Paris in July 2016

Paris in July-16 official

It’s almost time for Paris in July! Beginning Friday it’s all things French all the time (because despite the name you can read books set outside of Paris) for those of us who’ve signed up at Thyme for Tea. This event is now in its seventh year which is an amazing run for a blogging event. I haven’t participated in a few years, but I have enjoyed the France-themed books I’ve read in the past so I decided to give it a go again this July. My hope is to read at least 4 books set in France – two non-fiction and two fiction.

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One of the novels I’m going to read is The Chateau by William Maxwell. The other novel is still up in the air, but I think it will be The Blessing by Nancy Mitford. As for the two non-fiction titles, I’m awaiting the arrival of two galleys I’ve requested from publishers that are both France-related –  I can kill two birds with one stone by reading for this event and reading ahead for work. I know I should probably read a book by an actual French author so I may ditch The Blessing and choose a translated novel instead – or I can try to add a translated novel to the stack. We’ll see!

Are you participating in Paris in July? Can you recommend any French novels for me to try?

Margaret Kennedy Day: Together and Apart

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FIrst off, I have to say that I’m very proud of myself for remembering that Jane was holding her Margaret Kennedy Day and for having a Margaret Kennedy book on my shelves and for making the time to read it! With all of the reading I’d been doing for the presentation I gave a few weeks ago I thought that I’d never have time to join in any reading challenges again – but here we are and I actually completed one. So, I’m just happy for that.

And I’m even happier that the book I happened to read is an absolutely wonderful novel. Published in 1936 (and dedicated to Rose Macaulay) it is essentially the story of a divorce and how it subsequently affects each member of the Canning family. As the novel begins they’re at their summer home in Wales where relations between the parents, Alec and Betsy, are tense and strained. Betsy wants a divorce, but Alec doesn’t. The children know nothing of the negotiations between their parents until Alec suddenly leaves one Sunday morning – for good.

The oldest boy Kenneth passionately sides with his mother, refusing to speak with his father ever again. Eliza, the middle child, secretly prefers to go with her father. And the youngest girl, Daphne, doesn’t really care. As the next year passes all of the children are changed by the breakup of their family especially when their parents find other spouses and seem to move on with their lives. And of course Alec and Betsy are changed too.

It’s a heartbreaking depiction of how awful divorce can be, even when it may the best thing to do. The characters are intensely real, faulted and, at times, not very likeable. But always believable and worthy of our sympathy – even when they’re being appallingly stupid.

One of the amazing things about the book is that it hardly feels dated. I felt I could have been reading about a modern family – the same struggles, fears, financial concerns, and child custody and neglect issues as written about in contemporary family dramas appear in this novel.

Kennedy is very observant of human nature which is one of my favorite traits in a writer. I love books that tell the same story from each character’s different viewpoint and she is so good at getting into the mind of every member of the Canning family (except for Daphne – she’s a bit of a shadow).

In a way, this reminded me somewhat of Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings, with a similar look at how trauma shatters the lives of an entire family.

All in all, I really enjoyed Together and Apart and am glad to have finally read Margaret Kennedy.

Margery Sharp Day 2016: Cluny Brown

clunySo sorry that this is a day late, but I had a very busy day yesterday and didn’t find the time to finish up my post – better late than never, I suppose!

I was so pleased when Jane from Beyond Eden Rock announced her second annual Margery Sharp Day. I really enjoyed reading Britannia Mews last year and had good intentions to read another of Sharp’s novels before 2015 ended. However, we all know how good intentions can fall by the wayside when it comes to reading. So, I was happy to have this opportunity to try Sharp again and fortunate to find a 1944 copy of Cluny Brown at Tumbleweed Books in Pueblo, Colorado.

Cluny Brown is set in 1938 and starts off in London. We first learn about the main character, Cluny Brown, from other’s opinions and views of her. Her Uncle Arn, with whom she lives, strikes up a conversation with an older woman in Kensington Gardens and tells this woman that Cluny ‘doesn’t know her place’. And that is the crux of Cluny’s problems – she thinks she can do things that young women of her station and skills wouldn’t normally do. It perplexes her uncle and frustrates other relations and after she makes an ill-advised decision regarding an older man and his bathroom her uncle and his sister-in-law steer her into service.

She lands in Devon at Friars Carmel, the home of Sir Henry, Lady Carmel and their son Andrew. Mostly resigned to her fate she settles in as a housemaid among the very gracious family, their Polish refugee house guest, Adam Belinksi, and the other household staff. She also meets a kind if dull chemist who gives her hope for a different life.

In the end, Cluny makes a decision that is wholly unexpected yet wholly and utterly perfect. She’s known all along that she doesn’t want the life most expected for women of her status and the reader doesn’t want that for her either. For Cluny is curious and energetic, unafraid and full of natural charm. She’s meant for more than the life of a housemaid.

Like Britannia Mews, Cluny Brown is a dream. I loved all of the characters so much that I didn’t want to leave them. Sharp creates real and delightful worlds with a slightly fairy tale quality that completely envelop the reader – I was enchanted.

Now to decide – wait for next year’s Margery Sharp Day to read another of her novels or jump straight in to one now?

#Emma200th: Volume 1

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This is the first post on my Emma thoughts for the readalong this month. Unfortunately, I read the first volume about two months ago and sadly have no vivid, charming comments that are floating to the surface of my aging brain right now. So, these will have to do:

  • Emma is a wonderful, entertaining, frustrating, amusing character. It’s hard to dislike her even when she is being so insufferably obtuse. Yet, when you step back from the humor and the sheer confidence she displays you realize that her actions, though cloaked in a tone of lightheartedness, really do have serious consequences that could ruin lives. Her sense of her own rightness borders on the dangerous.
  • How endearingly annoying is Miss Bates? We have many Miss Bates’s at the library – men and women (though mostly men these days) who spend their entire days in the library and take advantage of any slow times at the desk to bombard the staff with their thoughts, descriptions of their small daily outrages and pleasures and complaints about their health. I admit to feeling very Emma-like toward them some of the time and am very relieved when someone needing help approaches the desk and I can turn away. If I have time I do try to give them attention (except for the creepy ones…but that’s a different story) and these Miss Bates’s are always grateful, but they do try our patience.
  • Austen is really skillful at building up interest in and curiosity about Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, isn’t she? By the time they arrived in Highbury I was so dying to know if they were really as described by the various characters and by their letters.
  • The amount of walking the characters do is impressive! And it also seems that a lot important of thoughts and conversations are had by them while walking.
  • I love the scenes at Randalls on Christmas Eve. The snow worries of Mr. Woodhouse, the cheek of Mr. Elton, Emma’s confusion about his lack of concern about Harriet and then the scene in the carriage on the way home – fabulous.

This week I’ll immerse myself in volume two and very happily. After an unfortunate experience attempting to read Jonathan Franzen this weekend I need something that is more of my taste to brighten my days.

Are you reading Emma this month?

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.

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.