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.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Maine, Hollywood, Wyoming (Longmire)

Hope everyone had a great holiday season. Much as I enjoy the festivities and yearly rituals and gatherings, I also really like getting my house cleaned up and my schedule back to normal. In addition to reading, I also managed to complete four puzzles between Thanksgiving and last night.

Here's the last one I did--we're going to Maine for 3 weeks in August and I figured it was a good way to start my learning about the great state. My husband is taking a 2-week course on building a sailboat and we have an Airbnb rented near Brooklin, ME. While he's in class, I will do some days of work, and some days of hiking, sightseeing, beachcombing, blueberry picking, and reading, of course! I cannot wait to explore Acadia National Park.

I'm really liking the White Mountain puzzle these days.

Here's what I've been reading...

Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years, by Julie Andrews Edwards - this was a Xmas gift and even more enjoyable than her first memoir about her pre-Hollywood youth, which I read a few years ago. Loved reading about Julie learning her craft in real time while making Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. I have to say, though, that I don't envy Julie her life, not one little bit. Yes, she had tremendous talent and luck, but she worked so hard, sacrificing family stability, moving several times a year, juggling nannies and other support staff, and being married to a very volatile man. While reading the book, I had the notion that I would like to watch all of her movies in order. I started The Americanization of Emily with James Garner but disliked it so much that I couldn't finish it and promptly abandoned the plan. I hope she does another memoir about losing her voice and also becoming the Queen of Genovia in The Princess Diaries.

My husband has been reading the Craig Johnson series of Longmire mysteries for a few years now. He started after we watched the TV series, and since we recently rewatched the entire series  last fall, I decided to read the books as well, starting with The Cold Dish.  For the uninitiated, Walt Longmire is sheriff in fictional Absaroka county, Wyoming. His best friend is Henry Standing Bear, of the Cheyenne nation, and his staff includes deputy Vic Moretti, a tough-taking transplant from Philadelphia. The novels vary from the TV series quite a bit in plot--where the TV series developed its own story arc that included a casino on the reservation that causes all sorts of trouble for Walt as well as a rival for his office whose family is more than a thorn in Walt's side--the books are more episodic and don't carry a story line from one to the next. The TV series did an excellent job of representing the characters, however, and I see Robert Taylor as Walt while I read and especially Lou Diamond Phillips as Henry. Taylor, who is Australian, does a pitch perfect Western American accent, with my only gripe being he calls the other square state Col-o-rod-o instead of Col-o-rad-o.

If you like Westerns, this is an excellent mystery series, and if you liked Gunsmoke, the TV series will be like deja vu. 

Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear

Oh, and the TV series has some of the best music. Here's my favorite - Back in the High Life Again by Warren Zevon. Picture Robert Taylor riding a horse across a mountain valley with this song playing and you'll get a pretty good idea of the TV Longmire.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Back to the Classics - 2020

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting Back to the Classics 2020 - thanks, Karen, for hosting again. You have many loyal fans and I know it takes time and effort to host a challenge.

Here's my tentative lineup for this challenge. Feel free to throw out suggestions for the categories which are still undecided.

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 - haven't read it since I was in high school, so definitely due for a reread.

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton - one of the few remaining books on my Classics Challenge; I liked the mini-series from long ago, so I have high hopes for this one.

4. Classic in Translation. 
The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello - I love Italy and hope to visit again soon, and I've heard this is an Italian classic.

5. Classic by a Person of Color. Any classic work by a non-white author. 
Not sure what I want to read here--looking for suggestions

6. A Genre Classic. Leaving Cheyenne, by Larry McMurtry - I enjoy Westerns, and while this isn't a shoot-'em-up, round-'em-up story, I liked it and liked the sense of place and character.
7. Classic with a Person's Name in the Title. First name, last name or both.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens - I didn't read a Dickens in 2019 and really missed him - I've been wanting to reread this one for a long time.

8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Any classic with the proper name of a place (real or ficitonal) - a country, region, city, town, village, street, building, etc. 
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy - another of the few remaining titles on my Classics Challenge list. I planned to read it in 2019, but never got around to it.

9. Classic with Nature in the Title. A classic with any element of nature in the title (not including animals). 
Bitter Lemons, by Lawrence Durrell - I've been wanting to read something by Durrell since I started watching The Durrells of Corfu, and I found this at my used book store and thought it would fit this category nicely.

10. Classic About a Family. This classic should have multiple members of the same family as principal characters, either from the same generation or multiple different generations. 
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott - I'm rereading this in Feb and am also looking forward to the new movie.

11. Abandoned Classic. Choose a classic that you started and just never got around to finishing, whether you didn't like it at or just didn't get around to it. 
The Italian by Ann Radcliffe - I started it in 2019 but ran out of steam, but I would like to finish it.

12. Classic Adaptation. Any classic that's been adapted as a movie or TV series. If you like, you can watch the adaptation and include your thoughts in your book review. It's not required but it's always fun to compare.
Not sure - so many to choose from.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading in 2020!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Back to the Classics - 2019 Wrap Up Post

Karen at Books and Chocolate hosted Back to the Classics again in 2019, and I got 11 out of 12 of my books read. I never found time for the tragic category--maybe that was my subconscious protecting my mood!

So I have 2 entries in Karen's year-end drawing, and my email is janetgs05(at)gmail(dot)com.

1. 19th Century Classic: Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope - really enjoyed this first in the Palliser series. Will read the next one in 2020...and so on.

2. 20th Century Classic: Brideshead Revisitedby Evelyn Waugh - one of the saddest books I've ever read...and reread. Beautifully written but heartbreaking.

3. Classic by a Woman Author: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte - meh! Anne is just not for me. Too whiny.

4. Classic in Translation: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy - fabulous, although I could do without some of the philosophizing on the history of history. That said, I loved the story, characters, setting, and this was an excellent, readable translation.

5. Classic Comic Novel: My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell - loved, loved, loved this book, and gave it to two siblings for Xmas.

6. Classic Tragic Novel:

7. Very Long Classic: Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot - very good but Middlemarch reigns supreme. I'm looking forward to finally finishing the bio I started years ago on Eliot so I can read what motivated her to tell this story.

8. Classic Novella: Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey - love this kind of pyschological thriller.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean): Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck - excellent travelogue by one of my favorite authors.

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania: Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay - ambiguous, creepy, gets under your skin.

11. Classic From a Place You've Lived: Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather - lovely warm, interesting book about a young woman from the Colorado plains.

12. Classic Play: St. Joan, George Bernard Shaw - meh - really what was the point of this play? Maybe it works on the stage but very forgettable.

Thanks to Karen for hosting this challenge, which is really the only one I do anymore. 

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Catching up on posts - classics and not-so-classics

It's been almost a month since my last post--but work has been busy, life has been busy, know the drill.

I'm rounding out my Back to the Classics 2019 challenge with two books - bringing me to 11 out of the 12 I committed to. The only category I missed was Classic Tragic Novel--I had picked Mayor of Casterbridge to read, but never could find the spirit to deal with a Hardy tragedy.

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot - the last complete novel by George Eliot (Maryann Evans) and one I've been wanting to read for years. Except for Felix Holt, which I tried and failed to read, I've now read all of Eliot's novels. I still consider Middlemarch her masterpiece, but Daniel Deronda was an interesting, multi-faceted novel and it was so enjoyable to spend time with Eliot's narrator, who is kind and gentle and forgiving. Daniel is an orphan, raised by a guardian (Sir Hugo Mallinger), whom everyone assumes is his natural father. The majority of the novel actually focuses on another character, Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful, spirited young woman, much like Emma Woodhouse at the beginning of Jane Austen's Emma. The novel is about finding not only one's identity but one's moral compass--Daniel's journey is one of finding his parentage and family history and embracing it, but he serves as a conscience for many of the characters and a moral support for virtually all of them. That's a lot for one man to bear, but Daniel does it with grace, beauty, and a generous spirit. Published in 1876, it is contemporary to its time and I found myself looking up political and world issues that provided the setting for the novel.

Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw - I read this for the Classic Play category. I chose it because I visited Rouen in 2017, and learned a fair amount about Joan D'Arc in the city where she was burned as a witch in in 1431 at age 19. I also chose this play because I was planning to see Mother of the Maid at the Marin Theatre Company in late November and actually finished reading the play on the plane to SFO. I've only read Pygmalion by Shaw, so I was expecting something biting and witty, sharp and memorable. Instead, I found the play terribly dull. Perhaps on stage it would have shone brighter, but the only bright spot was Joan's interactions with the Dauphin. The play premiered in 1923, three years after Joan was canonized by the Catholic Church. I can only think that her elevation to sainthood was the inspiration for the play, but I really didn't find a theme to latch onto. It seemed more of a history lesson than anything else.

Non-classic recent reading included the following:

Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl - loved, loved, loved this memoir by the last editor of Gourmet magazine. Well written, compelling, chock-full of anecdotes about notable foodies, New York, Conde Nast, chefs, and restaurants...and recipes. There are a few that I absolutely have to try. Now I'm eager to read some of her other books, notably about her life as a restaurant critic.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird - I really wanted to love this book--absolutely fabulous premise--but the story arc just frustrated me so much I ended up really not liking it at all. The novel is a fictionalized account of a slave woman who became a member of an African-American unit in the U.S. Army after the Civil War. There are virtually no known facts about Cathy Williams and so the author was at liberty to invent a way for her to become a soldier. I actually liked the part that took place during the Civil War--Cathy's journey from slave to cook's helper in the Union Army was plausible and interesting. Her drive to be a soldier was also plausible, and even when she donned men's clothing and enlisted was plausible. Where I really started to dislike the story was when Cathy had to have a love interest--and not only a love interest, but an entirely goofy, quasi-mystical attachment to her commanding officer who was also the guy she saved early in the story....but I'm committing spoilers and you might actually want to read this book. Suffice it say, I found the second half of the book to be frustrating, implausible, and a waste of a good story.

Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks, by Andrea Lankford - I love National Parks. I love hiking in them, visiting historical sites, enjoying nature, and I love the idea of National Parks - setting aside places that can be protected and where the native flora and fauna are given a chance to live as well. This was an interesting memoir of a former NP ranger - I found the stories she told to be fascinating and a little dispiriting. Any time you peel back the cover of an organization, you will find some less than ideal stuff. There's a reason Landford is no longer working as a NP ranger - it's a stressful job, and so often rangers have to act as police officers, dealing with all sorts of issues that the general public bring to these national treasures. I'm glad I read the book, and it hasn't changed my mind about supporting the NPS as much as I can. Bottom line - when you visit a NP, give the ranger a break -- follow the rules, don't chide them for having a cushy job, and respect the work they do to search and rescue people who need their help.

Friday, November 29, 2019

My Family and Other Animals

Ever since stumbling onto the PBS Durrells of Corfu series earlier in the year, I have been looking forward to reading My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell, on which the series is based.

It was as delightful as the series and was remarkably true to the book in tone, plot, and characters. My Family and Other Animals is the first book (1956) in a trilogy in which Durrell recounts his family’s life on the Greek island in the 1930s. Gerald is ten when his widowed mother moves with her four children from damp, dreary England to sun-soaked exuberant Corfu.

Gerald, who went on to become a world-famous naturalist and author of many books, is a delightful child in love with the natural world and eager to observe and explore the teeming, fertile world into which he is dropped. His older brother is Lawrence Durrell, or Larry in the book, and is 23 when the family moves, a struggling novelist, confident in his abilities and arrogant in his artistic sensibilities. The other brother, Leslie, while he is the antithesis of erudite Larry--he is love with guns and hunting--shares a swagger with Larry that has completely escaped their sister, Margo, who is a teenager and plagued by the traditional teen problems--acne, low self-esteem, and raging hormones. Rounding out the family is Mother--a curious and attractive mix of helplessness and capability, with a mamma bear's protective ferocity when it comes to her family.

The rest of the characters are the friends they make in Corfu, including the naturalists who befriend and mentor Gerald, or Gerry as his friends and family call him, the local doctor, a series of tutors for Gerry, and Spiro, a native of Corfu who loves and admires the English and takes the Durrell family under his wing and shepherds them devotedly.

I really loved this book--it is a perfect mixture of family anecdotes that remind me fondly of James Thurber's reminiscences (notably My Life and Hard Times) and descriptions of the birds, insects, fish, and plant life of Corfu. In particular, I loved Gerry's recounting of the time he watched two pairs of swallows build nests and raise their families--comedy writing that made me laugh out loud. Dry and witty but with a deep understanding and love for the animals being described.

Milo Parker plays Gerry Durrell

I am really looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. I also just put Corfu on the must-visit list.

This book counts for the Back to the Classics challenge in the humor category.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Tables Turned - Wordsworth

Who wants to go hiking near Windermere?
I found this on Twitter this morning, courtesy of the Keats-Shelly Blog, and liked it so much I wanted to share it.

The Tables Turned 
William Wordsworth (written in 1798)

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Brat Farrar

During my October mystery month, I managed to finally read Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. This is a wonderful, classic mystery, complete with doppelgangers, family fortunes, English countryside, extended family, and a pretty good mystery.

It reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier's The Scapegoat, which I read last year in that the protagonist, Brat Farrar, has to prove that he is really the person he is pretending to be, so it takes a lot of concentration on his part to remember all the details he has learned as well as anticipate or project how the other person would have behaved in a given situation.

In a nutshell, Brat is impersonating the older of a pair of twins who was presumed to have committed suicide was he was 13 but since the body was never found, only a suicide note, the family is open to the idea that he ran away after his parents died because he was grief stricken.

Although the book was fun to read, the entire plot is on pretty shaky ground--it's hard to really project how family members would really react when a lost boy shows up on the eve of turning 21 and inheriting the family estate, undercutting the expectations of his twin brother who didn't disappear, but this family seems to really take it all in stride and accept Brat pretty willingly, all things considered.

With DNA testing, this type of plot really can't work in the modern world, athough it might be fun to watch the plot gymnastics of an author trying to modernize the story.

There is a mini series from 1986, which maybe I'll try to watch this winter.

Mark Greenstreet as Brat Farrar

I'm counting this one for the Back to the Classics Challenge in the category of novella, as the edition I read was 240 pages, just under the 250 page cutoff.