Friday, February 27, 2015

Have A Lovely Weekend!

John White Abbott, An Italianate Landscape, ca. 1800
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Snow-Flakes.

The Review: The Travelling Horn Player by Barbara Trapido

Barbara Trapido's The Travelling Horn Player is a story about the death of Lydia Dent and how her death affects and connects the other characters in the story. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the main characters--Ellen Dent (university student and also Lydia's sister), Jonathan Goldman (novelist), and Stella Goldman (university student, cellist, and Jonathan's daughter). The Travelling Horn Player is funny at times, poignant, sad, perplexing and ultimately exasperating.

I liked the first half of the book. Lydia's sister, Ellen, describes their childhood and reveals amusing stories. The two girls are vivacious and fun, and it made me feel sad that Ellen's life would be forever changed by her sister's death. 

Through family connections, Lydia asks noted writer Jonathan Goldman to help her with an essay on Germanic poetry. What follows is the two of them meeting at a flat where he does his writing and carries on an affair with his latest girlfriend, Sonia, without his wife finding out. Through a misunderstanding and mistaken identity, Lydia runs from Jonathan's flat and into oncoming traffic where she's hit by a car and dies.

Jonathan has lunch frequently with Sally who is married to his brother, Roger, a mathmetician. Roger makes life difficult in a number of ways for Sally. For example, he ruins the pots and pans in his effort to adhere to his strict and bizarre diet, and he finds it tiresome to wear clothes when he's at home.

Then, there's Izzy, a friend of Ellen's at the university in Edinburgh. He's a starving artist in need of a bath who lives like a pig. Jonathan's daughter, Stella, who is at the same university meets Izzy through Ellen. Izzy and Stella fall in love, and she becomes his muse. He begins an obsession with Stella, and he works on painting after painting of Stella.

Besides Lydia, Stella is a tragedy of the story. She's dyslexic and has a hard time fitting in but discovers her talent as a cellist. Living with Izzy, she ends up pregnant and later learns she has contracted HIV from him. Stella marries another classmate, Peregrine Massingham, known as Pen, who comes from an affluent Scottish family. (Pen and his eccentric family are the bright spots of the second half of the book.)

The ending of the novel has twists and turns in which several of the characters make decisions that don't seem plausible. I found it hard to believe that Ellen would meet Roger and find him irresistible. Stella, who learns that her health is much improved towards the end of the novel, meets up with Izzy and makes a spectacularly bad decision that affects the rest of her life.

I wanted to like this novel more than I did, but I became too frustrated with the characters and the plot. Also, it was hard to like several of the characters. 

If you are familiar with The Travelling Horn Player, I'd love to know your thoughts.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Happy Tuesday! I hope that your week is going well so far. I'm participating in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, where anyone can share a bit about what they are reading or planning to read soon.

Today, I'm talking about The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. This novel (which I'm about to start) is a selection of my book club, and I'll be reading the Kindle version.

From Goodreads:

"Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She's even started to feel like she knows them. "Jess and Jason," she calls them. Their life--as she sees it--is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It's only a minute until the train moves on, but it's enough. Now everything's changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?"

The first paragraph:

"She's buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really. I didn't want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn't leave her without remembrance. She'll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains."

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Back to the Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

John Singer Sargent, Lady with Parasol, c. 1900

I had an opportunity to read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900) in January. I knew nothing about Sister Carrie, so I had no expectations. What I discovered was a fascinating study of Carrie and the two men in her life, Charles Drouet and George Hurstwood, and all their wants and desires, set against the backdrop of the Industrial Age in Chicago and later in New York City. Also, I wanted to read Sister Carrie for the Very Long Classic category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Karen over at Books and Chocolate

Beautiful eighteen year old Carrie wants an exciting life when she moves from her parents' farm in Wisconsin to Chicago and into the home of her sister and brother-in-law. She finds a job so that she can pay rent. Carrie works in a shoe factory of sorts but is unprepared for the appalling working conditions, not to mention the unsavory people she encounters. She also finds her sister's home to be dreary. 

She longs for another kind of life, the life that Drouet, a travelling salesman that she meets on the train at the beginning of the story, offers her. He buys her beautiful clothes and moves her into a large, fashionable apartment. Carrie gives a fleeting thought to the fact that she's Drouet's mistress, but that seems a minor detail. 

Influential, respected in the business community, and the manager of an upscale bar, Hurstwood, a friend of Drouet's, has connections in Chicago. Hurstwood's home life is a stark contrast--he's in a loveless marriage with an exacting, social climbing wife and grown children who barely give him a second thought. It's no surprise that Hurstwood becomes enchanted by Carrie.

The two have an affair. Drouet finds out, and soon Hurstwood's wife guesses what's happening while Carrie is surprised to learn that Hurstwood is married. Fate and a series of events are set in motion which result in Carrie and Hurstwood starting a new life together in New York City as husband and wife but under assumed names. Hurstwood struggles to find work and establish himself as he had in Chicago. 

Carrie finds herself once again in a situation that is not what she wants. Hurstwood is distant, and she knows that he's given up looking for work. With money running out, Carrie leaves Hurstwood and takes her chances as a chorus girl. She soon moves up, getting speaking parts in shows.

Without Hurstwood or Drouet, Carrie finds success, fame and fortune, but it doesn't make her happy. Meanwhile, Hurstwood falls far from where he was when he first met Carrie. This once proud and successful man now resorts to begging and depending on charity.

Dreiser writes about what life was like during the Industrial Revolution in a realistic way. I can't say that I blame Carrie for turning to Drouet when her work experience was so dismal. It was hard to put down the book because I wondered what would become of Carrie.

What was a bit tiresome about Sister Carrie was how long Dreiser went on about the fate of Hurstwood. Despite Hurstwood's faults, I wanted him to find a way to turn his life around. But the great detail Dreiser goes into about the depressing day to day existence of Hurstwood seemed to stall the story a bit.

An overriding theme of this story has to do with being careful what you wish for. Hurstwood wanted Carrie and saw himself in some kind of rivalry with Drouet that Hurstwood was determined to win. Without Drouet, would Hurstwood would have been so taken with Carrie? Once he had Carrie all to himself, Hurstwood wasn't happy with her and missed his old life as the man about town in Chicago. And once Carrie got the money and fame she desired, she wasn't happy either. 

It was interesting to read about the different aspects of what life was like, especially for a woman of limited means, in a big city at the turn of the twentieth century, and how money and class affected that experience. I recommend Sister Carrie.

Robert Henri, Snow in New York, c. 1902
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

I read the Kindle version of Sister Carrie and also listened to part of the audio book, narrated by C.M. Hebert. The narration was wonderful. And I had a great time reading Sister Carrie along with Care's Online Book Club 

If you've read Sister Carrie, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Happy Tuesday! Today I'm participating in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, where readers can share the opening of a book they are reading or thinking of reading. It's really fun to see what everyone's choices are, and anyone can participate!

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf is a book that that I've had on my TBR list for awhile. 

From Goodreads:

"Katherine Hilbery is beautiful and privileged, but uncertain of her future. She must choose between becoming engaged to the oddly prosaic poet William Rodney, and her dangerous attraction to the passionate Ralph Denham. As she struggles to decide, the lives of two other women--women's rights activist Mary Datchet, and Katherine's mother, Margaret, struggling to weave together the documents, events and memories of her own father's life into a biography--impinge on hers with unexpected and intriguing consequences. Virginia Woolf's delicate second novel is both a love story and a social comedy, yet it also subtly undermines these traditions, questioning a woman's role and the very nature of experience."

Here is the first paragraph:

"It was a Sunday evening in October, and in common with many other young ladies of her class, Katherine Hilbery was pouring out tea. Perhaps a fifth part of her mind was thus occupied, and the remaining parts leapt over the little barrier of day which interposed between Monday morning and this rather subdued moment, and played with the things one does voluntarily and normally in the daylight. But although she was silent, she was evidently mistress of a situation which was familiar enough to her, and inclined to let it take its way for the six hundredth time, perhaps, without bringing into play any of her unoccupied faculties. A single glance was enough to show that Mrs. Hilbery was so rich in the gifts which make tea parties of elderly distinguished people successful, that she scarcely needed any help from her daughter, provided that the tiresome business of teacups and bread and butter was discharged for her."

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Remarks on Recent Reads: February Edition

I hope that all is going well with your reading. Mine hasn't been all that it could be, mainly due to my getting over a cold, and the other reason is I've been in a bit of a reading slump.

Here's how things have been looking on the reading front:

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. This novel is an example of what Sophie Kinsella does best, and that is to create a wonderful romantic comedy. Samatha Sweeting is a high powered London attorney. Her work is her life, and she's on the fast track to becoming partner. Then, she makes a mistake, and not just a small one. Unable to face her boss, Samantha walks out of her office, gets on a train and ends up in the middle of nowhere. She stops at an estate to ask directions and through a comedy of errors, Samantha is mistaken for the new hired help. This was a fun read and one I recommend.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell. The novel begins with university student Lexie, who leaves home and moves to Soho, London of the 1950s to be with magazine editor Innes Kent. In the present day, Elina is dealing with the physical and emotional challenges of recovering from a cesarean that almost ended her life. (And she has to care for her newborn son through this without any help!) Her partner, Ted, is preoccupied with his job as film editor. The story line from the past and Elina and Ted's story line are intertwined, although it takes awhile to see how. The novel has to do with how we remember things and how damaging family secrets can be. O'Farrell's writing is beautiful, but I found this novel to be a bit of a disquieting read.

Living on Yesterday by Edith Templeton. This was Templeton's second novel, published in 1951. Here, we meet Baroness Kreslov, who is good at arranging everyone else's lives. Her daughter, Hedy, is the obedient daughter. When the Baroness sets eyes on handsome Count Szalay, she wants him to marry her daughter. The count has no money, but he has a more damning secret. He's happy to marry Hedy for her money. Hedy is on to the count's secret and is in the mood to defy her mother. This is a novel that has a little comedy and a little drama. I loved the pithy, honest observations the servants make about their employers. I recommend this novel (despite the hideous book cover).

The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg. I wanted to like this mystery. The back cover of the book calls it an "electrifying tale of suspense from an international crime-writing sensation" in which "a grisly death exposes the dark heart of a Scandinavian seaside village." And yet, one hundred pages into the book, I found the writing style to be pedestrian and found nothing remarkable about the characters, so I didn't read more of the book. This novel is a translation, and I wonder if that is the problem with the book. I don't read many translations of books. (This edition was translated by Steven T. Murray.) Have you read The Ice Princess, or are you familiar with Lackberg's work?

If you've read any of these novels, or even if you haven't, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Happy reading! 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day!

Muse, bid the Morn awake!
Sad Winter now declines,
Each bird doth choose a mate;
This day's Saint Valentine's.
Michael Drayton, To His Valentine.

Oh, if it be to choose and call thee mine, 
Love, thou art every day my Valentine!
Thomas Hood, For the Fourteenth of February.

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime.
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act iv, sc. 5, 1.48.

I claim there ain't Another Saint 
As great as Valentine.
Ogden Nash, I Always Say a Good Saint is No Worse than a Bad Cold.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Have A Lovely Weekend!

Childe Hassam, Poppies, Isles of Shoals, ca. 1891
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: The School of Essential Ingredients

Happy Tuesday! I'm participating in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, where readers share a bit about what they're reading or thinking about reading. It's really fun, and anyone can join in.

My selection is The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister (2009).

From the back cover of the book:

"Once a month on a Monday night, eight students gather in Lillian's restaurant for a cooking class. Among them is Claire, a young woman coming to terms with her new identity as a mother; Tom, a lawyer whose life has been overturned by a loss; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer adapting to life in America; Carl and Helen, a long-married couple whose union contains surprises the rest of the class would never suspect.

The students have come to learn the art behind Lillian's soulful dishes, but it soon becomes clear that each seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. And, one by one, they are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of what they create . . . "

Here is the opening:

"Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway, rain-soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her--ripe sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through her, even as she searched out those that might suggest a rotting orange at the bottom of a pile, or whether the new assistant chef was still double-dosing the curry dishes. She was. The girl was a daughter of a friend and good enough with knives, but some days, Lillian thought with a sigh, it was like trying to teach subtlety to a thunderstorm."

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Have A Lovely Weekend!

William Merritt Chase, A Friendly Call, 1895
Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Carrington: A Life by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

I've been curious about the artist Dora Carrington (1893-1932) for awhile, especially since reading Love in Bloomsbury by Frances Partridge last year. It seems that people either loved Carrington (as she preferred to be known) or disliked her. She led a complicated and exciting life which ended much too soon when she committed suicide after the death of her beloved Lytton Strachey. I was thrilled to find this biography, Carrington: A Life by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (1995). My plan this past weekend was start this biography, but then I found it impossible to put the book down.

Here are the things that surprised me most about Carrington:

1. Carrington was more on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group and not at the forefront as I'd thought. Her association with the group came mainly from her relationship with biographer Lytton Strachey, one of the original Bloomsbury Group members. Carrington never felt like she really fit in with the group and was a bit intimidated because she hadn't had a formal education, but an art school education. Also, she was a little insecure about her own art because of the big names in the group like noted art critic and artist Roger Fry and artist Duncan Grant. And it's clear through Virginia's Woolf's writings that it took awhile for her to warm up to Carrington, possibly because Woolf was a bit jealous of Carrington's close relationship to Strachey.

2. I'd assumed that Carrington's relationship with Strachey was an unrequited kind of love on her part. That's how their relationship is often portrayed. But their letters to one another show that it was definitely a two way street. Even though they didn't have a physical relationship, Carrington loved him for being the one person in her life she could tell everything to; he wasn't judgmental and loved her no matter what. They gave each other companionship, and Carrington created a loving home for him at their house in Tidmarsh, and later at their second home in Wiltshire called Ham Spray (a hideous name for a house!). It was also surprising to find that Strachey encouraged Carrington with her art and even supplemented her income at one time so that she could concentrate on her painting. 

3. Carrington was ahead of her time in many ways. She went against everything that had to do with women's fashion during the Jazz Age--she wore trousers long before it was fashionable for women. When she was in art school, she began cutting her hair in her trademark bob before it was the style for women. She didn't take part in the suffragette movement but had strong ideas about having a career over marriage and children. Carrington mentioned in her letters the importance of a woman having a room of her own before Virginia Woolf wrote about it. 

4. Much of her artwork hasn't survived. When she got tired of what she'd painted, or if she didn't like it, she'd paint new work over the canvas of the older work. Roger Fry told Carrington that she didn't have a future as an artist because her work was too different. The style of the day was Post-Impressionism. Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were spending their time in the Mediterranean, painting in that style. Carrington valued Fry's opinion and never really got her confidence back after that. (My biography of Roger Fry has now moved to the bottom of my TBR pile.)

5. Dorothy Parker had a quote about the members of Bloombury that they "lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles." The same could be said about Carrington and her unconventional love life. Her relationships with men usually ended up in a love triangle with her at the center. Leonard Woolf thought this was by Carrington's design because she loved being pursued. But it also seemed like she was reluctant to break off one relationship for fear of hurting the person's feelings, so she allowed one relationship to drag on while she began another. Then there was the delicate balancing act that she found herself in when she married Ralph Partridge, and he moved into the home she shared with Strachey. 

Carrington and her friends, lovers, and acquaintances come alive in this biography. Carrington's letters are full of originality through her distinctive writing style and sense of humor as well as her drawings which she included in her letters. Carrington: A Life provides an interesting look at an enigmatic, passionate, and underrated artist who lived her life as she wished, and what a life it was.

I highly recommend Carrington: A Life. This biography would be of interest to anyone who likes reading about the lives of writers and artists in England during the 1920s and 1930s or anyone who enjoys reading about Bloomsbury.

 This photo is from Wikipedia and was taken at Ham Spray
Left, Carrington; in the background, Saxon Sydney-Turner; middle, Ralph Partridge; and Lytton Strachey on the right

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: The Travelling Horn Player

Happy Tuesday! I'm taking part in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, where readers share a bit about what they're reading or thinking about reading.

I've never read a book by Barbara Trapido, although her name keeps coming up when I'm reading about other books and authors that people like. Last year, I came across The Travelling Horn Player (1998), and I'm thinking about reading it.

From the book jacket:

"When Ellen Dent's sister, Lydia, is knocked down by a car outside Jonathan Goldman's London flat, her death has far reaching and entirely unexpected consequences. Jonathan, for instance, is on a train at the time, travelling toward his wife and house in the country. An admired novelist, he has just said good-bye to his mistress, the gladiatorial Sonia, and is planning to repair his fractured marriage, but fears that he has been outwitted by Sonia's wiles. He's also expecting a visit from his daughter, the mad, bad Stella--once a sickly child, now a flame-haired cello player with a genius painter lover.

After her sister's funeral, Ellen returns to university in Edinburgh, but finds that things have changed. Her house mates from the previous year have left--olive-skinned Izzy, Stella of the cello, and Pen, her indispensable companion--leaving behind them a drawing and an old copy of Heart of Darkness. Lydia's death reveals new and surprising truths about everyone whose lives she touched, and as the story unfolds and the past opens up, a wonderful dance of death and love is unveiled.

With a switchback plot that shifts from Scotland to Rome, from London to the Cotswolds, Barbara Trapido's novel casts an unexpectedly delightful spell on the reader. The Travelling Horn-Player is peopled with characters whose extraordinary fates are at once uniquely hilarious and immensely touching."

Here is the opening:

"Early on the morning of my interview, I woke up and saw my dead sister. I had not seen her for three years. She came into my bedroom, opening and closing the door without a sound. Her hair was bobbed short and she was dressed in plain white cotton T-shirt and knickers. Nothing else. I watched her cross the room on bare feet, and pause to touch the somewhat staid interview clothes that I had laid out on a chair the night before: navy calf-length skirt, navy lambswool jumper, cream silk shirt, paisley silk scarf, best polished boots. She paused again to stroke the foot-end of my duvet. Then she walked on towards the window, where the curtains were drawn shut. While her facial expression in life had been characteristically animated, it was now serene and fixed, like that of a person sleep-walking."

I am interested to know what you think. Would you keep reading?