Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Happy New Year!


Friends, to be honest, I'm not sorry to see 2019 go. I'm hopeful for the new year, and I wish you health, happiness, and fantastic reading in 2020!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (1934)


Taking place over a period of thirty six hours, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra delves deeply into life in a small town in 1930 and into the lives of its most glamorous young couple, Julian English and his beautiful wife Caroline. Julian is the handsome, wealthy owner of a car dealership in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, (population of almost 25,000) near Philadelphia. His success seems to extend to his marriage to Caroline who manages their upscale house and gives successful parties. They are members of the exclusive country club set.

At the heart of Julian's problems is that he's an alcoholic. The term is never mentioned in the novel, but O'Hara makes clear that since his university days, Julian has been a heavy drinker who also likes to drink and drive.

When the novel begins, it's Christmas Eve, and Julian and Caroline are at a party where an inebriated Julian throws a drink into the face of Harry Reilly, a prominent businessman and Catholic, leaving Reilly with a black eye. 

Julian's action is the beginning of several events in which Julian acts impulsively. By the evening of December 26, his life has spectacularly and dramatically spiraled out of control. His business, his reputation, and most importantly, his marriage have been affected, and he has nowhere to turn. Through this unraveling, we find out some truths about Julian and the people around him, and especially his complicated marriage.

Appointment in Samarra is my first John O'Hara novel, and I have mixed feelings. O'Hara leaves no stone unturned, and he goes into the detailed backstory of many of the characters. The writing style reminds me a bit of Richard Yates and Sloan Wilson. The sex is lurid for 1934 and makes me think of Peyton Place and also makes me wonder how audiences of the day accepted the novel. My feeling upon finishing the book is that it was too long. Julian's story ended, but there is one more chapter which didn't add anything to the overall narrative. 

What I found fascinating about Appointment in Samarra was O'Hara's portrayal of this generation of people of all classes who lived through World War I and who came back to their town, a town that's just beginning to face some hard times because of the Depression. 

Have you read Appointment in Samarra or any of John O'Hara's novels?

Monday, December 9, 2019

Remarks on Recent Reads: The Books of November


Hello, Reading Friends. I wanted to pop in and say a few words about my November reading. While I had big plans for Nonfiction November, other books called to me. Does that ever happen to you? 

Nonfiction

In An Unfinished Woman (1969), Lillian Hellman recounts her fascinating life of a brilliant childhood in New Orleans, a failed marriage, New York City in the 1920s with Hellman's famous friends, eventful trips to Spain, Germany and Russia before World War II, and Hellman's complicated relationship with Dashiell Hammett. What I wanted more of was what Hellman's life as a playwright was like. Otherwise, this was a great read.

Fiction

I've read several of Antonia White's novels this past year and enjoyed her writing. Strangers (1981) is a collection of short stories in which each story involves a woman in a dilemma. Many of the stories deal with familiar themes or situations if you've read any of White's work--religion, difficulties in marriage, depression, and mental illness, just to name a few. While I enjoyed the stories, I might have liked them more if I hadn't read White's books. 


Continuing on with A Dance to the Music of Time, I read three more novels, all of them satisfying reads. The Soldier's Art (1967) was my favorite of the three, picking up with Nicholas Jenkins in 1941 and his life in World War II. Much of the novel deals with Nick's encounters with various personalities in the military and old friends he meets along the way. The war affects Nick's life in ways he hadn't imagined, and circumstances find him working as an assistant to the ever present, annoying and ambitious Kenneth Widmerpool.  

The Military Philosophers (1969) begins with 1942. Nick works at Whitehall and has been tasked with looking after a group of Poles in Allied Liasion. The present and past confront Nick with events of the war. He meets up with the glamorous free spirit, Pamela Flitton, who goes on to become the wife of Widmerpool.

Books Do Furnish A Room (1971) finds Nick after the war at his old university to conduct research for a book about Robert Burton. As always, old friends appear as do new acquaintances, namely the introduction of the esoteric writer X. Trapnel. Nick meets Trapnel through his association with a literary journal, but Trapnel remains in the forefront with his relationship with Pamela Widmerpool, which sheds light on the complicated Widmerpool marriage. 

Mystery and Psychological Suspense
Buried for Pleasure by Edmund Crispin (1948) is a cozy mystery, in which Oxford don Gervase Fen visits the village of Sanford Angelorum for a change of scenery from academic life and to canvas as an Independent party candidate. Soon, he finds himself embroiled in mystery initially involving a blackmailer which later becomes a murder mystery. The characters of the village are fun, but sometimes the dialogue is a bit stilted.

The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah (2008) is the story of Sally who takes a trip to get away from the demands of being a wife and mother. In many of Hannah's books, motherhood is complicated and fraught with danger. Sally has a fling with a man she meets in the hotel bar, something which comes back to haunt her in a gripping story of mistaken identity and murder. Hannah weaves an intricate plot that kept me guessing until the very end.

Edith's Diary by Patricia Highsmith (1977) takes place in the 1950. As in several of Highsmith's novels, there's lots of social drinking. The novel is a  depressing and unsettling tale of a woman whose circumstances become so troubled that she creates an alternate reality in her diary, a life far more pleasant. Soon, reality and fiction start to merge in Edith's mind as she descends into madness. I enjoyed Edith's Diary but not as much as some of Highsmith's earlier novels. Edith's Diary has been featured in a recent episode of Backlisted Podcast.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers (1928) is a cracking good murder mystery that depends upon the details of a will and the times of death of elderly General Fentiman, found dead in an armchair at the Bellona Club, and his sister, Lady Dormer, who dies in her home across town. Lord Peter Wimsey and his trusty manservant, Ludd, uncover secrets and details as they solve a mystery that has a great twist. The story takes place against the backdrop of Armistice Day and the challenges World War I veterans faced in society.  

It's hard to pick a favorite among these November reads because I enjoyed them all. My December reading plans are continue on with The Dance series and finish the last two books in the series. Also, I want to read a Christmas themed book, perhaps Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford, which will be a reread.

What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

In Praise of Autumn


Greetings, Bookish Friends. In my neighborhood, Christmas decorations are going up, Christmas decorations have appeared in the stores, and Christmas advertisements are becoming more frequent, but I'm still enjoying autumn. 

Below are some favorite sayings from a season I love . . .

"Delicious autumn! My soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking successive autumns." --George Eliot

"Days decrease, and autumn grows, autumn in everything."--Robert Browning

"Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree."--Emily Bronte

"The trees had stripped down to their black bones and had heaped leaves in drifts against hedges and walls. Children played amongst them, tossing armfuls into the air, screaming in and out like swimmers at the sea's edge."--J.L. Carr

I'm attempting to read two books this week, a challenge with the distractions of the news. Continuing with the Dance to the Music of Time, I'm into Book 9, The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell. In nonfiction, I've started An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir by Lillian Hellman.

I hope you're having a wonderful week. What are you reading?

Monday, November 4, 2019

Remarks on Recent Reads: The Books of October


Greetings, Bookish Friends. In October, I read books for the Halloween season and continued on with the next two novels of A Dance to the Music of Time. It was a satisfying month of reading. 

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie (1969) is a Hercule Poirot novel and one of Christie's later novels. The story takes place at Woodleigh Common. At a children's party, Joyce Reynolds, thirteen years old and well known for her tall tales, divulges that she's witnessed a murder but didn't realize at the time that it was a murder. She's later found drowned in the tub used to bob for apples. The eccentric writer Aridane Oliver, guest at Woodleigh Common and attendee at the Hallowe'en party, prevails upon her good friend Poirot to solve the murder mystery. I found Hallowe'en Party to be readable but not as interesting as Christie's earlier novels.

I wrote a post earlier in October about A House and its Head by Ivy Compton Burnett (1935), the story of a Victorian family and the reverberations created by the death of the mother of the family. It's a fascinating study of a family and its attempt to withstand scandal while retaining its good name. Compton-Burnett's writing style in this novel is notable for its absence of any kind of exposition and feels at times like reading a play.

Where the Truth Lies by Julie Corbin (2010) is another one of Corbin's tightly written thrillers set amidst a seemingly perfect family. Cracks develop when Claire finds out that her attorney husband has been getting threatening letters about harming their three year old daughter unless he divulges information on the whereabouts of a key witness in an important trial. This is the second novel I've read by Julie Corbin, and I found myself reading late into the night to find out how the story would end.

Starlight by Stella Gibbons (1967), which I talked about in an earlier post, was my favorite read of October and a great Halloween read. Gibbons' novel has unforgettable characters, a spooky house, and the presence of an evil spirit. Starlight has dark humor, suspense and horror, and I loved it.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959), featured in a post, is a riveting horror novel about four people who spend time in the mysterious Hill House to research ghostly activity. The story is intense and suspenseful, and the novel makes me want to read more by Shirley Jackson.

I continued on with my reading of novels 6 and 7 of A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. The Kindly Ones (1962) begins with flashbacks of Nicholas Jenkins' boyhood while the rest of the novel deals with the days leading up to World War II. I found myself engrossed in the poignant story and wonderful writing and hated for the novel to end. The Valley of the Bones (1964), known as the first novel of the war trilogy, has to do with Jenkins joining up with his regiment as the second lieutenant. Much of the novel deals the different personalities Nick encounters, and of course, Widmerpool is never far away. While I found the novel readable, I didn't enjoy it as much as The Kindly Ones.

At Mrs. Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor (1945) is Taylor's first novel, and I found it quite brilliant. It's a multi-layered story of a family during World War II, and all the complications that arise out of living in Mrs. Lippincote's house. Julia and her husband, Roddy, have a complicated marriage and a young son, Oliver. Julia's a bit unpredictable and a dreamer. She lacks the adoration for her husband that he'd like although he gets that adoration from his unmarried cousin, Eleanor, who also lives with the family. The story has the subtly and social comedy of Elizabeth Taylor's writing that I love. There's also a sense of foreboding and even spookiness that comes from the house and a strange young relative of Mrs. Lippincote's who comes and goes at odd times. Although not my favorite of Taylor's novels, I still loved the story and the lovely writing. 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (2018) begins with Harriet Westaway, known as Hal, a young woman who's a tarot reader on the boardwalk in Brighton. She receives a letter about a mysterious bequest which she thinks has been sent to the wrong person. Hal struggles to make ends meet and fears for her life from a criminal to whom she owes money. She leaves town to meet the Westaway family and the lawyer about her supposed bequest. While this novel was entertaining and had shades of Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart, much of the novel hinges on a "secret worth dying for" that ultimately didn't live up to the hype for me.

My favorite reads of October were Starlight and At Mrs. Lippincote's. Ivy Compton-Burnett, Shirley Jackson, and Ruth Ware were new authors to me. 

What was your favorite read of October?