Monday, 14 December 2020

A Literary Christmas 2020

 A Literary Christmas is running again this year organised by In the Bookcase

I have chosen three books for my Christmas challenge this year - all of them consisting of short stories.

These are:-

The Chimes by Charles Dickens 

Murder on Christmas Eve: Classic Mysteries for the Festive Season edited by Brenda Dillon - this book includes stories by well-known writers such as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. 

Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown - this is a newly published collection of short stories by the Orcadian writer which were originally published in newspapers. 

I am looking forward to my Christmas reading - there is certainly quite a variety here!

Monday, 22 June 2020

Dombey and Son

When I lived in Shetland I attended a book group entitled ‘Lunch with Dickens’ organised by Shetland Library which started each year by reading a novel by Charles Dickens. Although I have now left Shetland I still try to read the annual Dickens’ novel.  This year the novel was Dombey and Son which was published in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848 and was Dickens’ seventh novel. It tells the story of Mr Dombey and his family – his first wife dies giving birth to their son Paul when their daughter Florence is 6 years old. Mr Dombey is a proud, rich man who is delighted to have a son to follow him in his shipping firm.

I find that women in Dickens’ novels, especially the middle-class ones, are often poorly portrayed being pathetic, weak creatures who frequently dissolve into tears. Despite her age and circumstances, Florence is a strong character who develops throughout the novel. She is mature and dotes on her brother helping him with his schoolwork when he is sent away to school in Brighton. Unfortunately Paul is a sickly child who dies young leaving both his father and Florence bereft. Mr Dombey is unable to comfort Florence, ignoring her completely. In the absence of friends and family, Florence is brought up by servants while striving to gain her father’s love. 'Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone'.

After Paul dies, Dombey goes to Lemington Spa with his friend Major Joe Bagstock where they meet Mrs Skewton and her daughter Edith Granger. Mrs Skewton is an awful woman who is determined to marry her daughter off as they are in a poor financial state. The following is how Dickens describes Mrs Skewton at the end of the day as she changes from 'Cleopatra' to an old woman. 'The painted object shrivelled underneath her hand; the form collapsed, the hair dropped off, the arched dark eyebrows changed to scanty tufts of grey; the pale lips shrunk, the skin became cadaverous and loose; an old, worn, yellow, nodding woman, with red eyes, alone remained in Cleopatra’s place, huddled up, like a slovenly bundle, in a greasy flannel gown'.

Mr Dombey does marry Edith but this is not a happy marriage as both are very proud. Mr Dombey wants to dominate Edith but she is strong-willed and tries to stand up to him. He is also jealous of the good relationship which Edith forms with Florence and puts pressure on Edith to prevent this. 'There must be no will but his. Proud he desired that she should be, but she must be proud for, not against him. As he sat alone, hardening, he would often hear her go out and come home, treading the round of London life with no more heed of his liking or disliking, pleasure or displeasure, than if he had been her groom.'

Dombey and Son deals with some wide ranging social themes such as arranged marriages, child abuse, deceit and betrayal. The book certainly demonstrates how dependent women were on men in Victorian times despite their class.

I did not enjoy this novel as much as some of other Dickens novels I have read. I felt some parts of the story were unclear and a bit far-fetched. As usual in Dickens’ novels there is a huge cast of characters introduced at the beginning who all eventually have a part to play in the story. Some characters started to get a little annoying as the book progressed – the constant references to Mr Carker’s teeth and Captain Cuttle’s fear of his landlady, Mrs MacStinger, were overdone. Some of the characters did grow on me as the book progressed, for example Susan Nipper who was loyal to Florence and was more of a friend than a servant.

I will not give away the ending of the book but leave you to read it yourself.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Back to the Classics 2020

I have decided to take part in the Back to the Classics challenge which is hosted by Karen on the Books and Chocolate blog. 

Here is my book list for 2020:-

A 19th century classic - Dombey and Son  (completed April 2020)

A classic by a woman author - Persuasion 

A classic with a person's name in the title - Tom Sawyer

A classic with a place in the title - A Passage to India (completed August 2020)

A classic with nature in the title - The Old Man and the Sea

A classic about a family - Little Men

A classic in translation - Saga of the Faroe Islands

I haven't managed to read many classics over the last couple of years so hope to do better this year.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

The Classics Club 2020

The Classics Club

Here is a list of the classics which I plan to read during 2020. Apart from the saga, these have been chosen from my Classics Club list of 50 books.

Persuasion - Jane Austen

Dombey and Son - Charles Dickens (completed April 2020)

The Small House at Allington – Anthony Trollope

Passage to India - E M Forster (completed August 2020)

The Saga of the Faroe Islands

Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stove

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Little Men – Louisa May Alcott

The Europeans – Henry James

I will be reading Dombey and Son along with the 'Lunch with Dickens Group' which is based at the Shetland Library. The group starts the new year by reading a novel by Dickens. I was a keen member of this group when I lived in Shetland. I found the group really supportive and helped me to continue reading some books when I was struggling to keep going.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Poor Miss Finch

Poor Miss Finch, written by Wilkie Collins, was published in 1872.  It tells the story of Lucilla Finch, a rich young woman, who has been blind from infancy.  The narrator is Mrs Pratolunga, an interesting character, who is Lucilla's paid companion.  Without giving away the plot, this is a story of love, deceit and mixed identities as two young men, who are twins, both fall in love with Lucilla.

I struggled to finish this book, finding it too long and a bit far-fetched.  The only character I liked was Mrs Pratolunga who was a useful narrator, living with Lucilla and able to observe everything that went on in the household.  Her comments were witty adding to my enjoyment of the book.  Her dislike of Reverend Finch, Lucilla's father, was evident in such comments as "that he would end in being reconciled to his daughter—before her next subscription to the household expenses fell due—was a matter of downright certainty." Mrs Pratolunga says of herself, "And I? Oh, I am only a human being—and I feel painfully conscious that I have no business to be in a book".

The novel does successfully describe what is feels like to be blind and to be given the opportunity to see again. However it is certainly not in the same class as The Moonstone or The Woman in White.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma by Jane Austen was published in 1816 and was the last of her novels to be published during her lifetime. The main character is Emma Woodhouse who is 21 years old and described at the beginning of the novel as being ‘handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition’. The novel is set in the fictional village of Highbury where the Woodhouses are one of the main families.  Emma believes that everyone looks up to them. She lives in a large house called Hartfield with her widowed, elderly father. Her elder sister, Isabella, is married to Mr John Knightley and lives in London. The story begins with the marriage of Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, which seemed to cause some distress both to Emma and her father. 

Emma is spoilt both by her father and her governess. Mr Knightley, a family friend, tries to give her advice which she is loath to take. Although Emma can paint and play the piano she lacks perseverance and does not practise often enough to develop these skills. Mr Knightley seems to have a good understanding of Emma’s character pointing out to Mrs Weston that Emma ‘has been meaning to read more since she was twelve years old’. She is very good at drawing up lists of books to read but never actually reads them. 

Emma seemed to be lost when her governess moves out as she appeared to be more a companion than a governess. Emma befriends a younger girl, Harriet Smith, whose parents were unknown but believed to be ‘gentry’ and tries to ‘improve’ Harriet. She tries to encourage Harriet’s friendship with Mr Elton, the vicar, as she feels he is a more suitable match than Mr Martin who is only a tenant farmer. This backfires when Mr Elton misunderstands this and proposes to Emma who turns him down. He goes away to Bath and marries a very snobbish woman whose family had made their money through trade. Despite this set-back, Emma continues her match-making schemes throughout the novel but without any success. 

I enjoyed this book and found it easy to read. Although this novel describes life in a small English village at the end of the 18th century it also raises issues of class, poverty and women’s role in society. At this time, women of all classes were dependent on men having few choices in life except marriage. There were very few opportunities for ‘genteel’ women in particular, except to become a governess – this was a difficult situation for the woman being neither an employee nor a member of the family. In the novel, Jane Fairfax was nearly forced into this situation although Mrs Elton thought the position she had found for Jane was excellent.

The characters are well described and there are some very funny scenes in the book especially in the descriptions of Mrs Elton. I did not like Emma although I grew to respect her as the novel developed and was optimistic that Mr Knightley would be a good influence on her after their marriage. She was very patient with her father despite his demands and worries about becoming ill. She also demonstrated that she had a good understanding of Frank Churchill’s character and dealt with him appropriately. And finally, there is a happy ending to the novel!

Friday, 24 August 2018

Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London, which was published in 1933, was George Orwell's first full length work. It is a memoir in two parts in which the narrator describes his experiences of being destitute in both Paris and London.  The book was based on Orwell's experiences of working in hotel kitchens in Paris as a dishwasher (plongeur) when he ran out of money.  He also spent some time living rough on the streets of London as preparation for his writing.

This is more than a personal account of being poor in the early 1930s.  It is also a social commentary on the inequalities of society, capitalism and the stupidity of the legal system which forced homeless people at that time to walk from parish to parish in order to obtain a bed for the night.

Although the topic is quite depressing, the author does manage to make the book interesting through his descriptions of the places and characters he meets.  Memorable characters include Boris the Russian in Paris and Paddy the Irishman and Bozo the street artist in London.  A few comic incidents lighten the book including the description of the narrator's encounter with "a secret society".  This consisted of Russians who then disappeared with some of the narrator's money.  The narrator says, "personally I do not think they had anything  to do with the Communist Party;  I think they were simply swindlers, who preyed upon Russian refugees by extracting entrance fees to an imaginary society."

The book provided an interesting contrast between Paris and London - the narrator did have a job in Paris but had to work very long hours for very little pay.  The Depression in Britain meant that there were lots of men after the same job - if a man found employment there was no job security as the jobs were all casual.  Although the situation in Britain has improved with the introduction  of the Welfare State there is still a huge problem of homelessness which costs the local authorities millions of pounds in providing temporary accommodation for homeless people instead of building affordable homes for people.  The situation of many workers who are trapped in low paid jobs in 2018 is probably not much better than it was for the plongeurs of the book.  This is compounded by the increasing use of zero hours contracts which provide no job security.

The narrator sums up his experiences at the end of the book saying, "I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant.  That is a beginning."

Most of the classics I read are 19th century novels and so this book was a complete contrast.  It was also interesting reading about a different historical period.  In conclusion, I am glad I read Down and Out in Paris and London which was thought provoking and well written.