Monday, June 27, 2016

Books in Brief

There are a few books I need to get off my chest.


The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene - One of Modern Library's top 100 books of the twentieth century. I wasn't sure I'd like it, but in the end, I liked it so much I flagged it as a book I'd like to reread someday. Henry Scobie is the deputy police commissioner in a British-controlled west African city during World War II. He's scrupulously aboveboard at work, despite the plentiful opportunities for accepting bribes or using his position for material gain. The joy has long since left his marriage, but he stays with his wife because of complicated feelings of guilt and love. But then his wife insists on being packed off to South Africa, and he meets Helen, rescued after forty days at sea in an open boat after her ship was torpedoed. Also about the terrible burden it is to be Catholic, and an excellent character portrait of Yusef, a corrupt Syrian who becomes a sort of confessor to Scobie.


Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton - Recommended to me by my friend "Not Beehive" who comments here sometimes. This novel concerns the rapid social and sexual career of one Undine Sprague, a midwestern girl whose father suddenly makes a lot of money and moves his family to New York. Of course they are hopeless as new entrants to New York society, but Undine is a ruthless social climber and learns quickly how to imitate the ways of the people she hopes will accept her. I assumed Undine's name was inspired by the romantic fairy tale, Undine and Sintram (the book Jo March is reading at the beginning of Little Women) and that this was chosen so that the reader would see that the parents have middlebrow taste, at best. But then Mrs. Sprague candidly tells one of Undine's suitors that she's named for a type of hair curler that they marketed.  Wharton probably expected that most of her readers would have been familiar with Undine and Sintram, so I'm thinking this was her  idea of a practical joke. Good one! Custom of the Country is fast-paced and must have been considered shocking when it was published in 1913. One caveat: just read it, don't go looking for plot summaries online. I made that mistake, and a delicious little plot surprise was spoiled for me. Apparently, Custom of the Country was to be made into a TV adaptation starring Scarlett Johanson, but I can't find any evidence that it ever aired. Does anyone know about it?


Galore by Michael Crummey - Also recommended by Not Beehive, it follows more than a century in the chronicle of two small fishing communities in Newfoundland, starting in the early 1800's, when Irish was the primary language spoken in the region. In the opening scene, a living man is cut from the stomach of a dead whale on the beach. Christened Jude, he becomes simultaneously reviled (he smells terrible) and a lucky touchstone (his presence in the boats leads to bountiful fishing). At first, you think the whole novel is going to be about Jude, but as time passes, he fades into a mythical family legend that the younger generations can hardly believe existed. Galore has been compared to 100 Years of Solitude because of its magical realism, or seamless intertwining of the real and the supernatural.  I enjoyed the depiction of the incredibly harsh life in Newfoundland as well as the long unfolding this community's mythology.


Nostromo by Joseph Conrad - One of Modern Library's top books of the twentieth century. Not going to lie, I might not finish this one. I've never found Conrad easy to read and I can't fathom why I added it to my list in the first place. It's about a South American country involved in a revolution. I've read several reviews that insist once you get through the first fifty pages or so, but book becomes magically readable and wonderful. I'm well past page fifty, (OK, page 60) but still finding it a struggle. Anyone read this one?


Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor - If you haven't read Elizabeth Taylor, you simply must. I insist. I have read and loved At Mrs. Lippincott's and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, so I picked this one off the library shelf as it seemed to be the earliest of her novels that they had. Cassandra Dashwood, orphan, accepts a job as a governess to Sophy VanBrugh, daughter of the rich, eccentric widower Marion VanBrugh. (Marion is a man's name.) And if this reminds you of Jane Eyre, it's supposed to. Cassandra herself fully expects to fall in love with her employer. Published in 1946, this is a modern Jane Eyre with a twist. There's an alcoholic cousin, a cranky, binge-eating, pregnant doctor, and the character who's supposed to be Mrs. Fairfax's counterpart, ("Tinty") sneaks pills, hoping for a pick-me-up. Indeed, the Tinty character became a fascination for me once her anxiety disorder is described. "Tinty suffered increasingly from the disease which had killed her mother, the disease of anxiety, with all its haunting persistency, its continual seeking for new forms in which to manifest itself."  I didn't realize that anxiety was recognized as a disease in 1946. But as I have said before, Elizabeth Taylor understands. I haven't quite finished this one, although I have reached the sad plot surprise that happens about forty pages before the end. I can't imagine now, how it will be wrapped up.


We'll Always Have Paris by Emma Beddington - Emma Beddington is the author of one of my very favorite blogs, Belgian Waffling in which she writes humorously about life in Belgium. Always Paris is her memoir, starting with her life as a teenager in Britain and her obsession with France, which leads to, a student teaching position in Normandy, and a serious relationship with a French man and a move to Paris shortly after the tragic death of her mother. Paris turns out to be a place of hostility and disapproval. I had a rather personal reaction to this book, as I also moved to a hostile, foreign place soon after my mother's untimely death and then had a baby. Dark times indeed. So I was quite engrossed in this story and I also loved it when she describes blogging itself. The only thing about Always Paris is that it is not available in the US, so if you want to read it, you can buy it from Amazon UK.

9 comments:

  1. I don't even remember recommending "The Custom of the Country!" But "Galore" is one of my favorites, although I read it around the same time I read another book, "We, the Drowned" by Carsten Jensen and I sometimes get the plots confused.

    Your description of "Palladian" is irresistible and I will definitely read that as well as the last book in your post. I think I've read "The Heart of the Matter" but can't remember any of it, and I've definitely no plans to read "Nostromo".

    I'm currently reading "How to Be a Tudor" by Ruth Goodman. I like that she doesn't just write about customs and practices -- she actually does them. Someone has to live unwashed in clean clothes for 6 months and it won't be me!

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    1. I heard about How to be a Tudor and it sounds fascinating. It's currently on my list.

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  2. Conrad is a slog, but I did like The Heart of the Matter. I want to check out Elizabeth Taylor, I swear I've seen her name on our library's bookshelf. Emma Beddington. Must remember that one.

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  3. I'm so glad you enjoyed The Custom of the Country! It's my favorite Wharton and one I'd like to reread at some point. Haven't heard about a TV adaptation, but would love to see one. Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek is on my shelf. Dare I add one more book to my summer reading pile??

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    1. I'm embarking on Last Chronicle of Barset now!

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  4. I swear, I've seen that Emma Beddington somewhere. I need to read more highbrow stuff and less rock star memoirs.

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    1. She has done writing for The Guardian and other publications.

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  5. I want to tell you that I love your books posts, and often take recommendations from you. I am currently reading "Framley Parsonage" by Anthony Trollope, as an antidote to the grim and upsetting novels I had to read for our book club.

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