Short and Sweet: The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

This the June edition of Short & Sweet, just a few days late.  This is one reading project I’ve managed to stay on top of this year, mostly because I’m enjoying it.  Most nights I read in bed for about 15 minutes before going to sleep, and while I don’t always read a complete story, I can usually finish a book of stories within a month.  In June I read The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro.

In The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro mines her family history to create a set of linked stories spanning 150 years.  Part I begins with ancestors who farmed the land near Edinburgh, Scotland, and eventually made their way to North America, and ends with Munro’s parents making a living in the fur trade.  The stories in Part II are more contemporary, and more personal, dealing with the life of a young woman (presumably based on Munro herself).

Because the stories are linked and chronological, with recurring characters, the book reads like a novel.  In fact, for the last third or so I treated it that way.  Rather than reading a few pages each night, I made this book my “primary read” which allowed me to get inside the characters and see connections between events in different stories.

I enjoyed this book and really, my only quibble is not with Munro but with the publisher, Vintage Books, for poor cover design.  My edition sports a woman (headless!) lying on a sandy beach.  There isn’t a single story that matches this image, nor do the stories depict the “lazy days of summer” implied by the cover design.


In July I’m reading The Stories of Edith Wharton, Vol. 1. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!


Recent Reads: One Mystery, one Classic

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Sunday Salon post, I’ve been in a “book review funk.”  But I’ve still been reading, and over on LibraryThing I dashed off a few comments about my two most recent books.  I also finished my June short story collection.  Since I’m off work this week with time on my hands, I might actually write a proper review!

But without further ado, here are my thoughts on a mystery, Revelation, by C.J. Sansom, and a classic, Edith Wharton’s The Mother’s Recompense.

This is the fourth Matthew Shardlake mystery set in Tudor England, and I found it just as good as the others. In this book, Matthew vows to avenge a friend’s murder by finding his killer. He learns of a previous murder, sees a pattern, and realizes he’s on the hunt for a serial killer who is likely to murder several more people. There are plenty of grisly murder scenes in this one. Matthew’s sidekick Jack Barak, and his friend and apothecary Dr. Guy Malton, figure prominently in this story as well, and provide interesting subplots. There’s only one book left in this series, and I’ll be sad when it ends.

In one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, the author explores issues of morality and sexuality in the context of a mother-daughter relationship. Kate Clephane left a loveless marriage and was denied further contact with her young daughter Anne. She escaped to the French Riviera and moved among society there. Kate and Anne are reunited many years later. Anne is now a young adult, and surprisingly welcoming. She introduces Kate to post-World War I New York society, where much has changed from the world Kate once knew. Anne and Kate’s relationship blossoms, but is severely tested when one of Kate’s “old flames” arrives on the scene. For the first time in many years, Kate has to think about someone other than herself, and sort through several moral dilemmas. Wharton is masterful at showing the constraints women faced in those days, and resolves the conflict in what was probably the only way possible. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, and I really enjoyed this book.

The Sunday Salon: Taking Stock at Mid-Year

How can this year possibly be halfway over?  Or could it be the best is yet to come?  Either way, I’ve been taking stock of my reading and blogging lately, and here’s where things stand …

I’ve read 28 books so far, with one 5-star read (read my review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life).  This is a snail’s pace compared to every other year since I began blogging.  I’ve paid more attention to work, family, and other hobbies. As I consider my 2013 Reading Resolutions, it seems like my reading interests might be heading into some different directions.  I’m still reading a ton of classics (11 from my Classics Club list already!), and I’m keeping up with my short story project, reading one collection each month.  But I’ve read far fewer literary prize winners & nominees (just 2 Bookers, and 1 Women’s Prize), and I’ve been enticed by some recent podcasts to explore some recently published literary fiction, which I’ve kind of ignored in recent years.

I’ve also been reading much more for myself, with less involvement in the book blogging community.  Even my Sunday Salon posts have become less frequent.  And I’m in a serious “book review funk.”  I’ve posted short comments on two recent reads over on LibraryThing but just didn’t feel like writing full reviews to publish here.  I’m not sure exactly what that means for this blog, but for the time being I’m not going to force myself to do something that feels like a chore.  I might write the occasional post summarizing several books, or pop in on Sundays for The Sunday Salon.  And hopefully someday I’ll get my “blogging mojo” back!

So now we are deep into “summer reading season,” and I have an interesting stack lined up for July:

  • The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym:  Over in the LibraryThing Virago Group, we’re reading one Pym each month in honor of her centenary.
  • The Stories of Edith Wharton, Vol. 1:  This is my short story project choice for July.  I just love Edith Wharton, so I’m excited about reading her stories every night before bed.
  • Taking Chances, by M.J. Farrell (Molly Keane):  Keane is one of my favorite Virago authors, and this book is on my Classics Club list.
  • One by One in the Darkness, by Deirdre Madden:  This is an early Women’s Prize nominee (back when it was the Orange Prize), that came highly recommended from … someone, I can’t remember whom!  Oops.  Well, anyway, July was once a big month for reading Oranges, so I’m hoping to get through a few.
  • May we be Forgiven, by A. M. Homes:  This is the 2013 Women’s Prize winner.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple: No, this one’s not in the picture, because my daughter took it with her on a trip. We are both planning to read this 2013 Women’s Prize nominee in July, and I’m looking forward to comparing notes with her.

I have a habit of choosing more books each month than I finish — a holdover, I suppose, from speedier reading years.  But who knows, maybe this month I’ll manage it!

I hope your summer reading is going well.  I’ll see you around here sometime …
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Review: Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope

It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing. But nevertheless we all do so. One may say that hankering after naughty things is the very essence of the evil into which we have been precipitated by Adam’s fall.

Mark Robarts is the recently appointed vicar of Framley, and happily married to Fanny.  His future appears secure, but Mark longs after “naughty things” like fox-hunting, horses, and parties.  His troubles begin when he co-signs a loan for a so-called friend, Nathaniel Sowerby.  Unbeknownst to Robarts, Sowerby is deeply in debt and on the run from creditors and bill collectors.  Robarts naively believes everything will work out, and fails to tell his wife about the debt he’s incurred.

In Framley Parsonage we are also reunited with several other notable characters from the three earlier books:  Archdeacon Grantly and his family,  Dean Arabin and his wife Eleanor, Mrs Proudie the bishop’s domineering wife, Doctor Thorne, Frank and Mary Gresham, and the outspoken and very funny heiress Miss Dunstable.  I loved seeing these old friends in new settings.  I also enjoyed Trollope’s wit, as he poked fun at the clergy:

Let those who know clergymen, and like them, and have lived with them, only fancy it! Clergymen to be paid, not according to the temporalities of any living which they may have acquired, either by merit or favour, but in accordance with the work to be done! O Doddington! and O Stanhope, think of this, if an idea so sacrilegious can find entrance into your warm ecclesiastical bosoms! Ecclesiastical work to be bought and paid for according to its quantity and quality!

And at men in general:

 “My dear!” said her husband, “it is typhus, and you must first think of the children. I will go.”     “What on earth could you do, Mark?” said his wife. “Men on such occasions are almost worse than useless; and then they are so much more liable to infection.”

But back to Mark Robarts.  It wasn’t long before his future looked bleak, but this is Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, where things invariably turn out well in the end.  In fact, the last chapter of Framley Parsonage is entitled, “How They Were All Married, Had Two Children, and Lived Happy Ever After”.  The journey from near ruin to happily ever after is a long, meandering one with several related threads.  As Mark is facing financial ruin, his sister Lucy comes to stay, and meets young, unmarried Lord Lufton.  They are instantly attracted to one another, but Lady Lufton has strong feelings about her son marrying the vicar’s sister.  And so begins another long, meandering journey in which Lady Lufton discovers why Lucy is the ideal choice for her son, and learns a few things about herself in the process.  Trust me — that’s not a spoiler!  Trollope’s outcomes are always predictable, but it doesn’t matter because getting there is so much fun.

The Sunday Salon: My June Book Stack

Whew!  It’s hot here in Pennsylvania.  I know it’s June but we had a late — and very short! — spring.  My garden is going crazy, so this weekend I’ve spent the cooler morning hours tending to my vegetables and flowers.  I’m trying to squeeze in some reading time around all my usual weekend errands and chores.

Although May brought some stressful events on the personal front, it was a great month for reading, as expected.  My book stack included Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, my book of the year so far (read my review), and I discovered E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series (read my review of Queen Lucia).  Honestly, I don’t think I can top that but I’m still looking forward to working my way through June’s stack.

From top to bottom:

  • The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro: This is my book of short stories for June.  I have to say I didn’t get on well with Ms. Munro earlier this year, so I’m slightly apprehensive about this but we’ll see.  When I began writing this post I had a little last-minute scramble when I realized the first short story collection I chose was actually a novel.  Oops!  Back on the TBR pile it goes; I’ll get to it in a couple of months.
  • Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope: This is the fourth in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, which I have on my Kindle.  This is also on my Classics Club reading list.  I’m reading it now and it’s delightful.  Several characters have returned after a one-book hiatus, and it’s like running into old friends.
  • A Word Child, by Iris Murdoch: This book is also on my Kindle.  I’ve meant to read it all year, and it’s been on my monthly stack before, but I just haven’t been in the right mood for Iris.  Will June be different?
  • The Mother’s Recompense, by Edith Wharton: This Virago Modern Classic is also a Classics Club selection.  Wharton is one of my favorite authors and my last encounter with her was pretty abysmal (read my review of The Buccaneers here).  I hope this book is more true to form.
  • Revelation, by C.J. Sansom: Summer is a great time for mysteries, and I have so enjoyed the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.  This is the second to last book and the last one on my shelves.  I’m sure I’ll get hold of the last book eventually, but I’m in no hurry because then I won’t have any more left to read!

In May I was a little ambitious, and named one more book to read if I happened to have time.  Well, I didn’t get to it, so I will continue to “think ahead” and say, someday I’ll get to 2012 Booker Prize nominee The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore.  But if I’m honest with myself, that’s not likely to happen this month either!  I’ve really been neglecting my beloved prize nominees, but on the flip side I’ve read some pretty good stuff!

What book are you most looking forward to this month?

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Review: A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood

I hate it when a much-lauded book just doesn’t grab me.  I’m sure it’s me, and not the book.

A Single Man takes place over 24 hours in 1962.  George is a 58-year-old Englishman, and a university professor somewhere near Los Angeles.  Several months earlier his partner Jim died suddenly, and George is trying to put his life back together.  He goes through the motions of his daily routine, teaches his English classes, speculates on his students’ lives outside of class, chats with neighbors, and visits a woman friend.  He is haunted by memories of Jim and their life together — a life that, in 1962, was a closely guarded secret.

This book is billed as “one of the first and best novels of the gay liberation movement.” I probably don’t understand the movement’s history well enough to appreciate the significance of this work, and viewed through a 21st-century lens, it’s not as daring as it was in the 1960s.  But the blurb on my edition also describes it as “constantly funny, surprisingly sad,” and for me, it failed to delivery.  I couldn’t muster the expected emotions.  George certainly mourned Jim, but I didn’t feel his grief.  I saw him simply putting one foot in front of the other and erecting a barrier around himself, one I thought as the reader I’d be able to break through.

So the book didn’t work for me, but I haven’t given up.  It was made into a film starring Colin Firth, and I’ve just discovered it’s available from my local library.  This could be the subject of a future “book vs. movie” post!

Review: Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson

Queen Lucia is the first in a series of six novels satirizing a slice of 1920s English society (which Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book recently christened, “Bright Middle-Aged Things”).  Mrs Lucas is the self-appointed “queen” of Riseholme, a sleepy village somewhere near London.  Her speech is littered with Italian phrases, inspiring the nickname Lucia.  She prides herself on staying au courant with all the local gossip, cementing her dominant social position in Riseholme.  Lucia is an amusing character in her own right, and Benson populates Riseholme with an extensive supporting cast.  Mrs Quantock gets caught up in every cultural fad (first yoga, and later spiritualism).  Olga Bracely, an opera singer, takes up residence in Riseholme and threatens to disturb the social order.  Lucia’s dear friend Georgie simultaneously worships Lucia and works to subvert her power.  And there are many more …

In lieu of a complete story arc, the novel meanders through a series of vignettes intended to both define the social order and amuse the reader.  Each one is a comedy of manners where situations and people are not as they seem, misunderstandings abound, and someone gets their comeuppance. Benson’s Riseholme came to life, and  Reading Queen Lucia I was transported to a time when people communicated by letter several times each day, servants were largely invisible until they decided to (shock!) marry one another, and formal dinner parties with music and tableaux were routine entertainment.  It was all quite cozy and fun.

Some readers criticize these books, and the characters, for being shallow and mean-spirited.  But it’s satire — it’s meant to be biting, and the humor makes you stop and think about how ridiculous and self-important people can be.  If you’re looking for light amusement, this is just the ticket.