Day 1103: A Man Called Ove

Cover for A Man Called OveI avoided reading A Man Called Ove for some time, because I had a feeling about what kind of book it would be. But my curiosity won out. Sadly, I was right the first time.

This is another one of those novels I put under the “heartfelt” category. Not that there is anything wrong with something that is truly heartfelt. But I think there is a rash of novels like this lately that manipulate us into sentiment.

Ove is a sad man with many tragedies in his life, which he handles by presenting a curmudgeonly exterior. Most recently, he has been given early retirement six months after his beloved wife Sonja died. He decides his life has no purpose.

The plot of this novel is predictable, as Ove gets pulled out of his self-absorption by the troubles of various neighbors and acquaintances. All of these characters are stick figures, and Ove himself only has two sides to his character. In fact, he is really just a caricature of a grumpy old man, as I can’t imagine there is actually anyone on earth this extreme.

The novel is supposed to be funny, but the humor is forced and cumbersome. And we’re supposed to find it funny that Ove’s repeated attempts at suicide are always interrupted by his neighbors. Ha ha. As you can tell, this one was not for me.

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Day 1102: The Essex Serpent

Cover for The Essex SerpentIn 1885, Cora Seabourne is a recent widow and is happy to be so, as her husband abused her. For the first time, she feels free and is not eager to remarry, even though surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett is in love with her.

Cora is interested in fossils and has made a heroine of the early fossil finder Mary Anning, so she moves with her son Frankie and her friend Martha to Essex, where she can explore the sea coast. Soon after arriving, she hears rumors of the Essex serpent, a monster that has been supposedly terrorizing the area. There are rumors of slain farm animals and lost children. Cora hopes to find a living prehistoric animal. The villagers are more superstitious, and an aura of dread soon develops.

Cora finds happiness rambling around the countryside, so she delays introducing herself to the Ambroses, Reverend William and his wife Stella. But when she finally meets them, they become fast friends. In particular, Will and Cora enjoy debating such subjects as science versus religion, a topic made even more controversial since Darwin’s discoveries. Sadly, it soon becomes obvious that Stella has tuberculosis.

This novel evokes the ideas and preoccupations of the Victorian age. Although it has quite a few characters, they are all convincingly portrayed. I was deeply interested in the novel. It presents a fully realized world, vividly imagined and described.

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Day 1101: Thomas Hardy

Cover for Thomas HardyThomas Hardy has long been one of my favorite Victorian writers, so when I learned that Claire Tomalin had written his biography, I set about getting a copy. Tomalin has made a career of writing interesting and readable but meticulously documented biographies of mostly literary figures and has become one of my favorite biographers.

Tomalin shows that Hardy was a contradictory man—shy but eager to socialize in intellectual circles, resenting early snubs but nevertheless a snob himself, an inner-living man who still welcomed all who came to see him. Hardy was the son of an uneducated builder and a house servant, both of whom encouraged him in his efforts to gain an education and better himself. But in those days this was difficult, and he never achieved his dream of a Cambridge education. Instead, he went to work at 16 in an architect’s office.

Above all else, Hardy became a writer who challenged conventional attitudes toward women, sex in literature, and religion. Almost from the beginning of his career, while still writing formula novels, he ran into trouble with editors wanting to censor his work. His publication of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, with its subtitle “A Pure Woman,” caused an uproar. Although I have read many of his novels, it was fascinating to read about them in terms of events going on in his own life.

What I had not read much of is his poetry. Hardy always considered himself a poet rather than a novelist, and at the height of his career, after publication of Jude the Obscure, he caused another furor by quitting his novel-writing career to concentrate on poetry. Tomalin is obviously a fan of his poetry, and although I am not much of a poetry reader, the snippets she reproduces are musical and beautiful, and the context she gives them fascinating.

Tomalin begins her book with the story of Hardy’s regret after his first wife’s death that they had grown apart. The story of that relationship, as well as that with his second wife, is also very interesting.

Tomalin has a gift for breathing life into her subjects so that you feel as if you understand them, at least a little. If you have any interest in Thomas Hardy, you’ll find this a compelling book.

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First Classics Club List Complete!

I have not posted all of the reviews yet, but with Henry VI, Part III, I just finished all of the books on my first Classics Club list. I completed my list almost two years ahead of my posted deadline of February 12, 2019!

That means that I am ready to post my second Classics Club list! I will continue to show my first list in my Classics Club page until all my reviews are posted, and then I will copy it off to a subsidiary page and post my new list.

My first list was an experiment, as I had never belonged to a blogging club before, so many of my selections were old favorites that I hadn’t read in a long time. I think a brief summary of my reading for this first list is called for.

Top Five Books from My First List

Least Favorite Books from My First List

My New List!

I can’t seem to bring myself to make a list of 100 books at a time for the Classics Club. I think it is more satisfying for me to finish shorter lists faster than to finish a long list more slowly. This list is different from my previous one in that I have only previously read about half a dozen of the books on this list. I am posting this list on June 30, 2017, and I plan to finish it by June 29, 2021.

I made this list some time ago, so I see that I have already finished one of the books, The Lark, by E. Nesbitt.

15th Century

  • Le Morte D’arthur by Thomas Malory (1485)

16th Century

  • The Prince by Machievelli (1532)
  • Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (1592)
  • Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (1588-1593)

17th Century

  • Oroonoko by Aphra Behn (1688)
  • The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster (1612-13)

18th Century

  • Evelina by Frances Burney (1778)
  • The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771)

19th Century

  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814)
  • Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1863)
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)
  • The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins (1879)
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880)
  • The Viscounte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas (1848)
  • Letters from Egypt by Lucie Duff-Gordon (1865)
  • The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Mrs. Oliphant (1890)
  • Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott (1821)
  • The Heir of Redclyff by Charlotte M. Yonge (1853)

20th Century

  • The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1907)
  • My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (1926)
  • The Old Man’s Birthday by Richmal Crompton (1934)
  • Consequences by E. M. Delafield (1930)
  • Vanishing Cornwall by Daphne du Maurier (1967)
  • This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
  • The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)
  • Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame (1957)
  • The Winged Horse by Pamela Frankau (1953)
  • My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)
  • Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn (1907)
  • The Lady and the Unicorn by Rumer Godden (1937)
  • Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (1934)
  • Joanna Godden by Sheila Kay-Smith (1921)
  • The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski (1953)
  • Greenery Street by Denis MacKail (1925)
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)
  • Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery (1909)
  • The Lark by E. Nesbit (1902)
  • Mary Lavelle by Kate O’Brien (1936)
  • The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault (1956)
  • The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini (1915)
  • Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (2016, but written around 1920)
  • Challenge by Vita Sackville-West (1923)
  • Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson (1934)
  • August Folly by Angela Thirkell (1936)
  • I Go by Land, I Go by Sea by P. L. Travers (1941)
  • Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton (1907)
  • Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple (1949)
  • The Priory by Dorothy Whipple (1939)
  • The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf (1913)
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

 

Day 1100: The Stranger’s Child

Cover for The Stranger's ChildI had the oddest experience with The Stranger’s Child. Although it was well written and sounded like something I would be interested in, for a while every time I started to read it, I fell asleep. There is very little movement to this novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the end of it had me wondering what the point of it was.

The novel is multigenerational, beginning in 1913 and ending in 2008. In 1913, Daphne Sawle, who is 16, is attracted to her brother George’s friend, Cecil Valance, down for a visit from Cambridge. Cecil is an aristocrat and a poet. Unbeknownst to naive Daphne, he and George are having a wild affair.

The next section of the book takes place ten years after World War I. Cecil died in the war, and the family is dedicating a memorial to him. The family includes Daphne, as she has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and they have two children. However, she is in love with Revel Ralph, a set designer for the theater.

By far the bulk of the novel is set in the 1960’s and 70’s and is from the point of view of Paul Bryant. In the 1960’s, he is a shy bank clerk. He has become involved with the family through his boss, who has married into it, and through his affair with Peter Rowe, a schoolteacher at Corley House, which used to be the Valance home. Cecil is now regarded as one of England’s minor poets.

Ten years later, Paul is a biographer, determined to out Cecil as a gay man despite the claims of Daphne to have been his fianceé. It is unfortunate that I found this main character of the longest section to be so unappealing and completely focused on who was or was not gay, although I realize that the 1970’s was the time for that kind of revelation.

Part of my problem with the novel may have been the blurb, which really oversells aspects of the plot. For example, it says, “Over time, a tragic love story is spun . . . .” Well, there are several love stories that come out, but I wouldn’t call any of them tragic, and it’s actually difficult to tell which of them this comment refers to. One of the secrets is so understated during the novel that even though it is the last revelation, it seems anticlimactic. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic that Paul is so focused on the possibility of one affair that he completely misses another.

Finally, this is a novel so focused on the sexuality of its characters that it gives the impression that the entire upper class male population of England is gay. We see a little into Daphne’s infatuations, but otherwise, only from the point of view of various gay men trolling for sex or obsessing about it. Those of you who know me will realize that I would have the same complaint if the sole focus was on heterosexual sex. So, not one of my favorites for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 1099: The Moving Toyshop

Cover for The Moving ToyshopI am sure I previously read one of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries and was not impressed, but lately several bloggers I enjoy have recommended The Moving Toyshop. So, I decided to try him again.

Richard Cadogen has decided to give himself a holiday in Oxford. When he ends up stranded partway because of the cancellation of a train, he decides to hitchhike the rest of the way. So, he arrives in the outskirts of Oxford at 1 AM.

Curiosity makes him investigate a toy shop that he finds unlocked. Upstairs in the living quarters, he discovers the dead body of an older woman, strangled. Then someone hits him on the head.

When he awakens, he is locked in a closet. He gets out by the window and reports the crime to the police. However, when they arrive at the store, it’s a grocery. The apartment is different than the one he remembers and there is no body. The police think he is crazy.

Cadogen turns to his friend, the eccentric Oxford don, Gervase Fen. Their inquiries begin to turn up a plot to defraud the victim of her inheritance. The problem is, first they have too many suspects and later too few.

This novel has a complicated, fairly unbelievable plot, but it is characterized by a wacky sense of humor, as Gervase and his pals chase bad guys all over town. At one point, he is assisted by a hoard of undergraduates, and the novel ends with an exciting chase on a fast-moving carousel, a la The Third Man. I found the novel fun to read and the characters engaging.

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