Friday, August 31, 2018

Readers Imbibing Peril Signup

I'm going to do Readers Imbibing Peril challenge and go for Peril the First! (Four books by Halloween.) I'm determined to read Dracula for my Classics Club list, but I suspect my other three books will be considerably less creeptastic and more like my usual mystery novel.

1.) Bram Stoker's Dracula
2.) Georgette Heyer's Footsteps In The Dark
3.) Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca
4.) Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper is on my eReader as well.

The Classics Club Fifty Question Survey

I joined the Classics Club a bit less than a year ago and this survey first appeared long before I joined. But that's no reason not to answer it now! Especially as it's generating new interest. So here we go! It will probably take me a couple of goes to get through all the questions.

1. Share a link to your club list.

Here's the list.

2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club? (We are SO CHECKING UP ON YOU! Nah. We’re just asking.) ðŸ™‚

November of 2017. I've read 7 so far (and I'm in the middle of two others). 

3. What are you currently reading?

Ooh. How many books can I put here? For the Classics Club, Romola and Jean-Christophe. I'm also in the middle of the non-fiction literary history Exhaustion by Anna Katharina Schaffner and Document 1 by François Blois for my Canadian challenge. There are a bunch of others piled up by my reading chair with bookmarks sticking out of them, but those are the ones I'm actively (?) reading.

 4. What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it?

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery. I liked it. Best of her three novels, I thought. I may yet do a blog post. My local library branch is reading her most recent book The Life of Elves for its book club.

5. What are you reading next? Why?

I'm finishing Romola! In any case. But it will be easier if I'm out of Internet range over Labor Day weekend, which is possible.

6. Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why?

Probably Silas Marner, but The Leopard and Morte d'Urban were both awfully good as well. But Silas Marner is just such a touching story. (See below.)

7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?

I certainly expected the George Eliot books to be amazing. I'd reread Middlemarch just before putting together my list and the absolute greatness of George Eliot was rolling round in the forefront of my brain. Of the remaining ones, I have very high hopes for Go Tell It On The Mountain, A Room of One's Own, and the Edith Wharton books.

8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why?

I don't feel like I've been doing this long enough to be particularly avoiding anything. But I've done two spins and I didn't put either of the really, really long ones on those lists.

9. First classic you ever read?

I thought The Secret of The Mansion was pretty classic, but if you don't count Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew, the first classic I spent my own allowance money on and then read was a volume of selected Edgar Allen Poe writings. I still have it, though the cover is held on by tape. In that book's introduction I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge was Poe's favorite poet and I bought and read a selected Coleridge, too. "It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stoppeth one of three..."

10. Toughest classic you ever read?

Would have to be pre-Classics Club and pre-blogging. When I was in grad school, a friend and I read the Iliad straight through in Greek, but my Greek was pretty good then and it didn't seem that difficult. It would now. I read Beckett's trilogy of novels--Molloy/Malone Dies/The Unnameable--and that was a struggle. It required being in an Internet-free zone with no other books available. The trilogy has some great quotes--"Try again. Fail again. Fail better."--but hoo, boy. Characters? Story? Forget it.

11. Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry?

Now it's true I'm an easy mark for tears. I don't think there's a Pixar movie I didn't cry at. (Well, maybe Cars 2.) But I was bawling (with happiness) in reading Silas Marner when Eppie chooses to stay with Silas.

I'm planning on reading Dracula soon. I'm easily scared and I'm expecting to be scared.

Frederick Douglass still had the power to make me angry.

12. Longest classic you’ve read? Longest classic left on your club list?

Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (pre-blogging) would be up there. I actually like to sink into long books. I have read War and Peace, Les Mis, and the complete Count of Monte Cristo. I put both the complete Arabian Nights and Gibbon's Decline and Fall on my Classics Club list. Maybe I'm technically insane?

13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list?

I read the Epic of Gilgamesh in translation for a class somewhere. Maybe there's something older in Chinese or Indian literature, but at that point it would be the sort of thing scholars argue about. The oldest thing on my list I've read so far is Frederick Douglass, not all that old. The oldest on the list is Plutarch's Lives

14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — or, the biography on a classic author you most want to read, if any?

I don't read a lot of literary biography, though I seem to be reading more. Years ago after reading basically all of Steinbeck, I read Jackson Benson's biography. It did enhance my understanding of Steinbeck. Hermione Lee's bio of Penelope Fitzgerald was fun, too.

15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? Why?

"All six. Every year." But if that's not your answer, I would certainly say the Odyssey, which is pretty foundational for western literature and I think a really fun read to boot. I really liked the new translation by Emily Wilson.

16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any?

These. They're the complete tragedies of Euripides in Greek, the Teubner (German) edition of 1857, edited by August Nauck. I will almost certainly never read them in this edition but when I saw them (£5 for the pair years ago) I just had to have them. 

Not my usual pattern--I generally buy books to read them. Or at least put them on the TBR pile with the intention of reading them.

17. Favorite movie adaption of a classic?

The Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson comes to mind immediately. There were a couple of great modernizations at one point: Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You.

18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.

I'm generally a little frightened to see a movie adaptation of a classic I love. My assumption is they'll ruin it.

19. Least favorite classic? Why?

Samuel Beckett's novels? (See above.) But your mileage may vary on whether those are even a classic. I've curiously never warmed up to Trollope.

20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read.

Off my list:

Malcolm Lowry
Mary Wollstonecraft
Daphne du Maurier

Other classic things:

Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji)
Mikhail Bulgakov

21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?

Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano may happen soon. I own it; he's Canadian-ish, and then because of my current obsession with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I'm interested in addiction novels.

22. Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? (This could be with the club or before it.)

Moby Dick. I think I got about a third of the way through in high school. (Don't tell Mr. K.) I tried again years later and loved it, though there are some slow parts.

23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head?

John Jasper (from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.) Guilty or no?

24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

A Belden? (See above) I was most like Mart, the science nerd with too many words. And I so wanted to be a Bob-White when I was ten. I've definitely identified with Jane Eyre and David Copperfield over the years. That whole coming up from nowhere thing. Though in fact I had parents who liked me and whom I liked.

25. Which classic character do you most wish you could be like?

Edmond Dantès? Except even after he's got everything he wants he still seems a little sad.

26. Which classic character reminds you of your best friend?

You know, I'm not sure the Other Reader has a good classic character model. Despite the fact that I use Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler for my reference. 

27. If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why?

Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress? Well, I'm not Samuel Johnson, thank goodness. But he may be right about Don Quixote. I'd read it. Most things, though, I wouldn't.

28. Favorite children’s classic?

Fox in Socks. "I can't blab such blibber blubber!" From a little later age, Robin Hood. Some of the obvious candidates, Little Women or Just-So Stories, I didn't read until I was an adult.

29. Who recommended your first classic?

Robin Hood came from my dad. I think it was in 6th grade, which would make it Mrs. Gaines, that I came across Edgar Allan Poe.

30. Whose advice do you always take when it comes to literature? (Recommends the right editions, suggests great titles, etc.)

I'll listen to pretty much anybody's recommendations, but I'm persnickety. The only person offhand I can think of who has a 100% hit rate is the cable installer from ten years ago or so who said I should read Guy Gavriel Kay. He was right.

31. Favorite memory with a classic?

I directed Euripides' Bacchae in Greek as an undergraduate. Very intense and a lot of fun.

32. Classic author you’ve read the most works by?

Pre-blogging I finished all of Dickens' novels, The Old Curiosity Shop being the last for me. Several I've read more than once. 

33. Classic author who has the most works on your club list?

There are four by George Eliot on my list. Two and a half down!

34. Classic author you own the most books by?

It would appear Dickens is the winner. Unless you count Erle Stanley Gardner as a classic.

35. Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? (Or, since many people edit their lists as they go, which titles have you added since initially posting your club list?)

After seeing Nancy's completed list, I wish I'd included some non-English literature in the original language. But I'm not adding any books now. I want the satisfaction of planting my flag and saying done! at some point. Then for that next list...

36. If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Obviously this should be an author you haven’t yet read, since you can’t do this experiment on an author you’re already familiar with. ðŸ™‚ Or, which author’s work you are familiar with might it have been fun to approach this way?

Dickens would be interesting read this way. You could even overlap the reading of the ones he overlapped in writing.

37. How many rereads are on your club list? If none, why? If some, which are you most looking forward to, or did you most enjoy?

No rereads on the list, though I do like to reread favorite classics. But I was feeling a yen to knock off books I owned and hadn't read.

38. Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish?

Yes, but never say die! After all it took me twenty years to decide Moby Dick was pretty good.

39. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving?

I tried Ulysses once and failed, but then I needed to read it for a class and started it again pretty reluctantly. That time I did finish it and decided I did actually like it. Though loving it is a little too strong.

40. Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature?

Reading, reading, reading, spins!, and reading. And a readalong if it happens!

41. Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

I definitely want to read some more James Baldwin. If I don't make them happen this year!

42. Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

I've got two super long ones on my list: the complete Arabian Nights at 4000 pages and Gibbon's Decline and Fall at about 3000. I think it's safe to say at least one of those won't be happening next year...

43. Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club?

The discussion, the cross-currents, learning about new books and new stuff about books!

44. List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs?

I just added the bloglist gadget to my blog with a bunch of my favorites. And it updates regularly. Very cool!

45. Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber?

So many! But this is a recent one I really liked.

46. If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience? If you’ve participated in more than one, what’s the very best experience? the best title you’ve completed? a fond memory? a good friend made?

Looking forward to this!

47. If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why?

Something big with lots of points for discussion. A Russian? Or maybe Middlemarch?

48. How long have you been reading classic literature?

If I've got the right moment for that Edgar Allan Poe, about 45 years. Something like that. Though I didn't start earnestly reading great literature on my own until I was in my early 20s.

49. Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc.

A couple of great books: J. F. Powers' Morte d'Urban, Silas Marner
Two bits of potted biography masquerading as a book review and a challenge update: Virgil, Mike Royko
Plus a little po-mo self-referentiality

50. Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!)

Why did it take me so long to fill out this survey my answers to the first questions are already out of date? See here. There's no answer to that!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

François Blais' Document One

"That's the beautiful thing about government grants: you don't need to produce the final product."
That's Tess, the (primary) narrator, explaining the essence of her scam in François Blais' novel Document 1. She and her roommate Jude want to take a trip from their hometown of Grand-Mère, Quebec, to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania--they've picked it for the name--but have no money. So they decide to apply for a literary grant to write a novel and then use the money for their vacation.

Their first task is to rope in a front man, and conveniently there's a mopey author in town who's so desperately in love with Tess he agrees. Their grant application goes out under the default Microsoft Word name of Document 1.

And if the book gets published? Well, it will go out under the name of that mopey author in love with Tess. Hmm...

In case the names Tess and Jude weren't enough for you, the book begins with epigraphs from Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. On the first page, Tess is quoting Lenny from Of Mice and Men. I figured the book wouldn't end well, and it doesn't, exactly, but not nearly as tragically as all that might indicate. But, well, they don't get to Bird-in-Hand.

The book is a hoot, really very funny. I assume there's some parody of the contemporary Quebec literary scene, which I know nothing about, but that doesn't matter. You still get the jokes. And Tess in particular is an engaging and even touching character.

I couldn't figure out if Blais got a grant to write this book, but it did win the City of Quebec prize for 2013. ($5000! Less than half the budget for Tess and Jude to go to Bird-in-Hand.) It comes in the middle of his writing career, the fifth of what seem to be nine novels so far, but is the first to be translated into English, just this year, by J. C. Sutcliffe for Toronto's Book*Hug. So somewhat homegrown for me. But I came across it at Michael Orthofer's blog Literary Saloon. A great resource for literature in translation.

And it has a shoutout to what I've long thought is the funniest town name in the known universe: St.-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! On my own road trip years ago, I first saw a sign pointing there.

Read for my Canadian reading challenge.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Muriel Barbery's The Life Of Elves

"You see, this is a tale, of course, but it is also the truth."
The Life of Elves (2015, 2016 for the English translation) is Muriel Barbery's third book, and her first after the enormous success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

That's always a tough place to be, and without making a very thorough search, I think the general feeling is that it was a falling off from her previous one.

But I liked it better. And I liked the previous one.

It's a story of two changeling girls, Maria raised in France, and Clara raised in Italy. They have mystical powers that need nourishing and mystical enemies that need to be kept away until they've matured enough to face them. The first of their challenges ends the first book; there's supposed to be a second involving the same characters.

I think Barbery has pretty successfully captured a folk tale atmosphere in this. It favorably reminded me of Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elfin or ballads like 'Thomas the Rhymer' and 'Tam Lin.' But at the same time she's using that atmosphere to go after her usual philosophical concerns. Now it's true there are places where the prose felt convoluted, and I assume that's there in the French. Alison Anderson, who translated both her earlier books, also translated this, as well as other authors, and she seems to me to be good at it. I can't imagine she introduced the convolutions of her own.

It is certainly more mystical and less funny than her previous books; well, that probably goes with the fairy tale territory. But the secondary characters were engaging, maybe particularly the Italian maestro, the French priest, and the drunken warrior. I'll be reading the sequel when I can.

And now I want preserved chanterelle pie! When the French family decides on a big country meal for a strategy session, that's what they serve.

Monday, August 27, 2018


"But people who employ irony with moderation, and use such occasions as are not too obvious and palpable, present an appearance of refinement."
And that's my defense. From Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, Chapter xiii, tr. by J. E. C. Welldon. I'm making my way through it--very, very slowly.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Company

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
We went to see the simulcast of the new Royal Shakespeare Production of Romeo and Juliet yesterday, and I read the play first to have the language fresh in my head before seeing it.

That's Karen Fishwick as Juliet and Bally Gill as Romeo to the left there.

I thought the production was good, but not amazing. The actors were all allowed their regional and class accents, and I thought that was fun, though it made me especially glad I'd just reread the play. Karen Fishwick, for example, is a Scot, and Bally Gill is from Coventry. There was no Oxbridge or middle Atlantic sound to any of them.

The prince Escalus was played by a woman. Having seen a female Lear (once, very good!) and several female Prosperos, swapping a woman for a man in a leadership role is no longer very surprising. I'm happy to see it, but it doesn't earn one points any longer. She was good, though.

More interesting was the casting of a woman, Charlotte Josephine, as Mercutio, the high-spirited, perpetually joking friend to Romeo. Physically I thought she was interesting in the role, very lively, but maybe a little too frenetic, and some of her lines felt swallowed.

While the leads were both very good, I didn't see anything I didn't expect there. The most interesting interpretation I thought was that of Benvolio by Josh Finan, who plays the role with more comic verve than I expect. Especially in his first scenes, the looks he gives the exuberant Romeo are a hoot.

The director, Erica Whyman, in an interview before the play reminded us that the play ends with a reconciliation, that all this tragedy unusually enough leads somewhere, which is a good point. But I wasn't convinced by her overall interpretation, which didn't sufficiently lead up to the point she seemed to want to make. And, while there are Gothic elements around the crypt at the end, she really emphasized them in this production, with ghosts of Tybalt, Mercutio, and Montague present as well as the bodies of Romeo and Juliet. It felt a little odd as a ghost story.

Ah, well. In some ways, a competent standard production of Romeo and Juliet. Apparently it's a success and it's bringing young people in to see it, so that's all to the good.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Charles Dickens' The Mystery Of Edwin Drood

Hmm. I just read and blogged about this novel less than a year ago, and that was already a reread. Maybe I'm just a bit obsessed by what happened to Edwin Drood? We'll never know, of course, and realistically it could very well be that Dickens himself hadn't made up his mind. He radically changed the ending of Great Expectations after finishing it. So then, the question is, what was Dickens likely to have decided should have happened? Or the more answerable question might be, what do I think should have happened?

In case you're not as obsessed with Edwin Drood as I am: it was Dickens' last novel and he died with it half-finished in 1870. Edwin Drood, a young orphan of some means, disappears about halfway through the pages we have. He had been engaged to be married to Rosa Bud, but just before his disappearance they broke it off. His watch and tie pin are found by the side of a river near the last place he was seen. Accident? Murder? Wilful disappearance? All are possible.

The two main suspects, if it's murder, are Neville Landless, a young half-Indian man, also an orphan, and in love with Rosa Bud; The other is John Jasper, Edwin's uncle, addicted to opium, and also in love with Rosa. Everyone is in love with Rosa in the novel.

Well, I speculated about the possible resolutions in that previous post, so no need to repeat myself here.

What particularly struck me about it on this rereading is the modern feeling of the politics. Neville is dogged by assumptions of guilt simply because of his race. Mr. Sapsea, the mayor of the town, and Mr. Honeythunder, a 'philanthropist'--it's the word used, but Dickens would completely approve of thinking of them as scare quotes--retail condemnations publicly because of his skin color and nothing else. I'm reminded of so many cases, but let's say particularly the Central Park Five.

The extent of Jasper's overall villainy remains obscure to me, but he's definitely at his most villainous in a #metoo moment of teacher-student politics and emotional blackmail. In the chapter 'Shadow on the Sun-dial', he corners the frightened Rosa; she's perfectly aware of his obsession with her; she was his student but has already fled from that. But now she will entertain his declarations of love or he'll arrange that Neville is convicted for murder, guilty or no. Rosa had to give up her music lessons earlier; now she feels she has to flee her home as well.

Maybe I'm just seeing contemporary political concerns in everything these days and reading Dickens anachronistically. That's possible. But it really doesn't feel like it.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Why. It's an author you've read and loved before. (And obsessed over?)

Back To The Classics. Reread A Favorite Classic.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Mark Athitakis' The New Midwest

Mark Athitakis used to write a book blog that I read regularly. When I saw he had written this short introduction to contemporary literature of the Midwest, I thought that would be fun, and it was.

The New Midwest, A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (to give the full subtitle is practically the review in itself) is a topic-oriented overview of what's been written in Midwestern fiction up to its publication date of 2016. He discusses earlier things, going back as far as Sherwood Anderson, but the main emphasis is on books of the last ten to twenty years.

It is short (under a hundred pages) and doesn't go into great detail on individual authors. Perhaps the most extended analysis is given to Marilynne Robinson, a worthy subject. I read books recommended in his blog back in the day, most notably Ward Just's An Unfinished Season, and I'm sure I'll be reading some of the new books I saw in this. Leon Forrest, an African-American novelist from Chicago, has moved way up in my TBR (and TBFound) lists.

Definitely interesting, if it's the sort of thing that interests you.

And that's the last of the books--Broken April, Adam Bede, The Elegance of the Hedgehog and this, together with half of George Eliot's Romola--I read at the cabin last week. The things you can do with no Internet access.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Muriel Barbery's second novel. It came out in French in 2006, won several awards, and was a huge success; it was translated into English by Alison Anderson in 2008, where it also succeeded, and led to her first novel Gourmet Rhapsody coming out in English a year later.

It's told in two alternating voices, that of Renée, the widowed concierge of a hôtel particulier, (a high-end condo as far as I can tell) and of Paloma, the twelve-year-old daughter of one of the rich residents of the hôtel. Both are preternaturally thoughtful and well-read, and both are determined to hide that fact. Renée listens to Mahler and reads Marx, but knows that no slothful, irritable concierge can be seen doing any such thing. Paloma can see no way to use her haiku-writing and her disdain; she plans to commit suicide on her next birthday.

And both do hide their intelligence and their goals and their dissatisfactions, until a rich Japanese man, Kokuro Ozu, buys a vacant floor, and sees through the both of them.

It's the voices in this that make it work. It's a funny book--but alas all too accurate--about the fact that smart people, and especially smart women, find it socially difficult to demonstrate and use in public their intelligence. Especially true, as in the case of Renée, where the class background is 'inappropriate.' Each of the two women present the events of the story (which overlap) in little mini-essays that are intelligent and thoughtful and funny.

But I do feel the plot needed some work in this. There is one, but it starts late and then rushes to a not very satisfactory conclusion. Paloma has an insufficiently justified epiphany that makes things OK again for her; Renée's fate was equally rushed and unjustified by events.

Still I found it amusing and insightful enough that I got the new one by Barbery (The Life Of Elves) from the library, where it will be the subject of the next book club meeting at my local branch.

It also fits WomenInTranslation month, which, though I hadn't planned it, I'm proud to now be part of.

Monday, August 20, 2018

George Eliot's Adam Bede

"With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader."
So begins Adam Bede, the beginning of George Eliot's career as a novelist, in 1859. There's non-fiction, translations from German, and the volume of short stories, Scenes From A Clerical Life, before this, but her career as a novelist, what we know her for now, begins here.

It's astonishingly assured for a debut.

Adam Bede is a master carpenter, working for Jonathan Burge, but destined somehow for larger things. His father's a drunk (and dies soon); his mother's clingy but solid; his younger brother Seth, whom he loves, is a bit dreamy and not nearly as hard-working as Adam himself. Adam falls in love with the beautiful Hetty Sorrel, even though everyone knows she's vain and irresponsible.

(Though one could argue about that: Hetty's irresponsibility is more commented on, including by the narrator, than it's shown; she does adequately well with the children she's set to watch, and is hard-working at the farm tasks she's assigned. Admittedly she buys earrings for herself with what she earns. Horrors!)

Other characters include the Poysers, Hetty's aunt and uncle, the tenant farmers at Hall Farm; Dinah Morris, another niece of the Poysers, who preaches at Methodist revivals; the local schoolmaster Bartle Massey, a crotchety, woman-hating bachelor; Rev. Irwine, the genial Church of England rector, and his family.  And then there's Arthur Donnithorne, the grandson of the current neighborhood squire, handsome, earnest, and completely lacking in willpower. It's a far-reaching, socially integrated novel that looks at all levels of the society where it takes place. It's like Middlemarch in that regard.

The plot has a major event; you can see it coming, partly, but its magnitude is not clear until quite late and it's shocking. If you've read it, you'll know what I mean; if not, then 'Spoilers,' as Dr. River Song might say, before refusing to explain.

I would say that, while it may be George Eliot, it is still a first novel. I read somewhere, the literary agent Janet Reid's blog, I think, that first novelists should almost always cut from the beginning and expand at the end, and really, that's true of Adam Bede as well. We get quite a long picture of local society to start, often in dialog that's in a thick dialect, and the novel's better than halfway over before the main events kick in. The main events do represent a considerable gut punch, however; and Eliot's benevolent sympathy resolves everything very satisfactorily.

With that said, it is great. If I were ranking George Eliot's novels, I'd place this fourth, I think: Middlemarch has to be first, and I'd put Silas Marner second. It's been a while since I've read The Mill On The Floss, but I'd probably rank that ahead of this, too. (After that, Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda, Romola, I think.) In any case it's a great read.

I had two thoughts in reading this, and if I were a better scholar, I'd do some homework on them, but as it is, I'll just throw them out. First, it's George Eliot, and in 1859 that's still George; who the real George Eliot was only began to break after Adam Bede was published. We all know now that George Eliot is a woman, but how would it be to read this novel thinking it was written by a man? I think that would have an enormous effect, and I think it's one that Eliot is playing with in writing this. For example, she talks at one point about speaking with her friend Adam at one point, years after the novel takes place. What we think of that conversation, it seems to me, would change if we thought that friend was a woman.


The second thing that struck me is that the adulterous couple in this is Hester (Hetty) and Arthur, just as it is in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I tried to build up an argument about what that might mean about Adam Bede, but didn't get there. Wikipedia tells me that George Eliot thought highly of The Scarlet Letter, so I'm sure it's not a coincidence, though the events in each novel are fairly different, with the similarity of the two Arthurs' temperament being the strongest likeness. But a better scholar would be reading George Eliot's letters or something.


As if reading this weren't its own reward, I read it as part of my Classics Club list and for the Karen K.'s Back To The Classics challenge.

Coming soon! Romola. I'm currently about halfway through.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Ismail Kadare's Broken April

"She looked out of the window and she thought that it would be hard to find a more suitable setting for a vision of the end of the world than these mountains."
Well, Ismail Kadare isn't winning any friends in the Albanian tourist bureau, I can tell you that.

Broken April (1982, English tr. 1990) is the story of a blood feud in northern Albania in the 1930s. The novel begins when Gjorg, goaded on by his father, kills the member of a rival family, Zef, who had killed Gjorg's own brother. It's the middle of March when the reluctant Gjorg succeeds in his revenge, and blood feuds have such elaborate rules that he knows he's safe for thirty days, but then his April is likely to be broken by his own death. This feud has gone on for seventy years with forty-four graves, half in the Berisha family and half in the Kryeqyqe family.

There was a pronunciation guide, but I still won't even try to pronounce the name Kryeqyqe... When I was a stamp-collecting child there was an Albanian couple living in the apartment below me; they were an important factor in my stamp-collecting prowess. They had (wisely?) changed their name to Harris when they emigrated to Chicago.

According to the Kanun, the ancient law governing the remote highlands of Albania,  Gjorg must travel to the castle to pay the fee for a successful blood feud killing. He is in some doubt whether he'll be able to reach the castle within the prescribed time limit for paying his fee, whether he'll even be able to find the castle. Aha, I said, Kafka! and I see from Wikipedia, I'm not the first to think that: the novel has that sort of grim humor. But Gjorg does reach the castle, and the novel does reach its end. It also presents other perspectives: after following Gjorg for a while, the novel shifts to a sophisticated couple from the capitol, intent on seeing the real folk Albania. Its her perspective on the scene I quote above. Then it shifts again to the steward of the castle, who specializes in all administrative matters related to blood feuds, before returning again to Gjorg at the end.

The novel satirizes the economics involved in paying blood feud fees; it also satirizes, less savagely, the romantic impulse that drives the urban couple to undertake what we might call poverty tourism. Kadare was still living in Albania, and the brutally repressive Enver Hoxha was still the leader of the country, so maybe he thought some of that was necessary. My edition has no introduction or notes beyond that pronunciation guide, so I don't know, but it may be that those things didn't help or only helped so far as they kept him alive. I believe a lot of Kadare's fiction was first published in French and didn't appear in Albania until after the fall of the Communist regime.

My edition also doesn't name the translator, which I find very bad form.

This is the second novel I've read by Kadare, one of those authors who get talked about for the Nobel Prize, should they ever award it again. The other was The File on H. I found them both good, but I liked The File on H better. Kadare sees Albania as a place where classical mythology lives on, which is bound to appeal to me as an ex-classicist. This one, with family blood feuds, alludes to Aeschylus and the Oresteia; the H of The File on H is Homer, who may or may not still exist in Albania.

European Reading Challenge. Albania.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, written by himself

Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds--faithfully relying on the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts--and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause,--I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS. Lynn, Mass, April 28, 1847.
I think we may say he succeeded.

I was expecting the book to be important, and damning, and even at this late date to be both shocking and painful, and it was all of those things.

What I wasn't expecting was how good a read it is. The quote above, the very end of the book, while affecting, is not really representative of the prose style, which is much more straightforward and powerful. Douglass is judicious in his use of detail, his pacing is superb. The Other Reader asked, wasn't Douglass' prose flowery and Victorian, and the answer is no. (The prose of William Lloyd Garrison, who wrote the contemporaneous introduction, very much is, and is larded with exclamation marks.) Douglass names names, and provides places and dates (except that of his own birth, which he doesn't know) and those people he names and those places he sees are seen and known by us as well. It is short, at 150 pages, and swift-moving.

His sentiments are occasionally Victorian. Overseers are condemned nearly as much for their cursing as for their whips. Reading this, I imagine Douglass was sympathetic to the temperance cause.

This edition comes with a useful introduction by the historian Benjamin Quarles. This is the first of three biographies Douglass wrote; this one was a best-seller by the standards of the time; he wrote a second, longer one on the eve of the Civil War, which also sold well; his third, written after the war was over, met indifference; his publishers told him nobody cared anymore. Alas, they were probably right.

I took an undergraduate class on African-American literature with Ntozake Shange (Rice University, class of '83) and this has been on my TBR pile since then. Houston to Chicago to California to Toronto--it's traveled a bit. It was one of the supplemental books for the course. (Really!) At the time I read most of the supplemental books as well as all the required ones, but this one escaped. Paul Laurence Dunbar's Poetry, Jean Toomer's Cane, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Arna Bontemps' Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright's Native Son, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Clarence Major's Reflex and Bone Structure, maybe a couple of others, all good as I remember. And it's clear I should have read this one, too.

But thanks to the mighty (though possibly puerile) power of the Classics Club spin, I now have.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Carol Shields' Jane Austen

"I write only for fame and without any view of pecuniary emolument."
Jane Austen wrote that in a letter to her sister at the age of twenty, years before any of her novels were published, and Carol Shields assumes she was being ironic. Knowing Jane Austen as we do, Carol Shields is likely right. But sometimes things work out, and deserved merit turns ironic self-deprecation into truth.

Except she got a little emolument, too.

Certainly there is fame. Carol Shields cites a half dozen studies she consulted plus a half dozen earlier biographies in a brief bibliographic afterword. She also read the complete letters, plus all the surviving scraps of Jane Austen's juvenilia, aborted and/or uncompleted projects. All that was available. And that's just the briefest measure of Jane Austen's fame.

I haven't read any other biographies of Jane Austen, just an introduction or three. So I can't compare.  I think the large one by Claire Tomalin is recommended. This is short (under 200 pages) but I thought it was good. Certainly it told me a number of fascinating things about Jane Austen's life I hadn't known.

But I think the interesting thing about this is the interaction between two great writers, the idea of a writing life, and how that reflects back on Carol Shields. I don't think of Shields as particularly an Austenian writer; The Stone Diaries, for example, is brilliant, but more capacious than an Austen novel, and almost unbearably sad. (Though that said, Carol Shields thinks Austen more capacious, more involved with the world, than she's usually given credit for.) But it seems Shields was an Austen fan from the get-go; well, that shows good taste, doesn't it? It makes me want to read/reread Carol Shields with Jane Austen in mind.

The book is also very interesting on the elements of a writing life. For example:
The ability to sustain long works of fiction is at least partially dependent on establishing a delicate balance between solitude and interaction. Too much human noise during the writing of a novel distracts from the cleanliness of its overarching plan. Too little social interruption, on the other hand, distracts a writer's sense of reality and allows feeling to 'prey' on the consciousness...
     For every writer the degree of required social involvement or distance must be differently gauged, but novelists who take refuge in isolated log cabins tend to be a romantic minority, or perhaps a myth. Most novelists, knowing that ongoing work is fed by ongoing life, prize their telephones, their correspondence, and their daily rubbing up against family and friends.
Now, it's true, Carol Shields was writing before Twitter.

There is also a sadder reflection back on Carol Shields' life. Shields is quite sure that it was breast cancer Jane Austen died of, a diagnosis that's possible but remains uncertain. This is late in Shields' career, and I don't know if she had yet received the diagnosis of the breast cancer that was to kill her, or only feared it, because it occurred in her family as it seemed to do in Jane Austen's. But it was coming and Shields could easily be alive and writing today, but, sadly, is not.

Read for, as if one really needed another reason to read something so good:

AustenInAugust, now at Brona's Books.

And the 12th Annual Canadian Book challenge. Carol Shields was born in Chicago (well, Oak Park) but lived her adult life in Canada. Now who do I know like that?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Michael Innes' The New Sonia Wayward

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
Michael Innes' The New Sonia Wayward (1960) could be read as demonstrating that old saw as being completely true.

Colonel Ffoliot Petticate (what a handle!) is sailing off the coast of England with his wife who is generally not known as Mrs. Ffoliot Petticate. No, she's Sonia Wayward, author of intellectually unsatisfying (at least to Petticate) but lucrative romances. And then she dies.

Her death is innocent enough. Colonel Petticate is an ex-Army doctor, and while he's no longer practicing, he's quite sure she's dead. An aneurysm or an embolism, he doesn't have the instruments and he's not sure about the cause. Oh, well. Their marriage was no longer anything more than friendly, and he hadn't really forgiven her for referring to him as 'quaint' when talking to one of her girlfriends.

But for reasons that are not particularly justified, he tips her body into the ocean and proceeds to try to appear as if his wife has just gone away. It will be convenient: he can write the next Sonia Wayward novel (the 'new Sonia Wayward') and keep cashing the checks.

Umm. Complications ensue...

Did his wife abandon him? (Embarrassing.) Did he kill his wife? (Criminal.) Who wrote the new Sonia Wayward? (Fraudulent.) There are some funny bits and Innes can be a successful farceur.

However, I just don't like it when, in a novel, suspense is generated because an otherwise smart person does something stupid, and this one is full of it. We're meant to like Petticate and think him of above average intelligence. Except he keeps failing to show it.

This one is helped along at the end with a couple of amusing, if improbable, coincidences, but the final solution was visible a mile away, I'm afraid. So, for me at least, not one of the better Michael Innes mysteries.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Silver. Who. In/Retired From The Armed Services.

Which completes the Silver Age part of my challenge. I've got a couple to go on the Gold Age card.

The old saw, which I thought of when I'd barely started the novel, is actually Sir Walter Scott. I didn't know that...