusioned.

This book greatly enhanced my understanding of the world of Edith Wharton novels (well, not Ethan Frome, but most of the others), from the stultifying world of the New York society dominated by Mrs. Astor and its extension to the summer resorts first in Saratoga and later in Newport, to the old world oppression of English society.

Having faithfully watched all the seasons of Downtown Abbey, it was interesting to read about Lady Grantham's backstory--she was an American heiress whose father's money kept Downton Abbey afloat. But, the Downton Abbey experience made me aware of a critical element that the The Husband Hunters didn't address, that of the children of the American/British marriages. While the book faithfully chronicled the wooing and wedding and some of the aftermath, it didn't touch much on the children, apart from Winston Churchill, and how they fit into the different worlds of their parents.

I suppose that topic requires a whole book in and of itself. I remember Lady Mary once explaining to her mother that she wouldn't understand a certain nuance because she was American and not English--I thought that an odd thing to say to one's mother...hence my curiosity.

But that quibble notwithstanding, The Husband Hunters was excellent and a great way to seque into my current book, the last and unfinished novel The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton.