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Showing posts from February, 2012

Review: The Bell, by Iris Murdoch

Pages: 320
Original date of publication: 1958
My edition: 2001 (Vintage Classics)
Why I decided to read: it’s on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die
How I acquired my copy: The Strand, NYC, July 2011

The Bell is set in the lay community belonging to Imber Abbey, home to an order of sequestered nuns. The Abbey is about to get a new bell, a time-honored symbol of standing witness. At the same time, there’s a legend about the old, medieval bell, which is said to ring when death approaches. Imber Court contains a variety of complicated people: Paul Greenfield, whose wife, Dora, comes back to him after running away; Michael Meade, the head of the community, who has an unpleasant history with Nick Fawley; Nick’s sister Catherine, who is about to enter the religious order, and Toby, a teenage boy who becomes involved with Michael Meade.

Although it’s only February, I can tell that this is going to be one of my top reads for 2012. I loved every bit of this book from start to finish. Altho…

Review: The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

Pages: 452
Original date of publication:
My edition: 2007 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read: at the time it was the sesquicentennial of EW’s birth
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com gift card, April 2011

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is a collection of 20 stories that Edith Wharton wrote over the course of her career. The stories are presented in the order in which they were published, so you get to see how Wharton’s style grew over time. Her stories cover a wide range of people and places, from industrialists to artists and from ballrooms to tenements.

In her novels, such as The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, Wharton tends to focus on the upper classes of turn-of-the-century New York, but what I like about her short stories is that she focuses on a wide range of people. Many of the stories have been published in other volumes (ie, “Pomegranate Seed” also appears in the Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton), but what I like about this collection really shows how she matured a…

Review: A Month in the Country, by JL Carr

Pages: 135
Original date of publication: 1980
My edition: 2000 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read: it’s on the list of NYRB Classics
How I acquired my copy: The Strand, NYC, July 2011

In A Month in the Country, a young art conservationist comes to the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgoodby to restore a medieval wall mural. The novel is set in the summer of 1920 andTom Birkin is still scarred by the Great War and the breaking-up of his marriage.

A Month in the Country is written in almost poetic language and in a slow, lazy style, almost like the summer month in which the book is set. As JL Carr says in his introduction, “my idea was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” There’s definitely a feeling of reminiscing about this book and wistfulness on Tom’s part as he looks back on that summer form a distance of several decades.

The novel is populated with a number of interesting, rounded characters, not the least of which is To…

Review: The Strangers in the House, by Georges Simenon

Pages: 194
Original date of publication: 1940
My edition: 2006 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read: It’s on the list of NYRB Classics
How I acquired my copy: The Strand, NYC, July 2011

What is The Strangers in the House? A mystery? Noir? I had a hard time figuring this dark tale out. In it, a alcoholic, reclusive is woken out of his rut when a murder is committed in his house. It turns out that Loursat’s daughter, Nicole, has been keeping company with a whole host of shady characters, including the dead man. Interestingly enough, Loursat, once a successful attorney, decides to defend the accused man at trial.

Loursat isn’t particularly what you might expect from the hero of a story. Drunk, overweight, dirty, and ugly, it takes a singular event to wake him out of the stupor he’s lived in since his wife abandoned him eighteen years ago. Shutting himself up in his rooms in one part of the house, he’s virtually a stranger to his daughter and their servants. The characters are the driving forc…

Review: Tun-Huang, by Yasushi Inoue

Pages: 201
Original date of publication: 1959
My edition: 2010 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read: it’s on the list of NYRBs
How I acquired my copy: Borders, March 2011

Tun-Huang is a modern re-telling of an old myth. In the early 20th century, a hoard of early Buddhist sutras was discovered in the Tun-Huang caves of western China. This story attempts to recreate the story of how they got there, and it’s the story of Chao Tsing-te, a young man in the 11th century who mistakenly, and serendipitously, sleeps through an important qualifying exam for a government position and ends up in the wilds of northern China and the Silk Road.

It’s a short novel, and in some ways I wish it had been longer. The author literally takes his reader over a lot of ground and a large period of time, and Tsing-te experiences a lot (from distinguishing himself in battle to falling in love). The story itself was interesting, but the author spent a lot of time describing battles, over and over again. There’s also …

Muriel Spark Reading Week, April 23-29

I've decided to jump on board and join Muriel Spark Reading Week, held from April23 to 29 by Simon and Harriet. I've only read three of Muriel Spark's books: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry From Kensington, which I enjoyed, so I'm eager to participate in this challenge. One or more books by Muriel Spark (they're all fairly short); that can't be too hard!

The Sunday Salon

Another Sunday come and gone! I’ve not had much time to read or write, apart from what I’ve been reading and writing for school. For my editing class, we’ve been reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which I can’t believe I haven’t read until now (I was an English major in college, WHY didn't they have us read it).
Because writing is a form of communication, a hallmark of it is to be succinct, and there’s an overwhelming emphasis on the importance of clear, concise writing. There’s an interesting bit in there on how all writers reveal something of their personalities and beliefs through their writing. It’s important for the writer to place himself in the background so that he can achieve a sense of style by having none to start with. It’s a short little book but extremely thought provoking, and it’s really helped me to reconsider my writing—a lot of what appears on my computer screen tends to be superfluous.

It’s always around this time of year that I start hankering after …

Review: That Lady, by Kate O'Brien

Pages: 378
Original date of publication: 1936
My edition: 1985 (Virago)
Why I decided to read: It’s on the list of Virago Modern Classics
How I acquired my copy: the Philly book Trader, July 2010

That Lady is the story Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli, a Spanish aristocrat in the court of King Phillip. She was involved in a mock duel when she was younger and lost an eye, although she was considered to be one of the great beauties of her day. The novel covers the period of time between October 1576 and June 1592, after the death of Ana’s husband and during the time when she was involved in a major scandal and imprisoned.

Ana had a very close friendship with the King (although she was never his mistress), and it was interesting to me to watch the interactions she has with him and with her lover, Antonio Perez. Although Phillip never actually enters the action for much of the book, he, along with Ana and Antonio are very well-rounded characters. Some of the “villains,” however, are a little t…

Review: Consequences, by EM Delafield

Pages: 421
Original date of publication: 1919
My edition: 2000 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Persephone subscription, February 2011
Consequences is a totally different book from The Diary of a Provincial Lady, the only other EM Delafield novel I’ve read—but in a good, albeit sad way. Consequences is the story of the eldest daughter of a large, late-Victorian family, well-connected but not particularly rich. The expectation, of course, is that the daughters marry, but Alex can’t seem to get her act together.
From convent school to an engagement Alex breaks off to convent life, and then a return to London, Alex never feels quite at home anywhere she goes. She’s always looking for someone who will love her, so she finds someone to cling on to until she realizes (too late) that they don’t feel the same way about her. As a result, Alex fails miserably at nearly everything she does, much to the disgust and embarrassment of her siblings, who are all (but the youngest,…

Review: Nella Last's War, by Nella Last

Pages: 320
Original date of publication:
My edition: 2006 (Profile Books)
Why I decided to read: Amazon.com recommendation
How I acquired my copy: Waterstones, Piccadilly, London, September 2011

Nella Last’s War is a compilation of diary entries that Nella Last, a middle-aged housewife, write for the Mass Observation Project during WWII. In her diary, which she later continued on after the war and into the 1950s, Nella chronicles her everyday life, living in Barrow-in-Furness. The diary starts in September 1939 and continues through VE Day.

Although Nella meticulously describes the minutiae of her every day life, her story never gets boring. I think one of the hallmarks of good writing in personal nonfiction (diaries, letters, memoirs, etc.) is finding one’s voice, and Nella certainly did in her diary. She’s an optimistic woman and very, very sweet—although slightly neurotic. She takes pleasure in the small things, even with shortages of food and everything else. One thing that comes across…