Checking in on my Summer Reading Goals

Three months ago tomorrow I posted a Top Ten Tuesday list about what books would be in my backpack. With the passing of Labor Day summer is over in everyone’s minds if not on the calendar, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit my summer reading goal and see how I did.

The Verdict: Better than I thought but not as good as I hoped. 

My summer reading slump didn’t help.

attachmentsWhat I Read

The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maas – This continues to be a work in progress, but I did make progress on it so I’m counting it.

Ashenden, or The British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham – a Reading Hitchcock post about this is coming soon.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway’s genius is pretty well regarded as a certainty but I’m not so sure. This story was so similar to events in his own life that the publication of the novel ruined friendships. Not that Hemingway cared. Hemingway’s style may be brilliant, but his creativity and imagination aren’t.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell – This was far and away my favorite book of the summer. I let someone borrow it but I can’t remember who and the thought I’ll never get it back gives me sweaty palms. I didn’t manage to get to Landline but I will, hopefully this fall.

What I Didn’t Read

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy – The YA New Release bookshelf faces the door I walk into at Barnes and Noble. Every time I walk in, I look for this book. When it’s not there, I move on inside and choose something else. I’ve searched for it a couple of times and haven’t found it. One day I will and I will buy it.

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler – I bought this in May but keep moving past it on my bookshelf. I guess I’m not in the right frame of mind for it yet.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton – I’m definitely not in the right frame of mind for 800 page literary fiction novel.

Silas Marner by George Eliot – Ugh. Tried, hated. Might try again. Might not.

The Smoke at Dawn by Jeff Shaara – I totally forgot about this book.

Whack Job by Kendel Lynn – I’m embarrassed I haven’t read this one since my friend is the author! Another one I can’t find at Barnes and Noble. Will have to break down and order it from Amazon.

 

1001 Books/The Classics Club Book Review – Ragtime by EL Doctorow

Synopsis: The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow’s imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.

Ragtime was nothing like I expected. I suppose I did not read the jacket blurb, which clearly states the book is set before World War I, but I thought ragtime somehow referenced the Roaring 20s. It was not long until I realized my mistake and was slowly drawn into the strangest historical fiction novel I’ve ever read.

Through a mix of real and fictional people, Doctorow paints a picture of a time of great change, change that won’t break through the bonds of Victorian sensibilities until after the war. There doesn’t seem to be a hot button that he misses – strikes, anarchists, murder, sex scandal, racial tensions, the discovery of the North Pole, magic and spiritualism, the invention of the assembly line, the growth of the movie business and even Pancho Villa. It is a testament of Doctorow’s skill as a writer that he can shove so much action and so many characters into a little over 300 pages.

Somehow, Doctorow does it with a unique writing style that consists of long, rambling, almost stream of conscious paragraphs and a complete lack of traditional dialogue. This is the only Doctorow novel I have read so I do not know if this is his typical writing style. If so, I must confess to not looking forward to Billy Bathgate, the other Doctorow novel on my Classics Club reading list. His style reminded me a bit of Hemingway.  Paragraphs wandered from subject to subject but his descriptions were achieved with an economy of words. His style was enjoyable and off-putting at the same time. Once I was comfortable with the flow, I enjoyed the story and I have an amazing amount of admiration for how he wove all of the disparate subjects he covered at the beginning of the novel together in the end.

I do not give half star ratings but if ever a book deserved on, Ragtime is it. I give Doctorow four stars for his ability to whittle down what would have been an epic story in the hands of other authors into 320 pages. But, his writing style and the seeming disjointed narrative at the beginning lessened my overall enjoyment of the book. In short, I am glad I read it but will not read it again.

  • Ragtime (★★★) by EL Doctorow
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (May 8, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812978188
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812978186

1001 Books/Classic Club Book Review – Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Before I put together my list of 50 classics to read for The Classics Club, I believed I was well read in British literature. I’ve read Austen, Gaskell, the Brontes, Christie, Sayers, Forster, Dickens and numerous modern novels set in and around England. In fact, I made a point to populate my list with American classics to make up for the fact that I’ve always been more drawn to the Brits. It wasn’t until I began reading Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (★★★★) I realized that while I might have read a good many British classics, there wasn’t as much variety in it.

Hardy’s novel is set in the English countryside, as are Austen’s, but it is a side of country living that Austen never shows. She famously advised her aspiring novelist niece to send her fictional couple to Ireland, by all means, but since she herself had not been there she should not follow. In short, keep the trip off page lest the author’s ignorance of the destination bleed through the prose. This neatly explains why Austen never ventured into areas of country living that she was not familiar with. While she was most likely surrounded by farms in her life, the day to day running of these businesses were beyond her scope and, therefore, didn’t make it onto the pages of her book. I believe that Knightly in Emma was a “farmer” in the sense that he managed his estate that other people farmed. Much the way Bathsheba Everdene and Mr. Boldwood do in Far From the Madding Crowd. Where Austen would go into great detail about the households of these two characters, Hardy barely mentions that sphere, save the one servant that serves as confidant to Bathsheba. Hardy spends all of his time outside with the workers, who hilariously make up the Greek chorus of his novel, and almost all of Bathsheba’s interactions with people take place out of doors, as well.

While I loved the unique, to me, setting of Hardy’s novel and perspective of his characters, I had a difficult time pinpointing just where in the British class system these characters resided. Of course, part of the difficulty grew from the fact that Bathsheba is such an independent, modern heroine that she would struggle to fit in with her female contemporaries. But, since Hardy does not introduce a contemporary, traditional female to contrast with Bathsheba, nor does he introduce other families or characters in her class (besides Boldwood, who is unique in his own way) it is as if the society of Wessex that he creates lives in a vacuum, separate from the rest of British society that we are so familiar with.

It wasn’t long until I was able to shelve that concern and enjoy the world and characters that Hardy created. As I work on my own historical fiction novel with an independent woman at the center, it is heartening to read a novel written during the same time period with a similar character, one that strains against the grain of society to be her own person. Bathsheba Everdene, despite being frustrating in her shifting moods and attitudes, has become one of my favorite heroines. She reminds me very much of Scarlett O’Hara. Vain, selfish and impulsive but with an intelligence that grounds her when the consequences of her hasty decisions come due. We are lucky that she was an early heroine of Hardy’s and, as such, got a happy ending.  The heroes and heroines of his future novels do not end up so well.

Not that everyone in Far From the Madding Crowd ends well. Two of the men that Bathsheba ensnare with her coquettish ways have decidedly bleak endings. Sgt. Troy, Bathsheba’s faithless husband, leaves her after his true love, Fanny, and his child die in a workhouse. His return, over a year later, is met with fury by Boldwood, who has just wrenched a promise of marriage in six years time from Bathsheba. Boldwood’s obsessive love, and Bathsheba’s guilt at instigating it, are the most irritating aspects of Far From the Madding Crowd until the reader is put out of their misery when Boldwood snaps at Troy’s return. The true purpose of Boldwood’s obsession, instigating real change in Bathsheba, becomes clear.

Other Thoughts:

  • I’ve always misread the title as “maddening,” not “madding.” Madding in this context means frenzied, which could be ironic considered three of the four characters act frenzied, in their own way, about love.
  • Gabriel Oak, the farmer than loves Bathsheba from afar for years, is the one character that is able to control his behavior and act nobly in almost every circumstance. Even though he is the dullest character in the book, you root for his success with the wild and changeable Bathsheba.
  • It is interesting how Austen, the Brontes, Dickens and Gaskell have been adapted for television/movies many, many times, but Hardy very few. I think this would be a great novel to adapt into a mini-series. What an outstanding role Bathsheba is for an actress.
  • I read that Suzanne Collins named her heroine, Katniss Everdene, after Bathsheba.
  • On my list is another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Now I am greatly looking forward to it.

 

The Classics Club/1001 Books: Moby Dick – I just don’t get it

When I tried to read Moby Dick a few years ago I got as far as Ishmael visiting the church before I got bored and irritated that he wasn’t on the freaking ship already. The book immediately became my literary white whale – the novel that would haunt me until I finally finished it, dammit. When I signed up for The Classics Challenge, I included Moby Dick not because I want to read it but because I feel like I should read it. I remembered enough about how much I disliked Melville’s writing style to go at the problem from a different angle. So, I decided to listen to the audiobook, hoping that hearing it would help with my understanding/enjoyment. Did it? Not so much.

A few weeks ago, I freely admitted that I struggled to understand Dickens at times. Compared to Melville, reading Dickens is like reading a preschooler’s board book. I don’t know what Melville is talking about half the time and Oh My God he takes so long to say anything. I’m an hour and a half or so into the audiobook and the only thing of note that has happened was the introduction of Queequeg. Honestly, everything else is superfluous and more than a little boring.

I am at the point in the audiobook (the church) where I gave up with reading. I am going to soldier on and at least get on the damn boat. Hopefully from there the prose will resemble the quality of the introduction of Queequeg instead of the slog of descriptions of water, a run down inn and a church whose pulpit, as far as I can tell, resembles a boat.

Who of you have read Moby Dick? What am I missing? Is there an enlightening perspective that I am missing and whose knowledge of would help me enjoy this “American Classic?” Or, do you feel the same way about Moby Dick as I do?

Book Review: Sense and Sensibility (Marvel Illustrated)

When I read about Laurel Ann’s Sense and Sensibility Bicentennial Challenge on Austenprose there was one book that jumped out at me: the Marvel Comics edition of Sense and Sensibility. I’ve wanted to read the graphic novelization of Pride and Prejudice for a while but struggled to find it, even at my local comic book shop. Then, two things happened that made my decision to participate in the challenge obligatory: one, my cousin gave me a Barnes and Noble gift card and, two, my Barnes and Noble had Marvel’s S&S (but not P&P, unfortunately).

Of all the trends to trick up the classics, adapting them to graphic novels is probably the most sensible. These graphic novelizations might bring readers who wouldn’t normally read Austen, Bronte, etc. to the source material and bring readers of the source material to the rich world of graphic novels. For some, reading Jane Austen is a challenge. Even after reading her novels multiple times, I still find myself perplexed by some of her turns of phrase. Conversely, I also come away from each reading with a new understanding of her work. But, it can be difficult to interest people in reading Austen. Some just don’t want to put forth the effort it requires, especially when there are so many modern novels written in syntax that is much easier to understand. The beauty of the graphic novelization of the classics is that much of the detail is illustrated instead of described. What is left is dialogue and that can be inserted into the story, abbreviated to be sure, but almost intact. This Marvel edition has done a wonderful job of adapting the story without losing any of its emotion and meaning.

I don’t know enough about graphic novel artwork to praise or criticize the quality. In general, I liked the art work and thought the coloring was representative of the time.  But, there were a few distracting aspects to the artwork. First, the men all looked too much alike. They all had brown hair and Brandon and Edward had nondescript, almost brotherly, countenances. I don’t even feel like Willoughby was a distinct and dashing enough character. Poor Elinor had an enormous forehead which, while making her easy to spot on the page, made her more unattractive and homely than depicted in the book. But, the most distracting detail were the three dots on each face; one on each cheek and one on the tip of the nose. I have no idea what the purpose of those colorless spots was but they were maddening and lessened my enjoyment of the graphics.

Despite my reservations about the graphics, Nancy Butler (writer) and Sonny Liew (artist) have honored Austen’s work with a faithful adaptation of her first published novel that I would recommend to a newcomer and old friend of Austen’s oeuvre, alike.

Sense and Sensibility (Marvel Illustrated) ★★★★
Jane Austen (author), Nancy Butler (author), Sonny Liew (illustrator)

12 Days of Boredom: Day 11 – Books

Cover of "The Grand Sophy"

Cover of The Grand Sophy

Chalk up another benefit to having a Kindle: the ability to keep a list of what books I’ve read in the previous year with no effort on my part! Now, if only all books were available on a Kindle. Alas, they aren’t which means I’m going to have to search my mind for the physical books I read this year so my list is complete.

This isn’t a list of best books published this year. I think I’ve read one, maybe two, books that were published this year. This isn’t even going to be a top ten list. Narrowing down my favorite books is a Sophie’s choice. Instead, I’ll make up categories!

Author I Should Have Discovered Years Ago
Georgette Heyer

I’m pretty sure I found Heyer through the Austenprose blog, or possibly from the twitter feed of the Editrix of Austen Blog. However it came about, Heyer’s books made winter 2010 a complete joy. They also illustrated how easy it was to run up a credit card bill through the search and buy feature on the Kindle, but that’s another post.

Heyer’s books are set in Regency England and all follow a pretty general plot. There is a plucky heroine who is usually a poor relation or wealthy with financial difficulties. There is a handsome hero that dresses well and is an expert horseman and is grumpy for one reason or another, probably because poor relations are always asking for money. Or possibly he’s engaged to a girl that isn’t really right for him and he’s too dense to notice. Until he meets the plucky heroine. There’s a cad to muddy the waters and possibly a young kid to give a bit of comic relief. You know how it’s all going to turn out when you start reading on page one but the fun of it all is the journey, not the destination.

Heyer stories are filled with historical details which, depending on who you ask, was either her greatest asset as a writer or her biggest weakness. Personally, I love the historical detail though after reading many of her books in succession, it gets a bit repetitive. Her characters are more modern than the times they live in, a result of being written in the 20th century instead of the time of the novels’ plots. This historical detail, along with the modern sensibilities, make reading Heyer a good primer for a reader that would like to read Austen but has struggled with her writing style.

The absolute best part of discovering a prolific author like Heyer is the sheer number of novels you have to choose from.  Besides Regency romances (Heyer is considered the creator of historical romances, btw), Heyer also wrote thrillers, mysteries and historical novels about Waterloo and William the Conqueror.  My top Heyer recommendations: The Grand Sophy, Faro’s Daughter, Frederica, The Reluctant Widow, Talisman Ring.

Yes, I Can Read Popular Fiction and Enjoy It
The Millenium Series by Steig Larsson (★★★☆☆)

Sometimes I feel like I’m out on a little pop culture island of my own. I have zero interest in the housewives, football wives, bachelors or bachelorettes or biggest losers. I refuse to read Twilight no matter how many of my 40-year-old friends gush about how wonderful it is. I like sci-fi shows and westerns; historical fiction and classics. Most of the time, I could care less that I’m not a part of the maddening crowd. Sometimes, though, I get pulled into the vortex of the media frenzy and I have to see what all the fuss was about. This year, I was pulled into the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo vortex.

I must have enjoyed it; I remember reading them one right after the other. Long term, though, not much of an impression has stayed with me besides the idea that the main character was an alter-ego of the author. Everyone else grew and developed; he stayed the same. He was, in my opinion, the least interesting character of the series. Luckily, the Lisabeth Salander character’s greatness makes up for the dullness of Mikael Blomqvist. Would I recommend the series?  Yes, but with tempering the expectations of greatness. It’s an entertaining, but forgettable, read.

Goal That I’ve Set for Myself and Will Probably Never Finish
1001 Books to Read Before You Die

This is all Lindsey’s fault. She had to pull out this damn book at book club last summer. I love ridiculously hard goals that I will never realistically achieve so there is a built-in excuse to fail challenges. In fact, that could be the subtitle for my life story.

I have made some progress. I created a blog page dedicated to the challenge. I’ve read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, A Room with a View by EM Forster, Eugenie Grande by Balzac, Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte and, just this week, three Edgar Allan Poe stories! There are quite a few on the list that I want to read. All is not lost. I’m going to keep plugging along.

Favorite Books of the Year
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (★★★★★)
I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not having an emotional reaction to the story. I don’t want to spoil any part of this book so I will just say that you won’t regret reading this book.

The Mapping of Love and Death (Maisie Dobbs, Book 7)
by Jacqueline Winspear (★★★★☆)

I’m not typically a fan of series. I find the stories to be a bit samey and the characters develop at a glacial pace, if at all. Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series is the exception. Each mystery is unique and Maisie grows with each installment. As interesting from a historical perspective as the mysteries are, what has kept me reading the series is the character of Maisie Dobbs and her growth as a character.

The series is set in England between the wars, but not just before World War II which seems to be the fertile ground of so much pre-war historical fiction. Winspear starts her series in 1929 and has progressed a little more than two years in seven books. Usually, that glacial pace would annoy me but I want to experience as much of the decade before World War II with Maisie as I can.

The Mapping of Love and Death saw Maisie losing someone very close to, and starting a relationship with an unlikely character and ends with the opportunity for great change in her professional life. The next installment comes out in March. I can hardly wait!

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton (★★★★☆)Review

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (★★★★☆) Review. One note I didn’t make in my review: The first two books are much stronger than the final book, Mockingjay. Katniss spends more time in the infirmary and feeling sorry for herself than she does taking action. But, the ending redeems the loss of focus of the majority of the book.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus (★★★★)
It’s the 1870’s and the height of the Indian Wars in the west. The Cheyenne chief makes a bold trade proposal to President Grant – 1000 white women to the Indians for 1000 horses. The Cheyenne is a matriarchal society – children are considered part of their mother’s tribe – so logically to the Cheyenne the children of these unions would be welcomed into US society and enable the People to assimilate easily. Initially outraged, the government changes their mind and starts recruiting women out of prisons, insane asylums and desperate volunteers.

The story is fictional but inspired by an actual trade proposal by the Cheyenne in the 1850’s. Fergus paints a vivid picture of Indian life on the plains and how different their society was from ours.

Classics
This might be the first year in six or seven that I didn’t re-read Pride and Prejudice. I did re-read Emma, though. Excellent book but no P&P.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (★★★★★)
Just a fun, quick read.

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (★★★★☆)
It takes a while for this to get going but when it does it’s worth it. Not as dark and brooding as her sisters’ Charlotte and Emily.

A Room with a View by EM Forster (★★★☆☆)
Eh. Watch the movie.

Eugenie Grandet by Balzac (★★☆☆☆)
This one was a real struggle. Great characterizations, though.

Note to self for next year: Do a better job of tracking what I read and write more reviews!