Corduroy Mansions

After a semi-hiatus I am back to reading Alexander McCall Smith’s online serialization Corduroy Mansions. First, I must say that I adore his books, and am far from alone in this sentiment. It almost seems that those who comment on the installments have formed a community amongst themselves.

I was always behind, as I came into it late, but right now I’m at 45 with almost that many still unread. There are only three more weeks until the end of the story and I’m not sure how much longer they will be online, so I really must pick up the pace. I think it would have been better if I had read one every single day; as it is, with such a large cast I have trouble recalling who everyone is and what exactly was happening to them when I last left off. I noticed that even with the 44 Scotland Street series, and those I did read in book form. I think this is why I prefer to read series all at one go rather than waiting around for the next volume to come out, at least those where characters grow and change (as opposed to Perry Mason or Nancy Drew).

I just wanted to share this one quote from my current installment; I really think it captures one of the underlying themes of his work. There’s just something so comforting about his writing-and there’s an analogy on the tip of my brain but it won’t reveal itself.

” Poor Terence. Poor, dear, gentle Terence. He had been searching for something all his life – he said as much himself – and he had never found it. And that thing, of course, was love, although he never saw it that way. He said that he was looking for enlightenment, for beauty; he said that he was looking for the sacred principle that informed the world. And all the time he was looking for that simple thing that all of us look for; that we yearn for throughout our lives. Just to be loved. That was all. She took her brother’s hand and held it lightly. There was oil on it, or blood, she was not sure which. When had she last held his hand? When had she last held anybody’s hand? That simple gesture of fellow feeling, which expresses ordinary human solidarity, which says: you are not alone, I am with you. I am here.”

Off to read more!

Published in: on January 24, 2009 at 10:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

Word Games

If I ever hosted a challenge it would definitely be centered around titles. I think it makes it open to the most people, while also requiring a certain amount of creativity. You have freedom to choose length or genre, and whether or not you want to go out of your comfort zone.

For many reasons it will be a while before I host my own challenge, but looking at existing possibilities and also the books I hope to read this year has given me an idea for a personal challenge: to read five books with the same word in the title.

I have several books with “Joy” in the title, so by the end of the year I hope to have read:

1. Joy in the Morning, by Betty Smith

2. Joy Street, by Frances Parkinson Keyes

3. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, by Rumer Godden

4. The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan

5. (TBD, perhaps a reread of Joy School, by Elizabeth Berg)

Published in: on January 20, 2009 at 2:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wild Strawberries

My Angela Thirkell follow-up delivered as was hoped for. Wild Strawberries follows a summer in the lives of the extended Leslie family, all of whom are memorable characters in their own right. The main plot hinges on the arrival of Mary Preston, niece by marriage to Agnes Leslie Graham, and her interactions with the Leslie sons John and David. In addition, the Boulle family  from France renting the vicarage for the summer convert young Martin Leslie to the royalist cause, until their attention is diverted elsewhere.

The novel is both humorous and touching. Thirkell tends to emphasize traits of comical characters almost to the point of caricature, as with Lady Emily Leslie’s missing spectacles and meddling matriarchal ways or the parisitic house guest Mr. Holt. In most cases however, she stops just short of overdoing it, so that they become endearing.

Elements  of tragedy also give the novel a more realistic feel, though not in the present; for example, Martin’s father passed away in the Great War and is still in his parents’ thoughts. John’s memories of the year with his wife Gay before she passed away were particularly poignant, along with his grief and eventual letting-go.

Mary’s feelings were also realistically portrayed, as she was both dazzled by David’s charm and touched by John’s kindness. I found the title particularly apt, as it refers to an instance when David promised to bring Mary wild strawberries, but forgot until John reminded him. The constant stormy cycle of emotions caused by attention and negligence was well-captured, as was her jealousy of the independent woman Joan Stevenson. It really shows how different the world is, however, as when David hugs Mary and rests his chin on her head outside after the dance, she fears it means they are engaged. What a contrast to the modern hook-up culture…

I think Agnes was my favorite secondary character, with her gentle, unflappable demeanor and tendency to scold her children with a smile and “oh, wicked one.” It still shocks me, however, how hand-off well-to-do mothers were with their children; Nanny and Ivy see to most of the daily needs for James, Emmy, and Clarissa. It makes them seem more like playthings, though at the time it was of course normal.

I did notice again however that the beginning seemed a little slow; she paints such a convincing picture of country life that it’s hard to tell at first who or what to focus on. Apparently most of them appear in later books as well, and I look forward to revisiting them.

Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 4:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

It doesn’t.

Obviously I couldn’t stay away, and came back with tissues in hand for part two. They were much needed. As much as written descriptions make me sad I simply can’t bear to see someone cry on screen, especially a man.

I can’t imagine ever having that many horrible things happen to one in such a short span–it really makes you admire her courage to carry on in life, trying to keep her head up. One man takes her body, and another her heart, and only a soul with strength such as hers would be able to continue. For me, the straw that breaks the camel’s back is when she loses her shoes, though of couse worse is yet to come.

I’m mad at Angel Clare, and yet I can’t hate him. It’s hard for us modern readers/viewers to really understand what society was like back then, how irrevocably scandalous it was for a woman to become pregnant outside of marriage, regardless of the circumstances. Certainly he was mistaken in declaring that she was not the woman he thought he knew and loved, and in not forgiving her when she forgave his equal mistake. Certainly he was unjust to send her away from him in such a fashion, though he could not know what would befall her. And yet, and yet, deep down I think he saw this as penance for himself as well, for violating the ideals instilled in him by his parents. It’s especially clear to me when he tells his parents afterwards that she is “spotless;” I want to scream at him to go to her, but I think perhaps his pride is still smarting at this point.  This version showed his torment well, especially at the end, though I would have liked to see the scene where he sleepwalks.

Similarly, I tried to find some redemption for Alec d’Urberville. He does offer marriage to Tess, and provides for her family but this is all with the ultimate purpose of “being her master.” When praising her he references only her physical attributes, and even resorts to threats; this is not love, but obsession.

It was interesting to note the film’s use of sexuality as a contrast–the natural tenderness between Tess and Angel, which she seeks out, and the sinister, mechanical way that Alec forces himself upon her. I also liked some of the other symbols, such as the new dresses, and the crows, and the irony that Alec rides a white horse.

I still wonder if, ultimately, it was worth it. When Angel finally finds her Tess says that it is too late, for she is already dead inside. Certainly a future that revolves around being Alec’s mistress is bleak indeed. Would I be willing to face death for the chance at a few days’ happiness with my true husband? Accordng to Izz, for Tess the choice is an easy one. She is almost a martyr in the name of love and purity, and I wish I was half the person she is.

Published in: on January 18, 2009 at 10:41 am  Comments (1)  

It never changes, does it?

Masterpiece Classics has been airing Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I had read over the summer, and as I missed the live broadcast I have been watching it online. I finished up the first part last night, which ended right before the wedding, and I’m honestly not sure I can continue.

I really liked Tess’s character in the book, finding her very sympathetic and real–she has a good heart and tries so hard to do what is best for those around her before herself, but falls prey to human failings. Gemma Arterton has made me love the character even more, and the movie definitely portrays her as a victim caught in the web fate has spun for her.

I also like Angel’s character a bit more, too, though the second part will most likely change that. He seems less a parson’s son and more a farmer, filled with life and vibrancy rather than ideas, freckles sprayed across his browned cheeks. It is a direct contrast to Alec’s pale skin and dark hair, which are actually similar to Tess’s features. I wonder if casting was done with this in mind, or if it is just coincidence that most of the other characters are blond.

It’s interesting, having read the book, to note the interpretation, especially in terms of Alec’s character. There is no ambiguity in the night forest scene, and it is clear that he wants Tess only for her looks. He does not even bring up marriage with her. I also got the impression that Sorrow became sick because she forgot him in the field, which didn’t seem to happen in the book.

For some reason the story resonates with me. It seems like she can never escape, no matter what she does, even though she and Angel have a chance at love and happiness together right now. Even though I know what happens I find myself desperately hoping that things will turn out differently, that this is an alternate universe where the situation changes for the better.

I almost don’t want to watch the rest, but it seems I must at least for those brief, “if only” days at the end.

Published in: on January 17, 2009 at 3:23 pm  Leave a Comment  


I wasn’t sure what quite to expect from Scaramouche, except swashbuckling and a famous first line. It took a while for me to get into it (usually I need at least a mention of a female character before my interest is piqued), and even then the main characters were a little hard to warm up to.

Andre-Louis is a hardened young man with the eloquence to convice other of convictions he himself does not posess. His only aim in life is to make the Marquis miserable for both killing his friend Vilmorin and wooing his  guardian’s niece Aline. She, on the other hand, is independent and snobbish at Andre Louis’ attempts to influence her.

Despite this, I feel like he would be a fascinating character to know: magnetically charismatic, extremely talented and intelligent, able to do anything to which he truly applies himself. This includes public speaking, acting, playwrighting, fencing, and politicking, all of which play a part in the larger picture. He seemed to become almost hardened by the blows life dealt him, however, though I’m glad he often chose only to injure rather than kill.

I was able to figure out the secret of his past fairly early on–after all, I’ve seen Star Wars. I did enjoy the deuling, but perhaps the acting even more so; for some reason Commedia della’ Arte reminds me of musicals. It seemed fitting that the stock character Scaramouche came to represent Andre-Louis.

The book was also a good refresher in French history by weaving in the various details, and by the end I was reading furiously. I’m not sure I want to bother with the sequel, which came a decade later, but Captain Blood is still on the list.

Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 10:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Will You Do the Fandango?

As usual my reading has diminished somewhat since the return to school, but I have been making some progress with Scaramouche. Melody at Redeeming Qualities mentioned Sabatini a while ago and I’ve been dying to try him ever since. I’m about a third of the way through, though it was slow going at first.

I have torn feelings about the physical book itself, though. It’s part of the 1924 Autograph Edition set, a limited run of 500 published right in Boston by Houghton Mifflin. The beginning of the volume includes a page of Sabatini’s own writing and autograph, and it hasn’t been checked out since 1973. However, the whole set is bound in dull brown cardboard boards with a red cloth spine, and franky look quite ugly. It makes me wonder if at some point they had dust jackets.

It has gotten very interesting, though I confess everytime I pick it up I get the Queen song stuck in my head…

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 9:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

My Gal Sunday

After almost ten years Mary Higgins Clark is still one of my comfort reads. It’s both a credit and a shame that by the end of one of her stories I am nearly skimming, just so that the suspense won’t kill me.

My Gal Sunday is pure escapist–after all, she cites an old radio soap as her inspiration for the couple. Henry Britland IV is handsome, charming, wealthy, and the nation’s most popular former president; his new wife, Sandra “Sunday” O’Brien, is a beautiful young Congresswoman. Together they tackle four cases with political and international ties, including the obligatory Christmas heartwarmer. A little suspension of disbelief is required, especially for everyone’s undying worship of the couple–the Kennedys have nothing on them. Still a fun read, however!

Published in: on January 7, 2009 at 10:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Bookshop

The first few chapters of The Bookshop were a reread for me, as I had been unable to finish it over the summer, and overall this book flew by at a mere 121 pages. Penelope Fitzgerald makes every word and scene count, though.

The novel, only her second, is set in an English coastal village in 1959. Florence Green is engaging character, simplistic but courageous in her determination to open a bookshop in the abandoned Old House of the aptly named Hardborough, where she has lived alone for ten years. The venture leads to encounters both good and bad with her neighbors, memorable people in their own right.

I loved the grit of little Christine Gipping, who helps in the shop after school, and the “rapper,” a poltergeist who haunts the house. I’m also now curious about Lolita, which she is torn about stocking. I won’t give away the ending, but it really had me all worked up.

I’m often conflicted about whether I like things for their merit or for their reputation, but I really believe that for Penelope Fitzgerald’s books, it’s both.

Published in: on January 6, 2009 at 9:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Corinthian

At the hotel I managed to breeze through Georgette Heyer’s The Corinthian.  Many critics call her the next best thing to Jane Austen; though the situations and pace of Heyer’s Regency romances are decidedly more modern (she impishly includes actions that Austen would have viewed as improprieties), the setting, with it’s dialogue, nobilities, and pastimes, is without a doubt spot-on Regency.


Sir Richard Wyndham is about to propose to a girl his family expects him to marry when he unexpectedly meets Pen Creed.  She too is faced with an arranged marriage and is fleeing in the guise of a boy to find her childhood sweetheart. Sir Richard feels obligated to accompany her, and thus begins a journey replete with colorful characters, charades, questionable deeds, and changes of heart.

On the whole I am not a fan of romances with more than a five year difference in age (here, twelve). However, I do admit that it made it much more plausible for them to go off on such a journey unchaperoned. Though this will likely not be my favorite Heyer, there’s no doubt that it was well written, engaging, and highly enjoyable.

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 7:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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