Completed: The Warden

Cover: The Warden by Anthony TrollopeThe Warden
Anthony Trollope
1855, England

So, The Warden is my first Anthony Trollope. It won’t be my last Trollope, I hasten to add (if nothing else, Barchester Towers is sitting on my shelves, waiting patiently), though there were times when The Warden itself, slim as it is, felt a bit of a slog to get through. (Though other chapters just flew by.) It has certainly been one of several books recently instructing me in how to read – that necessity of letting the novel lead the dance, not the reader.

The party went off as such parties do: there were fat old ladies in fine silk dresses, and slim young ladies in gauzy muslin frocks; old gentlemen stood up with their backs to the empty fireplace, looking by no means so comfortable as they would have done in their own armchairs at home; and young gentlemen, rather stiff about the neck, clustered near the door, not as yet sufficiently in courage to attach the muslin frocks, who awaited the battle, drawn up in a semicircular array. The warden endeavoured to induce a charge, but failed signally, not having the tact of a general: his daughter did what she could to comfort the forces under her command, who took in refreshing rations of cake a tea, and patiently looked for the coming engagement: but she herself, Eleanor, had no spirit for the work; the only enemy whose lance she cared to encounter was not there, and she and others were somewhat dull. (Chapter 6, “The Warden’s Tea Party”)

The plot of The Warden is simple enough: Dr. John Bold, suitor to the daughter of Warden Rev. Septimus Harding, questions publicly the legality of the current division of the revenues of the estate of John Hiram, whose will, many years since, set up an almshouse for up to twelve poor elderly men of Barchester and also funding for the position of Warden to oversee the almshouse. The question at hand–does the warden have the right to a full 800 pounds a year currently received while the men only have one shilling and fourpence a day, plus lodging? This is the question that instigates the action, and how the various involved parties react is the substance of the novel.

And there are a number of parties involved. In addition to John Bold and Septimus Harding, there are his daughter Eleanor; his friend, the elderly Bishop Grantly; his elder daughter Susan and her husband, the imperious Archdeacon Grantly. The current bedesmen, recipients of the charity, are of course deeply concerned in the matter, with some, visions of riches dancing in their heads, dreaming of the success of Bold’s inquiry, while others, acknowledging the friendship and generosity of Harding, support him to the end. While the stakes most directly concern the bedesmen and Rev. Harding, Archdeacon Grantly can see only how such inquiries might damage the Church, in direct contrast to Rev. Harding’s concern with being in the right, a concern the Archdeacon cannot seem to grasp.

The Warden thus becomes an interesting character study and an investigation of human nature. The motivations and perspectives of those involved are examined and explained; there is no guesswork as to why anyone acts or doesn’t act in a certain manner. And given the feelings of these parties, the conclusion comes as no surprise–it seems that the resolution to the problem at hand could be none other than what is presented, for any person involved could not behave in any other manner.

Although this novel proved a bit of work on my part, it was a rewarding sort of work, and I look forward to further Trollope. Though, perhaps after a dose of something less concerned with 19th century church politics!

I read The Warden for both Back to the Classics 2018 and the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

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The First of Fall?

Autumn Bouquet

And so it is September.

Very technically, the change of seasons, from summer to autumn, isn’t for another few weeks, but once we reach September, in my mind it is here–school has resumed (for those still living by its seasonal schedules); the light is both less and of a different (different, not better or worse) quality; the autumn harvest starts to come in, apples and squash and pumpkins; footballs (of the American variety) are starting to tumble through the air. So much says that a change is afoot.

And it’s finally starting to feel like autumn is just around the corner; since yesterday, it’s been cool and rainy (very rainy – hello tropical storm Gordon remnants). Although, only last weekend it seemed as if summer should never end, so hot and humid it was once again. And the forecast promises more heat and sun soon.

I’m tempted to say, “where has the summer gone,” though in reality I know quite well. It’s gone to work and other busyness. August is a little more mysterious – I know the workload wasn’t as heavy as earlier this year, and my evenings weren’t as full, yet it feels like it vanished quicker than it should.

Cleveland Musuem of Art Atrium - Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors

I did indulge in a rare moment of spontaneity to take the opportunity to visit the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art (there through the end of the month, before moving to Atlanta, I believe). It’s a very hard ticket to get, but a coworker had a spare, so I found myself at the museum on a Tuesday morning, taking wonderful advantage of both a lovely day and my employer’s wonderful flex-time policy.

Work-wise, I also participated in a round-table discussion about pay equity in architecture. It was really interesting to me, hearing the different experiences and perspectives of women (and a few men) of various ages and experiences. There was a definite emphasis on “know your worth,” but there was also discussion – what do you do if you find out you aren’t being paid fairly? It’s one of those sorts of discussions where you don’t necessarily come out of it with answers, but I think a number of tips were shared for how to advocate for yourself. And the point was also made: compensation is about respect–if you are underpaid, it shows a lack of respect.

But as far as reading…August was not such a good month. I only finished two books, one of which was primarily read in July. And neither was my Classics Spin book. I guess this is in part the consequence of being in the middle of one real doorstop (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell), which although quite enjoyable is taking its time. Similarly, the Spin selection, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, although not really that long (about 400 pages in my edition), is not a fast-paced book. I find that reading about one chapter in a sitting is about right, and of course I haven’t been able to get to it every day. I really want to get both books finishes this month, though.

Ideally, I’d read even more than that, though looking at my schedule of plans for the rest of the month, that’s over-optimistic. But with the coming of the fall season I’m feeling myself pulled towards some “seasonal” reading – I’d like to get to The Woman in White this year (it’s on my TBR Challenge list after all), and it’s feeling like the right time of year for The Farm (Louis Bromfield). Plus I’d love to sink into some quick-paced mysteries–I started the year with Agatha Christie and have been hankering for more who-done-its ever since. But these plans are probably all for October. But I always like to have goals – something to reach for, something to push me.

And you, any seasonal reading plans?

Holmes County Trail - View of trail and farm fields

Completed: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

Cover: The Case Book of Sherlock HolmesThe Case Book of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Scotland, 1927

Earlier this year, several years after beginning my journey through the complete Sherlock Holmes, I finally finished reading the last collection of stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. (Thank you, 2018 TBR Challenge!) Although an earlier story, “His Last Bow,” is chronologically the last Holmes story (by Doyle at least), the twelve stories in The Case Book are the last of the Holmes stories actually written by Doyle, and were all originally published in The Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927.

It was my impression while reading–and a quick Internet search seems to bear this up–that these stories are not among Doyle’s best work. (Indeed, there are those who think some of the stories weren’t written by Doyle at all!*) To me it almost felt like Doyle was “phoning it in,” that his heart was no longer into the writing of Holmes stories, that he was wanting to let Holmes retire to his beekeeping in peace. [Aside…if BBC/WGBH ever resume the Sherlock series, I wonder if they might choose to eventually retire Sherlock to beekeeping–or what they might decide the 21st century equivalent is?] And as I write these notes up a few weeks after finishing the stories, I realize that I don’t really remember them. (Fortunately I have a copy on hand to flip through.) They just didn’t really strike a deep impression, not even a story with such a sensational title as “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” which of course, being a true Holmes story ended sensibly enough with a perfectly logical explanation. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” on the other hand, which begins to come back to me now, bordered on science-fiction–perhaps we see here the influence of Doyle’s own Professor Challenger stories?

Although some seemed typical Holmes stories–after a while, you begin to develop a feel for the rhythm of the tales–there was also some divergence from the pattern. One story, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Man,” is written in the third person. Holmes himself narrates “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” which gives the reader an entirely different feel that Watson’s narration. This variation is not necessarily bad, but it certainly strikes a different feel from the “typical” story.

All in all, the collection proved a brief entertainment, but unremarkable. I am sure I will revisit Holmes at some point, though I feel it more likely to be among the earlier stories and novels.

This collection was read as part of my 2018 TBR Challenge list, part of my Mysteries and Detective Fiction project list and for the 20th Century Title for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I call that multi-tasking!

* For example, the Wikipedia Article quotes Kyle Freeman from his Introduction to The Complete Sherlock Holmes as doubting the authorship of “The Mazarin Stone” and “The Three Gables.”

Week’s End Notes (33)

Vase of cut zinnias and sunflowers And so we’ve arrived at the first August weekend. I may have said last post that about this time of year it always feels as if summer’s almost (practically) over–and indeed, two area schools (individual schools, not districts; they are experiments in student learning improvements) started classes this past week.  But today it certainly feels “summer” – hot and humid. I don’t expect much variation between now and mid-September–this is what late summer usually is like around here. But I won’t complain. We don’t get wildfires, we don’t get serious drought.

Cover: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin cloth bound edition)My classics spin title ended up as probably the one I least wanted on the list–indeed, I hadn’t even realized it was still on the list. (Oops.) Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Not because I don’t want to read it–I’ve read and liked Hardy previously. But I have serious doubts as to the likelihood of being able to finish it by the end of the month. (And no, I haven’t started yet. I’ve been trying to finish up other things first.) So we’ll see how that goes. Maybe the deadline will prove the needed inspiration.

And there’s this, too, that helps: I haven’t gone a single day since May 20 without reading for at least five minutes! Some days it’s only been that five little minutes. But it’s become a streak that I am so reluctant to break, that there was even one night when I had to work late on a deadline–so late I was up past my bedtime–and even sleepy as I was, I wouldn’t let myself fall asleep before I’d read for that five minutes. On the other hand, while reading always seems a good thing, perhaps I should question my priorities…

(But the streak!)

I haven’t kept up with blogging as much as I’d like; that has been one of the casualties of busyness. I’d hoped to be able to participate in the Spanish-Portuguese Literature Months hosted by Stu and Richard, but that doesn’t look likely now. (Though there’s still time…maybe if I skip work for a week–think anyone would notice?!)

In some ways I feel the last few months have been absorbed all in work. And yet, when I think back to all that I’ve done, that’s not so, I just have had very little “do-nothing” time. I’ve finished seven books since early May. I’ve been to four movies, a rate higher-than-normal for me. One of them was the delightful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which I was able to see thanks to a colleague telling me about a local independent theater that I didn’t even know existed. Apparently the documentary is quite popular–they sold out every showing (in an admittedly small theater) over at least two weekends.

I also got to do something I haven’t done in years–I went to a performance of the Cleveland Orchestra, featuring Audra McDonald, at Blossom Music Center, their summer home. I’d forgotten how wonderful those performances could be–and McDonald was so impressive. She truly can sing anything.

So summer hasn’t been a complete loss, even if at times it feels that way. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting on the back screened porch, enjoying the breezes and sounds of birds and insects, glancing up to see fresh-cut flowers and the greens of the trees and shrubs. I don’t stop to enjoy the sounds of the world around me often enough, too busy with music or other distractions.

Hydrangea (white/green)

Sometimes I think our fully air-conditioned protected world prevents us from knowing the seasons as fully as we ought. Those hot lazy days of summer disappear without us even noticing how hot they are. We don’t take the time to appreciate the breezes or the humming of insects or trilling of birds when we stay inside our climate-controlled bubble. We scramble around in a world of pavements and buildings instead of meandering though forests and fields and streams. And so time passes us by because we let it be filled and busy and stressful instead of taking a deliberate pause and engaging in a world where a clock holds no meaning. It is certainly something I am guilty of.

Perhaps if there is one thing I hope for my coming months more than anything else, it is that I remember to pause. To meander. To be.

Happy Reading!

A Classics Spin for Summer

Question Mark - cover place holder

So it’s almost August. Where did the summer go? I’ve been so, so terribly busy, that I feel as if it’s completely passed me by. And yes, I realize that there’s still August left, but the local schools start up in just a couple weeks, and so it always feels as if summer’s nearly gone once we arrive at the last weekend of July.

However, the new moderators of The Classics Club (Welcome!) have decided to start their tenure off with a bang, with one of the ever-popular “spins,” and it’s set to coincide entirely with the month of August. A reason to celebrate one last summer, month, I think. I’ve set out a list below that is mostly based on books already on my self–I really am trying to do better about reading from the shelves. So, I suppose that what I’m truly hoping for is a selection that I already own. Although part of me really wants #20, as I keep picking up 2666 to read and find other books sneaking in ahead (to be fair, most of those other books have either been library books or otherwise had some sort of deadline attached). Regardless, it’s always fun!

And you, are you spinning?

  1. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  2. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  3. Shakespeare, William: Merchant of Venice (England, c. 1596)
  4. Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma (France, 1839)
  5. Brontë, Anne: Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  6. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Cranford (England, 1853)
  7. Hardy, Thomas: Far From the Madding Crowd (England, 1874)
  8. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
  9. Hardy, Thomas: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (England, 1891)
  10. Wells, H.G.: The Time Machine (England, 1895)
  11. Wharton, Edith: The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  12. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  13. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  14. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  15. Wright, Richard: Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  16. Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man (U.S., 1952)
  17. Spark, Muriel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Scotland, 1961)
  18. Borges, Jorge Luis: Ficciones (Argentina, 1962)
  19. Dick, Philip K.: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (U.S., 1968)
  20. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)

Completed: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Cover: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane AustenLady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Jane Austen
(England, c. 1794-1818)

It is a pity that Austen didn’t live to complete her final novel.

Although I picked Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon off my shelves intending just to read Lady Susan, which was completed, though unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, in the end I decided to reread the two unfinished novels as well.

The first time I read this collection, I was disappointed primarily that The Watsons was left hanging–Emma’s story held so much interest to me. But coming at it years later, I realized that there are so many elements of The Watsons in her other novels that the plot seems anticipatable by inference, while on the other hand Sanditon appears to have just enough variation from Austen’s “norm” that it tantalizes with a world of possibilities of what might have been. While I would assume the marriage plot elements of her complete novels would be present, there’s little enough of the novel (though ever so much more than The Watsons) that I can’t say for sure who would end with who, though I may make some guesses. Nor, perhaps more importantly, can I be sure of which characters will see growth–for there are plenty of silly, or perhaps in the case of Sir Edward, dangerous, characters. Will Arthur Parker remain indolent or will a pretty girl prompt him to action? Will Sir Edward remain on his path of intrigue, or will rejection strike sense into him? (Doesn’t seem likely.) And perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Sanditon see success as a holiday town, or was part of Austen’s satire to be its failure, or even just indifference? All such questions must remain only in speculation, alas (though there seems to be no shortage of continuations by other authors).

Lady Susan, on the other hand, is very much finished. According to the introduction in my copy, Austen had even written it out in a fair copy, but did not submit it for publication, perhaps because she was unsatisfied with the epistolary style. While the style leads to a quick read, it does place limitations on how much of the story we can see –for only that which can be told in a letter can be portrayed.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. (Letter 7, Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson)

Lady Susan herself is a frequent contributor to these letters. A widow with a teenage daughter, it seems plain that her ambitions are to get her daughter out of the way–by way of a wealthy husband, if at all possible–and to perhaps make a new match for herself, or at least to divert herself a while until she can, perhaps, resume her affair with a married man. She is clearly a clever woman, and one with much spirit, who seeks her own amusement and entertainment, feeling little true sympathy for others. Although at times one may wonder if she is not unfairly treated by her times and society, limiting as it is with its expectations of “proper” female behavior and the limited opportunities for female advancement or even survival, Lady Susan’s own letters give her away as unfeeling towards her own daughter and cavalierly toying with the emotions of men in pursuit of her own motives. She cares not if she breaks hearts or tempts a man away from his relationship with another woman (though perhaps, in at least one case, this will be better in the long term for the young woman in question). Despite the limitations of the form, there is still enough here to form quite an entire picture of the Lady.

Lady Susan is by no means Austen at her finest, but it is an early example of her keen observation of society around her and remains entertaining for all its brevity. It formed the basis for the 2016 film Love & Friendship, a film I have yet to see but which I eagerly look forward to watching.

I read Lady Susan as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge, for “A Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my Classics Club list.

Completed: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover: Longbourn by Jo BakerLongbourn
Jo Baker
(2013, England)

Some years ago I reread Pride and Prejudice for the third or fourth time, and so enjoyed my time in the world of the novel, that I thought I should like to spend some more time there, specifically by way of Longbourn by Jo Baker. The “upstairs-downstairs” premise intrigued me, especially in light of my enjoyment of the 1910s-20s-set Downton Abbey. I was well aware that Austen’s world only represented a small slice of all the possible experiences of Regency England, and very curious to read a novel representing the lives of the “downstairs” staff at the Bennet’s home, Longbourn. (And yes, it did take me well over a year before I returned to Longbourn. I make plans, but the follow-through…)

In that particular goal I was not disappointed. The novel opens with wash day, and the detail which Baker incorporates quite naturally into the scene both speaks to the level of research she must have completed as well as informing the reading just how physically difficult life could be for the poor and working classes of the pre-electrified era. The novel was also a compelling read, tying in cleverly to the source material. Baker knows Pride and Prejudice quite well; she picks up on (and quotes, at the start of each chapter) little details from Austen that I had not fully noticed before. In one particular scene, as the young ladies of the house are greatly anticipating the Netherfield Ball, the weather prevents them going into Meryton themselves, and so, Austen tells us, the “very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.” Baker fills in the rest–it may be too wet for refined young ladies, but not so for the housemaid; she it is who must make the muddy, soaking trek, for new decorations for ladies’ dancing shoes must be had. This may strip the “romance” from the “world of Austen,” but it fleshes out an era that many of us may only know via period film or novels.

However, I am reminded again–or maybe just finally forced to admit–that commercial historical fiction just isn’t for me. (I qualify because I have found some more “literary” historical fiction, such as The Bluest Eye, more compelling.) No matter how well researched, there always seems something just a bit “off,” a hint of the social mores or biases of the writer’s own time period that ultimately takes away from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t point to anything particular here (the way I can with Year of Wonders), but there’s just this niggling feeling that the 21st century has crept into the plot. And perhaps I bring that in as the reader as much as the author has. So while I feel I could recommend it to a fan of the genre, I think I can safely leave my reading time for other literary horizons. Maybe Austenesque satires? I do have a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my shelves…