Monday, November 30, 2009

Revisiting Elizabeth von Arnim

by Elizabeth von Arnim

The day young Lucy Entwhistle's father died, she was only able to stand, staring, feeling nothing. Along came Wemyss, a man of about forty-five, who had just lost his wife. This shared bereavement brings he and Lucy together: Wemyss makes all the plans for Mr. Entwhistle's funeral, they spend much time together comforting each other, and they soon become engaged. Lucy's aunt, Mrs. Entwhistle, is rather perplexed by the whole turn of affairs, but she determines to like Wemyss for Lucy's sake, even though he shows all the character of a spoiled brat.

Vera was Wemyss's former wife, who died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, yet whose memory permeates much. At first, I thought the story was going to be headed in a similar direction as Rebecca, but even though I didn't particularly like Max de Winter, he had nothing on Wemyss. Everard Wemyss has made my top five list of most hated characters in literature. His behavior made me want to slap him, shake him, finally to punch him. I loved Miss Entwhistle's standing up to him, and wished Lucy was more able to assert herself. But like many in an unhealthy relationship, she's quick to forgive and forget. Reading about them as they progressed from engagement into marriage was like watching a car crash - you know it's going to be terrible, but can't help continuing.

I read this after reading and loving The Enchanted April, the book that was, incidentally, written directly after this one. Vera was much more sobering, though it did have moments of humor, such as when Miss Entwhistle thinks that Wemyss's courting is "not vegetarian," and the one-word pronouncements of the widow whom Miss Entwhistle takes as an oracle. I am thrilled to have met a new author this month, and look forward to reading more of Elizabeth von Arnim's books.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fun in Discworld

Unseen Academicals
by Terry Pratchett

Foot-the-ball is one of the most watched and dangerous games played in Ankh-Morpork. Lord Vetinari is said not to like the game, but a brilliant tyrant like he must know he'd have a riot on his hands if he tried to stop it. When Ponder Stebbins discovers that the Unseen University will lose some trust funds if they don't field a team, Lord Vetinari brilliantly maneuvers to help them and to get the game under control.

So now the Discworld series has grown to 30+ books, including a few teen titles. Too late to jump in? Not at all! Characteristically of Pratchett's stories, this has a mix of fantasy, satire, and slapstick that suits my weird sense of humor. Trevor, Glenda, Juliet, and Nutt are fun characters to spend time with, and I liked seeing their relationships change (with more than a nod to Romeo and Juliet thrown in for good measure) and each of them grow over the course of the book. This one stands with Lords and Ladies as one of my favorite in the series.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Enchanting Read

The Enchanted April
by Elizabeth von Arnim

This delightful tale introduces four women - Lotty Wilkins, Rose Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester who come away on holiday to Italy for the month of April. None of them had spoken to each other before making these plans to rent San Salvatore. They are together out of convenience, merely to share expenses. All of them have their own private reasons for coming to San Salvatore. Their internalized thoughts, dreams, and loneliness make up the majority of the plot, as their stay in Italy works its magic on them. The warm and languid tone of the writing matches their ideal Italian holiday of rest and relaxation, and is infused with humor. It made me want to take my own holiday, though spending some quiet time reading about these women and their lives was a wonderful second choice.

This book was a half-planned, half-whim choice because the LibraryThing group Monthly Author reads decided to read Elizabeth von Arnim in November. This was a bit of a whim for me because I knew absolutely nothing about the author, had never read any of her books before, and just picked The Enchanted April on a whim because there were several copies available on interlibrary loan. It was a truly enchanting introduction to this author, and I'm looking forward to reading more of her works.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Author Interviews - the Paris Review anthology

The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1

Full disclosure: I didn't want to read this book. I'd requested it from the library on a whim after hearing Philip Gourevitch on Nancy Pearl's "Book Lust" podcast talking about his work selecting the "best of" author interviews from The Paris Review for this collection series. The book came in along with a bunch of other interlibrary loans, and as the due date approached, I picked it up. I hadn't read many of the featured authors, and those that I had were not really to my taste. So I started reading it with the plan that after the requisite 50 pages, I would be able to return it to the library and thus whittle down my stack.

Then I read the first interview, featuring Dorothy Parker. She was a hoot! I've never read any of her stories, but after so enjoying her sense of humor, I was ready to check out her complete short story collection from my library. Still not entirely convinced to keep reading, I approached the next interviews with some trepidation: Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. Both men had such intriguing things to say about their writing. Alright, so I probably won't read any Hemingway besides The Old Man and the Sea which I read for school, but it was awfully encouraging to see him poking a little bit of fun at the folks who saw a symbol in everything. Now in the full thrall of these interviews, I started taking my time, reading two or three interviews a day, spacing it out so I didn't get my authors confused or crowd out a particularly satisfying one with the next.

Two in particular stand out to me: those featuring Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Gottlieb. Vonnegut's impressed me because it helped me to understand his writing a bit more. I read Slaughterhouse-Five last year, and didn't really like it. I could appreciate what he was doing, but had trouble following and making sense of the narrative, and I had the sneaking suspicion that the author was dangling the story in front of me with the taunt "I know something you don't know." As he talked about his experience in World War 2 during this interview, especially the bombing of Dresden, I started to realize that much of this was what he knew from the war and began to wonder if part of the challenge with the form of the story was that he didn't really know how to make sense of it either. Though it didn't change my personal opinion of the book, it gave me a bit more insight into what went into it. The second stand out was the discussion with Robert Gottlieb. Rather than a traditional interview, it was more like the transcript of a documentary in which not only he himself but several of the writers whom he had edited talked about working with him in the editing process. This method gave me a very fleshed out, holistic impression of him as an editor and reader, and I really enjoyed the fresh approach.

So from reluctantly picking it up with the plan of abandoning it, I've transformed in the reading to not wanting to return it to the library. My wishlist has grown by three books, because I'm certain I'll want to read the other compilations in this series as well.