Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement by Anthony Powell

So, a couple of months ago I signed up for the most recent Classics Club Spin, in which a random number is assigned to choose your next Classics Club read. I only had seven books on the list, so I thought it was a win-win. My selection was A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell. I was really looking forward to it, but sadly, it did not end up being the book I hoped.

First, I should point out that this is an omnibus, the first three volumes of a 12-volume cycle of short novels originally published in the early 1950s. Each volume is about 250 pages long. As it's such a long work, I started it in October, and I still haven't gotten much more than halfway through this book. However, I did write down some thoughts as I was reading, so I'll try to at least comment on my progress. 

The first volume, A Question of Upbringing, is the story of four young men at prep school. The narrator, Jenkins, tells us all about his two friends, Stringham and Templer (apparently in prep school no one is ever referred to by his first name; I only figured out Jenkins' first name was Nicholas because it's on the back of the book) and another slightly less privileged boy named Widmerpool, who appears to be somewhat tormented because he is of a slightly lower class -- his father works for the railways, ye gads! 

Basically, it's the mildly interesting antics of some incredibly privileged and entitled rich white boys. Jenkins doesn't seem too bad, but his friends are pretty much jerks. There's one episode in particular when they're cutting class and decide to divert attention by playing a nasty trick on a headmaster called La Bas. All the women in this novel are merely there to serve the men as mothers, sisters, or potential girlfriends. 

It was mildly interesting, though I didn't care much for any of the characters. Is this meant to be a satire about the future leaders of England? The (slightly) less-privileged Widmerpool seemed the best of the bunch so far, but I was somewhat underwhelmed. It was a pretty easy read and I finished it in less than a week, so I thought I would zoom through it. Alas, I hit a snag at the second volume. 

Volume II, A Buyer's Market takes place after the boys have left prep school, and quite frankly, it was a struggle. Much the action takes place over one night at a series of large parties, where Jenkins runs into a lot of his old school friends. I just found the whole thing tiresome, all these privileged young men who all seemed so entitled. None of the women in this part are well-developed characters, as they're just love interests or for the amusement of the men. There's also a reference to an African-American that is really offensive. I realize this book was written in the 1950s and is set in the 1930s, but based on the current political climate, I found it really distasteful.

I thought the second book sort of stalled near the middle. I generally avoid reading large omnibus editions as I find them very unwieldy (plus this one was numbered with the original page numbers, so it was difficult to see how far I'd got. It also didn't help that I didn't read it for long stretches and I lost track of the narrative thread and began to get some of the names mixed up, and there are a lot of minor characters introduced at large parties. I just really wasn't that interested in the characters any more, they seemed so spoiled. Maybe this is just the wrong book at the wrong time and I should give it another chance. Many people have commented how they loved this book but it's just leaving me cold and I may abandon it altogether.

Bloggers, have any of you actually finished this book, much less the entire series? Is it worth trying again later or should I just add it to the donation pile? Do you think there's such a thing as the wrong book for the wrong time?

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Visit to Antwerp, Belgium

Last weekend the whole family had an extra day off. We decided to take advantage of it (and my international driver's license) and take a little road trip to Antwerp. We chose Belgium because we wanted to visit a new country and it was only a four-hour drive away. It would be too far for a day trip, but it's a fairly small city so there was just enough to see in two nights without being overwhelmed by choices. 

The photo above is the Grote Markt Square at night. You can see the beautiful baroque architecture of the guildhalls and the statue of Brabo on the left. It's really beautiful and it was only a short walk from our hotel.

Our hotel was in the center of the oldest part of town, on the Grote Plaats. That's the Cathedral of Our Lady, which dates from the 1300s. 

There are beautiful sculptural details on the buildings everywhere in the old town. 

A lot of the old buildings have these little stair-step facades. I don't know what they're called but they have them in Germany and the Netherlands also. Some of the buildings also had gilded statues on top as well. 

Some of the buildings are incredibly narrow, like the white one in the middle here, also in Grote Platz. There are also lots of tiny narrow alleys and winding side streets which reminded me a little bit of Venice, but without the canals. 

This building is much newer and it has a really beautiful art deco facade. 

I loved this door knocker that looks like a little dragon. This was right on the main square. 

The Het Steen, the old city fortress on the waterfront and the oldest building in Antwerp. That's a statue of the giant Lange Wapper in the foreground, lower left. 

There are lots of statues all over Antwerp. Here's one of the city's most famous resident, the artist Pieter Paul Rubens who lived and worked in there in the early 1600s and was a very successful artist  His house is beautifully preserved, right in the middle of the city. I'm not a huge fan of that art period but it was very interesting to see the historical context. The house also has art by Rubens and his contemporaries, including his student Jan Van Eyck who also became very famous.

You can visit Ruben's house though I didn't take any photos inside (too much artwork, I was afraid to ask). There's a beautiful garden courtyard in back which is probably stunning in the spring. I took this photo of the back of the house from the courtyard. If you enlarge the photo you can see the amazing detail. 

We found a nice bookstore right next to the Rubenshuis Museum. They had a nice selection of used books in English and I picked up a few bargains (more on that in another post!) I loved this sculpture just inside the front door. 

There are lots of bars and restaurants in the old town, but my favorite was this combination bar and bookshop! I passed by in the morning before it was open and didn't have time to go back, but I think it's great. I peeked inside and it looks like there were some shelves of used books for sale and a very laid-back place to hang out, read, and have a drink. 

Of course I had to have an authentic Belgian waffle! This one was covered in Nutella. 

Even the McDonald's was in a beautiful old Baroque building (no, I didn't eat there). And that's a chocolate shop right next door -- there were at least four chocolate shops in the mile-long walk from the old town center to the train station. (Also plenty of beer if you prefer it). 

The interior of the beautiful train station -- it reminded me a little of NewYork's Grand Central, but much smaller. And there's a park with a zoo on the other side! 

I loved Antwerp -- the people were lovely, nice shops and restaurants, and plenty to do and see if you're only there for a few days. I would definitely go back and I want to see more of Belgium including Bruges and Brussels. 

And I still haven't written my post about all the books I've bought so far in Europe! But that's another post. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

I'm getting near the end of the Back to the Classics Challenge and I'm much farther behind than I planned. The other day I was looking for a good short book and I decided it was time to read something in translation. It had been more than two years since I read anything by Emile Zola so I chose The Conquest of Plassans -- partly because it was short; partly because it was French; and partly because I loved the cover (and I've actually seen the original painting from that edition, The Orange Trees by Gustave Caillebotte. It's at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston).

So. Set in the provincial town of Plassans in Provence, this is the story of Abbe Faujus, a mysterious clergyman who arrives in town with his mother and rents rooms from the Mouret family. Monsieur Francois Mouret is related to the Maquarts, and his wife, Marthe, was a Rougon. There are a lot of gossipy characters with nothing much to do other than speculate about the lives of their neighbors. Somehow Abbe Faujus manages to say very little about himself and yet others start talking to him and spill all kinds of secrets.

Eventually Faujus is able to gain the trust of the townspeople and local church hierarchy. He begins to claw his way to the top politically and socially and gain power over many of the locals, some of whom don't appreciate his influence. In particular, Francois Mouret becomes jealous and suspicious regarding the influence Faujus has over his wife Marthe, who becomes incredibly pious and obsessed with religion. 

Meanwhile, Faujus shady sister Olympe and her ne'er-do-well husband also arrive in town and threaten to expose all kinds of family secrets. They ingratiate themselves in the Mouret household which doesn't bode well. This being a Zola novel, a lot of these characters are basically train wrecks. 

The Conquest of Plassans is the fourth in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, and the eleventh of the series I've read so far. Normally I tend to read series books in order, but when I started reading Zola about five years ago, some of the earliest books in the series weren't available in good English translations. (Luckily, Oxford World's Classics has been publishing excellent translations, like the one  I read). I'd heard that most of the books are really stand-alone novels that are loosely linked.

I'd already read the second and third novels, which are set in Paris, but this novel is set in Plassans, which is also the setting of the very first novel in the series. There are a lot of references to events from the first book especially in the endnotes. If you don't want any spoilers for the first novel, I would definitely recommend reading it before you read this one -- I was really regretting not having read The Fortunes of the Rougons first, especially since my library in Texas owned a copy. But buying a copy of the first book from Amazon didn't seem practical since the mail takes longer now that I'm overseas.

This book was OK but it won't rank with my favorites in the Rougon-Macquart series. I think some of his later books are really better. This one felt like it was kind of all over the place plot-wise. There's a whole sub-plot about political intrigues that basically went over my head, and I don't know if I just wasn't paying close enough attention, or if I should have done more research about the Second Empire, but either way I found it confusing. In general, I thought the drama centered around the families was the strongest part of the book, but I tend to enjoy stories about domestic life.  I also didn't like the way most of the female characters were portrayed. To be fair, the male characters were also awful, and Zola is a product of his time, but a couple of the women's portrayals were pretty sexist and made me really uncomfortable. 

I think in a way I put off reading this book because my last experience with Zola was not great -- a lot of people love Nana, but I really disliked it and it kind of put me off Zola for a while. I'd read ten of his books and I think I was worried that I'd read all the good ones already and the rest would be disappointing. Maybe there's a reason that some of Zola's novels don't have many good English translations. And in general, is it better to read an author's best work first, or should you save it for last? Bloggers, what do you think? 

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Top Ten Books To Read If Your Book Group Likes Classics

I don't write that many Top Ten Tuesday posts but I couldn't resist this one -- some of my happiest reading experiences have been with book groups and I've always found book groups to be the best ways to find kindred spirits. I've been in many book groups and it's always fun to throw in a classic every once in awhile. I've been pleasantly surprised by classics that I thought I would absolutely hate.

I actually couldn't narrow it down to ten, so there are two bonus choices. In no particular order:

1. Germinal by Emile Zola. By far, one of the classics that has had the greatest impact upon me as a reader. I'd read a couple of books by Zola but Amanda from The Zen Leaf suggested our real-life  classics book group read Germinal and I understood what all the fuss was about. It's amazing.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Even though true crime really creeps me out, the writing is just masterful.

3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. This is short, but powerful, and it speaks to so many women. Some of it is in dialect but it's a really easy (and short) read.

4. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I think I've read this with three different book groups, and it's been a hit every time. Set in China between the wars, the themes about family dynamics are universal.

5. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham. Another book set in China, but very different from The Good Earth.  Kitty Fane is the spoiled, self-centered wife of a doctor working in 1920s Hong Kong, and after her husband realizes she's been unfaithful, he takes her to the Chinese countryside so he can treat a cholera outbreak. It's tragic and beautiful, and one of Maugham's beat (also a great movie adaptation).

6. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. I finally finished this a couple of months ago and I so wish I could discuss it with a book group! Young and idealistic Carol Kennicott moves from Minneapolis to a small Minnesota town and thinks she can uplift and elevate the locals.

7. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain. Not so much crime noir as you'd think, this is the story of a really twisted relationship between a working-class mother trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps to impress her ungrateful daughter. They put the fun in dysfunction! I chose it for a book group simply because the library had enough copies and it one of the group's top reads of the year, I can't stop recommending it.

8 & 9. Ethan Frome or House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome is shorter but House of Mirth has Lily Bart, one of literature's most tragic heroine. They have totally different settings but both of them are about the futility of loving the wrong person.

10. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I'd never had any desire to read this but it was for a book group. I was blown away by the beautiful writing and themes of this book about a group of misfits living in a boarding house in a small Southern town. This would be a great choice for a book group that's already discussed To Kill a Mockingbird.

11. West with the Night by Beryl Markham. An amazing memoir by an aviatrix raised in Africa, she was a contemporary of Isak Denisen, Denys Finch-Hatton, and Ernest Hemingway. The writing is just beautiful. There's also a beautiful illustrated edition with lovely photos.

12. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I was nearly done with the list and I realized how tragic most of them are! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has sad elements, but it's a beautiful and uplifting book. I didn't read it until I was grown up and I am so sorry I waited!

And I can't believed I left out Steinbeck, Dickens, and Hardy! If I don't stop now the list will be twice as long. Bloggers, which classics would you recommend for book groups? Please let me know in the comments.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Nonfiction November

I've really gotten into reading nonfiction so I'm always looking for an excuse to blog about it! I looked back at last year's post for Nonfiction November and I've actually finished a couple of the books I planned on reading (though I didn't actually blog about them). I already do have two nonfiction books that I've been reading in bits in pieces, so hopefully I'll finish them in November:

Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace by Virginia Nicholson. I always love reading about the war on the home front. I've barely started this one so I hope to get back to it soon and really make a dent. I loved Nicholson's book Singled Out which I read a few years ago for the TBR Pile Challenge. 

In Morocco by Edith Wharton. I do love travel writing and Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorite writers. I'd never read any of her nonfiction before but this is available for a free e-book download so I've had it on my phone for awhile. I started reading it the other day while on line in the post office and it's very good. I've always dreamed of visiting Morocco so this should be a win-win. I only wish there were images of her travels! 

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. This is the November selection for a book group I recently joined at my library so this fits in well with my fall reading plans! I really want to read this one because I have not finished the last two book selections for the group -- I fear I may get kicked out if I don't finish the next one!

Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich by Alison Owings. I found this on the the shelves of my library over a month ago and haven't touched it. Our library doesn't have a huge selection but there's a lot of books about WWII. This would be a really nice contrast to Nicholson's book about the British home front.

The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley. There are few things I love more than a great murder mystery, and the English do it so well. Sounds perfect for reading on a chilly November evening. 

Of course I have lots more nonfiction books on the TBR shelves (and my TBR list!) but if I get all five of these read in the next month I'll be really pleased with myself. 

Bloggers, anyone else reading nonfiction in November? What are you reading? And do you recommend any of these? Please let me know in the comments!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The reason I really started reading classics about ten years ago was because I realized there were so many authors I'd never read -- I managed to graduate from high school without ever reading anything by Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway! (Though in my defense, I did read War and Peace.) One of the few classics I did read in college was Jane Eyre, which I absolutely loved. It's also one of those books I turn to for comfort during hard times. This summer I had a tough move from Texas to Germany, and Jane Eyre was there for me when I needed something familiar.

I'm sure most everyone knows the basic story, but without spoilers, here's the setup: orphaned Jane Eyre lives with her horrible aunt and cousins until they send her off to boarding school, which also starts out horribly, but gets better. Eventually, she becomes a governess for the ward of mysterious Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. She falls in love with him (naturally) but things are not as they seem.

It had been several years since I'd read Jane Eyre, and I still loved it this time around, but there were parts of it that I didn't like as well as in my youth. I still love Jane, but I found myself much more critical of Rochester and his behavior -- he was really manipulative and dishonest and some of the things he did to Jane were pretty unforgivable. Of course there are amazing coincidences, which are present in many Victorian novels so I feel as though that's to be expected. I did find parts of the story dragged, and there's a sub-plot about another possible romance for Jane that made me want to throw the book across the room.

I first read this book as part of a literature class my first semester in college, and it's been so long that I hardly remember what all the metaphors were. I realize the book must have been ground-breaking for its time regarding the portrayal of women in Victorian times, and that Jane is a symbol of empowerment, but some of the symbolism is a little over the top for me.  And I'm sure I find it less romantic than I did years ago. I suppose it's inevitable that books affect you in different ways once you get older. 

If you've read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, it's pretty obvious that she was influenced by Jane Eyre (though apparently she claims she wasn't; if anyone has evidence one way or the other, please let me know in the comments.) I've read Rebecca many, many times and it's one of my all-time favorites. I'm sure this may cause outrage but I honestly think I actually prefer Rebecca! In fact, it might be time for another re-read since it's October and I always want to read mysterious Gothic literature this time of year. 

Bloggers, do you prefer Jane Eyre or Rebecca? And how do you feel when you re-read books you loved when you were younger? Do they stand the test of time? 

I'm counting this as my Classic Re-Read from School for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Only three books left to go!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Back to the Classics 2016: Challenge Wrap-Up Post

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 1966 (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!

    Tuesday, October 18, 2016

    Back to the Classics Challenge Check-In

    How is everyone doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge? This is just a quick reminder, there are about 10 weeks left of the year to finish the challenge (I can't believe it's almost over!) I've finished nine of the twelve categories and posted eight reviews so far, so I need to buckle down and finish up! Remember, you only have to have read six classics to qualify, and they can crossover with other challenges you may have signed up for (just not within this challenge). 

    Also, I wanted to let everyone know that I'll be posting a page where you can link your Wrap-Up Posts. Remember, you need to write a short post with links to all your reviews -- if I can't find all your reviews, I won't be able to enter you into the drawing! You don't have to read books from all 12 categories -- a minimum of six books and you'll be entered! 

    And if anyone is wondering, yes, I will be hosting the challenge again in 2017! I have some fun new categories that I'm very excited about and I hope everyone will like them! 

    Has anyone finished the challenge yet? Which books did you like so far? And is everyone still interested in the challenge for 2017?

    Saturday, October 15, 2016

    The 1947 Club: Sisters By a River by Barbara Comyns

    In honor of The 1947 Club I bought not one, not two, but three books published in 1947. I hope to complete all three of them this week, but let's start with Sisters By a River by Barbara Comyns.
    Sisters By A River is a semi-autobiographical story narrated by the middle of the sisters growing in a rather odd household. They live in a country house near the River Avon, in the early part of the century, I'm guessing between the wars though it never really specifies. Their father is quite a lot older than their mother, who married him quite young and then went deaf when the girls are fairly young. There are a succession of servants and governesses, but overall these children seem to run quite wild.

    It's not so much a story as a series of vignettes about their lives as seen through the eyes of a child, with all the misunderstandings and misspellings you'd expect if she was telling you her life stories in bits and pieces. Many of the tales are just a couple of pages long, and some of them start out as amusing stories but wind up finishing with a sentence that's quite dark and sometimes unnerving. I couldn't figure out the point of the book until after I'd finished it and went back to read the introduction, which I normally leave until last for fear of spoilers. It all made sense when it explained that this is based on her own life; hence, the lack of plot. It also mentioned that Comyns was a terrible speller in real life (obviously due to her sketchy education) and the publisher left that in and even added to it to make it seem more childlike. 

    Sisters by a River is Comyns' first novel, but it's the fourth of hers I've read so far. I think it's safe to say her novels could be described as quirky.  All of her books are quite short, and some of them have surreal elements. I think I've read all of them simply based on recommendations from other bloggers, mostly Simon of Stuck in a Book and Thomas from Hogglestock. So far my favorites by Comyns were Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Skin Chairs. I've also read The Vet's Daughter which is definitely surreal, but I didn't like it nearly as much as the others since it has a much darker tone.

    With the exception of The Skin Chairs, those books are all still in print, but it's not difficult to find Comyns' other books online as some f them were published by Virago. . She wrote eleven books altogether and I'm definitely hoping to read more of them, though it might take a little searching.

    Bloggers, have any of you read anything by Barbara Comyns? Which do you recommend? And are you enjoying The 1947 Club? 

    Wednesday, October 5, 2016

    Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

    On my recent visit to London, I was fortunate enough to visit a whole slew of bookstores. I saw this brand-new edition of an NYRB Classic: Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum. It ticked off a lot of boxes for me:
    • Nice cover
    • Set in a hotel -- so lots of characters thrown together 
    • Woman writer
    • Translated into English -- I'm always trying to widen my literary perspective
    • Set in Germany
    • Between the wars -- one of my favorite time periods

    So, basically, this was a no-brainer -- I had to buy it. It took a couple of chapters to get into it, but once I got started it was great. Set in 1929, it's the story of a different guests at the posh Grand Hotel in Berlin: the aging ballerina Grusinskaya, who is worried that she's losing her appeal; the sexy playboy Baron von Gaigern; the tragic Dr. Otterschlag, whose face was destroyed by a bomb during the Great War; Herrr Preysing, the director of a family firm who's desperate to secure a manufacturing bid; and the meek clerk Kringelein, who's worked for thanklessly for years for Preysing's firm. He recently had a terminal medical diagnosis and has decided to spend his last few weeks enjoying life. Some of the characters have a slight connection, like Preysing and Kringelein, but after a few days in the same hotel, their lives interconnect and are changed forever.  

    I really enjoyed this book. I love how Baum intersected all the characters' lives, and I thought the plot was great ending well done. I do think the strength of this book was the character development. I do love any book that has a variety of characters -- I really love books set on trains and sea voyages; I think it started with my love for Murder on the Orient Express. In this book I was concerned at how many characters she was going to introduce, but it was easy to keep them all straight. I do wish there had been a better ratio of female to male characters (there's also a beautiful young stenographer who shows up about halfway through the book) but Baum made a point with both of the women about the limited choices they had during the time period. 

    I also found the writing to be very insightful. The whole book is full of great quotes that I kept marking with little scraps of paper as I read. Here's one of my favorites:

    Then the doors closed throughout the hotel. Everyone locked himself in behind double doors and each was left alone with himself and his secrets.

    And here's Dr. Otterschlag using hotel as a metaphor for life:

    The whole hotel is only a rotten pub. It is exactly the same with the whole of life. . . . You arrive, stay for awhile, and go on again. Passing through. Isn't that it? . . . and what do you do in life? A hundred doors along one corridor and nobody knows a thing about his next-door neighbors. 

    Originally published in German as Menschen im Hotel, this was an international best-seller and was adapted as a stage play and an Oscar winning movie in 1932, starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford -- it's the source of the famous Garbo line "I want to be alone." I've never seen it but it's available on Netflix so it's at the top of my DVD queue.

    Greta Garbo and John Barrymore. She just wants to be left alone .
    Vicki Baum wrote about 50 books altogether, some in German, some in English after she left Europe during WWII. As an Austrian Jew, her books were banned by the Nazis, so I'm counting this as my Banned or Censored Classic Book for the Back to the Classics Challenge