27 February 2019

One Night in a Thousand

Aladdin: A New Translation
Yasmine Seale
Liveright Publishing, 2019
118 pages

Most of us probably think that we know the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp, which has long been a staple of children's storybooks. Had I seen "Aladdin" propped up on a shelf at a bookstore or my library, I'd have thought "oh, that charming story from my childhood" and passed right on by. But luckily I read a Publishers Weekly interview with Yasmine Seale, the woman who has newly translated the story, and was intrigued.


"Aladdin" is a short fairytale novella, readable as a long winter afternoon's escape. There is more to the tale than I recalled, and it's set in China not the Middle East. Good things happen and bad, there's a poor boy named Aladdin, an evil magician, a magic lamp with a jinni, and a beautiful princess who cleverly saves the day. The translation's prose flows nicely and I enjoyed reading "Aladdin".

There is a fascinating introduction by Paulo Lemos Horta, a scholar of world literature and cross-cultural collaborations. How the story of Aladdin was included in the original French collection "The Arabian Nights" is nearly as interesting as the story itself. "Aladdin" is a fun read and I recommend it for the fairytale lover in each of us!

Further Reading

Yasmine Seale Has Retranslated "Aladdin"

21 February 2019

A Slice of Life in 1929 Berlin

Grand Hotel
Vicki Baum
New York Review of Books, 2016
originally pub. 1929
270 pages

The novel "Grand Hotel" was a best-seller in its original 1929 German version and the American film version won an Oscar for Best Film of 1933. Recently the New York Review of Books has returned it to print as part of their Classics series.


The setting is Berlin after the Great War and just before the Great Depression. In the Grand Hotel, Berlin's fanciest and most expensive place to stay, we discover the stories of some of the guests passing through. A famous ballerina at the end of her career, a badly maimed and despondent veteran, two factory employees from a small town - a bullying manager and his underling who is dying from an unnamed medical condition, a glamorous Baron, a young woman trying to make her way in the world. They meet and mingle, group and regroup for excursions into the city, and tell each other stories from their lives.

Between the omniscient narrator and the conversations we overhear, each of the characters comes to life. It's not a very long book, but somehow Ms. Baum lets us know the essence of each of them, their fears and desires, their good and bad sides. I though she described the characters so well that I knew them and sympathized with them.

The hotel staff are also minor characters, attending to the guests, and assuring that the Grand Hotel is kept functioning smoothly. Berlin itself is almost a character, as its modern attractions and strong nightlife are woven into the stories.

"Grand Hotel" was one of the first works of art to use the conceit of a hotel as a framework for the stories of the people passing through it. In the 90 years since its publication, there have been many films, books, and plays with this structure. The hotel guests come for a while and then move on as others take their place. The motif of the big revolving door in the front lobby emphasizes this ceaseless flow of people. We learn their stories and then they pass out. There is no conclusion, no tying up of loose ends.

The Oscar-winning movie is perhaps better known that the book. It was packed with stars: Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery. This the movie where Garbo, as the exhausted ballerina, utters the line that followed her ever after: "I want to be alone."  A Fun Fact according to Wikipedia: "To date, it is the only film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture without being nominated in any other category."

I recommend reading the book, whether or not you see or have seen the movie. The writing is excellent, as is the translation. The guests of the Grand Hotel are going to stay with me for a long time.

This is my entry for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge, in the Classic in Translation category.

Further Reading

Wikipedia entry on the film, which includes a link to a short trailer

18 February 2019

Village Culture Wars

Queen Lucia
E. F. Benson
Harper & Row, 1977
originally published in 1920
318 pages

"Queen Lucia" is the first of six comic novels that E. F. Benson set in village England between the two World Wars. Kirkus Reviews called them "delicious satires of the pretensions and foibles of provincial middle-class life in Britain". The series is sometimes referred to as Mapp and Lucia, after the two main female characters, although Mapp is not in this book and Lucia is not in the third book, "Miss Mapp".


Lucia's real name is Mrs. Emmeline Lucas. However one of her pretensions is that she can speak Italian, so her friends call her "Lucia, pronounced, of course, in the Italian mode--La Lucia, the wife of Lucas." Conversations with Lucia are always peppered with Italian words and phrases.

Lucia is the cultural queen of her village, Riseholme, and she always takes it upon herself to promote literature, music, and art among her subjects, holding frequent garden parties and musical salons. Tact is not her long suit and she constantly badgers and bullies everyone into doing what she wants.

In this book Olga, a famous singer, buys a home in Riseholme to escape the pressures of London life. She is very sweet and genuinely cultured, quite in contrast to Lucia. Thus a rivalry builds up, in Lucia's mind at least, and farcical cultural wars break out.

Although Benson was a serious English novelist, biographer, memoirist, archaeologist, and short story writer, he is now probably best remembered for the Mapp and Lucia comedies. The writing style befits the story he is telling: bombast, exaggeration, mock horror. One of my favorite lines in it is:
The thought even of good food always calmed Robert's savage breast; it blew upon him as the wind on an Aeolian harp hung in the trees, evoking faint sweet sounds.
At least two "Mapp and Lucia" TV series have been created in the UK, and are sometimes shown on our PBS stations. I saw both Geraldine McEwan and Anna Chancellor as Lucia and enjoyed both series, which is why I bought this book. To be honest, I am not sure I'd like it as much without that background. Yes, Lucia was pushy in the TV version, but the actresses somehow smoothed out her rough spots a bit. Maybe the nasty side of her didn't overwhelm the nicer side in a live performance. She's just not very nice at all in the book, so I am a bit disappointed in it. But the goings on in Riseholme are High Farce and quite funny. I do plan on reading the other five eventually.

This is my entry for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge, in the Classic Comedy Book category.

10 February 2019

A Rainy Day to See the Queen

Paul Gallico
Doubleday, 1962
138 pages

This is quite simply a charming book, little more than a long short story, and readable all in one afternoon. Gallico, author of the Mrs. 'Arris novels, just has a way with story telling that is calm and gracious, as well as gentle with his characters. He's not sarcastic or mean or patronizing towards them.


"Coronation" is the tale of a working class family, the Claggs from northern England, and their day trip to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. By family vote Will and Violet, their young children Gwendoline and Johnny, and Granny Bonner all agreed to forgo their annual two-week seaside holiday and spend the money on this once-in-a-lifetime event. And it cost 2 month's salary for Will!

Almost everything goes disastrously wrong during the long, rainy day in London. Each of the Claggs sees their fondest wish for the day collapse, while Granny, the crotchety pessimist, sees hers fulfilled. Of course this is a gentle story and towards the very end dreams are salvaged and good memories made.

I like the way Gallico paints his characters for us. We don't know everything about them but we do understand their viewpoints and longings on this day. And thus all their reactions to the troubles are believable and made me quite sad. Their attitude towards the new queen are also interesting for those of us across the pond. After a long war and the continuing days of rationing, she was hope and a new beginning.

Further Reading

My reviews of 2 of the 4 Mrs. 'Arris books by Paul Gallico:

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Moscow

08 February 2019

A Maiden, a Widow and a Wife

Can You Forgive Her?
Anthony Trollope
Penguin, 1986
1st Edition: London, Chapman and Hall, 1864-5. 2 vol.
848 pages, including 39 pp introduction and 17 pp notes

"Can You Forgive Her?" is the first novel in Anthony Trollope's sextet known as the Palliser novels. Despite being quite long at almost 800 pages, I enjoyed reading this book. To me it never seemed to drag on, as I was always very interested in the characters and what was happening to them. However it did take a few chapters to get used to the "dear reader" writing style where the omniscient narrator comments on the events that they are describing, sometimes at length.


There was one long scene about fox hunting which didn't add much to the development of the characters or the plots. Later I learned that Trollope was crazy about fox hunting and participated in it as often as he could, despite being overweight and unfit for the sport. He even placed a surrogate fox-hunting writer in the scene. I found it an interesting but nonessential little story island within the book.

Because there are three main stories being told simultaneously, there are a lot of characters to keep track of plus several settings in and out of London. I will confess to having made a family tree for the Vavasor family that bridges the three stories, which helped until I became more familiar with everyone. Wikipedia has a list of characters in the Palliser series, but there might be spoilers in there such as who marries whom and resultant children.

Written and set in the 1860s, the interconnected stories concern three women and their choices in life and men. In chapter 11 the central character, a single young woman named Alice Vavasor, asks "What should a woman do with her life?" Respectable women could not have careers, which left them to either marry and live conventionally or remain spinsters. Of course the issue was complicated by money or lack thereof. A further issue in Alice's mind was whether to choose a man with ambitions in the world, and be devoted to helping in his worthy cause, or to choose a man without ambitions and be devoted to home and hearth. She agonizes over this choice for most of the 800 pages, jilting both men at some point, and she is the one the title asks us to forgive.

Trollope has given us a range of upper-class women to think about. Alice Vavasor, 24, single, with a modest income. Lady Glencora, 20ish, married, fabulously wealthy. Arabella Vavasor Greenow, 40-something widow, with a large income. They all are deciding between two suitors, in each case between a nice guy and a bad boy. So this attraction some women have for the bad boy is nothing new! Another interesting parallel with modern day romance is reflected in this quote from Alice:

[she] had begged him to treat her simply as a friend. 'In spite of everything, I hope that we may always be friends, - dear friends' she said.

The three stories contrast in many ways including the personalities of the women. Alice is rather serious and a bit grave, looking for meaning in her life. Glencora is frivolous and gay, and wants romance. Arabella is wise and witty, in search of companionship; she gives the book quite humorous interludes that provide a break from the more serious concerns of Alice. Some critics have panned Arabella's inclusion in the book, but I think she is my favorite character of all.

I knew practically nothing about Anthony Trollope or his novel "Can You Forgive Her?" when I began reading it at the whim of the Classic Club's Spin #19, the chunkster challenge. But I thoroughly enjoyed it and have started the next in the series, "Phineas Finn".


Wikipedia has a list of characters

The Trollope Society
"The Trollope Society exists, with a world-wide membership, to promote and publish the works of Anthony Trollope, to provide a forum for the exploration of all aspects of his life, and to encourage the reading and enjoyment of his fiction for future generations." Plot summaries and character biographies are online for all his works, and many Trollope quotes.

A Maiden, a Widow and a Wife
Title of a 1956 painting by Max Ernst