Saturday, November 11, 2017

TBR Pile Challenge 2018!

Every so often, I drift away from blogging -- sometimes it just ends up feeling like homework. And yet inevitably, something is so irresistible I'm drawn back in -- sometimes it's a book I'm just dying to share, or a challenge that sounds like too much fun to miss -- like Adam's TBR Pile Challenge, which has been on hiatus for two years. How can I possibly resist? It's nearly impossible -- especially since my owned-and-unread shelves are pretty much filled to bursting.

I moved overseas a year and a half ago and nearly all the books I brought I hadn't read, so in theory, the owned-and-unred list should be shrinking, right? Sadly, it is not. Curse the wonderfully efficient military library system and all the digital downloads! I'm getting close to my goal of 100 books completed for 2017, and yet less than ONE THIRD are from my own shelves!

So, I hope that this list of twelve books from my own TBR shelves (plus two alternates) will be completed during the 2018 calendar year. This time I want to read all women authors. Most of these books are from my Persephone and Virago shelves. 

Photo courtesy of my daughter, who has a fancy camera and knows how to use it.

In alphabetical order, by author:

1. Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim. Bought last year when I was on an EVA binge.

2. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. I've been meaning to read it since 2014, when it began showing up on WWI reading lists.

3. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. I only have two unread works by Cather on the shelves. I chose this one over Alexander's Bridge, and I hope I made the right choice.

4. Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary by Ruby Ferguson. Probably the Persephone I've had unread the longest.

5. The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau. A discovery at Half-Price books in Austin, TX, which had quite a few green Viragos.

6. The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Bought on a trip to London last year. I loved her Cazalet Chronicles and I've heard this one isn't quite as good, but I'm optimistic.

7. Heat Lightning by Helen Hull. A Persephone book by an American author. I don't know much about it other than it's set in the Michigan which is my home state.

8. The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse. Another Virago find at Half-Price Books. I think I bought it the same time as The Willow Cabin.

9. London War Notes, 1939-1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes. Another Persephone, I was excited to buy this since I loved her short stories. Simon from Stuck in a Book raved about this and it was out of print for years (and very expensive) before Persephone reprinted it a couple of years ago. It's a collection of essays written for the New Yorker during the war.

10. The Collected Stories by Katherine Anne Porter. I'm a little intimidated by this one because it's very long -- also, I tried to read Porter's Ship of Fools last year and really disliked the characters. I think I paid $1 for it at the library sale so hopefully it won't end up on the to-be-donated pile.

11. Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas by Edith Wharton. I love Wharton and always keep an eye out for her books in the secondhand shops. I've owned this one for years and never gotten around to it. This one includes Bunner Sisters which I've heard is excellent.

12. Miss Mole by E. H. Young. One of the very first books published by the Virago imprint. I know many people love it and I've had a copy for years and I just keep putting it off.


Photo also taken by DaughterTM

Fenny by Lettice Cooper. Bought last year after reading and loving National Provincial for the 1938 Club.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby. I bought nearly all her novels after reading South Riding. I think this is the last one I haven't read yet.

So -- some great women authors that I love, and some that I haven't read yet. Some novellas, short stories, and two non-fiction books. After looking at the pile, I realize that many of these books are near (or surpassing) the 500 page mark. I measured and it's thirteen inches high. Well, I don't mind lengthy books, as long as I'm enjoying it. Bloggers, have you read read anything on my list? Good choices or bad? And are you participating in the TBR Pile Challenge?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The 1968 Club: Cousin Kate is Regency Gothic

Since The House on the Strand just missed the cutoff for the 1968 Club, I dug around and realized there was a Georgette Heyer novel published that year that I'd never read! It had been awhile since I read any Heyer, and this one turned out to have Gothic overtones as well, so it was seasonally appropriate as well. 

Cover of the first edition, it is so wonderfully Gothic. 

The story: our heroine Kate Malvern is 24, orphaned and impoverished, and can't seem to hold down a job as a governess, but is still spunky and doesn't seem concerned that she's never been presented and is probably considered off the shelf by Regency-era standards. Kate has been sacked after receiving an unwanted proposal from the brother of her employer, and turns to her old nanny Sarah, who is now married and running an Inn. Kate spent her childhood following her father through his military postings in Spain and Portugal, and has few qualifications or prospects, though she thinks she might find employment as a upscale lady's maid. Sarah is scandalized by the thought of her former charge stooping so low, and contacts Kate's long-estranged aunt, Lady Minerva Broome. Auntie had been estranged from her older half-brother, Kate's father, years ago after became the second wife of the wealthy (and much older) Lord Timothy.

So. Lady Minerva sweeps up out of nowhere and whisks Kate back to her estate, Staplewood, which she has spent years transforming into a showplace. It is also the home of her young son Torquil, who is sickly and spoiled though beautifully handsome -- and a little strange. Kate wins over everyone, including the charming and rather detached Lord Timothy, and his nephew Philip, who dislikes Lady Minerva. Kate can't understand the old estrangement between her late father and his half-sister until she realizes that maybe Auntie has ulterior motives of bringing Kate to Staplewood. Torquil is alternately charming and paranoid and Kate finds herself attracted to Philip. 

This is definitely less of a light-hearted Regency romp I was expecting. Aunt Minerva is a little sinister and I found Torquil downright creepy. There were definitely elements in this book I was not expecting, and I enjoyed it although I did think the characters didn't have nearly as much development as in some of her other book -- it was almost as if Heyer was concentrating so much on the Gothic side that she didn't have time to work on the charming characters that I've grown to expect. It was close to the end of her writing career (#54 out of 58 novels, by my count) so it's possible that the quality of her work was declining. I've only read ten of her novels and I mostly chose them at random, so I don't know if I can judge accurately. But, overall, a fun and diverting read set in the Regency period, which is the whole point of reading Georgette Heyer. 

Thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for organizing the 1968 Club! Is anyone else signed up? What did you read? And which other Georgette Heyer books do you recommend?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Time Travel Rarely Ends Well

For this year's RIP Challenge, I had intended to reread either Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (one of my all-time favorite novels) or My Cousin Rachel, which was recently adapted into a movie. I may yet read both of these, but I also discovered that The House on the Strand was available from my library's digital catalog as an audiobook -- so I've crossed one of her lesser-known novels off my to-read list! House on the Strand is the fifth of du Maurier's novels that I've read, and I absolutely loved it -- it's a close second to Rebecca and I don't think it gets nearly the attention it deserves.

Here's the setup: published in 1969, this is the story of a forty-something man named Dick Young, told as a first person narrative. Dick recently left a high-pressure publishing job in London and is spending the summer holidays in Cornwall at a house called Kilmarth, the home of his oldest friend, Magnus Lane, a noted professor of biophysics. Dick's wife Vita and two stepsons are due to join him in a week or so, but before they arrive, Magnus asks Dick to do him a favor -- Magnus is trying to create a drug that will actually allow the user to travel back in time -- not physically, but through memory -- and he wants Dick to be his guinea pig.

Magnus explains that somehow, memories are biologically passed down, and by taking the drug, the user can somehow access memories that are centuries old, as if they've actually traveled into the past and are experiencing it in real time. The user is just an observer, and can't be seen or heard by the people in the past; also, if the user makes physical contact with anyone, they will be instantly returned back to the present, with very uncomfortable side effects.

Dick takes the plunge and goes back in time to the 1300s, observing a man named Roger Kylmerth who lived in the original property. Roger was the steward of a Cornish aristocrat, Sir Henry Champernoune, and Dick is immersed in the intrigues between Henry's manipulative widow Joanna and the beautiful Isolda, wife of another aristocrat, who is carrying on an affair with Joanna's brother. Roger is secretly in love with Isolde, and is something of a doppleganger for Dick, who becomes obsessed with Isolda and the drama surrounding her life. Dick becomes more and more obsessed with Isolda and the long-dead players in this Middle Ages drama, to the detriment of his life in the present.

I really, really enjoyed this book, though I did find the parts set in the past a bit confusing -- it was harder on audio because I couldn't flip back to earlier sections to reread and clarify who was who (apparently the print version has family trees and a map, which would have been extremely helpful). Luckily, I'd gotten used to some of the Cornish names after reading so many of the Poldark novels -- names like Bodrugon and Trenwyth are pretty familiar now, and listening on audio, I've learned how they're actually pronounced.

Overall, though, the parts of the book that were most fascinating were how Dick reconciles his new obsession with the people in the present, particularly his wife who shows up unexpectedly early. He has to make up excuses as to why he disappears for hours at a time, and returns confused and dirty after wandering around the countryside in a trancelike state while under the influence of the drug as he follows Roger, Isolda, and the rest of the historical Cornish characters. It becomes increasingly apparent to the reader that Dick is putting himself in grave danger, both from the drug itself, and in physical danger since he has no concept of the present while he's traveling into the past -- it's hard to look both ways crossing the street when you think you're in the Middle Ages, when cars didn't exist.

This book is a really interesting psychological study -- is this really happening to Dick, or is he just hallucinating?  Is it all just the drugs, or is Dick subconsciously working through his personal issues in the present? I got really invested in the story, and became really worried about what was going to happen to everyone, in both narratives. I found this a really interesting twist on how time travel works and the physical and mental effects on the traveler.

The only thing I really didn't like was the characterization of the women in this book, none of whom come off as sympathetic except the luminous Isolde, who doesn't seem especially developed. For a female writer, du Maurier has a lot of terrible women in her books. However, I still loved it and it's definitely one of my top reads of the year.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia

No, this is not a blog posting about The Princess Bride, probably the most quotable movie ever. (Though I really should reread it someday -- does Vizzini actually say the line in the book? I can't remember. And I didn't realize until after I'd written this post that it's the 30th anniversary of The Princess Bride!!)

Anyway. After a solid month of reading (with some other audiobooks mixed in), I have finally finished the 950-page behemoth that is The Far Pavilions. Written by M. M. Kaye, in 1978, this is an epic story about an Englishman, raised as an Indian, who falls in love with a half-Indian princess against the backdrop of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the late 1800s. (Did you know there was a second Anglo-Indian War? I never knew there was a first, but I'm a Yank and we are not taught such things in school. I barely learned about the British Raj and the East India Company).

So. The book start with the birth of young Ashton Pelham-Martin, born in the Himalayas in the 1850s to English parents -- an eccentric academic father and a young mother who dies in childbirth. His father then dies of cholera during the Indian Rebellion of 1858. Fearing for his safety as a foreigner, little Ash is then raised by his Indian nurse Sita as Hindu boy whom she renames Ashok. (He has dark hair and eyes and can pass for a native). He spends much of his childhood knowing nothing of his family history and ends up as a servant in the local prince's household, until palace intrigues force his adoptive mother to reveal his true parentage and return him to his ancestral home in England.

Because of his upbringing, Ashton's loyalties are forever divided between his Englishness and his love for India, and eventually he joins the military and returns to India, where his knowledge of Indian language and culture make him both invaluable and suspect to the British Raj. There is romance, there are intrigues, there are battles and action scenes galore. Also, lots and lots of war strategy and politics which I wasn't expecting. It's a very dense read so I definitely couldn't zip through it. (But I did learn that the Soviets invading Afghanistan in the 1980s wasn't a new idea).

Overall, I really enjoyed the book but darn it all, my edition was 955 pages with tiny print and very narrow margins, and honestly, I think M. M. Kaye could have used some more editing. Naturally, there are amazing coincidences and lots of exposition where characters are explaining political and military history and I do feel like there was a lot more telling of events than showing. Plus, the book is so huge, I really feel like it could have been split into three stories: Ash's childhood, the love story with the Indian princess, Anjuli; and the Afghan war story.

Also, I found Anjuli's character to be incredibly undeveloped and there are chapters upon chapters when she's barely mentioned, which I found irritating. She's hardly in the final third of the book at all. One of the blurbs on the back cover describes it as "a high-adventure love-story" but if you're looking for a sweeping romance, this isn't it. I was expecting Gone With the Wind in the Himalayas, but there's far more war and politics than character development in this book, which I found disappointing. Also: NO MAPS, which is a pet peeve when characters are traveling in books, and there is a lot of traveling in this one. I am unfamiliar with Indian and Afghani geography, so I found this especially irritating. (However, they do include a diagram of a military compound).

However, I did like that Ashton really was supporting the Indian and then the Afghani viewpoint, rather than blindly following the British Colonial idea that White People Know Best. I'm debating now as to whether I should watch the 1980s TV adaptation, which turned a book of nearly a thousand pages into a six-episode mini-series starring lots of white people, including Amy Irving as a half-Indian princess. Seriously.

That's Ben Cross as the adult Ashton, and Amy Irving in brownface as Anjuli. Really.
I'm still planning on reading The Raj Quartet (also turned into a mini-series), which is thankfully divided into four different books since it totals nearly 1800 pages. And A Suitable Boy, because it would be nice to read an epic book set in India actually written by someone Indian. It won't be for a while because I'm not quite sure if I can dive right in to another epic doorstopper.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Readers Imbibing Peril XII and Some Travel Plans

Another Readers Imbibing Peril? How can I resist?

It's the 12 time around for this challenge, which I have attempted off and on since I began blogging in 2009. This year I'm signing up for Peril the Second, only two books over the two month period, since I have so many other books I'm trying to finish. 

Possible reads:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. My final novel of Dickens' major works. I've never made it past the first couple of chapters, but I'm going to give it another try.

Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, both rereads. You can't beat du Maurier for a great Gothic read. 

Affinity by Sarah Waters -- I've read nearly all her books, and this story about the supernatural in a Victorian women's prison is perfect for the challenge.

And finally, another reread -- Dracula by Bram Stoker just because . . . . 


I leave October 28 and will be visiting Bucharest, Brasov, the Carpathian mountains, Dracula's castle etc. And I will actually be there on Halloween! (Well, it's our last day, so I expect much of it will be spent in the airport, which is scary in another way). 

I don't normally sign up for group travel because I am not always a people person -- I like my personal space and the thought of joining a tour of complete strangers for four days, much of it spent on buses, is not my idea of fun. BUT nobody in my family wants to go and this may be the only chance I get, plus I sincerely doubt I would attempt this on my own. I'm not averse to solo traveling but Romania sounds like a place best done with an organized group. I've easily booked travel myself through Italy, France and the UK, but Romania might be a challenge, so I'm going with the group option this time. I did spring for the single-room supplement so I know I'll have somewhere to escape by the end of the day.

It might end up being completely cheesey and touristy, or it might be very cool. Or both. Nevertheless, I'm kind of excited about it but the only preparation I'm planning is the reread of Dracula, which I may save for the trip because I can always use my book as an excuse to be anti-social. 

Anyway -- other suggestions for the challenge? Reading material for the trip? Anyone else actually been to Transylvania, or anywhere else in Romania, for that matter? 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Semi-Attached Couple is like Jane Austen But With Extra Added Snark

As a longtime fan of Jane Austen, I'm always sad that she only completed six major works. There are far, far too many books claiming to be the heir to Jane Austen.  Somewhere in my bookish searches, I found The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden, a Victorian writer who is largely unread these days. These two novellas are out of print but available for free online or inexpensively as used paperbacks, and are one of the closest things I've come to next-generation Jane Austen. 

My edition was published in one volume, and though the novels have similar names, they are unrelated. The Semi-Attached Couple concerns two neighboring families, the Douglases and the Eskdales. They had children about the same time, but as the children have grown, the families have grown apart, and Lady Eskdale, higher socially, has married her two daughters off before Mrs. Douglas, who is full of hilarious snide comments, much like Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, only with a sharper tongue. 

In the beginning of the novel, the youngest and most beautiful Eskdale daughter Helen is about to be married to Lord Teviot, who is considered quite a catch. Helen is young and her expectations of marriage are different than those of her husband, which creates friction in their new marriage. He's jealous of her affection for her family. One thing leads to another and the marriage appears doomed. There are also side plots about unmarried friends and family and who's going to end up with whom. 

Also, soon after their honeymoon, her husband invites a large party to visit his estate, including the treacherous Lady Portmore. Here's an excerpt of a conversation between her and the newlywed Lord Teviot. Lady Portmore is trying to stir up trouble between Lord T and his bride: 

Lady P:  “Is that Helen's new horse she is riding?"

Lord T:  "No; Miss Forrester is on Selim."

[Lady P]:  "Well, I wonder Helen did not prefer your gift. I am sure that from sentiment I should never allow any human being but myself to ride a horse that had been given to me by the person I loved best in the world.

Lord T:   "That is an interesting and romantic idea; but as I shall probably have the honour of furnishing Lady Teviot's stud to the end of our days, it is not very likely that she will refuse to lend a horse to her friends when they come."

Lady P:  "Oh dear, no, that would be selfish; and you know how I hate selfishness. I often say there is nobody thinks so little of self as I do. Still I wonder Helen did not ride Selim."

Lord Teviot was silent.

Lady Portmore is everyone's best frenemy. She reminds me of a cross between Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Elton from Emma (with just a hint of Lady Catherine de Bourgh). There are a lot of similarities between these two novels and Jane Austen's works, and there's even a mention of P&P in a letter, from young Eliza Haywood asking permission from her mother to be allowed to read it. Clearly, Emily Eden was a fan of our Jane.

Naturally, all goes right in the end, with some good plot twists. I did wait a bit before reading the second novella, The Semi-Attached House, which I also enjoyed.  I was going to review both books in the same post but this has gotten longer than I expected so I'll save it for another day. These works don't have nearly the depth or the great writing as Jane Austen, but for plot, characters, and wit, they are just the thing if you are a Janeite or if you're looking for light Victorian read.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Bookish Dilemma: Book First, Or Movie?

Idris Elba as The Gunslinger in The Dark Tower

It's been just over a month since my last post, so I'm throwing myself on the mercy of anyone who's still following this blog. I am currently facing a bookish dilemma, and I'm hoping that readers will advise me.

My library has a book group that runs throughout the summer, and the next selection is Stephen King's The Gunslinger, first in the Dark Tower series. I love that the book group makes me read outside my usual genres, but I haven't read any Stephen King since waaay back in the 1980s when I read Cujo, which may have scarred me for life -- I went through a King phase in my youth and read most of his early stuff. I liked some of it but I'm an avid dog lover and Cujo killed any interest I had in reading any more of his works (though The Shining made for one of the best TV literary bits ever on Friends. Spoiler alerts if you haven't read The Shining or Little Women). 

But I digress. The book group doesn't meet until the end of the month, and normally, I wait until about a week or so before the meeting to start the book, so it's fresh in my mind for the discussion. However, I just saw the schedule for the upcoming movies at the movie theater nearby, and The Dark Tower starts showing on Friday. Movies here on the military base usually only run for about a week, then they come back about three or four weeks later for a second run, filling in at odd times like matinees and off-days. So if I want to watch the movie, I should try to catch it in the next week or I may lose my chance.

And this is my dilemma: do I read the book this week before I go to the movies, and possibly become disappointed because it doesn't live up to my expectations? Movie and TV adaptations rarely live up to how I imagine a story when I'm reading it, and if I see the movie later it nearly always changes how I picture it from that day forward.  I read the first four Harry Potter books before I saw the first movie (which I found fair to middling) and now I'll always picture Hogwarts and all the characters like the movie actors and scenes.

Or do I watch the movie first, then read the book just before the book discussion, like I normally do?  If I watch the movie first, I'll be picturing Idris Elba and all the other actors when I read the book. Of course, if I read the book first, I'll be prepared for any scary scenes. I don't think The Gunslinger is considered horror, but you never know with Stephen King. (I'll just make sure I have enough space in the freezer, just in case).

So here's my query: if a book is being adapted into a movie (or TV series), and you haven't read it yet, do you read it before watching the adaptation, or wait and watch the adaptation first? Does it matter? Should I just skip the movie altogether? And what are your favorite literary bits on TV shows? Does anyone really put scary books in the freezer?

Monday, June 26, 2017

London Belongs to Me is Incredibly Long But Worth It

I love a big fat book. I love to sink into the story and get completely engrossed in the characters. I also love British books, and books set during World War II. I especially love books about the War at Home -- I'm far more interested about how the war affected people's everyday lives than battles and military maneuvers. In short, Norman Collins' London Belongs to Me basically ticks off every box for my literary love. It took me almost a month to finish it since I was reading other books as well, but I loved every minute of it.

First published in 1945, this story starts in 1938 and spans about two years in the lives of the residents of #10, Dulcimer Street, in Kennington, London, a working-class neighborhood south of the Thames river (not to be confused with the much posher Kensington). The story begins just before Christmas, when one of the residents, Mr. Jossor, leaves his last day of work at an accounting firm upon his retirement and returns home to his flat. Mr. Josser lives with his wife and adult daughter Doris, who's ready to fly the nest and share a flat with another girl, much to her mother's chagrin. Other residents of the building include Connie, a failed middle-aged actress who's barely scraping by as a coat-check girl; the adenoidal Mr. Puddy, who can hardly hold down a job as a night watchman and is hoarding canned goods for the onset of war; Mrs. Boon and her son Percy, a mechanic who's tempted by a life of crime; the widowed landlady Mrs. Vizzard; and the mysterious new lodger Mr. Squales.

This is a novel in which for most of the characters, not much happens and yet everything happens. Over 738 pages, we follow the lives of the residents as they fall in and out of love, find jobs, have dreams and aspirations, and sometimes even land in jail. They're a disparate group but ultimately, they're like a family. I love books in which a lot of personalities are thrown together and this is exactly that sort of group. It reminded me a little bit of Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude which I read and loved a few years ago.

This book is long and sprawling, with very thin pages and tiny print, yet I was sorry that it ended. The writing isn't particularly flowery or descriptive, but Collins made me feel as though I were right there, living in the same building, and all the characters were incredibly real. There's a short epilogue that takes place at Christmas 1940 which gives a quick update, but I can only imagine what happened to all the characters during and after the war. I wish there were a sequel, but sadly, there isn't. However, thanks to Rachel at Book Snob (who raved about this book), I discovered that it was made into a film which you can watch online at YouTube (though I cannot imagine how they condensed this doorstopper into a film less than two hours long.)

Collins also wrote several other books and I've already got Bond Street Story which is also available from Penguin, though it's surprisingly expensive for a paperback (luckily I received a copy as a Mother's Day gift). It's also quite long, but not as long as London Belongs to Me. This book is my idea of perfect summer reading and I'm sure it will be on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Challenge Link-Up Post: Final Wrap-Up

Have you finished the Back to the Classics Challenge?  Congratulations!  This is where you'll link up to your Challenge Wrap-Up Post, after you've completed a minimum of six different categories from the original challenge post.  This post is only for Challenge-Wrap Up Posts.  If you do not have a blog, or anywhere you post publicly, please write up your post-challenge thoughts/suggestions/etc in the comments section.  Please read the directions carefully. 

By linking or commenting here, you are declaring that you have completed the challenge; that each book reviewed fits the correct definition of the category, and was published before 1967 (except for posthumous publications); and that your reviews for each category are linked to the correct post. If I cannot find links to your reviews, I cannot give you credit and thus enter you into the drawing.  THIS is where I will look at the end of the year and randomly choose the winner for the bookish prize. 

Please remember to indicate within THIS post how many entries you have earned for the prize drawing and include links to your reviews. If you do NOT include links to your original reviews IN THIS POST, I CANNOT ENTER YOU INTO THE DRAWING.

  • If you've completed six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!
  • Thank you again for participating, and congratulations again for completing the challenge!


    Please be sure and include some kind of contact for me within your final wrap-up post. This year, I will be contacting the winner privately BEFORE posting their name publicly on this blog. If I cannot contact you, I cannot award your prize. If there is no contact on your blog post, please email me at karenlibrarian13 [at] yahoo [dot] com. 

    Thanks again for participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge!

    Saturday, June 10, 2017

    A Roundup of Victorian Mini-Reviews

    Or more precisely, a round up of mini-reviews of Victorian and Victorian-related works. (I like my title better). Anyway, I'm making really great progress on my Victorian Reading Challenge -- so far I've finished 16 of the 31 categories I want to complete and written reviews for nearly all of them. However, I've gotten behind on posts for the past few weeks and since three of them seem to go together, I thought I'd write up some mini-reviews and get on with it. 

    Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome. This sequel to the beloved Three Men in a Boat has J and his friends George and Harris reunited for a summer bicycling tour through Germany. A good chunk of the book is devoted to the preparations for the trip (made more complicated by the wives and children of the three, who are not joining the party) and the usual funny asides when an incident reminds J of a funny story. Though not quite as fun as the original, this book has some great moments. It's pointless to describe them, so I'll just include one of my favorite passages. Sadly, the dog Montmorency isn't included in this story, but I had to include this bit which does include dogs.
    This quote is a bit long, but it's one of my favorites from the whole book:
    . . . in Germany most human faults and follies sink into comparative insignificance beside the enormity of walking on the grass.  Nowhere, and under no circumstances, may you at any time in Germany walk on the grass.  Grass in Germany is quite a fetish.  To put your foot on German grass would be as great a sacrilege as to dance a hornpipe on a Mohammedan’s praying-mat.  The very dogs respect German grass; no German dog would dream of putting a paw on it.  If you see a dog scampering across the grass in Germany, you may know for certain that it is the dog of some unholy foreigner.  

    In England, when we want to keep dogs out of places, we put up wire netting, six feet high, supported by buttresses, and defended on the top by spikes.  In Germany, they put a notice-board in the middle of the place, “Hunden verboten,” and a dog that has German blood in its veins looks at that notice-board and walks away.  In a German park I have seen a gardener step gingerly with felt boots on to grass-plot, and removing therefrom a beetle, place it gravely but firmly on the gravel; which done, he stood sternly watching the beetle, to see that it did not try to get back on the grass; and the beetle, looking utterly ashamed of itself, walked hurriedly down the gutter, and turned up the path marked “Ausgang.”

    As I'm currently living in Germany, I found this very amusing. Germany is a nation that takes rules and regulations extremely seriously. 
    I'm counting this as my New To You Book by a Favorite Author.

    Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird. I was inspired to read this after finally watching the new Masterpiece production of Victoria, which had a lot of comments on one of my favorite non-book blogs, Frock Flicks, at which historical costume experts discuss (and sometimes destroy) historical film and TV adaptations. Yes, Lord Melbourne wasn't nearly as dishy as Rufus Sewell, but Queen Victoria was a little bit in love with him. Overall the book is well-written and engrossing, but I got a little bored with Victoria's life towards the end, but maybe there really wasn't that much to say; at that point I think the lives of her children are more interesting -- I recommend Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packer, which I reviewed a few years ago.

    I'm counting this as my Book About Queen Victoria (fiction or non-fiction).

    A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde. Another drawing room comedy, but with more dramatic elements. Taking place over just a couple of days at a country house party, young George Arbuthnot has just landed a plum job with the worldly and sophisticated Lord Illingworth. His mother is dead set against him taking the job, because she has a Deep Dark Secret. The third play I've read by Wilde,  and though it has some witty moments, it's my least favorite so far. Here are a few of his trademark bons mots:

    “One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that, would tell one anything.”

    “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”

    “To get into the best society, nowadays, one has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people - that is all!”

    I'm counting this as my Play or Book of Short Stories for the Victorian Reading Challenge.

    Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope. Third in the Barchester Chronicles, it's the story of Mary Thorne, the relatively poor niece of a country village doctor, and Frank Gresham, eldest son of the local squire whose family is pressuring him to marry for money. I was looking for a good audiobook and realized I could get Doctor Thorne (probably my favorite Trollope novel) via digital download from my library; also, I got my hands on a copy of the Andrew Davies TV adaptation and wanted to refresh my memory before watching the DVD -- I hope that wasn't a mistake! Nevertheless, I loved it nearly as much as when I read it the first time -- I did get a little disgusted by the snobbery and hypocrisy of the Greshams and their wealthy cousins, the DeCourcys, who believe that family connections are everything until they need a massive infusion of cash. A great story, though.

    I'm counting this as my Victorian Re-Read.

    So -- four more Victorians crossed off the list, only 15 left to go!

    Sunday, June 4, 2017

    10 Random Books From My Shelves

    Stolen from Simon at Stuck in a Book, here are ten random books taken from my shelves. Maybe they will give readers an insight about me. Most of them are still unread; last year we made the big move to Germany and I decided to bring mostly unread books with me, imagining that it would behoove me to make a dent in the owned-and-unread pile. (I've hardly read any -- curse you, San Antonio Public Library Digital Downloads!)

    Since I used to be a librarian, they're alphabetized by author, naturally.

    1. Stolz und Vorurteil by Jane Austen. I found this pretty German edition of Pride and Prejudice at Thalia, the bookstore chain that's in practically every German city. They do have an English language section but just for fun I decided to check out what classics they had translated into German. And no, I can't really read the German, but I know the novel so well that I can pretty much open any random page and figure out what's happening based on the character names and locations.

    2. More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. I love food writing and the late Laurie Colwin is one of my favorites. More Home Cooking is a collection of her essays, mostly with recipes, some of which originally appeared in Gourmet magazine. I've owned multiple copies of this book and its predecessor, Home Cooking, and my daughter has read it so many times I finally bought her a copy of her own (a first edition). Her style is very chatty, like you're having a cup of tea with a good friend, and the recipes are good too -- her chocolate pear pudding is one of my favorite desserts and I wrote about it in one of my very first postings on this blog, back when I imagined I'd be writing about books and food. Colwin's fiction is also excellent and I've read all of it.

    3. A Good Place to Hide by Peter Grose. Last year I visiting my eldest daughter in New York City and we visited Albertine, the beautiful French-English bookstore at the French Consulate on Fifth Avenue (just a short walk if you're visiting the Met). It's stunningly beautiful and they have a great selection of books in French, and books in English about France and by French authors. They even had some early editions of classic French writers. I bought A Good Place to Hide which is a nonfiction account of a village in the Loire Valley that saved 3,500 Jews during WWII. I haven't read it yet because I have to spread out WWII books or it's too depressing.

    But here's the best photo I could get of the bookstore. 
    It has two levels and has a beautiful mural painted on the ceiling. 

    4. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind Letters, edited by Richard Harwell. One of the perks of working at the library was that we always got first pick of the donated books before they were put into the Friends of the Library Sale. I've always been a huge fan of GWTW so I figured it was worth the $1 investment. I think I bought this in 2011 or 2012 and still haven't read it.

    5. The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning. The second three-volume set of Manning's Fortunes of War series, this one follows Guy and Harriet Pringle as they've fled the Balkans during WWII. Of course the war spreads to the Middle East and they're caught up in it all over again, plus Manning adds some new characters. Another book I haven't started yet, but I hope to get to it this summer.

    6. Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham. I'm not actually sure if I've read this or not -- I read my first Maugham, Of Human Bondage, way back in college (mostly to impress a cute boy in my dorm). I think I tried to read this one during a college summer break when I was home working at a boring job, with no friends my own age. I started reading Maugham again about ten years ago and I've loved most of his books so I couldn't resist this beautiful Vintage edition, also from Half Price Books.

    7. The Lark by E. Nesbit. A new favorite of bloggers who read middlebrow women's fiction, this novel for adults by E. Nesbit was finally reprinted this year by Dean Street Press, thanks to Scott at the Furrowed Middlebrow blog. This book was nearly impossible to find until Dean Street and Scott coordinated to republish these hidden treasures. I have actually read this one and really enjoyed it, it's a bit of a fairy-tale; set in London just after WWI, cousins Jane and Lucilla have to make their own way after a rascally guardian loses most of their inheritance, except for a small cottage and a tiny income. They hit upon the idea of selling flowers from their garden and miraculously find help wherever they need it. It sounds soppy and unrealistic but it's really charming, just the thing when current events are too depressing. (And check out Scott's Middlebrow Syllabus if you want guidelines to find great middlebrow authors, though I warn you it could be dangerous to your bank balance.)

    8. The Barbara Pym Cookbook by Hilary Pym and Honor Wyatt. Years ago I went to cooking school, and I worked for about five years in professional kitchens. I love cookbooks, especially those with a literary connection. Barbara Pym has a lot of food in her books and I think this cute little cookbook has the same jacket designer as her beautiful hardcover editions. I've read bits and pieces of it but I haven't tried any of the recipes yet.

    9. Private Enterprise by Angela Thirkell. I started buying these nice Moyer-Bell paperback editions of Thirkell's Barsetshire series whenever I found them at the Half-Price Books in Texas, and I think I have about a dozen so far. (This one is number 16 in the series).I haven't started any as I'm rather daunted by the 32 books in the series -- I fear once I start I'll end up buying the other 20 as my library here doesn't own any and I don't know if they're available for digital download!

    10. The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple. I'm a devoted follower of Simon and Rachel's podcast Tea or Books? and I was quite jealous when I heard that Rachel of Book Snob had found a copy of this memoir by Dorothy Whipple at a used bookstore for only about £4 !! So I'd been keeping my eye out for a copy and bought one from an online seller a couple of months ago. Unlike lucky, lucky Rachel I did not pay £4. It was more than I usually spend but I thought I was only going to buy 24 books this year so I felt justified (and my 24 books vow has been an utter failure -- but I still have the book! Unread of course. (And wait and see, Persephone Books will wind up publishing it, I bet.) Anyway, I'm sure I'll treasure it. And if you haven't checked out the Tea or Books? podcast, you're in for a treat.

    So, that's basically me in ten random books -- some food writing, some literary biographies, a little history, a couple of classics, and a lot of middlebrow fiction -- mostly unread! Maybe this will be a good jumping off point for my 20 books of summer project.

    Wednesday, May 31, 2017

    My Italian Vacation, Part III: Siena

    A Tuscan sunset from my hotel window.

    The last stop on our Italian vacation in April was Siena. I'd never been there and a well-traveled friend had told me it was by far his favorite place in Italy. It's only about an hour's train ride from Florence so that was the final stop on our trip.

    I found great online reviews for the Palazzo Ravizza hotel, and since it was the end of the trip I splurged on a room with a view. It was actually two rooms with a sitting room and amazing views. I especially loved the decorated ceilings. It was like sleeping in a cathedral, but cozier. 

    Ceiling of our sitting room.

    Ceiling over the bed.

    The second floor of the hotel had a beautiful common room with a grand piano. One night I was reading my book here, and another guest treated me to an impromptu private piano concert! It lasted over an hour, until the staff had to ask him to stop because some silly guests wanted to sleep. This isn't my photo, but I had to add it because it was one of the highlights of the trip (if this is your photo, please let me know so I can give you credit or find another one). 

    Our room had amazing views and a beautiful terrace. The first night I sat outside with a little snack. I had a book with me but the view was so stunning I just sat and admired it. 

    Siena is a beautiful walled Medieval city and the streets are very narrow and winding. It's also hilly so some of the streets are really steep. 

    Yes, those are cars driving amid the pedestrians. All the streets are one-way you have to have a permit to be able to drive inside the city. I don't think tourists are allowed to drive there, with good reason. Amazingly, they do have buses which are tiny. Sadly, I was never able to snap a photo of one in time.

    After walking through the winding streets I suddenly found a big open space, the Piazza del Campo which is the main square. 

    That's building is the Palazzo Publico, the city hall. The "square" in front is actually a semi-circle, and it's on a slope so it's a little like an amphitheater.

    I didn't actually go inside any of the buildings this time. After almost a week of sightseeing I was happy to just walk around and enjoy the architecture. 

    I can't remember what this building is but this courtyard reminded me of Game of Thrones. I kept looking over my shoulder for Lannisters. 

    Another square has the Siena Cathedral, which is big and gaudy.

    Outside the cathedral is this mysterious wall which leads nowhere. You can climb to the top, but I was a little worn out from all the climbing in Florence so I passed on this one.

    Another thing I noticed was that Siena has pig images everywhere. This one was carved into the doorstep of a restaurant where we had lunch. Guess what was on the menu? 

    This shop sold nothing but pork products. 

    If you are looking for seafood on a menu in Siena, you are out of luck. Seriously, I didn't see fish on a single menu, except maybe anchovies on pizza.

    Naturally, the food in Siena was amazing. This was paparadelle, wide pasta with a braised pork and tomato sauce. 

    A lot of the restaurants in Siena are in 14th century buildings which feel like wine cellars with bricks and vaulted ceilings. We loved this restaurant and ate there the first night and the last. That's my daughter hiding behind her menu.

    Her favorite thing to eat in Tuscany was pici, handmade noodles like thick spaghetti, a local specialty. I think she ate them every day. These were served cacio e pepe -- butter, parmesan, and black pepper. 

    At the same restaurant we had an appetizer which was basically a truffled potato cake with cheese. Those slices on top are white truffles. I averaged about 15,000 steps a day in Italy so I needed those carbs, right?

    Every day we had amazing sunsets. I can't believe I actually took this photo on my phone. 

    So that was Italy! It was a wonderful vacation and I'd love to go back -- I want to drive around Tuscany and visit all the little towns, and I also want to visit Cinque Terre, Amalfi, and Capri. Bloggers, have you visited Italy? Which other Italian places belong on my wish list?