Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Regency Years

My regional JASNA group has an book club, and our January book was The Regency Years, by Robert Morrison. It was absolutely terrific--essential reading for those of us who love Austen and Keats and history and Britain.

The book was comprehensive, explaining in easy to read, non-pedantic prose the politics and issues of the day, the social issues for all of the classes, slavery and the insidious way it infiltrated everyday life then and into the future. It had a wonderful section on the Napoleonic Wars and the part on Waterloo actually made sense having read Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army twice. And, of course, it covered the writers and artists, celebrities, actors, and wannabes in extensive detail. I loved the section on the allure of the exotic, which finally helped me understand why the Regent's Brighton Pavilion was built and furnished as it was.

And, I absolutely loved the section on art, especially the Scottish painter David Wilkie and how his paintings are not unlike Sir Walter Scott's historical novels, and the contrast between John Constable's paintings and those of J.M.W. Turner. Now I want to get books on all three of these painters, and I might even finally read Waverly!

Below are David Wilkie's The Penny Wedding, John Constable's Wivenhoe Park, and J.M.W. Turner's Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino.

Despite exploring far-ranging topics, Morrison pulled all of the threads together to support his premise that the Regency was the bridge to modern Britain. He not only explores the impact of industrialization and how it fostered the romantic rural ideal and the tug-of-war between science and faith, but he uses Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to represent how technology and scientific advancements can be a two-edged sword, requiring society to figure out how to manage technology and not be destroyed by it.

Here are some passages that I marked as I read:

With regards to Pride and Prejudice:

When she [Elizabeth] tells him [Darcy] that she might have felt more concern in refusing him had he "behaved in a more gentleman-like manner," those words literally stagger him. They signal a powerful collision between his elitist assumptions and her bourgeois aspirations. Darcy believes that he was born a gentleman. Elizabeth hopes that someday he might become one...she ushers in the modern world, for she believes in meritocracy over aristocracy, individual preferences over dynastic alliances, and female desire over male presumption.

With regards to the Prince Regent's Brighton Pavilion:

The Pavilion is his shrine to the expertise, the originality, and the sheer bravado of his Regency, and it reveals the Oriental fantasies at the crux of the decade. Part homage and part pastiche, it is, remarkably, an Eastern structure that most spectacularly represents the British Regency.

 Lord Byron 

When Byron rated the "three great men of the nineteenth century," he placed "himself third, Napoleon second, and [Beau] Brummell first."

The picturesque

The Industrial Revolution left deep scars on rural England, but one of the most remarkable features of Regency Britain is how many areas of the countryside were virtually unaffected by it...Humphrey Repton was the premier landscape gardener of the age and an enthusiastic exponent of the picturesque, which he defined as a middle ground between the unruliness of nature and the rigidity of art.


More than any other work in English literature, Frankenstein is a prophecy about the modern world. In addition to launching an entirely new genre of science fiction, it has had an incalculable impact on the way we imagine science...Frankenstein unnervingly reveals that scientific research has the potential to improve our lives in countless ways, but that if we deny or ignore our responsibilities, new discoveries have also the potential to pass dangerously far beyond the control of their makers and assume hideous and unpredictable forms that may betray or even destroy us.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Playing Catchup - December Books

It's that time again, when I provide a quickie overview of the books I read recently but didn't find time to post about. They were all great and deserve to be remembered, recommended, and maybe even reread.

Code Name Helene, by Ariel Lawhon - I read a few reviews from other bloggers and felt this would be good. WWII, set in Marseille and the Dordogne region of France, French resistance - premise great! To be honest, during the first half I was not sure I would love it--the main character, Nancy, was a bit too perfect (beautiful, brilliant, brave, etc) but I was totally engrossed in the second half and couldn't put it down. Then, I read the afterword and learned that it was based on a real person who did all these extraordinary things.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, by Kim Michele Richardson - this was a audio book for me, and given the amount of dialect, I was glad to listen instead of read. It was another fascinating story--learned about two major things--the WPA's Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and the rare blue-skinned people of which the main character, Cussy Carter, is one of the last. At times, I wished that the story was about one of these fascinating things instead of both as they seemed to compete with each for theme, but still a good book.

The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie - last year was the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first Agatha Christie mystery, so I decided to read them all in order. This was the second book and the first featuring Tommy and Tuppence. I hadn't met Tommy Beresford and Prudence (aka Tuppence) Cowley before, but I fell in love with them and look forward to spending more time with them. It was a great mystery with a bit of WWI thrown in, some wonderful red herrings, and a great deal of fun.

All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny - the latest in the Armand Gamache series. Mostly set in Paris, which I completely loved, and a first rate story. Actually I think this is one of the best in the series. Much as I like visiting Three Pines, Quebec, visiting Paris with the Gamache family was wonderful. I especially liked the opening scene at the Rodin Museum garden, which was one of my absolutely favorite spots when we visited Paris in 2018. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Back to the Classics 2020 - it's a wrap

I did fairly well on the 2020 challenge, reading 11 of 12 books, and posting on 10 of the 12. Frankly, I knew from the outset it would be a long shot for me to complete the category related to reading a classic that I had abandoned. The only one I could come up with was The Italian, by Ann Radcliffe, and I just didn't want to spend my valuable reading time slogging along with that book!

Here's what I read:

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope - 2nd in the Palliser series

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1970. 
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 

3. Classic by a Woman Author.

4. Classic in Translation. 
The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello 

5. Classic by a Person of Color. 

6. A Genre Classic. 
7. Classic with a Person's Name in the Title. 
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens.

8. Classic with a Place in the Title.  

9. Classic with Nature in the Title. 
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

10. Classic About a Family. 

11. Abandoned Classic. Nada.

12. Classic Adaptation. 
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - didn't write a review -- out of time.

Thanks, Karen at Books and Chocolate, for hosting this challenge. It's always my favorite!

A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There - Aldo Leopold


Earlier this year, I read the fabulous Where the Crawdads Sing in which the main character Kya reads and rereads Aldo Leopold's classic A Sand County Almanac. Kya's relationship to this book inspired me to finally get a copy and read it.

The version I read included the main work as well as Sketches Here and There, which are a collection of essays that made Leopold the champion of the conservation movement. Eloquent, passionate, and reasonable, they were a pleasure to read. Were I not already a conservationist, they would be life-changing.

A Sand County Almanac is essentially a journal of a year in Sand County, Wisconsin in the early 20th century. It is full of weather, animals, habitat, and a keen sense of wonder of the natural world. Leopold was a hunter, especially in his youth, and I would have been happier with less hunting and guns, but his respect for the natural world and his ethics related to hunting enabled me to give him a pass. 

Actually the part of the book I enjoyed most was part 3, The Upshot, which contained essays on conservation, wilderness, and wildlife in American culture. 

I found myself quoting this book a lot on Twitter. Here are the quotes I shared:

"For the last word in procrastination, go travel with a river reluctant to lose his freedom in the sea."

"Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in."

"To promote perception is the only truly creative part of recreational engineering." 

"Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind."

"...the most fun lies in seeing and studying the unknown."

"If the forty-niners are worth commemorating on the walls of state capitals, is not the scene of their mighty hegira worth commemorating in several national prairie reservations?"

"Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life."

"Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow." 

And then there are the illustrations, which punctuate the prose and always make me smile in appreciation. 

This book qualifies for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge in the category, Classic with Nature in the Title.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Back to the Classics - 2021

I haven't yet finished up my reading for the 2020 version of Back to the Classics, but I'm already chomping on the bit to get going with the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021, hosted again by Karen of Books and Chocolate.

Here's my tentative lineup.

 1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899 - The Eustace Diamonds, by Anthony Trollope, 3rd in the Palliser series, it promises to be a fun book to read.

2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971 - The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk (I decided to go with a book published in 1971).

3. A classic by a woman author - So Big, by Edna Ferber (I love Show Boat and have read it multiple times by haven't read anything else by Ferber)

4. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language - Pot Luck, by Emile Zola

5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author - not sure, I was happy to come across Passing in 2020, so I am looking to others for inspiration here

6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read - Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author -- a new book by an author whose works you have already read - Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title - either The Red Pony by John Steinbeck or Birds, Beast, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell...or both!

9. A children's classic- I scanned the Newbury winners and selected Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray

10. A humorous or satirical classic - again, not sure what I will settle on, but will be ready when the mood strikes

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction) - The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck (there is a shipyard in Port Townsend that is restoring The Western Flyer, the boat that Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took to the Sea of Cortez and which I hope to see next September so I want to have read this book before then).

12. A classic play - going to keep an open mind here - what I would really like is something meta, like if I'm reading a novel and the characters go to a play, then I would read that play. I did this with Lovers' Vows, the play that the Bertrams and Crawfords attempt to stage in Mansfield Park, and it was great fun.

Karen did a great job in selecting this year's categories, including my favorites from years past and adding some new twists to keep it fresh.

Looking forward to seeing what everyone else will be reading from the classics shelves.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Trollope's Palliser series is turning out to be wonderful. I recently finished the second book in the series, Phineas Finn, and am sorely tempted to skip book three (The Eustace Diamonds) and launch right into book four, Phineas Redux, in January. I have it from reliable sources that there will be no continuity issues if I do this, and I really want to know what happens to beautiful, lucky, fickle Phineas.

Phineas is beautiful. Trollope makes it abundantly clear that Phineas is handsome and with a charming personality that makes him virtually irresistible, and this attractiveness in personality and person leads directly to his luck. Despite no fortune and respectable but not influential parents, he is plucked out of the crowd and given opportunities to rise and meet and mingle with the types of people who can further his career even more. Even when things go awry for Phineas, like a cat, he somehow lands on his feet, sometimes a bit shaken but he can lick his wounds, groom himself, and launch himself into the next of his nine lives.

If you think all this perfection makes Phileas's story dull, not so because he is deeply flawed in that he is fickle. I remember in Austen's Emma the narrator gently poking fun at Harriet Smith because she managed to be truly in love with no less than three men in the course of one year. Phineas, like Emma, is able to shift his devotion from one lady to the next with relative ease. Despite that fickleness, Phineas does show himself to be a true hero and does the right thing even though it hurts.

I do enjoy Trollope novels and Phineas Finn was one of the most enjoyable, chock full of entertaining characters, a fairly good story pace, and great settings (from Ireland to London to shooting parties to coaching inns). Apart from spending time with Phineas, it was also interesting to read about how Parliament works from the point of view of an absolute novice (i.e., Phineas) and the issues of the day (e.g., extending the vote and Ireland land laws) and how the politicians worked within and outside their parties. 

This is my 19th century classic for the 2020 Back to the Classics reading challenge.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Overstory

I've put off writing a post about The Overstory, by Richard Powers, because I don't really know what I want to say so maybe I'll just start writing and see what happens.

I heard about this novel when it first came out and picked it up when we were visiting Port Townsend, WA in September 2019 and then let it sit on my TBR shelf for over a year. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 and rightly so. It is a rich, complex novel, well-written, and thought provoking. So why the mental block when it comes to what I thought? Maybe the richness and complexity was a bit overwhelming and I needed some time to digest the novel. That's as good a reason as any.

The novel tells the story of the destruction of the ecosystem we like to call Earth from the point of view of the trees, and Powers uses the personal stories of a half a dozen or so people whose lives connect and intersect as they encounter and grapple with the reality of the Earth's life forces that humans are systematically and knowingly destroying.

I can't say that I necessarily like any of the main characters although I found each of their stories fascinating and both sobering and inspiring as well as disturbing. There's some mystical and magical realism elements, lots of science, lots of hand-wringing, and lots of passion.

I gave it 5 stars on GoodReads, and I found myself unable to put it down except when I was literally too tired to read another word. Not sure I will reread this one, but glad I finally got around to reading it.

There are a lot of articles and reviews out there about what the story means and what each of the characters represents. Like most great novels, there is plenty of room for all sorts of theories. With a book like this, I like to just experience it on a visceral level and not get overly intellectual about what it means...other than that we need to take climate change pretty darn seriously.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Man Who Invented Christmas

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits
, by Les Standifold, is a wonderfully concise non-fiction about...well, the title says it all!

This is the first book I've complete for the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, hosted by my book blogger buddy, Michelle, and it was perfect, a 5-star book. I enjoy author bios and the scope of this was tight, focusing on the early 1840s when Dickens experienced the first setbacks after his meteoric rise to fame. Born in 1812, Dickens was only 31 when he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, but with four children and a fifth about to be born, saddled by debt, not all of which was his own doing but that of his spendthrift parents and brothers.

Standifold provides pertinent background info on Dickens' life to set the stage on which he conceived and wrote his Christmas ghost story as well as details on the publishing industry and the history of Christmas as both a religious and secular holiday. He also discusses the legacy of A Christmas Carol--of course, we all know that Scrooge is part of our vocabulary and there are countless movies and stage productions every year. It's a bit astounding to think that Scrooge, Marley, Bob Crachit, and Tiny Tim have been with us for almost 180.

Favorite quote:

... beginning with A Christmas Carol and culminating in David Copperfield, Dickens had finally dragged up the powerful demons of his past and wrestled them away...

I zipped through this lovely book in just a few days and enjoyed every minute. Now I'm eager to get our Christmas tree and bake some cookies and watch the TV version, starring Dan Stevens.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Seasons of Reading: 2020 Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge

I always enjoy holiday-themed reading and this year I'm loving it like the Dickens!

I started Mr. Dickens and his Carol, by Samantha Silva, and am nearly done with it. That will be followed by The Man Who Invented Christmas, by Les Standiford. Followed by A Christmas Carol, by the man who invented Christmas, Charles Dickens. And, to top it off, the GoodReads Dickensians group is doing a group read of A Christmas Carol starting Dec 1, so there will be lots of fans with whom I can discuss the book.

With three committed Christmas books I decided it was safe to sign up for the 2020 Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

Depending on how I do finishing up my classics reading -- still have half of Phineas Finn to finish as well as A Sand County Almanac -- I may add more holiday books to the mix. I'm looking forward to reading other bloggers' review of holiday books so that I can get some ideas.

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Late Mattia Pascal

For this year's Back to the Classics Challenge, I wanted to read something by an Italian author for my translated book selection. I did a bit of research and landed on The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello.

Pirandello won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934 and is probably best known for his play, Six Characters in Search of an Audience. At least that was the only title that I recognized, although I haven't actually ever seen the play. The Late Mattia Pascal was published in 1904, before Pirandello began writing plays in earnest--he wrote over 50, as well as novels and essays.

Mattia Pascal is trapped in a loveless marriage in a small village. He is harangued by his mother-in-law, devastated by the deaths of his baby daughter and his mother, is losing his family home and business to swindlers, and is facing a mountain of debt. One night he has enough and feels he needs to break away for a little while to clear his head. He ends up on Monte Carlo, where fortune smiles on him. After four days of gambling, he has enough money to pay his debts. On the train while he is returning home, he finds a copy of his hometown paper, starts to read it, and discovers that he is believed dead by suicide. A body was found in the river and his wife and mother-in-law identify it as his. He sees this as a way to start his life over, an escape from the drudgery of his life.

This is the premise of the novel in which Pirandello explores what constitutes a happy life. After the surge of joy he feels at being liberated from his old life, Mattia finds that it is not as easy as he thought to build a new life without a firmly rooted identity, without social ties or family obligations, without purpose.

The novel is definitely a literary work. Pirandello explores his themes of identity and imprisonment on many layers, and the translation was rich and easy to read. That said, I found the character of Mattia to be frustrating. While he found many obstacles to being able to shed his old identity and make a new life for himself, I thought he was just not thinking very creatively about his situation. Here he was given the gift of a reset, and he squandered it. 

I am looking forward to reading more classics by Italian authors.