Thursday, April 19, 2018

The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym


. . . she still kept to her rules -- one did not drink sherry before the evening, just as one did not read a novel in the morning, this last being a left-over dictum of a headmistress of forty years ago.

The 1970s is kind of a dead zone for my reading -- I was pretty young back then and I hadn't really read any adult novels written in that decade except some fairly trashy mainstream books when I reached high school (Stephen King, the John Jakes historical novels, and dare I say it, some Danielle Steel!) When Simon announced that next readalong was The 1977 Club, my heart sank a little -- I was afraid I'd end up reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull (wrong year!) or something by John Le Carre. 

I was delighted to realize that one of my favorite authors, Barbara Pym, had published a novel in 1977 -- and it was sitting on my shelves unread! Eureka -- my choice was made, Quartet in Autumn.


The book -- a novella, really, at just 218 pages -- follows approximately a year in the life of four co-workers, most likely aged in their late fifties or early sixties. Letty, Marcia, Norman, and Edwin all work together at an amorphous office, where their work is never really defined. None of them are exactly friends, but what they have in common is that each of them is essentially alone. Edwin is a widower and spends a lot of time with vicar and his church; Norman lives in a bed-sit and has brother-in-law, his late sister's husband; Letty has a friend in the country, Marjorie, and they plan to retire together to Marjorie's cottage; and Marcia, a breast-cancer survivor, seems to have nobody since her cat Snowball died. The only thing she seems to look forward to is her regular check-ups. 

There isn't really much of a plot in this book, just vignettes about the characters and their interactions.  You couldn't describe the four as friends, and after Marcia and Letty retire, there's a very awkward lunch reunion for the four of them. Yet, they're somehow connected -- I suppose these four are almost like a vague sort of family. 

This is rather different than the other Pym novels I've read, in that the characters are all much older than the usual protagonists in Pym's novels, and there isn't really a romantic element plot among any of the main characters. It's rather bittersweet compared to some of the earlier novels I remember. Quartet in Autumn was the first novel Pym published since 1961 when No Fond Return of Love was published; her published dropped her after that novel and she was rejected by other publishers. She was rediscovered in 1977 after two influential writers named her "the most underrated writer of the 20th century" in the Times Literary Supplement. Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Pym was able to publish two more novels before she died in 1980. (Several of her unpublished works were published posthumously. 

I think I have all the Moyer-Bell editions of Pym's novels except this one. It's a little pricey.
I did like this book but it took a little while to warm up to the characters. The story didn't really grab me right away but the characters were really well drawn, though the plot is a little sad. It does rather make sense given the circumstances regarding Pym's publishing career, and the fact that she did die of breast cancer just three years after this book was published.

I have just one more of Pym's novels unread, A Few Green Leaves, and I also a copy of A Very Private Eye, a collection of her diaries, letters, and notebooks. I'm very happy to have completed this one for the 1977 Club. Thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for organizing it!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau: A WWII Love Triangle

I really like the cover of this paperback -- it's Table Devant Une Fenetre
(Table Under a Window) by Henri Le Sidaner.
I really cannot resist going into a used bookstore -- for the past few years I've been really disappointed by most of the newer fiction and I always find myself much more satisfied with backlist titles, especially from the mid-century. It's always really nice to scan the shelves at a used bookstore and see a green-spined Virago Modern Classic, which I would normally snatch up immediately. A few years ago I was lucky and found quite a pile of VMCs at John King Books in Detroit, and one of my finds was The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau.

Published in 1949, this is the story of a young actress named Caroline Seward and her love affair with a surgeon, Michael Knowle, from the late 1930s until after the war. Caroline has a promising future on the stage until she meets Michael, who is separated from his wife Mercedes, an artist and set designer. Caroline struggles whether to give up her career and devote her life to Michael, and the complicated relationship between Michael and Mercedes casts a shadow over their relationship, before and during the war.

I mostly liked this book though it did take some time to get into it. I thought it was going to have a lot more about Caroline's theater career, but it's really mostly about her relationship with Michael with some sub-plots about the peripheral characters, like Caroline's childhood friend June; Vera, Mercedes' former secretary who becomes obsessed with finding her former employer during the war; and the Aynsteys, American friends of Michael and Mercedes who eventually tie all the characters together. I liked all the secondary characters and thought they were really well drawn. 

The book is divided into three sections: before, during, and after the war. I think the best section by far was set during the war, when Michael is working as a military surgeon and Caroline has signed up to do her bit. I'm really fascinated by how WWII affected people still in England, much more than battle scenes and that sort of thing. I also really like that this book was written pretty close to the end of the war -- it must have been very fresh in Frankau's mind and as much as I love historical fiction, I think it would be really difficult to recreate it if you haven't experienced it.

I also think the writing in The Willow Cabin was really good. Just after I finished it I started reading a novel for my upcoming book discussion group, a fairly recent historical novel about three women in WWII. I couldn't even get through the first 50 pages because I think it was utter crap, the writing was really weak and the characters so poorly developed I put the book aside in disgust. 

Anyway, here's a bit I found really poignant and insightful: 

He could see nothing ahead for any of them, the tight little circle of temporarily-favoured persons to whom all this was important. "It is the last spring; the guillotine is coming down. And after that it won't matter who loves and who is unloved; we are for the dark." How foolish not to be happy now, when there was so little time left. (p.75)

It's short, but I really feel like it captures the essence of what people must have been feeling when it was so obvious another massive war was inevitable. 

There were several plot twists in this book that I wasn't expecting, but unfortunately the VMC edition has a massive spoiler for a big plot element in the description on the back. (If you're interested in reading this, I would advise against reading the back cover and the desciption on Goodreads). My least favorite part of the book was the aftermath of the war, when the setting shifts to America. I don't want to go into any more detail for fear of spoiling it for anyone else. 

Overall I really did like this and I've heard other good things about Frankau's novels. Apparently she was quite a prolific novelist and published more than 30 works from the end of the 1920s until her death in 1967. A Wreath for the Enemy is her best-known novel and is also a Virago Modern Classic. I'll definitely look for it after I've made some more progress on the TBR shelves. 

This is my sixth book this year for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018 -- I'm halfway through my list!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather is Beautiful and Tragic


After making up my list for the TBR Pile Challenge, I realized that quite a few of my selections were in the 500+ pages range. I was planning to read Testament of Youth in March for Women's History Month, but I'd just finished Wives and Daughters and was rather hesitant to start another 700 page behemoth right away. The answer was of course a nice short book -- Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. 

One of her later works, it's set at the turn of the century but actually written in 1935, and is her penultimate book. The story begins in the small town of Haverford, Nebraska, somewhere west of Lincoln. Young Lucy Gayheart is home for the holidays. She's 18 and is a talented pianist, and has been working in Chicago. The story begins as she's out skating with Harry Gordon, the most eligible young man in town. He fancies himself in love with Lucy, and plans on marrying her and making her his most prized possession, but unbeknown to him, Lucy has dreams and aspirations that don't include spending the rest of her life in a small town.

The moment she shut the door on the baggage man, she seemed to find herself again. Out there in Haverford she had scarcely been herself at all; she had been trying to feel and behave like someone else she no longer was; as children go on playing the old games to please their elders, after they have ceased to be children at heart.

After the holidays, Lucy returns to Chicago, where she teaches piano and finds another job as a part-time accompanist to a famous singer named Sebastian Clement. Lucy is dazzled by his talent, and eventually falls in love with him, despite a large age difference, and the fact that he is married. She's unsure if he returns her feelings, but Harry visits her from Nebraska for the Opera season and she's forced to make a decision between a secure future with Harry and her dreams of Sebastian and a musical career. 

There's a major plot twist about halfway through the story, and it appears that Lucy's dreams are shattered. The second half of the novella deals with Lucy's attempts to comes to terms with her past decisions, and with her future. 

I had expected this to be similar to her earlier book The Song of the Lark, which is about a young woman from Colorado who also moves to Chicago to study music, but they're actually quite different. It's been several years since I read it, but The Song of the Lark deals much more with a young artist dealing with a developing career and interacting with other people. I think Lucy Gayheart is much more about there personal relationships than about her career -- it's the personal aspects that drive the story, not her career aspirations. I would say they're two different possibilities of how a person's life could change. 

Some people's lives are affected by what happens to their person or their property; but for others fate is what happens to their feelings and their thoughts -- that and nothing more.


I actually enjoyed Lucy Gayheart much more than The Song of the Lark -- it's definitely one of her best works, though I wouldn't have minded if it were longer (I actually thought the final section was a bit rushed and would have liked to have seen a little more character development among some of the secondary characters). I did love all the descriptions of both Nebraska and Chicago, two places where I've lived and loved. I particularly enjoyed some of the mentions of Chicago -- there's a scene where Lucy and Harry visit the Art Institute, and Cather mentions the famous lions on the front steps, and the French Impressionists (which don't impress Harry much!). Parts of the book also reminded me a little of Ethan Frome, which is one of my all-time favorite books. 

This is my fifth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018, and I've now read all of Cather's works except the short stories and Alexander's Bridge, which is her first novel. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Top Ten Books On My Spring TBR List


After finishing the massive Wives and Daughters I'm somewhat between books at the moment. I did just start something a couple of days ago,but this seems as good a time as any to make another list. Spring break is less than two weeks away and I do plan to get a lot of reading done. Here's what I'm hoping to finish this spring:


1. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. I'm only about 50 pages in to this novella, one of Cather's last works. It's about a young musician living in Chicago which is also the setup for her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark. This one was published 20 years later so it will be interesting to compare the two.

2.  One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. Chosen randomly for me by the Classics Club Spin. I've heard wonderful things about this novella, set just after the end of WWII. Also it's blessedly short, since I have some really chunky books on this list.



3. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. On my TBR Pile Challenge list. It's about 700 pages long and I've heard it's wonderful. I've wanted to read it since 2014 when there were lots of great lists of books about WWI.

4. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym. I've only got two Pym works left before I've finished all her books. This one fits in with Simon's 1977 Club which should be sometime in April if I remember correctly!

5. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik. I don't read much current fiction but bloggers seem to love this book. On a recent trip to Paris I picked this up at Shakespeare and Company.

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens. The follow-up to One Pair of Hands, Monica Dickens' memoir of working as a nurse in WWII. Also purchased at Shakespeare and Company, they also have used books. This one was a bargain at only 6 euros.


7. Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher. I was absolutely gripped by the TV adaptation of this historical crime series, set in Berlin during the wars. It's streaming on Netflix and if you haven't seen it, you should drop everything and WATCH THIS. I'm trying really hard not to buy any more books but I broke down and ordered a copy online. I suspect I'll get hooked on the series and have to buy all of them as soon as they're translated into English.


8. The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse. Another book from the TBR Pile Challenge, it's Virago Modern Classic about a young woman who goes to Burma in the 1880s. I thought it would work nicely for Asian Pacific Heritage Month in May.


9. A Love Story by Emile Zola. It's been awhile since I read a Zola novel but Fanda at Fanda Classiclit is hosting Zoladdiction in April, in honor of Zola's birthday. I got a lovely new translation from the nice people at Oxford World's Classics so this would be a good time to read it.

10. The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. This is on my list as a possible read for the Back to the Classics Challenge (it squeaks in just under the wire as a 20th Century Classic). There's a free digital audio download on Overdrive from my library so this is a win-win!

Bloggers, have you read (or listened to) any of these? And what's on your to-read list for spring?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Wives & Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is the Ultimate Victorian Novel

I love this cover, it's a detail from a painting called Waiting by John Everett Millais.

BEST. VICTORIAN. NOVEL. EVER.

OK, I guess I've said that about other novels before -- probably about Bleak House. But this is one of my all-time favorite books -- I think I've read it three or four times in the past 10 years since I discovered it, in print and audio, and I've seen the TV adaptation multiple times. It's just wonderful. I have so many books that I want to read that I don't re-read old favorites nearly enough. This is worth making an exception.

If you're not familiar, here's the setup. Basically, it's the story of two families, the Gibsons and the Hamleys, living somewhere in the town of Hollingford in the late 1820s (it's before the Reform Act of 1832, and there's mention of a King but not Queen Victoria). Mr. Gibson, a widower with a young daughter Molly, is the local surgeon, and the Hamleys are one of the oldest families in the county, even older than the local gentry. Squire Hamley has two sons off at Cambridge and an invalid wife. The two families become closer when young Molly, aged 17, goes to stay at Hamley Hall because one of her father's medical apprentices has decided he's in love with her. Mr. Gibson realizes Molly is too old to be unchaperoned in the house with the two medical students while he's out taking care of patients, so she goes off to spend time with Mrs. Hamley. 

Molly endears herself to the Squire and the kind Mrs. Hamley, but the old-fashioned though kindly squire has no intention of either of his sons falling in love with Molly. During Molly's visit, her father spends a lot of time at the Towers, the ancestral home of the local gentry, the Cumnors. There he meets the widow Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a schoolmistress and former governess of the Cumnor family. He decides pretty quickly she'd make a suitable stepmother for Molly. 

Molly, Cynthia, and Mrs. Gibson nee Kirkpatrick from the TV miniseries

Molly is less than thrilled to acquire a stepmother but is happy to be getting a new stepsister, Cynthia, who's been off at school in France for pretty much her entire life since her father died. The new Mrs. Gibson isn't the stereotypical evil stepmother, though she is pretty self-centered and mildly annoying. However, Molly and Cynthia really and truly care for one another. 

Meanwhile, the Hamley sons have returned from Cambridge, and are much thrown together with the Gibson family. The elder son Osborne is dreamy and poetic, with a Big Secret, and his loyal brother Roger is clever and scientific. 

Molly with Roger Hamley. He's supposed to be the less-attractive brother. 

There is tragedy, there is comedy, and there are secrets. It's a really great domestic story with lots of charming characters. It's very reminiscent of Jane Austen without being a knockoff, and has the added bonus of weighing in at about 650 pages, much longer than any of Austen's novels. It's lovely to spend a good long time with these characters in their world. 

I loved all the characters, even Mrs. Gibson who often made me roll my eyes and practically throw something across the room. (I listened to parts of it on audio while driving and walking the dog and sometimes yelled out loud at her). Squire Hamley has no patience for Mrs. Gibson and is rewarded with the best line in the entire book: 


"I'm not saying she was silly, but one of us was silly, and it wasn't me."
(Yes, that's Michael Gambon [AKA Dumbledore] as the Squire).

And I haven't even talked about the miniseries, which is BRILLIANT -- so many great actors! If you've watched a British TV series in the past decade, you'll recognize nearly all the leads and much of the supporting cast as well. I actually saw the miniseries first and I've since read the book three times. It never gets old and Elizabeth Gaskell has become one of my all-time favorite Victorian novelists -- North and South is also wonderful, and Cranford is a hoot. I only wish Gaskell had lived long enough to write more books! Wives and Daughters is actually unfinished as she passed away before completing the final short chapter of the book; however, it had been serialized and she had left detailed notes with her publisher which are included, though the ending is pretty much self-explanatory. 

I'm counting this for the Re-Read a Favorite Classic category for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Effi Briest: The German Emma Bovary, But Less Interesting


I had really high hopes for this book -- a classic book, in translation, and a German classic no less! I really want to read more German books in translation (of course I don't read the language well enough to read the originals.) Sadly, there just aren't that many German books translated into English -- I guess the proliferation of American and British books just makes it that much harder to get attention from the English-reading public.

Anyway. I had heard about this book years ago and this felt like the right time, as I'm now living in Germany and Persephone Books reprinted Effi Briest last year, though they don't often publish books written by men. I'd heard it was sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. Well, to be honest, it is and it isn't. This review includes spoilers, so stop now if you don't want to know what happens.

The book begins with Effi Briest, seventeen and unmarried, still very much a schoolgirl. She's basically playing in the yard one day when she receives a proposal of marriage from a civil servant, Geert Instettan, a man more than twice her age who was once in love with her mother.  No, that's not creepy AT ALL. (Of course he was about her mother's age and obviously too young, as Madame von Briest naturally married an older man).



Anyway, she's very young and he's basically middle-aged and serious. They move off to town on the Baltic coast (which actually sounds lovely) and after giving birth to a daughter, Effi becomes bored. Naturally her head is turned by a military officer named Crampas and they have an affair, which is basically them going on rides and walks together in the dunes. Eventually, her husband is transferred to Berlin so the affair ends. Years later, Effi is visiting a spa for her health and her husband finds a bundle of letters from Crampas and the inevitable happens. Naturally it ends badly for Effi.

Somehow this book disappointed me. I suppose I was expecting it to be more like Emma Bovary, whom I found a fascinating train wreck, but this book just dragged. I don't know if it was the translation or the writing style, but it took me nearly a month to finish this book which is just over 300 pages. Effi was certainly a sympathetic character, but I really didn't get a sense of great passion for Crampas. It was all very matter-of-fact -- I was expecting more scandal or dramatic tension, I guess. Even the ending wasn't terribly dramatic. I haven't read much German literature but I do remember that the writings of Goethe caused such a sensation that young people were literally committing suicide after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther (which I did try to read a few years ago and just could not get through). 


I haven't given up on German literature yet -- I do have a copy of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks that looks interesting, though quite long. And recently I got completely hooked on the TV series Babylon Berlin which is set in 1929 -- I do love the time period between the wars, and I'm curious to learn more about the German perspective. It's based on a series of books and some of them have been translated into English, so I'll try to get my hands on a copy. (It's streaming in the U.S. on Netflix and it's really good, I highly recommend it). Can anyone recommend any other German books available in translation?

I'm counting this as my Classic By a New To Me Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas by Edith Wharton


It's been quite a while since I read anything by Edith Wharton. She's the author of some of my favorite novels, and I've read nearly all of her most popular works. When you get to the little-known works of a famous author, it's always something of a crapshoot -- are they less popular because they're simply overshadowed? Or is it because they're just not that good? My last two books by Wharton were The Glimpses of the Moon, which I loved, and Twilight Sleep, which was just okay. 

Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas includes four of Wharton's shorter works from various times in her career. I actually read these out of order, mostly because they were also available on iBooks and I read them in bits and pieces, mostly on my phone. It's kind of hard to review them all in one post, but I'll give it a go. 

Bunner Sisters is probably the most well-known of the novellas. Written in 1892 but unpublished until 1916, it's one of her few works not about upper-crust New York society. Spinster sisters Ann Eliza and Evelina are existing in near-poverty, working and living in a tiny shop where they make and sell hats, bonnets, and trimmings. Ann Eliza splurges and buys Evelina a clock for her birthday, and the two sisters both fall in love with the local clockmaker, the meek Mr. Herbert Ramy. What seems like a way out of poverty for at least one of them ends badly, of course. If you've ever read anything by Wharton you'll know her books rarely have happy endings. 


In Sanctuary, Kate Orme seems to have it all -- youth, beauty, position, and she's engaged to marry eligible bachelor Denis Peyton, who recently inherited a pot of money from his scandalous stepbrother. However, Kate learns the terrible secret behind the inheritance, and struggles to decide if she should marry someone with such a lack of character -- and if she does, will her children inherit their father's morals, or whether she her influence will be enough. This one was my least favorite. 

This cover is sort of creepy and really has nothing to do with the story.
The Touchstone is another story about a moral crisis. In this case, Stephen Glennard, a young lawyer, is in love but struggling financially. He wants to marry, but doesn't have enough to support a wife, and to keep the woman he loves from moving abroad with a rich relative, he struggles with a decision to publish some very personal letters written to him by a very popular writer who has since died. It seems like the right thing to do, but eventually he has a crisis of conscience.

Madame de Treymes is actually the shortest of the four, only about 80 pages, but I ended up reading it last. While in Paris, a wealthy American, John Durham, has reconnected with an old acquaintance, the former Fanny Frisbee, who had married a French nobleman but is now separated from him. Durham wants her to divorce her ne'er-do-well husband and marry him, but Fanny is certain his family would never permit the scandal of a divorce. Durham appeals to her sister-in-law, the eponymous Madame de Treymes, and doesn't know whether he can trust her to assist them in persuading the family to allow the divorce.

Overall, I enjoyed the novellas, but I'd forgotten that Wharton can be kind of wordy and very introspective, and her plots tend to move rather slowly. All the novellas have themes about decisions and moral crises, though Bunner Sisters seems rather the odd book out simply based on the class and financial circumstances of the subjects.

I still have three more books by Wharton unread on my shelves -- The Children, Hudson River Bracketed, and The Fruit of the Tree. I was thinking about reading one of them for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Bloggers, have you read any of them? Which do you recommend?

This is my fourth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018. Eight left to go!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Classics Club Spin #17



I've narrowed my new Classics Club list down to 20 books for the next Classics Club Spin. On Friday the Classics Club will randomly choose a number from one to twenty. The number from this list that corresponds will be one of my next reads, and I'll post about it sometime in April. Wish me luck!

Four books I really want to read: 

1. Bond Street Story by Norman Collins
2. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
3. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
4. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell


Four books I've been putting off forever:

5. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
6. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
7. Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
8. The Pumpkin-Eater by Penelope Mortimer

Four Virago Modern Classics:

9. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
10. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
11. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson
12. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley

Four by Anthony Trollope:

13. Is He Popinjoy? by Anthony Trollope
14. Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
15. Linda Tressel and Nina Balatka by Anthony Trollope
16. An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope

Four by Emile Zola:

17. La Debacle by Emile Zola
18. The Fortunes of the Rougons by Emile Zola
19. A Love Story by Emile Zola
20. Money by Emile Zola

Updated: The Classics Spin has spoken, and I've been assigned #3 One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes -- I'm so pleased! 

Bloggers, which do you recommend? And is anyone else participating in the next Spin?

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Classics Club Redux: The List


Last year I pretty much gave up on my Classics Club List -- from my original list of 75, I had six left to go which I'd been putting off forever. I'd tried reading all of them at least once and just couldn't get into them. Since I started with 75 I thought that I'd done pretty well and decided to take a break, though I had made a tentative second list.

I forgot all about it and the Classics Club, but I've been blogging a lot more lately (around the end of the year I usually get revved up again while planning the Back to the Classics Challenge). This week a lot of bloggers are signing up for the next Classics Club Spin, which is always really fun. Basically, participants pull 20 books from their list and number them, then a random number from one to twenty  is chosen, and everyone reads whichever number book corresponds. It's a really fun way to choose a book off your list and I always enjoyed it.

Well, I do love making lists, and it's always fun to have someone else choose your next read. But before I can choose a list of twenty for the spin I had to come up with another Classics Club List. Some of the titles are more obscure classics because in the past 12 years or so since I seriously started reading, I've read a lot of the major works -- I'm getting down to the less-well known titles and authors. Also, I've really stopped buying classics that I can get for free from the library or digital download. Nowadays, I usually only buy books that I can't find otherwise.

This time, I've chosen only books from my own shelves, and I didn't choose any books from the TBR Pile Challenge because I know I'm definitely going to read those -- I really want to make some progress with my owned-and-unread books and I think this will really inspire me. Without further ado:

  1. Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett
  2. East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck
  3. The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck
  4. Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather
  5. Bond Street Story by Norman Collins
  6. One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens
  7. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  8. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
  9. My American by Stella Gibbons
  10. Westwood by Stella Gibbons
  11. Living/Loving/Party Going by Henry Green
  12. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  13. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
  14. Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
  15. The Hireling by L. P. Hartley
  16. The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
  17. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  18. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  19. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamund Lehmann
  20. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson
  21. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley
  22. Whiskey Galore by Compton Mackenzie
  23. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  24. The Pumpkin-Eater by Penelope Mortimer
  25. In Confidence by Irene Nemirovsky
  26. The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky
  27. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  28. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
  29. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym
  30. Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal
  31. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
  32. Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell
  33. Is He Popinjoy? by Anthony Trollope
  34. Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
  35. Linda Tressel and Nina Balatka by Anthony Trollope
  36. An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope
  37. Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope
  38. Roughing It by Mark Twain
  39. The Children by Edith Wharton
  40. The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
  41. Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
  42. Frost in May by Antonia White
  43. Barmy in Wonderland by P. G. Wodehouse
  44. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young
  45. The Misses Mallett by E. H. Young
  46. La Debacle by Emile Zola
  47. The Fortunes of the Rougons by Emile Zola
  48. A Love Episode by Emile Zola
  49. Money by Emile Zola
  50. Beware of Pity by Stephan Zweig
Bloggers, which have you read and loved -- or hated? Should I just get rid of some of these and not waste my time? 

I'll pick out twenty of these and post my Spin list in a day or so. On Friday the Classics Club will post the number and who knows what I'll read next!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Peony by Pearl S. Buck: Not so Much About Flowers

Already a contender for Prettiest Book Cover of the Year
I'm still really trying to read as many books as possible this year from my own shelves. I made a pile of books that I could count towards the Back to the Classics Challenge, and one of them was Peony by Pearl S. Buck that I received as a Christmas gift several years ago. I really liked The Good Earth; also, I'm really enamored of all the beautiful covers of Buck's novels that were published a few years ago by Moyer-Bell. I think they're out of print now but most of them are still reasonably priced. 

Published in 1948, Peony is set approximately 100 years earlier. It's the story of a young bondwoman who was adopted/indentured from an orphanage to a Jewish merchant family living in Kaifeng. At the beginning of the story, Peony is about 17 and is in love with the only child of the household, the handsome David who has been unofficially betrothed since infancy to Leah, daughter of the rabbi.

David's mother is pushing the match but David's father Ezra, who is half-Chinese (by his late father's concubine) is less concerned. David thinks he is in love with Kuelan, whom he's never actually met but is the daughter of successful Chinese merchant. Ezra realizes this would be a strategic business move. Meanwhile, Peony has to hide her love for David, realizing he can never marry her, but she begins to manipulate the situation so that she can guarantee a place in the house as long as possible.


David is torn between pleasing his other and marrying Leah, whom he likes but doesn't love, and following his own heart and marrying Kuelan. He's also torn between his Jewish faith and continuing the family heritage, or assimilating further into the Chinese culture that has welcomed his family. There is mention of atrocities done to Jews in other lands, particularly Palestine, and there may also have been pogroms at that time period to which they are referring. Meanwhile, Peony doesn't have many choices as a bondwoman -- I'm really not sure if she ever had the ability to leave the house or if she was actual chattel. 

The best parts of Peony are the descriptions of life in China. Pearl Buck really knew her subject, but I don't think lyrical writing is really her strong point, compared to Graham Greene which was my previous read. The dialogue in particular is pretty stiff. And the character development in this book is really not great. In particular, Leah has very little character development except for being Beautiful and Good, plus some other throwaway characters and mustache-twirling villains with little or no explanation. 

However, the book has a really interesting premise -- I knew there were ethnic Muslims in China, but I didn't know about the history of the Jews. It was actually really refreshing to read about Jews who weren't being persecuted and were accepted. Overall, I think it was either too short or overly ambitious. There were a lot of unresolved storylines and characters that weren't especially developed, and the ending seemed pretty rushed -- Buck basically wrapped up years of family history (and the Jewish population of Kaifeng) in just one or two chapters at the end. I almost feel like either it should have been longer, or she should have narrowed the focus. 

The original 1948 cover. The asymmetrical hair is making my eyes twitch, but that's how it's described in the book.

Buck did base the story of the Kaifeng Jews on historical research, and my edition did have some really interesting end notes with the history. I also own East Wind, West Wind in a Moyer-Bell edition, plus a couple of her other novels in mid-century editions -- you can find them pretty cheaply at used bookstores and library sales.  I think I have Imperial Woman, The Living Reed and The Three Daughters of Madame Liang. Hopefully I'll get to one of them in May for Asian-Pacific Heritage month.

I'm counting this as my Classic with a Single-Word Title for the Back to the Classics Challenge