Saturday, January 31, 2015

Monthly Roundup - January 2015

Gorgeous prose and ghastly people were the keynotes of my first books for 2015 with a lighter ,brighter tone emerging as the month progressed and overall a most pleasurable and satisfying start to the new year.
A very hot and humid January which is fine if a shady place can be found to read in but limits the blogging because who wants to sit in front of a computer on a summer's day. I've also spent more than a few hours watching the Australian Open tennis - an annual event I always enjoy.
I'm pleased I stuck to my resolution not to take on anything with posting deadlines that might put me under pressure even if it meant foregoing two challenges that really appealed and I also have to ask how much did Lory's challenge contribute...

...and if I'm honest it was quite a lot. No pile of books with due dates screaming to be read made for a far more relaxed approach. I began just before Christmas so it's almost six weeks since I visited the library and it hasn't been as painful as I thought it might be although I was very happy to return to my weekly visit yesterday. The only books I buy are classics and Virago type - no contemporary fiction so a lack of the variety I like in my reading and really looking forward to a good crime thriller for a change and being able to participate again in the Library Loot meme.

Books read in January = 9
A Century of Books

The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola
The Man of Property by John Galsworthy
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte - posts to come
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns*
Danger Point by Patricia Wentworth*
The Sun In Scorpio by Margery Sharp*
One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens * (NF)
A Breath of French Air by H.E.Bates
High Rising by Angela Thirkell

DNF - Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I'm always telling myself I must read more American classics so Care's readalong  seemed a good opportunity but I didn't like it at all and with so much else I really want to read I decided it just wasn't for me. 

Also posted

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Reading England 2015 - Stepping Ashore
A Beautiful Interlude

Moving on into February and looking forward to another month of summer weather, a new title for Reading England, more of A Forsyte Saga........and whatever else takes my fancy. 

Have a great February!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Beautiful Interlude

"Irene sat down at the piano under the electric lamp festooned with pearl grey, and old Jolyon, in an armchair, whence he could see her, crossed his legs and drew slowly at his cigar. She sat for a few moments with her hands on the keys, evidently searching her mind for what to give him. Then she began, and within old Jolyon there arose a sorrowful pleasure, not quite like anything else in the world. He fell slowly into a trance, interrupted only by his hand taking the cigar out of his mouth at long intervals, and replacing it. She was there, and the hock within him, and the scent of tobacco; but there, too, was a world of sunshine lingering into moonlight, and pools with storks upon them, and bluish trees above, glowing with blurs of wine-red roses, and fields of lavender where milk-white cows were grazing, and a woman all shadowy, with dark eyes and a white neck, smiled, holding out her arms; and through air which was like music a star dropped and was caught on a cow's horn. He opened his eyes. Beautiful piece; she played well - the touch of an angel! And he closed them again. He felt miraculously sad and happy, as one does, standing under a lime tree in full honey flower.....
......'Beautiful!' he said. 'Go on - more Chopin.' "
Interlude: Indian Summer of a Forsyte

Sunday, January 25, 2015

It's Margery Sharp Day!

A lovely idea from Jane @ Fleur in her World - ' the plan is for as many people as possible to read one of Margery’s books and post about it on her birthday'. 
For me it has been an introduction to an author I hadn't read before. I'm sure her books would have been around years a go when I was young but not the sort of thing I would have been interested in then. I chose to read The Sun in Scorpio which was published in 1965, one of her later works and from these opening lines I knew I was going to love it.

'Everything sparkled.
Below the low stone wall, beyond the rocks, sun-pennies danced on the blue Mediterranean; so dazzlingly, they could be looked at only between dropped lashes. (In 1913, the pre-sunglass era, light was permitted to assault the naked eye.) opposite, across the road called Victoria Avenue, great bolts of sunlight struck at the white stone buildings and richocheted off the windows. A puff of dust was a puff of gold-dust, an orange spilled from a basket like a windfall from the Hesperides.
Everything sparkled, from the sun-pennies on the sea to the buckles on a cab horse's harness, from the buttons on a child's reefer jacket to the heavy gold pendant at a girl's ear. Everything sparkled or shone, even the stiff black hoods of the old women; serge or alpaca, worn smooth by use, under that sun a glossy blackbird-plumage.'
The Pennon family are part of the British community living on Next-Door-Island: next door to Malta, that is. It is here their three children, Muriel, Cathy and Alan spend their early childhood and it is Cathy who is the centre of this story. A true child of the sun she thrives in the heat.

But war is looming and Mr Pennon decides they must 'go home' and there is much anticipation among the children who see this far away unknown 'home' as...

"a Kate Greenaway paradise of primroses, beehives and pet rabbits; of paddling in brooks, nutting in woods, and dancing round the maypole."

The reality of a drab London suburb was somewhat different..

" Everything dripped.
The skies dripped, the lampposts dripped, the pillar boxes dripped and the handles of the errand-boys' bicycles dripped.

Everything was cold.
The streets were cold, it was cold on the trams and cold in the shops. A puff of breath showed on the cold air like a puff of smoke without a fire..."

Poor Cathy! While Muriel and Alan adapt to their new life she is the flower that without the sun fails to flourish and grow. Ten years on , plain and ungainly, she is a shadow of her former self.

After the death of her parents she goes to live with Muriel, the domestic queen, and her husband; a situation that neither of them likes and eventually takes a position in the country as governess and 'attendant sprite' to the upper class Lady Jean and her M.P. husband.

Cathy is rather a frustrating character who drifts along accepting what life brings but doing little to make what she wants happen. I liked the ending which holds the promise that something happier (and sunnier) is coming her way.

The story spans more than three decades that included two world wars, a depression and radical social change - it is all there in the background and between the lines but the focus is on ordinary people. Margery Sharp writes with the true British humour that I love, capturing the attitudes and eccentricities of her characters with the perception that comes from close observation. At times she reminded me of Nancy Mitford but with a gentler wit.

I loved it! Thanks Jane for introducing me to another wonderful author and one I look forward to reading more of very soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tuesday Intro: Going into Service

One Pair Hands by Monica Dickens

'I was fed up. As I lay awake in the grey small hours of an autumn morning, I reviewed my life. Three a.m. is not the most propitious time for meditation, as everyone knows and a deep depression was settling over me.
I had just returned from New York, where the crazy cyclone of gaiety in which people seem to survive over there had caught me up, whirled me blissfully around, and dropped me into a London which seemed flat and dull. I felt restless, dissatisfied, and abominably bad-tempered.
 " Surely," I thought, " there's something more to life than just going out to parties that one doesn't enjoy, with people one doesn't even like? What a pointless existence it is - drifting about in the hope that something may happen to relieve the monotony. Something has got to be done to get me out of this rut."
In a flash it came to me:
"I'll have a job!"

Monica Dickens
In the 1930's it was not the thing for gently-bred unmarried girls to 'have a job.' Helping at home, sitting around idly or filling the long hours with social occasions was enough for any young woman until her prince whisked her down the aisle.
Monica decides otherwise - bored and adding the equation work = money = independence she enters the workforce as a hopeful cook-general. A strange choice as she couldn't even boil an egg but then domestic service in Britain at the time was on its last legs and employers couldn't afford to be choosy.
Monica's descriptions of her time spent in several positions ranging from city flat to aristocratic manor are very amusing and makes this memoir a fun book to relax with.

What did you think of the opening paragraph? Would you keep reading?

Tuesday Intros is a meme hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea which bloggers can join in with by posting the first paragraph (or two) from a book of their choice. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2 for A Century of Books

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

"...if she had been a dog , my father would have destroyed her."

 Alice lives with her cowed and frightened mother and her brutal, sometimes violent father (the vet) in a bleak London suburb. The only joy in her miserable home life are the stories her mother tells of her childhood in Wales.
After her mother's death and the arrival of a wicked stepmother Alice leaves home to care for the mother of a friend and there is hope that she will at last be able to lead a normal life and find happiness.

The Vet's Daughter has been on my Classics Club list since the beginning - I've read many posts about it and it's always intrigued me. After reading it I am reserving judgement on Barbara Comyns as I think I need to reread this one or try something else.
I loved the first part. Alice's narration has a unique voice, the writing is simple but wonderfully descriptive , the story is both heartbreaking and horrifying. It does have a fairytale quality and I wanted the happy ever after ending.
I began to feel unsettled .... " ...and I felt a strange homesickness for no home I'd known.'... when I read those words which gave me a sense of where the story was going and I only skimmed the end chapter so I could say I finished it.
Not the right time for me to read this.

The Classics Club
A Century of Books (1959)

Danger Point by Patricia Wentworth

Miss Silver is returning home from a holiday when a very distressed and frightened young woman jumps into the compartment of her train. Mrs Lisle Jerningham , a newly wed heiress has overheard a conversation that questions the circumstances of her husband's first wife's death and wonders how long it will be before Lisle herself suffers an 'unfortunate accident'.

A promising beginning which sadly never lived up to the promise. Lisle is such a passive and colourless heroine it's impossible to care about her fate and when it's obvious who the villain is.... only one thing is left. The pleasure of Miss Silver's company!
But she doesn't make another appearance until over halfway through the book and when she does takes very little part in solving the case. 

A Century of Books (1942)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

translated from the French by Brian Nelson.

Published in 1871 The Fortune of the Rougons is the first book in Emile Zola's twenty volume Rougon-Marquart series. In the preface he writes..

"My aim is to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws."

Set in the fictitious Provencal town of Plassans, which is based on Aix where Zola grew up, the present day events take place in 1851 with frequent flashbacks to earlier times.

A family of ' ravenous appetites'

The family story begins with Adelaide, daughter of the richest market gardener in the area and heiress to a considerable fortune after his death, a young woman ruled by her emotions and prone to hysterical fits. She offends public opinion by scandalously marrying one her servants named Rougon, a rough peasant. A year later he dies leaving her with a son, Pierre.
Very soon after Adelaide takes a lover, Maquart, a man of ill repute, a smuggler and poacher and 'rendered vicious with wine.' Two children are born, Ursule and Antoine.

By 1851 these children are all grandparents, the family is growing and the majority of them are quite dreadful people. Pierre has conned his mother out of her money and stolen his siblings share but still doesn't have the money and social standing he desires so much.

" The Revolution of 1848 found all the Rougons on the lookout, frustrated by their bad luck, and ready to use any means necessary to advance their cause. They were a family of bandits lying in wait, ready to plunder and steal."

With the rise of the Rougons Zola is mirroring the 1851 coup d'etat of Louis-Napoleon and the beginning of the Second Empire. Both of them founded in treachery and betrayal, murder and blood.

Not everyone is bad - within all the nastiness shines the story of the young lovers, Silvere (Ursule's son) and Miette.

Liberty Leading the People - Delacroix
Idealistic but naive Silvere is swept away by the visions of a perfect Republic and is determined to join the insurgents marching through Provence . Not wishing to be parted from him Miette takes on the role of flag bearer.
Zola's powerful descriptive prose is at its best in telling their story especially the quieter moments spent in the old cemetery ( where the book begins and ends) and out in the countryside.

I'm so glad I decided to stop reading Zola's  Rougon-Maquart titles randomly and begin to read in the order he recommended. I now have a family background and, having had little knowledge of French history after the Revolution, a better understanding of that era.

This edition includes an introduction, a translator's note, a bibliography and chronology of Emile Zola, explanatory notes, and a much-needed family tree.

A great start to 2015!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reading England 2015 - Stepping Ashore

Standing high on the clifftop at Whitby in Yorkshire, overlooking the ocean and across the harbour to the ruins of the old Benedictine abbey, is this statue of Captain James Cook. It has a plaque commissioned by Australia and New Zealand to commemorate the bicentenary of his first voyage which reads...

This plaque is to commemorate the men who built  
The Whitby Ships 
Capt.James Cook, R.N.,F.R.S.
and also
the men who sailed with him
on the greatest voyages of exploration of all time
1768-1771      1772 - 1775       1776 - 1778

It is the perfect place for this New Zealander to return and begin her travels through the counties of England but only one of the reasons why I want to start here.
A little further south is Bridlington, another seaside town...

It was here, in 1911, that my father was born. For generations his family were Yorkshire farmers but he was not destined to grow up a Yorkshireman. Six months later the family emigrated to New Zealand.

My brother now lives in Helmsley and we have visited and I'm familiar with much of the East and North Ridings and  had the pleasure of walking on the same ground as my forebears. Yorkshire is a beautiful county with wonderfully friendly people ( I forgive them for thinking I'm an Aussie) and I feel my connections very strongly.

So what to read? I spent considerable time thinking on this question but it always came back to the same place. For me, Yorkshire belongs to the Brontes. The only two I haven't read are Agnes Grey and Shirley and glancing through the former I felt it wasn't going to have the history or the landscape descriptions I want in the books I read for this challenge.
So Shirley by Charlotte Bronte is my choice.

" If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you were never more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations, reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves shall be cold lentils and vinegar without oil; it shall be unleavened bread with bitter herbs, and no roast lamb."

Not Jane Eyre, obviously, but something else which I think I might prefer.