What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

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This delightful book is written by a Jane Austen expert, but it is in no way dry or academic. It examines twenty ‘puzzles’ or themes or curiosities that run through all of Austen’s novels, things such as ‘Is there sex in Jane Austen?’ and ‘Why is it risky to go to the seaside?’ The chapters are very in depth and use lots of quotes from the novels, yet they are short and snappy to read. I breezed through this book and really enjoyed the discussions that draw from each of Austen’s works. I definitely felt a desire to reread all of her novels with this new information in mind. Reading this feels like attending a class with that funny, warm, wonderfully brilliant favorite professor from college. I could listen to him all day.

Even if you’re not a rabid fan of Austen or a Janeite you’ll find much to like in this book. It delves into the history of social customs during this time period and also discusses aspects of her own life and experiences that affected her books. I found it to be insightful, witty and very entertaining.

AV/AA in Brief

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I truly enjoyed taking a break from galleys in August to focus on reading Persephones and Viragos. I didn’t read as many as I planned to, but I think five is a respectable number (I’m including Anderby Wold, which I previously posted about). Instead of trying catch up with individual posts about the remaining four novels I’m briefly capturing each one here:

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes – This is a remarkable suspense novel published in 1963 that deals with the still sadly relevant issue of how the police treat black suspects and how the fear of false arrest and mistreatment psychologically impacts those suspects. Reading it was so tense and disconcerting – it’s perfectly paced to create a maximum feeling of complete anxiety. The novel is set in Phoenix (where I live) and it was fascinating to read about the city in the early sixties. There aren’t many novels set in Arizona so I found it particularly absorbing. This book was recently featured on the Persephone Forum.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita LaskiLittle Boy Lost is another really great psychologically tense novel about an English man who reluctantly tries to locate his missing child in France after the end of WWII. It’s an effort not to skip forward to see how this turns out and when the end does come it is utterly haunting.

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild Saplings is set during WWII and tells the story of how the war affects four young children, all siblings, as the vicissitudes of fortune through the years change their circumstances and very personalities. It’s quite affecting and terribly sad and I found myself worrying and wondering about them long after I’d finished the novel.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – After reading the gut wrenching Persephones it was refreshing to read this funny, messy and kooky novel set among a group of artists in London during the thirties. Not that bad things don’t happen here – they do, and some really pretty things awful too, but Comyns has a way of making dire poverty, marital troubles, a horrific childbirth experience, depression, death and displacement seem like a grand adventure.

What a wonderful month of reading I had!

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

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I’m counting this as my first book read for the All Virago/All August event even though I finished it on the last day of July. It is the reason, however, that I visited the Librarything Virago group (to see if anyone else had recently read it) and found out about AV/AA so I believe it’s earned its place on the list.

Set just before WWI, the novel opens with a party in honor of Mary Robson and her husband, John. It’s their ten year anniversary, but more importantly, they’ve just bought Anderby Wold, Mary’s family home. As the relatives interact with each other at the party, we get a sense of their personalities and relation to each other which sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Mary is quite a bit younger than her husband John, who is also her second cousin. She married him out of necessity and accepts his passive nature and rather boring demeanor because he doesn’t interfere with her running their two farms. John’s sister Sarah thinks that Mary treats him badly but she’s about the only one in their small villages in Yorkshire who thinks badly of her. Mary’s revered by the community for being service-minded, fair and capable. Underneath her practical nature, however, lurks a romantic streak that leads her to daydream about a great passion and to stubbornly sentimentalize her land and possessions.

Everything in her world starts to shift when a union man comes to the village and urges the farm workers to lobby for better wages or to strike during the upcoming harvest. David Rossitur is energetic, ambitious and idealistic and though he hates everything Mary stands for they are both young and charming and Mary quickly falls in love. The combination of the difficulty of the demands of the workforce and her violent hidden feelings for David upset Mary’s world to a remarkable degree yet she’s determined to carry on in the traditional ways of the village until a shocking tragedy demands a change.

Holtby is a wonderful storyteller, balancing the story of political upheaval and the inner struggles of individual characters with a perfect touch. Her story weaves the villagers lives together in such a way that if one of them is affected by something, they’re all affected and this really illuminates the idea that we’re all connected whether we realize it or not. I also like the way she places Mary’s wrestle with her personal problems against the backdrop of labor organizing to really intensify the understanding of how much the world was changing during this period in history.

This is a fantastic novel and I’m so glad I finally read my first Holtby. I’m now looking forward to reading the other Holtby novels that I have in my collection.

All Virago/All August

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This month the LibraryThing Virago group is hosting the All Virago/All August event. The goal is to read as many Viragos (or Persephones -they’re included) during the month as you can or as you want. It’s a great opportunity to read those classics that you’ve been putting off or that have lingered on your shelves for years and years. I know we all have a few of those! At first I planned to only read Vs & Ps, but there are a couple of contemporary novels that I am looking forward to (like this one) that I’ll slip in among the green and the grey. I’ve already finished The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes and Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (reviews coming soon) and have a few others in mind. Here are the titles that are top of the list right now:

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Tea By the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfeild

Have you read any of these? Will you read any Vs or Ps in August?

Book Club: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

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My book club is continuing to take turns choosing our discussion titles each month. We’ve read some really varied things this year, including a lot more non-fiction than we’ve ever read (we have another non-fiction title up in August), a golden age mystery, a historical literary novel and a classic novel. So I wasn’t really surprised when one of the members chose a Regency romance for our July discussion. The member who chose it wanted to read it because it is her mom’s favorite book and she thought it would be fun to read it with the group. Her mom lives in Manchester, England and we wanted to Skype her in for the discussion, but she was understandably nervous about the reaction to her beloved novel (also it would have been 3:30 am in Manchester when we started our discussion).

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried because we all loved it! Heyer’s blend of humor, clever dialogue, a brisk moving plot, historical accuracy and, of course, romance, is an absolute delight. The Grand Sophy starts when Lady Ombersley is asked by her brother to take in his daughter Sophy who has lived abroad for much of her life. Lady Ombersley is hesitant as she, her husband and her children are all under the thumb of her eldest son Charles, who’s recently become heir to his uncle’s fortune. She doesn’t think that Charles will want the expense and hassle of trying to find a husband for Sophy, but reluctantly agrees to accept Sophy into her home anyway. Little does she know what she’s in for – Sophy turns out to be a very high-spirited manager who handily fixes the family’s problems and easily discerns what would be best for them better than they really know for themselves. She’s confident, doesn’t take offense and is lots of fun – a really memorable character.

I wasn’t sure how the discussion would go since The Grand Sophy isn’t deep literature, but we actually had a very lively conversation about what the novel says about womanliness, romance, motherhood, and manipulation. It was one of the best discussions that we’ve had this year.

Next up we’re reading Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.

 

Mary Hocking Reading Week: A Particular Place

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This is the last day of Mary Hocking Reading Week (although by the time I post this I think it will be Monday in the UK and I officially missed the deadline) but I am just now getting my impressions about A Particular Place gathered and recorded. I finished the book sometime last week on vacation and haven’t really known what to say about it. And I still don’t feel like I can do it justice, but I am going to do my best to tell you what I think.

This short novel is set in a small town in the West Country and focuses on a small group of parishioners who are connected through their church participation. The vicar, Michael Hoath, is a very intense, serious and traditional man who is married to the cold and beautiful Valentine, an amateur actress. Everyone in the novel is in some kind of crisis, whether emotional or faith-related or family/marriage based. Michael doesn’t really think or know that he is until he falls in love with a rather flaky woman in the congregation and has to come to grips with his own inner turmoil in the midst of helping members of his parish through their various struggles.

So there really isn’t a plot – it’s more a collection of scenes wherein the characters examine themselves, their motives, their beliefs and try to connect with God or their families or their fellow parishioners. The description on the books says it’s a successor to Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor – I feel it’s probably much closer to Taylor as there is hardly any humor in the novel (which started to wear on me) yet I feel it’s unlike Taylor in that Hocking does show a smidge more compassion for her characters than Taylor does. The tone of this novel is hard to pin down. It is melancholy, woeful, at times hopeless, yet there is a transcendence that overshadows it all that makes it luminous.

Did I like it? I’m afraid to say I don’t think I really did, in the end. I admire it and like the writing and the style, but the tone is so dark and the characters so desolate that I couldn’t enjoy it. I think this is a case where I probably don’t understand this novel at all and am misreading everything about it. I am glad that I read it, though, and it won’t prevent me from trying another Mary Hocking novel.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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The past two weeks at work have been pretty stressful, with people on vacation, out sick or at meetings. The kids in our community are out of school next week and preparations for our summer reading program are in high gear, which also makes things slightly tense around the library. We’re all loaded down with tasks and have to cover the desk as well and it all gets to be a bit too much when lots of people are out. In order to relieve the stress every evening I turned to They Were Sisters, an excellent novel by an author I don’t think I’ve much appreciated up to this point.

Lucy, Vera and Charlotte grow up in a well-to-do-family with a lawyer father, in comfort and safety. Lucy is the nurturer (especially after their mother passes away), Vera is the beauty and Charlotte the gentle, fun-loving sister. When the sisters marry their lives take separate paths yet Lucy continues to look after her troubled sisters. High-spirited Vera marries a dull man and their unsuitability makes them both miserable. Charlotte has a harder life; her husband Geoffrey is emotionally and mentally abusive, a true sadist who enjoys making her unhappy and humiliating her and their children. Lucy, married to good William, watches her sisters’ lives fall apart with despair. As the years go on Vera and Charlotte fall further into troubles and Lucy endeavors to save both them (without much success) and their children.

Published in 1943 this novel was a bestseller and I can just imagine people reading it to escape their daily reality, much as I did. It is completely engrossing, filled with very colorful, well-drawn characters, lots of drama and lovely domestic details. It is also – and this was one of my main reasons for loving it so much – full of goodness. Lucy is a woman to be admired as she goes about her life trying to do good, be good and think good about others. She is now one of my all-time favorite characters from literature and one I aspire to be like and learn from.

Until now I’d never really loved a Whipple novel. I enjoyed Greenbanks and Someone at a Distance and liked The Priory, but I was missing the connection that I know others have felt to her writing. They Were Sisters is the book that’s put me in the Whipple fan club forever. Now it’s on to Because of the Lockwoods.

How do you feel about Dorothy Whipple? Fan or no?

Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews

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Today is Margery Sharp Day hosted at Fleur in Her World. I’d never really heard of Margery Sharp until reading Jane’s posts, but I am always up for trying a new author especially one who wrote in the first half of the twentieth century, which is turning out to be my favorite of all time periods, book-wise. I found this 1946 copy of Britannia Mews online and it not only looks gorgeous but was a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining tale.

I suppose this could be termed a ‘family saga’ as it relates the story of two families, the Culvers and the Hambros, from the late nineteenth century up through World War II. But it’s also the story of one small area of London, Britannia Mews, and how it changes over 70 years from a genteel, middle-class neighborhood, to an unquestionable slum then to a haven for artists and rebels. One member of the family, Adelaide Culver, receives most of the narrative attention as she is the first to break from the conventions of Victorian England and move into a more bohemian world, living nearly all her days in the Mews. Addie’s been raised in the Mews as a young child until her family moved to a more respectable house in Kensington. But when she elopes with an alcoholic artist when she is barely out of her teens and moves back into Britannia Mews she becomes a fixture of the neighborhood for the next half century.

Her rather unorthodox life is contrasted with that of her cousin, Alice, who marries a nice accountant and moves to Surbiton. Over the years Addie shuns her family and the family turn their backs on her even when she suffers some really terrible trials. As the years go by Addie maintains her distance, but the family inevitably draws back together as they age and war closes many of the gaps in their relationships.

I was constantly surprised by this novel. The characters were very unpredictable and the many unexpected turnings of the plot made this a fresh and exciting reading experience. Sharp’s writing is straight forward and fantastically descriptive and the dialogue is frank and vigorous. I always love multi-generational stories and this one is so satisfying. I turned the last page sad to leave the family behind.

Thanks to Jane for introducing me to a fantastic author whom I look forward to reading more of in the coming year and Happy Birthday to Margery Sharp.

Willa Cather Reading Week: A Lost Lady

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I was so happy to read Willa Cather this week – to be back in the West, in the beautiful landscape of Nebraska, in the small railroad towns and among the pioneers who are rough yet cultured in their own way. I always feel that reading Cather is the closest I get to reading about my own heritage in a novel (other than reading Westerns, I suppose) as my mom’s family were all pioneers, settling in Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and, eventually, Arizona. Cather’s settings and characters are so familiar to me.

A Lost Lady is set in Sweet Water, a small town in Nebraska that is on the rail line between Omaha and Denver. Mrs. Forrester is a beautiful, mysterious, refined woman who lives with her wealthy husband in a big, lovely house on the outskirts of town. She’s vibrant and flirtatious – what is often called a man’s woman. Young Niel Herbert falls under her spell rather early in his life and as he grows up we see Mrs. Forrester from his perspective – from near perfection to the clear-eyed disappointment we sometimes develop in the cherished adults of our youth. But always he protects her, helps her, forgives her, until she finally puts her faith in the wrong person and his respect for her cracks.

This is a fascinating portrait of a woman who, like the West, is in transition. Though Niel longs for her to remain steady in her charms and perfection, Mrs. Forrester needs to change as the world changes. It is upsetting to all of the men around her and ultimately leads her to break with the people who want to maintain tradition and stability. It is a convincing character study and a classic portrait of frontier life on the verge of vanishing.

A short novel at just 150 pages, but a powerful one. Willa Cather’s writing is sensational, especially as it is not showy, but subtle and quiet.

Thank you to Ali for hosting this week. I’m now motivated to read the rest of Cather’s novels.

Final Day of Mary Stewart Reading Week 2014

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Mary Stewart Reading Week has come to an end. I’m afraid I was only able to read one of Lady Stewart’s books this week as illness and work got in the way of my plans, but the one I did read was fantastic. Thank you to everyone who participated – I’m so glad that you decided to take the time to devote to her wonderful novels and revive interest in her work. I hope you’ve enjoyed the week!

Here is a list of all Mary Stewart posts for this week:

Four by Mary Stewart – The Emerald City Reader

The Crystal Cave – She Reads Novels

My Brother Michael – The Emerald City Reader

This Rough Magic – I Prefer Reading

Thornyhold – Fleur in Her World

Thornyhold – Quixotic Magpie

Touch Not the Cat – TBR 313

Wildfire at Midnight – Tell Me a Story

Wildfire at Midnight –Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

If I’ve missed any, please let me know.

The winner of Thornyhold is Cat from Tell Me a Story! Cat, email me at gudrunstights at gmail dot com with your address and I’ll get the book in the mail to you as soon as possible.

Thanks again, everyone!