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The-1938-ClubSimon and Kaggsy started a Club where bloggers review books published in the same year during the same week. I read Pablo Neruda’s 20 Love Poems and a Desperate Love Song for the 1924 Club last year but then life happened and I never posted anything. This time around I read Pomfret Towers for the 1938 Club.

I made the HUGE mistake of reading Invitation to Waltz (1932) right after Pomfret Towers. They’re both from the same period, both deal with a party at a big English country house, both follow shy girls maneuvering their way through a crowd of Characters. In my mind they’ve almost completely merged, so I had to really concentrate to write this post :S

pomfretIf you enjoy the likes of Dorothy Whipple, Barbara Pym or event P.G. Woodhouse you’ll like Thirkell. Her social criticism comes less from sharp wit than outright comedy (often of errors). Her characters are a bit exaggerated but never really cartoonish: the self-centered artist, the middle-age writer of very successful formulaic romances, the young social butterfly, the snooty butler, the crusty Lord of the house, his kind but depressed wife. There’s dancing, shooting parties and changing for dinner, so Downtown Abbey and Gosford Park fans will feel right at home. It’s also set in Barsetshire, the county created by Trollope. (Doesn’t it give you a comfy feeling just thinking about it?)

On the whole, I don’t think Thirkell worries too much about realism. She set out to produce a fun, light book that probably had her chuckle to herself while writing it, especially during her jabs at the publishing industry. It was predictable, full of happily-ever-after endings and a pleasure to read.

I was about to write that for a 30s book there’s almost no reference to the past war or hints of the one to come, but then realized something: the whole plot is triggered because the son and heir of the Pomfret Towers aristocrat is killed during the war. This is why his wife is depressed and mostly away from home (she  returned temporarily so the weekend party is in her honor), it’s why the moms are trying to get their daughters to cross the path of the distant-cousin-cum-heir, and why the cousin worries about the pressure of that’s to come and attempts to educate himself on the ways of a country gentleman.

So in a way that must have been the reality of 1938: the war can be a distant memory, but it changed everything and still has very clear impacts on the present.

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Other thoughts: Shelf Love, Iris, Books & More, Desperate Reader, (yours?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ExcellentWomenWhenever I think about escapist fiction, fantasy is always the first genre to come to mind, but lately I’ve come to realize that my ultimate comfort reads might be Persephone-style books: mid-20th century stories about women, where at first glance nothing much seems to happen.

Mildred Lathbury is a 30-something single woman living in London in the 1950s. Between church affairs and a part-time job at a genteel women’s support association she leads a quiet and contented life. The novel starts when the flat below Mildred’s is rented by an exotic couple, so Excellent Women is sort of a gentle version of the stranger-walks-into-town plot.

Mildred is the personification of the “excellent woman”: capable, nice, practical, dependable, part of the background until someone needs a favor (cooking a piece of meat, instructing movers, organizing a jumble sale, writing notes to estranged husbands). Pym is fantastic at kindly exposing the quirks of these excellent women as well as those who take advantage of them.

I really loved Mildred, mostly because, against all odds, she’s not naive and has an acute understanding of her social standing. Together with her wit, this makes for a sarcastic and self-deprecatory internal commentary that’s great to read. She’s also (internally, at least) proud of her slightly drab and genteel independence. Ultimately, Mildred is someone I’d love to be friends with and someone I’d likely be if I’d been born 60 years earlier.

‘Now, Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’

I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

Also, it is a truth universally known that an excellent women must be in want of a husband. Everyone assumes Mildred’s in love with every unmarried men in her vicinity, especially the vicar, and some of the funnier scenes happen when he gets engaged and Mildred is comforted as if she missed her final chance at married and a happy life.

Mild spoilers ahead

Reflecting back, the ending prevents Excellent Women from being a Happy Novel. It’s charming, no doubt, but in some ways sad. There is humor in Mildred, and fierce independence, but also fatalism. For a moment I though she’d have a happy ending with Everard because I let myself imagine that he really liked her (was the meeting at the church really just a coincidence?). I was ready to describe Excellent Women as a gentle love story.

But then that final dinner happens, and Mildred doesn’t leave in a burst of righteous indignation. And I realize that Pym isn’t that sort of author. There will be no miraculous make-over, no over-heels-in-love knight in shinny armor, the austerity of daily life continues and her “excellent-womaness” persists. If they eventually get married (as a follow book of Pym suggests) Mildred will likely just become a married excellent woman.

End spoilers

It’s one of the best books of the year so far, so if you like quiet stories with thoughtful, rich characterization, you won’t go wrong with this one.

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Other thoughts: Vulpes Libris, RA for All, Meet Me in the Library, Hogglestock,  A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, Lakeside Musing, Lizzy’s Literary Life, The Indextrious Reader, Booklust, Shelf Love, Desperate Reader, Book Snob, Girl With Her head in a Book (yours?)

Atticus force

Read for nomadreader’s Read-along. Didn’t do much “along”, but at least managed the reading part!

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird almost 10 years ago, on pre-blogging times. I remember turning to my then boyfriend and say “This is a perfect book.” I was completely awed by it.

I know there’s not a lot I can say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, so just some quick thoughts for posterity:

This time around it didn’t feel as flawless, but I found new depths. It especially struck me how the idea of empathy (or perhaps of empathy as a way to critical thinking?) is so omnipresent.

The book starts with Atticus telling Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view (…) until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” and ends with Scout really internalizing this idea, as she looks out on Maycomb from Boo Radley’s house:

“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

And in between those two moments hard lessons need to be learned (so hard that many adults in Scout’s life never get there) and beliefs challenged. Atticus demands this empathy from his kids and Lee demands it from us for every single character, from Dill and his mysterious life in Mobile to Mayella’s pretty flowers, from Dolphus Raymond’s Coca-Cola to Maycomb in general, that apparently throws Atticus under the bus. It’s brilliant how we’re brought along Scout’s journey and at the same time are challenged ourselves. For instance, I was ready to completely dislike Miss Caroline and nasty Mrs. Dubose, no clemency.

Growing up is hard, and race and class are some of the hardest things to deal with. I continue to be awed by the way Lee shows us Scout’s mind opening up and struggle against both the status quo and any challenges to it. Reminds me of the time when I began to travel and read more widely and started questioning the glorious Portuguese history I’d learned since early childhood.

Favorite characters the first time around: Atticus and Calpurnia. Favorite characters now: Calpurnia and Miss Maudie. Miss Maudie is amazing and I hope to see a lot more of her on the upcoming Go Set a Watchman.

XmasThere are moments when you just need a bit of Louisa May Alcott and it’s likely they will come during the Holidays. This little book will hit just the spot: short, gentle, heartwarming.

It starts off with the wonderful Christmas chapter of Little Women and then offers six other short-stories full of kindness, charity and poor people gratifyingly thankful for the kindness of others.

Nineteenth-century stories like these helped build the Christmas traditions that we still follow today and just for that they were a pleasure to read. It also helps that the book and the rest of the Penguin Christmas Classics collection are lovely (at least I couldn’t resist them!).

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imageedit_4_6917589873Book read for
Advent with Alcott

7126I’ve given it a solid 4 stars, right there between the 5-star adventure fun and the 3-star characterization (especially female) and depth.

So on the plus side we have the Count, the perfect embodiment of the avenging angel with unlimited resources. We also have the plot, that messy, over-the-top fest, masterfully convoluted and deliciously dramatic. It’s full of clichés but I was enthralled for most of the book, especially during the jail scenes.

Despite its length the story flew, except for the bandit and shepherdess chapters, which I skipped after reading the summary on Wikipedia. Mostly, I just sat back and enjoyed every mad idea that popped into Dumas’ head come to life: buried newborns are saved! Beautiful Greek Princesses become a slave! A murderess aristocrat! A paraplegic grandfather saves the day using his eyes! The least romantic proposal in literary history!

On the more meh side, character development was sacrificed in making sure the twisty plot came together, and Dumas broke no ground in the way he portrayed his women. They were flat-out flat. The only one that stood out was Eugénie, who wasn’t given enough page time to become someone real. Lovely Haydée was nerve grating. Beautiful Haydée of the “transparent hands” and the Stockholm Syndrome. Did I mentioned she was beautiful? And a Princess? I’m not surprised most adaptations don’t include her…

il_570xN.191707470Wants it!

In general the characters’ emotions and actions existed for dramatic effect and to support the over-the-top plot. This created a distance between me and them, which was only slightly broken by Abbé Faria, Eugénie and Mr. Nortier.

Almost at the end of the long book the Count starts to realize that his obsession with revenge went too far. Instead of exploring these feelings, Dumas quickly exonerates the Count through religion and leaves the reader (at least this one) hanging there waiting for a little more development on a topic that’s central to a 1000+ page novel. Maybe Dumas wanted to do it, but hey, writing about morals and ethics is less fun. It had been a long book, maybe Dumas just wanted to get it over with.

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Other thoughts: Becky’s Book Reviews, Shelf Love, The Englishist, Wuthering Expectations, Fleur in her World, In Spring it is the dawn, Avid Reader’s MusingsCapricious Reader, Reading Thru The Night, Tif Talks Books (yours?)

(Fear not, spoilers are duly marked, although this post is mostly for people who’ve read the book)

93575Oh book – How did I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Gaudy Night is a mystery novel that’s unapologetically intellectual and I love it when authors let their more brainy side show. It can be read in different ways, but I think it’s mostly about the struggle between the heart and mind, about academia vs the ‘real world’, the risks of being an intelligent woman, about mistakes, growth, self-knowledge and love. It’s that rarest of books that makes you think hard and yet still feel light.

It may sound like the story is all about these Important Topics (which it may be), but they definitely fit naturally within the overall mystery. Also, there’s a good dose of smart humor, dynamic writing and it all goes nicely with the Oxford background.

It was especially interesting to see the characters’ different positions on the central topic of women balancing their personal and professional/intellectual lives. Sayers doesn’t pretend that all women are in favour of equal rights, haughty ice-queens, or repressed virgin spinsters. She gives us a great (and refreshing) variety of female characters don’t come out as caricatures: the single middle-aged don fully committed to her career, the working mom who loves her career and is trying to balance it all, the working mom that thinks it shouldn’t be a woman’s role to provide for her family, the student whose biggest ambition is a happy marriage.

(Women getting stuck between professional achievement and relationships: 80 years after Gaudy Night is written, it still resonates… sigh)

On another note, don’t think me sadistic, but it was a pleasure to see Harriet struggling with her past and her growing affection for Peter Wimsey. I mean, it’s always a pleasure to see a well written character arc, but this one goes to my top list. Because of the events in Strong Poison, Harriet feels she tried to live following her heart and lost part of her identity (and almost her life) because of it. Five years later, she’s learning to trust her emotions again, but in a way that does not completely eclipses her rational and analytic mind.

Just a small note on Peter: in Gaudy Night he’s particularly flawless – but in a way I find impossible to fault! I’m convinced Sayers ruined Mary Sues for me because I’ll never be able to turn my nose up at them again.

Two final comments – SPOILERS AHEAD!

I wish it was Harriet who identified the criminal. That being said I don’t think that the way the solution came about is either demeaning to Harriet or out of character for either her or Peter.

I also wish the criminal had been one of the dons. The occasional classism (or intellectual snobbery?) made me a bit uncomfortable. And I’m still horrified that they locked the “scouts” at night, I don’t care how much it’s for their own safety!

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Other thoughts: things mean a lot, Vulpes Libris, Notes from the North, The Indextrious ReaderStella MatutinaSteph & Tony Investigate!Jenny’s Books (yours?)

adventwithalcott

On Twitter: 

It’s that time of the year again: after the great fun of Advent with Austen and Advent with Atwood, we* were lucky enough to find another author with a name starting with A that we all wanted to read!

If you want to join us, just pick up anything by or about Luisa May Alcott you’ve been saving for a cold day (books, movies, TV series and documentaries), and post about it during Advent (30 Nov – 24 Dec). If there’s interest, we might even organize a Twitter watch-long of the 1994 Little Women.

Hope you can join us!

This one just arrived in the post – great timing 🙂

Advent with Alcott

* I’m once again co-hosting “Advent with” with AnaIris and Yvann.

tumblr_m8o3y6cSEy1qzcqsfo1_500I need your help understanding The Left Hand of Darkness. I was almost indifferent to it, but it has a huge GoodReads average: 4.02 from 42,943 ratings. As Shannon from Giraffe Days put it on her own review:

When you dislike a popular book, a canonised book – a “masterpiece” and an “instant classic”, according to other reviewers – naturally part of you wonders whether you’re just not getting it, whether you’re not bright enough or clued-in enough, or whether you’re placing unnecessary or unfair demands and expectations on it.

(I wish I could just copy/paste her entire review because that’s also pretty much how I felt about the book.)

One of my biggest issues was not caring about any of the characters. Have the feeling characterization wasn’t a priority for Le Guin (who was Genly Ai, our main character? What really motivated him? What was his life before arriving in Winter?), preferring instead to focus on world-building. Fair enough, but apart from describing the planet and their mostly asexual people, Le Guin is never though-provoking about the implications of that asexuality in their civilization or how someone like Genly, an audience-surrogate, faces it.

The whole topic of gender politics, for which the book is so acclaimed, ends up reduced to a few isolated comments by Genly (“I don’t know. They [women] don’t often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers. But it isn’t that they’re stupid.”) and one relevant conversation between him and the native Estraven. This lasts for a couple of pages and ends up not solving the obvious sexual tension between them. Was there something more I missed?

We often see the story from Estraven’s point of view, which would be a great opportunity to see the world (and Genly) from a non-gendered mind, but apart from a couple of cultural misunderstandings you could also find on Earth, nothing more stands out. Also, although Genly has been on that planet for two years, we never get any real insight into his own sexual desires, which could have been really interesting and though-provoking.

It’s almost as if Le Guin, having shocked everyone in 1969 by having penned a sci-fi novel set on a non-gendered world, felt it was enough to stir things up and decided not to risk going deeper. I felt the book dated, but the 4.02 rating is definitely not from the 60s and 70s, so I can’t shake the feeling I’m missing something!

Another thing that I’d like your input on is the alliance that Genly represents. Chris called it a “perfectly anti-imperialist empire without any will to power at all”. This also nagged at me. I swear that up to the last pages I was expecting a big twist, but nope, Genly did come in peace, cynical me!

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Other thoughts: A Striped Armchair, Opinions of a Wolf, The Wertzone, Shelf Love, Neth Space, Books Under the Skin, Gasping for the Wind, James Reads Books, The Book Smugglers, conceptual fiction (yours?)

washingtonsquareI’ve been reading too many “it was ok” books this year. I partially blame my absence from the blogging world that hasn’t expertly guided my choices, but I also need to convince myself once and for all that 2009 was a once-in-a-lifetime year. After all, you can only discover Dorothy Dunnett, Gone with the Wind, The Hunger Games and The Queen’s Thief for the first time once. And listening for the first time to Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter series… 2009 was my perfect literary storm.

Still, 2014 has had some unexpected good surprises, with Washington Square standing out. When I picked it up I was bracing myself for the tragedies and thick language of The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove and The Turn of the Screw but ended up with something closer in style to Jane Austen.

Henry’s characters in Washington Square are not new: the naïve and plain heiress, the handsome opportunistic cad, the neglecting and cynical father, the dramatic and silly aunt.

I loved none of them, but could eat popcorn reading their stories, I was so entertained! It was wicked of me really, because some of the characters really suffer, but James has such a sharp sense of humor, such a clever sense of inequalities in society and between man and woman that I couldn’t help it. I laughed several times as James sarcastically pokes fun at his own characters.

The language is clear and witty, very unlike the other of his books I’ve read. He probably regretted this step away from a dignified intricacy, because he tried to remove Washington Square from a collection of his works.

Washington Square was a book where I’ve fallen for the style more than the story. There’s lots of room for deeper analysis of the plot, characters, society, gender, marriage, etc, etc, but my lasting impression of it will be: I had fun!

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Other thoughts: 17th Street, Nishita’s Rants and Raves, Eclectic Indulgence, The Allure of Books (yours?)

1003617As I said on my previous post, there aren’t many writers that make me want to read everything they ever wrote or will write. Elizabeth von Arnim is one of them, all because of the lingering effect of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, that was written just for me.

So after Enchanted April, I picked up her 1914 work, The Pastor’s Wife. It’s the story of Ingeborg, the sheltered daughter of an English Bishop, the “plain sister”, considered by all as forgettable and of no consequence. Because of her ”unmarriageable” status, she becomes her father’s secretary and everyone, including Ingaborg, is ready to settled down to a life of not much at all.

Until the day a toothache brings Ingaborg to London, where her dentist solves her problem in no time, leaving her with two weeks to spend in the city by herself. On a reckless moment she signs up for a week-long tour of Lucerne, in Switzerland and that’s where she meets German Lutheran Pastor Herr Dremmel.

There are two distinct parts in the novel: pre- and post-marriage. If it wasn’t for Ingaborg’s father, the first part would be a perfect example of von Arnim at her funniest, lightest and wittiest. But I’m considering putting the Bishop on my list of worst literary villains, right there with Dolores Umbridge and Mrs. Danver. He’s not the murderous type, but his lack of empathy, self-righteousness and relentless intolerance probably cause more damage. The Bishop is a nasty passive-aggressive emotional bully. Every single dialogue with him was hard to go through, but unfortunately von Arnim didn’t give me the show-down with Herr Dremmel I was hoping for. Oh what a magnificent scene that would have been!

My expectations to see married Ingaborg develop into a liberated and confident person were also unfulfilled. Her marriage is a happy, but lonely one. Herr Dremmel has his own pursuits (manure!) and Ingaborg must navigate alone a different country, language and culture. Hilarity often ensues, but despite some really laugh-out-loud scenes and the general wit of the first part, this is not a happy-go-lightly book.

Ingaborg’s loneliness is inescapable: her monomaniac husband, her bigoted mother-in-law, her attempts to connect to her children and an uninterested community. Surprisingly, it’s also difficult for the reader to connect with her. I agree with Claire that Ingaborg is a “likeable heroine, if not necessarily a sympathetic one”. Her lack of consciousness of herself was my main barrier.

She is utterly insensible of what others think of her. She also seems unaware that she can have a say in her destiny, much less rebel again what others want of for her. She’s been meticulously trained by the Bishop to bend to his will, so it comes naturally to bend to Herr Dremmel’s will as well. Even when she takes the decision to quit the marriage bed after child-bearing nearly kills her, almost instantly upon recovery the next overwhelming man enters her life. Here is Herr Drumeel’s thoughts when considering Ingaborg after her decision:

A wife who is not a wife, but who persists in looking as if she were one, can be nothing but a goad and a burden for an honest man. Either she should look like someone used up and finished or she should continue to discharge her honourable functions until such time as she developed the physical unattractiveness that placed her definitely on the list of women one respects.

It was really a very interesting book, a fine balance of light and shadow that in the hands of a less subtle writer could go very melodramatic or boring. It’s not a story of female rebellion against control or a cautionary tale of the consequences of not having free will. For me it was all about the limited options of Ingaborg and the women of her time. In her case: a tyrant father, a distant husband, or an egotistical lover? As the Portuguese proverb goes, evil for evil, let the Devil come and choose.

Just a final note to say I was very surprised at how realistically von Arnim described a difficult birth and breastfeeding experience. She did not bother with gentle hints and prude innuendos, and as someone who went though something similar, she has my respect.

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Other thought: The Captive Reader, Verity’s Virago Venture, Tales from the Reading Room, TBR 313 (yours?)

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