31 January 2020

Book Beginning: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell


Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

There are some fields near Manchester, well known to the inhabitants as 'Green Heys Fields', through which runs a public footpath to a little village about two miles distant. In spite of these fields being flan and low, nay, in spite of the want of wood (the great and usual recommendation of level tracts of land), there is a charm about them which strikes even the inhabitant of a mountains district, who sees and feels the effect of contrast in these common-place but thoroughly rural fields, with the busy, bustling manufacturing town he left but half an hour ago.

I don't know anything about this story, but have seen it on lists of classic books. Wikipedia tells me: "The story is set in the English city of Manchester between 1839 and 1842, and deals with the difficulties faced by the Victorian working class." One thing I can see is that I'm going to have to concentrate when reading this because of the long, involved sentences so common in Victorian tomes.

26 January 2020

HRH Takes a Break

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella
Alan Bennett
Picador, 2008
120 pp.

Mrs Queen Takes the Train
William Kuhn
Harper, 2012
374 pp.

For a lighter look at the British Monarchy, I recommend these two delightful books! Both have Queen Elizabeth II as the main character, although in highly imaginative tales with no basis in real life. In fact, HRH literally escapes that real life in each one.

In Bennett's novella, the Queen becomes "The Uncommon Reader" after she chases her runaway corgis around the back of Buckingham Palace and comes upon the travelling library or what we in the US call a bookmobile. Never having done much pleasure reading herself but wanting to be polite, she selects a book with a familiar author's name, Ivy Compton-Burnett. When the librarian tells her Ivy is not a popular author, she muses "Why, I wonder? I made her a dame."

The Queen also meets another travelling library patron, Norman, a young palace kitchen worker who loves reading. She makes him a page and then becomes an avid reader with Norman as her guide. In a series of funny events that are both political and literary satire, her reading upsets the Palace routines and her government. I won't spoil the fun of reading the book, but it is very charming.

The second book, "Mrs Queen Takes the Train", I read several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. Reading "The Uncommon Reader" reminded me of it, however I can't really summarize the plot, so here's the publisher's blurb:

"An absolute delight of a debut novel by William Kuhn--author of Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books--Mrs Queen Takes the Train wittily imagines the kerfuffle that transpires when a bored Queen Elizabeth strolls out of the palace in search of a little fun, leaving behind a desperate team of courtiers who must find the missing Windsor before a national scandal erupts. Reminiscent of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, this lively, wonderfully inventive romp takes readers into the mind of the grand matriarch of Britain's Royal Family, bringing us an endearing runaway Queen Elizabeth on the town--and leading us behind the Buckingham Palace walls and into the upstairs/downstairs spaces of England's monarchy."

Both of these books are fun, light reading for a long winter day or even a day at the beach!

24 January 2020

Book Beginning: Passing by Nella Larsen

Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.
It was the last letter in Irene Redfield's little pile of morning mail. After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemed out of place and alien.

This 1929 novel is set in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, in the 1920s and follows themes then current in the Harlem Renaissance. It's a short novella paired with another Larsen novel, "Passing", in my book. I'm looking forward to learning about what the back cover calls "the social world of the black bourgeoisie".

20 January 2020

Growing Out of Bachelorhood

Bachelor's Bounty
Grace S. Richmond
A. L. Burt Co, 1932
306 pages

I bought this book at a used bookstore because it was by a woman author in the 1930s. As a regular reader of Scott's Furrowed Middlebrow blog, I am intrigued by reading novels by female authors between WWI and WWII. It's an interesting time in history as many parts of everyday life had recently changed or were just about to change. So these novels show us the way things were at that time.

Our titular bachelor (confirmed) is Scott Farrington, a New York City native with enough money to live the high life without working: drinking to excess throughout Prohibition, partying, carousing, travelling first class on ocean liners. In his thirties he was hospitalized for months with a serious illness and almost lost his eyesight.

As the story opens, Scott is moving to the country for a year on his doctor's orders, to dry out and calm his nerves. He settles in a small Connecticut hamlet in an old rundown house on the river, planning on writing a play. His next door neighbors are a 45-year old invalid and his 24 year old daughter-caretaker. Unlike the rest of the country folk, Jeremiah and Barbara Keane are well-educated, thoughtful, and very engaging people.

Soon his life gets complicated when Caroline, the glamorous widow of his best friend, abruptly decides to go off to Egypt and leave her 6-year-old son with Scott. An interesting new neighbor, a small and gossipy hamlet, a small boy who must be accounted for, and various people from his New York City social set flitting in and out of his house set the stage for the drama. Not to give away the story, but in the end Scott realized he has grown up a lot, plus there's a happy ending for him.

As for the title, it doesn't refer to Scott having several women in his life as I first thought. Somewhere he muses about the phrase "bachelor's bounty" and says it means that as a bachelor he is committed to a life of giving presents to all his married friends' children. I can't find that quote now, of course.

Last Page

Despite rather mediocre writing, I enjoyed the book. After a few chapters it suddenly seemed like the script for a 1930s movie. I saw Cary Grant in the lead, Audrey Hepburn as the ingénue next door, maybe John Barrymore as her dad, Jean Harlow as Caroline. It really should have been made into film back then.

Grace S. Richmond wrote 27 novels between 1905 and 1936, some of which my library has, so I might try out another one. I'd like to see if she makes other independent women out to be heroines. This book would not be mistaken for feminist literature, but the sensible, intelligent woman is shown as much more desirable than the flighty one who trades on her looks and is a drama queen.

The is my entry in the Classic by a Woman category for the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge  and it's also part of my reading for the 2020 Mount TBR Challenge.

17 January 2020

Book Beginning: The Mountains of Paris by David Oates

Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

By the time I reached the cemetery on its bluff south of town, the fog had disappeared and the beginnings of sunrise were lighting up the horizon. I had spent all night walking, praying, and crying,

I found this memoir last November when it was featured on the Rose City Reader's Teaser Tuesday meme. Gilion, who lives in Portland, often features Oregon authors and publishers on her blog and "The Mountains of Paris: How Awe and Wonder Rewrote My Life" is published by the Oregon State University Press. I'm not really sure what to expect, but I love Paris so I think it will interest me.

What I've Been Reading Lately

Reading books is usually easy; reviewing them is often hard. For instance, I recently finished "Babbitt" by Sinclair Lewis (1922). Now for my dilemma: what can I possibly say that has not been said over and over in the last 98 years? Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930 and wrote many other notable novels suck as "Main Street" (1920) and "Arrowsmith" (1925). So what's new to say?

Another problem I have found with reviewing books is that I can read them a lot faster than I seem to be able to write about them. Since part of my reason for starting a book blog was to keep track of my reading and any thoughts about it, I feel bad about not reviewing everything. Earlier I found a solution for novellas and short essay books when I began my Short Reads Short Reviews series. But longer works have puzzled me.

Enter Quick Lit, a monthly meme on the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. The creator is Anne Bogel, who explains that Quick Lit is where "we share short and sweet reviews of what we’ve been reading lately on the 15th of the month". So today I'm joining Quick Lit for four of my recent reads.

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Signet Classics, 1963

I'm pretty sure I had to read this in high school, but that fact is the only memory of the book I have. Well, that was over 50 years ago. Overall, I enjoyed reading "Babbitt". Published in 1920, it describes the world of my grandparents, one living in small town Wisconsin, the other in Buffalo, New York. The story satirizes the business culture and boosterism of American small towns, showing us a man, George F. Babbitt, who is having what I would call a mid-life crisis. Bored with his wife and kids, tired of his job as a real estate salesman, George tries out some changes in his life, but they don't really help him and eventually he goes back to being good old George F. Babbitt. The afterward, published in 1960, seems to make a lot more of this book than I do today, 60 years later. Our business culture is very different, and the small towns I've lived in don't go in for the sort of boosterism written about by Lewis. But as a picture of American history, it is enlightening. I especially liked his use of phonetic spelling to indicate the dialect being spoken.

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
St. Martin's Press, 1980

This short novella won the 1980 Guardian Prize for Fiction and was nominated for the Booker Prize. It tells a story about a young shell-shocked World War I veteran trying to sort himself out after the war. Tom Birkin has been employed to uncover a medieval mural in an old Yorkshire church. It's a nostalgic tale of a nearly broken man recovering during an idyllic summer in rural post-WWI England. Another interesting theme is the artistic restoration and how Tom deciphers the life of the anonymous medieval painter. Although only 128 pages, the story sticks with me and I want to read it again soon.

I've owned this book for quite a while, so now it's part of my 2020 Mount TBR Challenge.

Linguistics, Why It Matters by Geoffrey Pullum
Polity, 2018

Words, reading, language, and foreign languages are all things that have intrigued me for most of my life. So I naturally gravitated towards linguistics, although it has taken me a while to get a handle on what linguistics is. This short introduction is well written and easy to read, not stodgy and "academic". The publisher's description is better than any I can come up with:
Language is the medium in which we humans compose our thoughts, explain our thinking, construct our arguments, and create works of literature. Without language, societies as complex as ours could not exist.

Geoffrey Pullum offers a stimulating introduction to the many ways in which linguistics, as the scientific study of language, matters. With its close relationships to psychology, education, philosophy, and computer science, the subject has a compelling human story to tell about the ways in which different societies see and describe the world, and its far-reaching applications range from law to medicine and from developmental psychology to artificial intelligence.

The Devil's Cloth by Michel Pastoureau
Columbia University Press, 2001

Subtitled "A History of Stripes & Striped Fabric", this book immediately caught my eye. My friends were gobsmacked when I began telling them about it and teased me about the odd topics that I choose to investigate. But really, did YOU realize that in 1254 the Pope and the brothers of the Carmelite Order began a dispute over the monks striped robes? The dispute involved several Popes and papal edicts and lasted until 1287, when the Carmelites capitulated.

The author is an authority on medieval heraldry and Western symbols at the Sorbonne in France. He noticed that in old images only the marginalized people wore stripes. Digging deeper into laws, customs, and regulations during the middle ages, he found that striped clothing or accessories were prescribed for divers groups in various jurisdictions: jugglers, clowns, prostitutes, serfs, bastards, the condemned, hangmen, lepers, cripples, heretics. A fascinating short cultural history!

So there you have my thoughts on my latest books. I think I'll stick with this Quick Lit meme. It lets me do short reviews and perhaps pique your interest in my choices.

10 January 2020

Book Beginning: Bachelor's Bounty by Grace S. Richmond

Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

At a window facing the north side of the little old Derby house, a hundred feet away, Barbara Keane was eagerly gazing out. A man was standing at the sagging gateway in front of the neighboring house.

I found this book at a used book store and bought it because it had an intriguing title and was by a woman author in the 1930s. As a reader of Scott's Furrowed Middlebrow blog I am intrigued by finding novels by lesser-known women authors from before WWII. Plus this one has a nicely printed cover from back in the day when books might have a paper cover but also had nicely designed images on the coverboard itself. One can easily and inexpensively indulge one's whims in a used bookstore!

I am hoping to enjoy this novel because I need a 50+ year old classic by a woman for the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge.

08 January 2020

Joining 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

Huzzah! Karen at her KarensBooksAndChocolate blog is once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge in 2020! And I am jumping right in because it helps me actually plan and read books that I already own. It was the very first book challenge I ever found, and my favorite.

Read 1 book from each of the 12 given categories in 2020, review them online, and link back to Karen's blog. I'm going to list my picks and some alternates now. However you are allowed to change them around or read entirely different books, as long as you straighten it all out by year's end. These are all residents of my bookshelves, so I plan on sticking to the list and reducing my TBR lists somewhat.

Here goes!

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
    Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain (1869)

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1970. All books in this category must have been published at least 50 years ago.
    The Wife: Kristin Lavransdatter, book 2, Sigrid Unset (1921)
    A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh (1934)

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
    Come My Beloved, Pearl S. Buck (1953)
    Bachelor's Bounty, Grace S Richmond (1932)

4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language. You may read the book in your native language, or its original language (or a third language for all you polyglots). Modern translations are acceptable, as long as the book was originally published at least 50 years ago. Books in translation are acceptable in all other categories as well.
    The Wife: Kristin Lavransdatter, book 2, Sigrid Unset (1921)
    Persian Letters, Charles de Secondat (1721)

5. Classic by a Person of Color. Any classic work by a non-white author.
    Quicksand & Passing, Nella Larsen (1928, 1929)

6. A Genre Classic. Any classic novel that falls into a genre category -- fantasy, science fiction, Western, romance, crime, horror, etc.
    The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins (1868)

7. Classic with a Person's Name in the Title. First name, last name or both. Examples include Ethan Frome; Emma; Madam Bovary; Anna Karenina; Daniel Deronda; David Copperfield, etc.
    Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell (1848)
    Richard Walden's Wife, Eleanor Mercein Kelly (1950)
    Eugenie Grandet, HonorĂ© de Balzac (1833)

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. Examples include Notre Dame de Paris; Mansfield Park; East of Eden; The Canterbury Tales; Death on the Nile; etc.
    Miguel Street, V.S. Naipaul (1959)
    Persian Letters, Charles de Secondat (1721)

9. Classic with Nature in the Title. A classic with any element of nature in the title (not including animals). Examples include The Magic Mountain; The Grapes of Wrath; The Jungle; A High Wind in Jamaica; Gone With the Wind; Under the Volcano; etc.
    The Reef, Edith Wharton (1912)
    The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence (1915)

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. Examples include Sense and Sensibility; Wives and Daughters; The Brothers Karamazov; Fathers and Sons; The Good Earth; Howards End; and The Makioka Sisters.
    The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence (1915)
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)
    Richard Walden's Wife, Eleanor Mercein Kelly (1950)

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. Now is the time to give it another try.
    Phineas Finn, Anthony Trollope (1867)
    A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, (1859)

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.
    A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, (1859)

04 January 2020

Book Beginning: A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr


Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

When the train stopped I stumbled out, nudging and kicking the kitbag before me. Back down the platform someone was calling despairingly, 'Oxgodby ... Oxgodby.'

I came across this small novel by chance in a $1 bin at a charity book sale. Seeing that it was nominated for the Booker Prize and won the 1980 Guardian Prize for Fiction, I bought it. It tells a story about a World War I veteran trying to sort himself out after the war.