29 June 2018

Big Books, Big Plans


I have enjoyed the Readathons I've participated in recently, the Bout Of Books #22 and the Mini Persephone Readathon. The structure they give to my daily reading is helpful when faced with a large pile of unread books. So I joined in on this Tome Topple Readathon to attach some of those Classics; you know, the ones from back when they just didn't know how to stop writing and wrote till their town ran out of ink.

The Tome Topple Readathon is hosted by booktuber Thoughts on Tomes.
The goal of this readathon is to read big books that are over 500 pages. There is no pressure to read multiple books or to even finish one. Simply making progress on the larger tomes from your shelf is enough. #TomeTopple Round 6 runs from June 29th – July 12th

First I'm going to finish the last 250 pages of Frances Burney's "Evelina" (1778), a tome-wanna-be at a mere 455 pages. Then it's on to an American classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, 619 pages. Should I have the time or the stomach for more tome toppling, I might try the more modern "The Sea, The Sea" (1978) by Iris Murdoch, a Booker Prize winner.

We're heading into a heat wave - it was 90 Fahrenheit today (Friday) and will be 90+ for the next 7 days. Time for iced tea and sitting still with a tome!  Join us on Twitter at #TomeTopple !

23 June 2018

The Stolen Bicycle

The Stolen Bicycle
Wu Ming-Yi
The Text Publishing Company, 2017 translation by Darryl Sterk
Mandarin Chinese original published 2015
376 pages

I'm afraid this is going to be a bit of an HIBK review - Had I But Known that the plot was so heavy with Taiwanese World War II history, I probably wouldn't have read it. I liked the beginning but about half way through I got bored and restless. As someone who feels compelled to complete every book once started, I soldiered on (pun intended) and finished it.


The publisher's summary:
A writer embarks on an epic quest in search of his missing father’s stolen bicycle and soon finds himself caught up in the strangely intertwined stories of Lin Wang, the oldest elephant who ever lived, the soldiers who fought in the jungles of South-East Asia during the Second World War and the secret worlds of the butterfly handicraft makers and antique bicycle fanatics of Taiwan.

Award-winning novelist Wu Ming-Yi is also an artist, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar, environmental activist, traveller and blogger, and is widely considered the leading writer of his generation in his native Taiwan.

All the professional reviews I read praised it highly. It was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and won many prizes and honors in the author's native Taiwan. I somehow always feel that I should enjoy prize-winning novels, but I know that is an unrealistic expectation. Novels are many and divers, as are the tastes of the readers.

What I enjoyed was the information about the butterfly art, the elephants, and some of the bicycle details. In a history lesson, I learned that China gave up Taiwan to the Japanese after losing the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Japan ruled the island until 1945 and the end of WWII.

What I did not enjoy was all the detail about the fighting in the jungles on the mainland and the excessive Taiwanese bicycle lore. There are lots of characters as the story wanders back and forth in time and space, which I found a bit confusing. This is another book that needs a character chart and/or a set of family trees to keep it all straight. I think it is especially difficult when the names are not familiar ones from your own culture, but that could be just me.

The writing, or I should say the translation was easy to read, but I had two issues with it. First, it's a sloppy translation. I found numerous places where a word was left out that needed to be there, often part of a verb, sometimes just a random word. There are also instances of non-native sounding English. The translator is a native English speaker who has lived in Taiwan for a long time, and maybe that was the problem. However some editor or proofreader at the Australian publisher should have flagged the missing words and the odd syntax before publication. I also thought there were too many side stories which could have been shortened or eliminated altogether without harming the central story. Besides adding to the confusion, they made the book longer than it needed to be.

In the end, it's only so-so in my opinion. I just checked at Goodreads and found others had similar feelings about this book, but then again many loved it and praised its lyrical quality. I guess you will have to read it yourself for a definitive answer!

20 June 2018

The Original Hero with a Secret Identity

The Scarlet Pimpernel
Baroness Emma Orczy
Signet, 2000 (originally published 1905)
288 pages

Although I had heard of the novel called "The Scarlet Pimpernel" for ages, I never really knew anything about it, except that it had an odd title. A scarlet pimpernel, it turns out, is a common European wildflower related to primroses. And it is the symbol chosen by the book's hero to announce his daring deeds.


The rather breathless text on the back of book is a nice summary:

The year is 1792. The French Revolution, driven to excess by its own triumph, has turned into a reign of terror. Daily, tumbrels roll over the cobbled streets of Paris bearing new victims to the insatiable Madame Guillotine.... Thus the stage is set for one of the most enthralling novels of historical adventure ever written.
The mysterious figure known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, sworn to rescue helpless men, women, and children from their doom; his implacable foe, the French agent Chauvelin, relentlessly hunting him down; and the lovely Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a beautiful French exile married to an English lord and caught in a terrible conflict of loyalties -- all play their parts in a suspenseful tale that ranges from the squalid slums of Paris to the aristocratic salons of London, from intrigue on a great English country estate to the final denouement on the cliffs of the French coast.

Apparently this book was the first novel to have a hero with a secret identity, an idea soon copied in the tales of Zorro (1919), The Shadow (1931), Superman (1933), and Batman (1939), to name a few early examples. After the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel has saved a noblewoman and her children, the woman demands to meet their leader so she can thank him in person.
"Alas, Madame!" said Lord Antony, "that is impossible."
"Because the Scarlet Pimpernel works in the dark, and his identity is only known under the solemn oath of secrecy to his immediate followers."


It's a ripping good story, full of suspense, intrigue, aristocratic snits, and a conniving bad guy. What I found most interesting was seeing the story of the French Revolution from the view of the English aristocracy. France and England didn't see eye to eye very often over the centuries, but the English aristocrats were quite disturbed at what was happening to the aristocrats in France. Could the revolutionary fever spread to England?

This is the first in a series of 16 historical fictions, including stories about the Pimpernel's ancestors, thereby probably inventing prequels as well!

14 June 2018

Is There a Home for Exiles?

The Wizard of Oz, 2nd edition
Salman Rushdie
Palgrave/BFI, 2012 (originally published by British Film Institute, 1992)
80 pages

I have read quite a few Salman Rushdie novels and enjoyed them all. But I was taken aback when I saw "The Wizard of Oz" in a list of his works, so I ordered it from my library. The essay and the short story that make up this little book were written in 1992, three years after the fatwa was issued against him for his novel "The Satanic Verses". In a sense, Dorothy and Rushdie are both exiles, both looking for a place called home.


Rushdie writes that the film "was my very first literary influence", as he wrote his first short story at age 10 titled "Over the Rainbow". When he wrote "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" he was heavily influenced by the Oz story of the companions on a quest. Throughout the book you can tell how much he loves this movie, even as he watches it on tape, using a remote control to go back and forth, freezing frames, dissecting it, trying to find its magic.

He muses upon home and friendship as shown in the film, talks about differences from the original book, and also relates stories about the filming itself. There are stills from the film to jog your memory of the scenes he writes about. It is a very slight book and a quick, interesting read.

11 June 2018

Know Thy Women Authors: Abbot to Zwicky

The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present
Isobel Grundy, Patricia Clements, and Virginia Blain, editors
Yale University Press, 1990
1,231 pages

This whopping great tome was bought sight-unseen online for $4 (!) with free shipping. Usually I try to take a reference book out of the library first, to investigate, to see if I really need/want it. But this time I just went for it, because $4. And I am very glad I did!

 From Eleanor Hallowell Abbot (page 1) to Fay Zwicky (page 1,203), one finds 2,700+ annotations of women authors from the Middle Ages to 1985. At 500 words or less, each entry is brief but informative, giving parents, literary siblings, birth and death dates, short life synopses, and major works. The later entries have more detailed biographical information, as one would expect. The book includes

not only English women, but women writing in English in several national traditions, including African, American, Asian, Australian, Canadian, Caribbean, New Zealand, South Pacific, the British Isles; ... not only the canonized genres, but also diaries, letters, writing for children, and popular forms to which women have been relegated and which, often with joy, they have claimed.
Introduction, p. vii

The date selected for the endpoint is 1985, and the introduction says it does not include "women writing wholly or mainly since 1985". The book has not been updated since its publication, and I wouldn't expect it to be, since the web makes so much information available cheaply, and print books are so expensive. However I don't feel this is a hindrance. Books written by women since 1985 are fairly well-known or at least discoverable via the web. Whereas women writing in the Middle Ages and for hundreds of years after that are not so easily accessed or discovered.

As a book meant for browsing rather than straight reading cover-to-cover, it is great fun. When I see a new-to-me author mentioned in a blog, I grab it (carefully so as not to strain a muscle), and check her out. Or opening it up to a random page and reading a few entries may lead me to my library's online catalogue and placing a hold on a new-found treasure.

I imagine many libraries have a copy in their reference sections, although usually those types of books cannot be checked out. I did see other inexpensive used copies floating around the web, if you are inclined to buy one all for yourself.

07 June 2018

Maybe Her Life, Maybe Not

The Stone Diaries
Carol Shields
Penguin, 1993
361 pages

The story follows the life of Daisy Goodwill Hoad Flett from her unexpected birth to her death. Superficially it is the fictional biography of Daisy and several generations of her family and friends. But pay closer attention and you begin to wonder, who is telling the story? And is this really a truthful biography - true within the fictional world of the novel?

The narration is unusual in that it switches between first and third person, perhaps even second person at times. Then there is the problem of the unreliable narrator. We are told her mother is hugely obese and taller than her father; yet the photos included in the book show a large but not obese woman who is shorter than her husband. At one point, the narrator even warns us not to believe the narration!


We are never sure who the narrator is or perhaps who the narrators are. Daisy seems to be telling her story as she witnessed it, but she could hardly have witnessed the scenes surrounding her birth nor those of her father's death. As the narration drifts in and out of first person "I" and third person "she" or "he" statements, things sometimes seem dreamlike and unreal.

The main thread of the story is always clear, but we are not sure whose viewpoint we're getting and why they are telling us these things. Is Daisy imagining what her father was thinking or is that the omniscient narrator telling us his thoughts?

We learn a lot about Daisy, her father, Cuyler Goodwill, and her husband, Barker Flett - true or untrue we cannot tell. Of the rest of the characters mentioned, we only see glimpses and fleeting thoughts as they interact with Daisy or discuss her. Fortunately the book has family trees as well as photos to sort out the friends and family members. More books should include family trees!

In an interview Carol Shields said she was interested in the interior lives of women and couldn't find novels about that so she wrote them herself. Daisy's interior life is very interesting and despite the questions I had, her life story was very enjoyable to read. I cared about the characters and their stories.

The trade magazine "Publishers Weekly" had a nice overall summary of the novel:
It is at once a playful sendup of the art of biography and a serious exploration of the essential mystery of human lives; the gist of this many-faceted story is that all biographies are only versions of the facts.

Prizes Won by "The Stone Diaries"
  • shortlisted for the Booker Prize 1993
  • Canada Governor General's Award 1994
  • National Book Critics Circle Award 1994
  • Pulitzer Prize 1995


05 June 2018

Immersed in 1930s England

Diary of a Provincial Lady
E. M. Delafield
Harper & Brothers, 1931
388 pages

I have taken 70 years to discover the delights of the Provincial Lady; pray do not make the same mistake! First and foremost, this is a funny book - not uproarious, belly-shaking-laughter kind of funny, but more a gentle-chuckle and wry-smile kind of funny. While looking for a quote to tweet out during the recent mini Persephone Readathon, I had trouble because the Provincial Lady doesn't use one-liners. Her humor is prefaced with paragraphs of setup, most well beyond Twitter's character limits. Funny stories, funny vignettes.


The book purports to be the diary of a country gentlewoman living an upper-middle-class life in 1930s England. This is not beautiful, lilting prose, but short, witty, descriptive phrases and sentences, often reminder notes to herself or philosophical questions to ponder later. Most of these asides are satirical in nature, even quite caustic at times, as she keenly and mercilessly observes her fellow man and herself.

I love that it portrays daily life in a foreign country, even if we Americans don't think of England as being particularly foreign. And I was amazed at how many words, phrases, book titles, and names of people I had to look up to find out what she was talking about! When an older book mentions domestic things like food, famous people, popular songs, and fashions, it can be difficult to follow. Many times a standard college dictionary didn't help, and I spent a lot of time Googling and searching Wikipedia for information. Ever since I was a kid, I've always had to know what every word means in a book. I'm going to create another post with my annotations to this book, so future readers can benefit from my inquisitiveness and research. I have over 70 entries in my notes!

This book proved to be very popular and she wrote 3 more diaries in the Provincial Lady series:

1. "Diary of a Provincial Lady" (1930)
2a. "The Provincial Lady Goes Further" (1932 - second book title in England)
2b. "The Provincial Lady in London" (1933 - second book title in America)
3. "The Provincial Lady in America" (1934)
4. "The Provincial Lady in Wartime" (1940)

There are books with various titles about the Provincial Lady in Russia, but according to a blog review by I Prefer Reading, Delafield wrote that book as herself, not as a diary of the Provincial Lady.

This book was very fun to read. I felt I had spent the weekend in 1930 in England with some close friends.

Further Reading:

Persephone Prize essay contest at Persephone Books
Shortlisted: Charlotte Ford, 'The Provincial Lady's Husband'

... this essay will seek to argue that a) the Provincial Lady’s husband is actually rather lovable; b) his character supports and complements the Provincial Lady’s to their mutual benefit;  and c) the Provincial Lady fully appreciates both a) and b).  It will then Go Further, and argue that Robert is in fact The Perfect Husband.

03 June 2018

Mini Persephone Readathon Wrap Up


I spent a beautiful Summer weekend reading "Diary of a Provincial Lady" by E. M. Delafield. Happy weather, happy book! Delafield wrote thinly veiled stories of her real life in the British countryside, with a very dry wit and many trenchant observations of British society.

I completed 4 of the Mini Persephone Challenges:

* Photogenic Persephones: Share a photo of your Persephone collection and/or your readathon book


Not the Persephone edition, but the best cover I found for "Diary of a Provincial Lady". It combines several Arthur Watts' illustrations from the 1st edition and colors them in.

* In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words

witty family life 1930s British village

* Quote This: Share a quote from your current read

(Query here becomes unavoidable: Does not a misplaced optimism exist, common to all mankind, leading on to false conviction that social engagements, if dated sufficiently far ahead, will never really materialise?)

The Provincial Lady is SO quotable, I'm giving you another:
(Query: Does motherhood lead to cynicism? This contrary to every convention of art, literature, or morality, but cannot altogether escape conviction that answer may be in the affirmative.)

* Persephone Pairings: Share a recipe/drink/snack that you think would pair well with a specific Persephone title
    tea and gingernuts (gingersnaps in the US)

This mini readathon was fun! I enjoyed my concentrated reading time spent in 1930s England and the interesting Tweets about everyone else's Persephone books. Thanks Jessie for setting it up. I'll review the book officially soon.