Sunday, April 04, 2021

Giant - Edna Ferber

I had meant to read So Big, the novel that won Edna Ferber the Pulitzer Prize, for the Back to the Classics challenge but while procuring a copy I got sidetracked (Squirrel!) by Giant and decided to read it instead. I knew I wanted to read something by Edna Ferber because I absolutely loved Showboat as a teen and read it a few times, and I think she is one of those forgotten 20th century authors who deserve a place in the pantheon. Not sure why she is rarely read anymore--her writing is strong, her stories and characters are strong, and she is thoughtful and insightful.

On to Giant. All I knew about Giant was that it was set in Texas and was made into an iconic movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, who died before the film was finished and so his final speech was dubbed by another actor.

Okay, now really onto Giant. Leslie is a Virginia blueblood, attractive, smart, witty. Jordan (aka Bick Benedict) is a Texas rancher whose lineage goes back to the Alamo days, and Jett Rink is a surly cowhand on Bick's ranch who strikes oil. Leslie marries Jordan, and Jett falls in love with her.

Leslie works hard to become a good Texas wife - she learns to live with the heat, the dust, the food, the socializing, the braggadocio, the family squabbles - and she succeeds. She manages her husband and wins friends and allies that take the edge off her homesickness for Virginia and the home and family she left behind.

The story spans the 1920s to the early 1950s - both world wars play incredibly minor roles in the story, but civil rights and racism do come to figure prominently. Giant is essentially a story about Texas as seen through the eyes of Leslie, the outsider.

Ferber has an interesting style in that she teeters on the edge of stream of consciousness by dropping commas and stringing together thoughts and things that would normally be punctuated. I found it effective and interesting.

I'm interested in finally watching the movie, but coming in at over three hours, I will probably have to wait until I retire to put together sufficient time to watch it!

And I still want to read So Big and Cimarron and maybe reread Showboat.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Eustace Diamonds - Anthony Trollope

I really enjoyed most of The Eustace Diamonds, the 3rd book in Anthony Trollope's Palliser series, and was happy in the assumption that I was reading another 5-star Victorian novel, and then I got to the stereotypical anti-Semitic characters (Mr Benjamin, the jeweler, and Mr Emilius, the preacher) and my heart sank.

You cannot say that Trollope was simply a product of his times and forgive him. The Eustace Diamonds was published serially from July 1872 to February 1873, 35 years after Charles Dickens gave the world Fagin in Oliver Twist and was taken to task for that stereotypical character. Knowing that the Holocaust was but 50 years away and knowing how stereotypes were used in hate-driven propaganda drives home the point that words matter and novelists have responsibility and accountability for their words and stories.

Apart from this glaring problem, The Eustace Diamonds is a bit of a mashup of Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Phineas Finn, the Palliser novel just preceding this one. The narrator acknowledges that Lizzie Greystock is cut from the same anti-heroine cloth as Becky Sharp - like Becky, Lizzie is attractive, seductive, selfish, manipulative, and really amoral. Despite all this, I found myself rooting for her a bit because like the other anti-heroine Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind, she is a prisoner of society--she has to marry in order to have the protection of a man who can represent her interests. Even though she is pig-headed and willfully ignorant of the law, there is an undercurrent of feminism that I latched on to. But seriously, Lizzie is a hard character to sympathize with much less like.

For most of the novel, Lizzie manipulates and exploits the good nature of her cousin, Frank Greystock, whose story is remarkably similar to that of Phineas Finn. Both are sons of clergyman with parliamentary ambitions that their meagre incomes cannot support. Both are tempted to marry for money so that they can live up to their potential. Both are torn between the love and devotion of a poor but virtuous maiden and their own ambition. I was a bit surprised that Trollope would replumb this same story line again in the next book in the series.

The discussion of the ownership of the Eustace diamonds was interesting. Are they heirlooms that cannot be given away or can the current head of a family dispose of his property as he wants to? The novel feels like it is documenting some fairly major shifts in English society with regards to primogeniture, individual rights versus societal conventions, and upward mobility. 

I found the story of the diamonds and the several attempts to steal them fascinating, with shades of the great caper stories that I love to read. Like I said, this should've been a 5-star novel. But, it's not.

This is my 19th century novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge - 2021.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Hadrian's Wall - 2017 Travelogue

Somehow the post in which I had collected all my posts on my Hadrian's Wall west-to-east walk in 2017 has vanished. So here it is, sort of recreated. My husband Jeff and I walked the wall in 11 days with a layover day mid-way. We took our time, visited all the museums along the way, and had one of the best trips of our life.

It was one of the best things I've ever done, and I'm eager to do another long-distance walk. I think St. Cuthbert's Way to Lindsfarne might be next. But then, I would love to do another walk along the Wall.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Potpourri - What I've Been Reading

It's time once again for Potpourri - a look at what I've been reading but haven't gotten around to blogging about yet.

And now, in the order read...

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss - a biography of the father of French novelist Alexandre Dumas. Despite loving the various adaptations of The Three Musketeers, I've never read anything by Dumas and really knew nothing about him before I read this book. In a nutshell, Dumas modeled many of the heroes of his novels on the life of his father, who was a black swashbuckler from Santo Domingo. The illegitimate son of a French count, Alexandre the father emigrated to France as a teenager, joined the army and rose to be a general in the Republican Army, fighting with Napoleon and was imprisoned for several years when he was captured by the Spanish. Not only was this a fascinating life to read about, but I was also very interested to discover that the early years of  the French Revolution were characterized by less racial prejudice than the rest of Europe and definitely the US.

One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News, by Kate Atkinson - books 2 and 3 in the author's Jackson Brodie series, I listened to both back to back because I just couldn't stop after book 2. Atkinson is one of my favorite authors these days and these are remarkably well-written, thoughtful mysteries. Set in Scotland and northern England, I love the settings, the plot, and the interesting, side characters. I actually think every book in the series gets better, which is really saying something.

The Night Portrait: A Novel of World War II and da Vinci's Italy, by Laura Morelli - this ticked all the boxes for me -  Nazi confiscation and the Monuments Men recovery of Europe's art during WWII and the fictional backstory of the creation of da Vinci's painting of Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine. Three main characters - Cecilia Gallerani, the subject of the portrait and the Duke of Milan's mistress, Edith, the young German art conservator who is enlisted to procure art masterpieces for Goering and Hitler, and Dominic, an American soldier assigned to help the Monuments Men recover the stolen art after D-Day. The writing is a bit wobbly (the narrator uses too many cliches for my taste) but the story and characters are great.

The Fortunate Ones, by Ed Tarkington - a riff on The Great Gatsby, an interesting story about how a poor boy and his single-parent mother are befriended by the upper echelon in Nashville in the early 21st century. Definitely an interesting story and well-written, and it was fun to track the parallels with Gatsby.

What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing--What Birds are Doing, and Why, by David Allen Sibley - a beautiful oversized hardbound book that my darling son got me for my birthday back in November. I read it slowly - only a page or two a night - but I enjoyed it immensely and intend to keep it handy to dip into whenever the mood strikes. Beautiful illustrations and chock full of interesting facts. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham

First and foremost, Somerset Maugham is an exquisite writer. His prose has an elegant simplicity that is so moving and powerful. 

Written in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby, I found myself comparing the main character, Kitty, with Gatsby's Daisy. Cut from the same thin, wispy, pretty cloth, they share a shallowness and a weak will along with a loveliness that gets them into trouble. It is their ticket and their burden. 

Along the same lines, Charlie Townsend, the cad of the story, reminds me so much of Tom Buchanan in Gatsby as well. Handsome, philandering, selfish--a person who smashes things up and then retreats back into his money or "vast carelessness." 

Obviously, the parallels I saw between Kitty/Charlie and Daisy/Tom are my own retrospection and  thinking about the world of the 1920s--post Great War, post Victorian, post Edwardian, imperialistic.

The Painted Veil takes place in Hong Kong and a cholera-stricken village in mainland China, with bits and pieces in London. Narrated in the third person, this is Kitty's story--her journey from a London debutante to the wife of a doctor first in Hong Kong and then in mainland China and then back to London for the reckoning. 

It wasn't until Kitty and her husband Walter arrive in the village that I started marking passages. The scenes in Hong Kong are stifling, but scenes in the village are breathtaking.

The morning drew on and the sun touched the mist so that it shone whitely like the ghost of snow on a dying star. Though on the river it was light so that you discern palely the lines of the crowded junks and the thick forest of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce. But suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim, and massive bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand.

There were times that I felt so frustrated with Kitty, wanting her to be a heroine that I could admire, but that's not fair. Maugham gave me her story, shabby in parts and shameful in others, but one in which Kitty does grow in self awareness so that by the end she can declare to her father that she wants her unborn child, whom she believes to be a daughter, "to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person , independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take to life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have."

This is such a marked contrast to Daisy Buchanan who could only wish for her daughter to "be a fool- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool," that I have to say that perhaps Kitty is a heroine I can admire after all. 

The title is from the opening lines of a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which is actually a pretty good synopsis of the story:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.

I knew one who had lifted it—he sought,

For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

But found them not, alas! nor was there aught

The world contains, the which he could approve.

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows, a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not. 

There's another poetry reference that I particularly liked--it's from Oliver Goldsmith's An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog. Remember, "the dog it was that died."

The only other work by Maugham that I've read is Cakes and Ale, ten years ago. Now I'm inspired to read The Razor's Edge, which I've owned for years but never read, and Moon and Sixpence. Not sure I have it in me to read Of Human Bondage though. And the movie version? I always say I'm going to watch the film adaptation of books but rarely actually get around to it. But, maybe this time...

Yep, another book for the Back to the Classics Challenge - 2021, in the category twentieth century classic.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens

Martin Chuzzlewit is basically a story in search of a hero, with a gallery of rogues and some exceedingly dreary scenes. Dickens wrote
A Christmas Carol in the midst of writing this serialized novel, and the basic premise of a grumpy old man redeeming himself is played out in Martin Chuzzlewit but in a much more circuitous way than in A Christmas Carol.

There were a few characters that I loved - Mark Tapley and John Westlock and Tom Pinch, once he grew a spine - but there were so many that were simply bad company, including both Martins until near the end.  Mr. Pecksniff makes my skin crawl, Jonas Chuzzlewit rivals Bill Sykes as a villain, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff and the various Chuzzlewit relations are all deplorable, and a little of Sairy Gamp goes a long way. The back of the book I read claims that this is Dickens's "comic  masterpiece." I really wouldn't put it in the category of comedy. I found it mostly leaden with a few bright spots.

As I knew he would be, Dickens was unrelentingly hard on the Americans that Mark and Martin the younger encountered in the US. I can appreciate that Dickens had lots of issues during his own first visit to the US, but he really beat the topic to death. I can recall only one decent American among the dozen or so that figured in the story, and it became quite tedious. It was clear that Dickens had an axe to grind, and I was so relieved when Martin and Mark returned to England, and the real story resumed.

I will say, though, that there is some good writing and more descriptive passages than I remember seeing in the earlier novels, so I think Martin Chuzzlewit marks somewhat of a transition in Dickens's evolution as a writer. However, I think the serialization approach to writing a novel presents problems that revising and editing and cooling off would have mitigated. 

Not sure this one will make it on to the reread pile, but now I have only two Dickens novels left to read for the first time, Barnaby Rudge and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

As you might have guessed, this book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2021, in the "new-to-you by a favorite author" category.

There is a 1994 BBC mini-series that I may watch to see how the screenwriters dealt with the novel. I think Julia Sawalha (aka Lydia Bennet) is perfectly cast at Merry Pecksniff.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Adam of the Road

For the 2021 Back to the Classics reading challenge, children's literature category, I decided to scan the list of Newberry Medal winners and see what struck my fancy. There were a lot of great books to choose from, most of which I hadn't read. I landed on Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray, which won the award in 1943.

Adam of the Road is exactly the kind of book I loved in elementary school, and had I discovered it then I surely would have counted it as a lifelong favorite. Set in 1294 during the reign of Edward I, the novel is about Adam Quartermayne, twelve-year old son of a minstrel, Roger. Adam aspires to be a minstrel like his father and loves to sing, tell stories, play his harp, and play with his dog, Nick.

Not only was it great fun to read about Roger's life on the road, but Adam of the Road is chock full of interesting details about life in medieval England, age appropriate, of course. The book starts out with Adam in school St Alban's Abbey, where he is biding his time while waiting for Roger to return from France, where he has been learning new songs and stories for his lord, Sir Edmund De Lisle. So, we learn about life in a medieval abbey--the schedule of prayers and services, the work of the monks and their interaction with the town folk, and their role in the early education of scholars.

Then, Adam and Roger go to London and live in the De Lisle's city home. So, we learn about how people of the time travelled, life in London, squires, knights, ladies, and the education and training of knights. 

Then, it's off to Winchester for St Giles fair - Adam is separated from both Roger and Nick enroute and has lots of adventures and meets loads of interesting people while trying to find both his father and his dog. He swims the river Wey, he attends a miracle play, he is caught up in a "hue and cry," and he works on a farm, laboring half the day for the lord of the manor. 

Finally, Adam ends up in Oxford, so we learn about how universities worked in medieval times, and Adam is given the opportunity to choose what kind of a life he wants--that of a scholar or that of a minstrel. Will he choose a quiet life of study or a tumultuous, and occasionally precarious, life on the road?

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book. Adam is a sweet, lovable, plucky boy, and the book is a wonderful way to introduce children to medieval history, from the food, to the clothing, to social structure, to architecture, to holidays and celebrations, and even to politics. Thankfully, I didn't have to read about the dark underbelly of society as this is a children's book. For as much time as Adam was on his own and at the mercy of strangers, the book didn't go into his vulnerability, nor disease, nor the heinous punishments for even trivial crimes that marked the time period. But that's okay, it was a delight to read a sunny adventure book.

Now I'm torn between wanting to read more books by Elizabeth Jane Gray (aka Elizabeth Gray Vining) or more Newberry Medal winners. Or maybe, both?

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!