Tuesday, June 30, 2015

2015 Anniversaries

This is a great year for anniversaries, both historical & literary. I plan to read something about all of these anniversaries this year. I've already mentioned the 200th anniversary of Anthony Trollope's birth & I've already read two Trollopes this year, Cousin Henry & John Caldigate.

The 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta has been in the news lately, with an exhibition at the British Library & a number of books about the charter & about King John. Is John the one irredeemably bad king in English history? Richard III used to hold the title but he's been almost completely rehabilitated now. I suppose John, Ethelred the Unready, & Edward II are seen as wicked or incompetent, with Henry VI & Charles I not far behind. I've borrowed Stephen Church's new book from work & look forward to learning more about 1215. I'm afraid I can't get the picture of Claude Rains as Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood out of my mind...

The Battle of Waterloo was 200 years ago. I'm not a big fan of military history so I'm going to read Georgette Heyer instead. However, in my defence, An Infamous Army was recommended reading at several British military colleges because of the accuracy of Heyer's research. I may as well get some romance & sparkling dialogue with my military history. I'm listening to the audio book read by Clare Higgins &, so far, it's living up to the romance & sparkling dialogue of the best Heyer. I don't know about Lady Barbara but I'm in love with Charles Audley already (half way through).

2015 is also the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Victory in Europe was an occasion for rejoicing & sadness as the toll the war took on everyone, in the services or on the Home Front, was enormous. I have plenty of books on WWII on the tbr shelves to choose from, but I think I'll be reading one of the new Persephones, London War-Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes.

It's the 80th anniversary of the birth of Carol Shields. I had great plans to reread all her books this year but, it's June & I haven't started so I've decided to regroup. Where has the year gone? I don't know why I thought I'd start any kind of reading challenge at the beginning of the year, in summer, my least favourite season of the year. Winter is a much better time for me to settle down to a reading plan. A warm house, lots of tea & a cat or two on my lap - perfect. I've started rereading Mary Swann & next, I plan to read the Letters I bought last year.

It's also 70 years since the death of Winifred Holtby. After recently rereading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, I want to reread her biography of Winifred, Testament of Friendship, as well as at least one more of Winifred's novels from the tbr shelves.

Any other anniversaries I should be aware of? On second thoughts, maybe I'd rather not know, the reading year is filling up quite fast enough...

Monday, June 29, 2015

Togetherness - almost

A brief moment of togetherness (this is as close as they ever get) on a cold but sunny afternoon. After a few grey days, Lucky & Phoebe enjoy the sunshine on the back porch while it lasts.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Edna St Vincent Millay

This poem is from Millay's third collection of poetry, Second April. It's called Journey & captures the weariness of the traveller while also recognizing that the speaker wouldn't be happy if she wasn't always moving on or moving forward in her life.

Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me—I am so tired, so tired
Of passing pleasant places! All my life,
Following Care along the dusty road,
Have I looked back at loveliness and sighed;
Yet at my hand an unrelenting hand
Tugged ever, and I passed. All my life long
Over my shoulder have I looked at peace;
And now I fain would lie in this long grass
And close my eyes.
          Yet onward!
                               Cat birds call
Through the long afternoon, and creeks at dusk
Are guttural. Whip-poor-wills wake and cry,
Drawing the twilight close about their throats.
Only my heart makes answer. Eager vines
Go up the rocks and wait; flushed apple-trees
Pause in their dance and break the ring for me;
And bayberry, that through sweet bevies thread
Of round-faced roses, pink and petulant,
Look back and beckon ere they disappear.
Only my heart, only my heart responds.
Yet, ah, my path is sweet on either side
All through the dragging day,—sharp underfoot
And hot, and like dead mist the dry dust hangs—
But far, oh, far as passionate eye can reach,
And long, ah, long as rapturous eye can cling,
The world is mine: blue hill, still silver lake,
Broad field, bright flower, and the long white road
A gateless garden, and an open path:
My feet to follow, and my heart to hold

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thursday Bookshelf - DO-GI

I've decided to use the bigger photos so that you can read the spines. It just means that you need to click on the photos to see all the books on each shelf.

This shelf begins with Dostoevsky, a writer I'm still struggling with. I admire him rather than love him. I'm about to begin reading The Gambler with my 19th century bookgroup so we'll see if I get on with him any better this time around. Maybe I only keep his books on the shelf for their snob value?! I have no such problems with the other writers on this shelf. O Douglas is a relatively recent discovery, thanks to Greyladies.
I've read the Sherlock Holmes stories many times & I can always pick them up with pleasure. The Penguin boxed set was a bargain & the volumes are just the right size to fit in my handbag. The Folio Society boxed set can be read at home & there's the giant annotated three volume set on the bottom of this bay of shelves because it didn't fit here. Margaret Drabble is another favourite as is David Duff. Like Theo Aronson, a biographer of royalty. Also, the beginning of my Daphne Du Mauriers.

The rest of the Du Mauriers, Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, a new favourite after I listened to it for the first time last year. Anne Edwards is another favourite biographer. The books on the shelf are about Sonya Tolstoy, Queen Mary & Vivien Leigh (sorry about the glare on the spines). Then, the Eliots, George & T S.

Carolly Erickson is another royal biographer whose books I've read over the years. Her specialty was the Tudors & they're the books I enjoyed most. I remember being very unimpressed with her biography of Tsarina Alexandra some years ago. Also Susan Ferrier's novel Marriage. She was a Scottish contemporary of Jane Austen & that's one of the Viragos I picked up in a bookshop in the city over 30 years ago when they were marked down on special. I also bought Storm Jameson's autobiography & Susanna Moodie's Roughing it in the Bush, about her life in 19th century Canada. As always, I only wish I'd bought more marked-down Viragos that day. What's that saying? You only regret the books you didn't buy, not the ones you did (or something like that)?
Penelope Fitzgerald is there too. I enjoy her fiction but love her non-fiction, the essays in A House of Air & her Letters, even though I was irritated by the way the editor arranged them & by the eccentric footnotes.I have Hermione Lee's biography of Fitzgerald on the tbr shelves & I must read it soon.

Two more favourite biographers on this shelf. Margaret Forster & Antonia Fraser. I've realised that I must buy more non-fiction than fiction as I've also read many novels by both these authors yet there are very few on the shelf. I remember buying the blue copy of Fraser's Mary, Queen of Scots back in the 70s. I was so excited to see it in a bookshop that I couldn't stop looking at it all the way home in the car (my Dad was driving) & I dropped everything to start reading it when we got home. I've read it several times since along with many other books about the Queen of Scots. Antonia Fraser is just as obsessed with Mary as I was. She wore a Queen of Scots headdress at her wedding to Hugh Fraser. There's a photo in her recent memoir, My History, which I've not yet read. Maybe I'll listen to the audio book, read by Penelope Wilton, instead?

More Antonia Frasers plus her biographer daughters, Flora & Rebecca. Lucy Frost's No Place for a Nervous Lady is a fascinating collection of letters & memoirs by women who lived in the Australian bush in the 19th century. Whether they'd just arrived from Europe or had grown up in the cities, the bush was a new & sometimes frightening experience for all of them. Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga - I still have Volume 3 tbr. I remember reading Juliet Gardiner's Wartime just after I moved into this house, while the electrician was sorting out the lighting. I have two more of her books - The Thirties & The Blitz - tbr.

Helen Garner, another author I've been reading since Monkey Grip in the 70s. In recent years, she's been writing non-fiction & Joe Cinque's Consolation is the best thing she's written, in my opinion. I gave my copy to my sister, which is why it's not there. My Elizabeth Gaskells are on this shelf & Winifred Gerin, biographer of Mrs Gaskell & the Brontës. Gibbon's Decline and Fall is there under false pretences, really. I confess, I haven't read it but I got so sick of seeing it on the tbr shelves so I put it away here. I couldn't bring myself to weed it as I really do want to get to it one day. I'm considering trying it on audio, there are several versions on Audible, & I've put the version narrated by David Timson into my Wishlist. Stella Gibbons finishes off this shelf along with the annotated Sherlock I mentioned above.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Black Sheep - Honoré de Balzac

This is the story of two brothers, their foolish mother, who loves her worthless son & ignores his worthy brother, & about the intrigues that result when an inheritance is at stake.

Agathe Rouget was born in the provincial town Issoudun. Her father favoured her older brother, Jean-Jacques, unfairly believing that Agathe wasn't really his daughter. Neglected & despised, Agathe soon leaves Issoudun, marrying a civil servant, Bridau, & moving to Paris. Two sons were born, Philippe & Joseph; Monsieur Bridau worked himself to death in the service of Napoleon, whom he worshipped, & his widow was let with very little money to live on. Agathe's widowed aunt, Madame Descoings, combines her household with that of her niece & the two women live frugally, their only aim in life to help Agathe's sons.

Although Madame Descoings spoils both the boys, Agathe's favourite son is Philippe. Unfortunately he's a lazy, scheming, dishonest boy who grows up to believe that the world owes him a living, mostly paid for by the sacrifices of his mother. He joins the army, spends whatever allowance his mother gives him, stealing the money if it's not given to him, gambles, drinks, takes mistresses & generally lives the life of a spoiled brat. Cheated of advancement in the army by the downfall of Napoleon, Philippe refuses to serve the restored Bourbon monarchy & becomes involved in a fraudulent scheme to settle in America, losing all his money. All this time, he has ignored his mother, unless he needed money, while she has scrimped & saved, working in menial jobs & going without herself so that Philippe can have what he needs.

Joseph is an artist. He decides early in life where his talents lie & he works hard at his art, not too proud to take on hack work such as copying old masters as he learns & tries to make a living. He loves his mother & is always kind & considerate but Agathe is dismissive of Joseph & his kindness. She sees the life of an artist as vaguely disreputable & expects him to go without if Philippe needs money. Philippe steals from his brother as well although Joseph can't afford to lose a sou.

Agathe has never returned to Issoudun & had no contact with her family but, some years after her father's death, she hears from her godmother, Madame Hochon, that Jean-Jacques has fallen under the influence of a scheming woman, Flore Brazier & her lover, Max Gilet. Madame Hochon warns Agathe that if she wants her sons to inherit anything from her family, she needs to return to Issoudun & fight for her share.

After Agathe left Issoudun, her father, Dr Rouget came across a beautiful child, Flore Brazier, & took her into his home. His motives were far from pure & he groomed Flore, intending her to become his mistress. Fortunately he was too old to take advantage of her & Flore was left at his death with beauty & enough education to know where her own best interests lay. She had no trouble gaining a dominance over Jean-Jacques, who was a simple-minded, foolish man. Flore was soon installed as his housekeeper & did as she pleased. Jean-Jacques was happy enough to have Flore as his housekeeper & mistress but didn't think it was proper to marry her. She fell in love with Max Gilet, an ex-army officer who was said to be an illegitimate son of  Dr Rouget. He was the leader of a gang of young men who called themselves the Knights of Idleness & spent their time playing cruel practical jokes on the townspeople. Flore & Max planned to get as much money out of Jean-Jacques as they can & then run away to get married. Madame Hochon's letter to Agathe threatens to put a stop to their plans.

Agathe & Joseph go to Issoudun as Philippe is in prison, charged as a member of a group of Bonapartists conspiring to overthrow the King. They soon see the danger to any possible inheritance  but are powerless to influence Jean-Jacques or stop Flore & Max. The only weapons they have are goodness, honesty & family feeling. Only when they have retreated to Paris & Philippe arrives to take over the assault is there any chance that the Bridaus will prevail. Only a wicked man like Philippe can possibly counter the plans of two such conspirators.

Evil, in the form of Philippe & Max, seems to have everything its own way. The superficial attractions of good looks & a glib tongue help Philippe in his criminal career but Agathe is to blame as well for her for her blind partiality. Even as Philippe steals from her, Joseph & even from Madame Descoings, she finds excuses for his behaviour. The characters are so engaging. Madame Descoings, with her addiction to the lottery & her belief that her numbers, which haven't come up in the last twenty years, will come up one day. Monsieur Hochon, a miser who unwillingly becomes involved with the Bridaus' quest for justice. Fario, the Spanish merchant who is the victim of one of Max's practical jokes & who takes his revenge. Flore, who rises from very humble beginnings to become the most powerful & feared woman in the town. She uses her looks & intelligence to create the kind of life she could never otherwise have dreamed of, exploiting the stupidity of Jean-Jacques to do so. Only when she falls in love does she begin to lose control.

The Black Sheep is a terrific read. The amused, cynical tone of the omniscient narrator sets the scene for a  family saga, a thriller & a wonderful portrait of provincial life in early 19th century France. The last third of the book reads like a thriller as the plotting & scheming comes to a climax & it's hard to know who to barrack for when everyone is selfish, stupid or greedy & it seems that, again, the good will end badly & evil triumph. It's also a testament to the skill of the writing that I was barracking for Philippe in his battle with Max & Flore, even though I knew what a disreputable, worthless character he was. I raced through the last chapters to find out how it would all end. The Black Sheep is part of Balzac's monumental series of novels, The Comédie Humaine. I've read several of the novels, completely out of order, & I don't think it matters. Characters recur in several of the novels but the books I've read so far stand alone.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Edna St Vincent Millay

I've moved on to Millay's second book of poetry, A Few Figs from Thistles, & it seems appropriate that I've discovered Millay as I seem to be reading about several American writers at the moment. I've just finished reading Willa Cather's letters & her letters to Dorothy Canfield Fisher (author of Persephone's The Home Maker) were especially interesting. Cather & Canfield Fisher met when Cather was just establishing herself as an author & the six year age gap seemed enormous. Canfield (as she then was) looked up to Cather & admired her. However, they had a falling out in about 1905, & it was many years before the estrangement was resolved. The cause of the quarrel had puzzled scholars for years until the discovery of some of Cather's letters to Canfield in a barn (of all places) where they had been forgotten when Canfield Fisher's papers were donated to the University of Vermont in the 1950s. You can read the whole story here in this fascinating article by Mark J Madigan.

Willa Cather also knew Sarah Orne Jewett, so now I want to read more of her work. I read The Country of the Pointed Firs many years ago but now want to read her other stories. I also have several books on the tbr shelves that I want to get to - Elaine Showalter's survey of American women's literature, A Jury of Her Peers, Work by Louisa May Alcott, A New England Nun and other stories by Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern & The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard (my 19th century book group will be reading this soon) as well as several unread Cathers & two books by Canfield Fisher, The Brimming Cup and The Deepening Stream. Any recommendations about where I should begin?

Anyway, back to Millay. This is Recuerdo (which means I remember in Spanish as I've just discovered). After the more melancholy poems of recent weeks, this one is happy & bouncy in mood & rhythm.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Thursday Bookshelf - CA-DO

Cather to Donne this week. I've been rediscovering Willa Cather over the last year. I've just finished reading her Selected Letters & I have several more novels on the tbr shelves to read. I read O Pioneers! & My Àntonia over 30 years ago & only came back to her recently. I've been reading about more American women writers in Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers so I'm glad I have books on the tbr shelves by Sarah Orne Jewett, Louisa May Alcott & Dorothy Canfield Fisher. There's also The Worst Journey in the World by  Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the most devastating books I've ever read as well as some Agatha Christies (Joan Hickson covers) that I saved from my Dad's bookshelves when we emptied his house after he died.

More Christies, Christmas books (stories & carols) & the beginning of the Wilkie Collins collection, one of my favourite writers.

The rest of the Wilkies, a few Edmund Crispins, one of my favourite mystery writers, & Eleanor Dark's Timeless Land trilogy. I read these many years ago when the TV series was made. It's a story of early colonial Australia & I remember how much I enjoyed it. Also Eve Curie's biography of  her mother (the green book 11 from the right), another old favourite.

A shelf that displays my bad habit of collecting copies of favourite books. Three copies of The Diary of a Provincial Lady (I also have the Persephone edition but that's shelved with the Persephones) & several duplicate Dickens. Also To Serve Them All My Days by R F Delderfield (much faded TV tie-in edition with John Duttine on the spine, loved that series & read the book at least three times) & the Henrietta books by Joyce Dennys.

More Dickens, Emily Dickinson & John Donne, a very high-powered literary shelf! I do hope you're all noticing the spaces I'm leaving for the books from the tbr shelves as I read them. It would probably be useful if I stopped buying tbr books for a while, at least until I've filled some of these gaps, but I haven't quite managed that yet.

Next week, Dostoevsky to Gibbons.

Edited to add : I've just realised that the photos are too long for the screen, so you'll need to click on the photos to see the whole thing. They looked fine when I wrote the post so I must try something different with the photos next week. It's difficult to strike the balance between the photos fitting on the screen & being large enough so that you can see the titles.