15 February 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: A classic by a woman author

I Capture the Castle
Dodie Smith
St. Martins Griffin, 1976 reprint of the 1948 original
340 pages

This is my first Dodie Smith novel, but it won't be my last. I discovered this one on the Books and Chocolate blog and thought it sounded like a fun read for a classic novel by a woman. And I wasn't disappointed in the least!

The narrator is 17-year old Cassandra Mortmain, who is writing a diary of her life in an old, very run-down castle in rural England, circa 1934. Her father, James, once wrote "a very unusual book called 'Jacob Wrestling', a mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry." He made quite a lot of money from it, but then he mysteriously stopped writing and they are now desperately poor. He is married to Topaz, stepmother to his children, who is famous as a model, painted (with or without clothes) by many British artists. Cassandra has an older sister, Rose, and a younger brother, Thomas. The household is rounded out by Stephen Colly, a young man whose late mother had been the family's servant, plus a dog and a cat, wittily named Héloïse and Abelard.


When an intriguing family of Americans inherits the nearby estate, including two eligible young men, life for the Mortmains is suddenly thrown out of its familiar rut. There are parties, laughter, trysts, tears, intrigue, arguments, and lots of emoting, all captured in detail in Cassandra's diary.

The story is fun to read and I took it in great gulps over 2 days. Cassandra muses on interesting topics from a 17-year-old's perspective: poverty, religion, social class, and how Americans are different from the English.

What I found surprising is that there is nary a word about the Great War. The setting is a small village close enough to London to go for a day using the train, not exactly isolated from the wider world. World War I ended in 1918 and this is 16 or 17 years later (Cassandra is a bit fuzzy on the current year). Since many of the characters in the story would have been of military age during the war, it just seems unusual that no mention is made of wartime service or veterans, not even in passing. I read in a review somewhere that Dodie Smith wrote this in the 1940s in America, where she had moved to escape World War II. It makes me wonder if, after the horrors of WWII, she was looking back on more idyllic times for her country and simply edited out the other war from her storyline.

I enjoyed this novel a lot and might consider re-reading it one day, not something I do very often. There are so many, many books that I want to read that I usually just keep moving on to new reading adventures.

10 February 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: A Classic in Translation

Kristin Lavransdatter, part 1 The Wreath
Sigrid Undset
Penguin, 1997 translation by Tiina Nunnally
Norwegian original "Kransen", 1920
297 pages

If you hated "Kristin Lavransdatter" when forced to read it in school, put off by all that archaic English, there is Good News! This stalwart classic has been reborn in easily readable English, translated by Tiina Nunnally, an award-winning translator from Seattle, Washington.

In an interview in the Seattle Times, Nunnally says of Undset "She was writing in a 1920s Norwegian — beautiful, straightforward language." And thus this translation is in beautiful, straightforward modern English.



Kristin Lavransdatter is a young girl in Norway in the early 1300s. The publisher's blurb on the back cover sums up the plot nicely:

"...The Wreath chronicles the courtship of a headstrong and passionate young woman and a dangerously charming and impetuous man. Undset re-creates the historical backdrop in vivid detail, immersing readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political undercurrents of the period".

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found the story engaging enough that I plan on reading the other books in the trilogy, "The Wife" and "The Cross". The story of Kristin Lavransdatter and Erlend Nikulaussøn is timeless and I can imagine it being set in many times and places, much as the play "Romeo and Juliet" is sometimes set in other eras. Sure, their beliefs, laws, and wedding customs might be different from those in the modern western world, but the human tale is enduring. Sometimes young people do make bad life choices, but how they deal with the consequences speaks to their character.

I also liked learning about life in the Middle Ages in rural Norway. Nothing is made to seem quaint or archaic; there is no condescension from a modern point of view. All is perfectly reasonable within the customs of the time. Undset must have been an observant nature lover, for her descriptions of the Norwegian countryside are quite vivid and detailed.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1928 was awarded to Undset "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages", according to the Nobel Prize's web page.
"Sigrid Undset - Facts"

The publisher of this translation, Penguin, has a short reader's guide for the trilogy online:
Kristin Lavransdatter Reader’s Guide

For anyone interested in the process of literature translation, the above-mentioned Seattle Times article about Nunnally is quite interesting. The interview is by Mary Ann Gwinn, who is featured in the Bookmarks segment of PBS's “Well Read: A Series for the Serious Reader” and is herself a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.
Finding the Right Words
An award-winning Seattle translator gives voice to writers from other lands

All in all, a satisfying read for me, one which I'd recommend!

06 February 2018

Stone Quarry by S. J. Rozan

Stone Quarry
S. J. Rozan
St. Martin's Minotaur, 1999

"Stone Quarry" is book six in the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series of mysteries about two New York City private eyes. They have separate practices but often work together. The unusual twist to the series is that the odd-numbered books are about Lydia Chin's cases and told from her point of view, while the evens are Bill Smith's from his point of view. Lydia's cases often involve her Chinatown neighborhood and offer glimpses of local customs; Bill's are more noir and violent. She's twentysomething and lives with her mother, who only speaks Chinese and wants Lydia to be a good Chinese girl with a (Chinese) husband. He's much older, very cynical, has been around, and knows lots of low-lifes and cops. He's also a bit of a tortured soul and sweet on Lydia.


This time Bill has gone to his cabin in the woods of upstate New York, not for relaxation but to take on a job finding some lost art work for a local woman. Then a young man Bill is very fond of goes missing and both the good guys and the bad guys are out to find him. There's a body or two; secrets get uncovered; Bill gets beat up and shot; and Lydia joins him to help out. All par for the course in a Bill Smith/Lydia Chin novel!

I like this series, even though it's a bit more violent than my usual cozy-mystery fare. Lydia and Bill are just friends, though Bill wants something more. Their repartee isn't Tracy and Hepburn, but it's fun. I've enjoyed all six and I look forward to reading the next five. Fingers crossed that Rozan continues the series, although the last one was published in 2011. She has won many mystery writing awards for her novels and short stories.