Nana by Emile Zola

Nana cover

Nana by Emile Zola was first published in 1880 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series which I’ve been reading completely out of order. There’s a list on Goodreads which recommends the order they should be read in, you can see it here. I’m not sure if it makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the books.

Bluntly, this book is about prostitution and the part it played in French society of the Second Empire, particularly in Paris. Nana is the main character and in the beginning she’s a new girl in a theatre, her first experience on stage didn’t go well at all, she couldn’t sing, but she had the wit to realise that a lack of talent wouldn’t be a problem for her, she had a great figure and she was more than happy to show it all off, with just a very thin gauze veil for cover.

The men are agog, so are a lot of the women, and Nana goes from being a penniless unknown to being the toast of Paris, in some circles anyway. She’s a manipulative and totally dishonest tart who as time goes on becomes more and more out of control. The wonder is that the men involved with her were happy to put up with her nonsense, but there’s nowt as queer as men when it comes to sex it would seem!

Apparently Zola did a lot of background research for this book and he even managed to get a peek at a very ornate and expensive bed of a famous Parisian courtesan, and he based Nana’s bed on that one. As ever Zola’s descriptions light up the book but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others of his that I’ve read. Zola wanted to compare Nana’s destructiveness with that of the French Empire’s disintegration which came in 1870.

Zola did set out to show how hereditary weaknesses affected various members of the families in this series and Nana’s personality is completely out of control, self-centred and destructive. She’s a nutter, one of those women who should have ‘dangerous to everyone’ stamped on her forehead. She’s smart though, much wilier than everyone else and has the unusual (for that society) tendency to kindness when others are in despair.

This one was on my Classics Club list.
Have you read Nana? What did you think of it/her?

The cover of my Penguin Classic shows ‘Nana’ painted by Edouard Manet.

Classics Club Spin number 17

Well the Classics Club Spin number has been chosen, it’s number 3 so the book that I’ll have to read before April 30th is Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s fine by me as I’ve been meaning to read that one for ages. My copy which was published by Richard Edward King Limited originally belonged to Jack’s grandfather so it’s very old, but strangely it has no publication date on the front. The print is very small so although it’s only 316 pages long that probably translates to over 600 pages in a more modern print size. I think I’ll download it from Project Gutenberg so I can read it on my Kindle, or get a more modern copy.

Did you take part in the spin, and are you pleased with what you have to read?

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

Britannia Mews cover

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp was first published in 1946 and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I had imagined it was going to be about a neighbourhood during World War 2 – a setting that is usually right up my street so I was quite disappointed when I realised that the story opens in the 19th century.

At the beginning Britannia Mews is quite a good address, this book marks its decline to slum status and its subsequent gentrification years later. Mainly it’s about Adelaide who is only ten at the beginning of the book, she’s very close to her cousin Alice, they share drawing lessons together, but when Adelaide’s hormones turn up she becomes obsessed with the drawing master and elopes with him. Adelaide’s family had already left Britannia Mews for a better address but when they were in the midst of moving again, this time out of London, she takes her chance to run off and ends up back in the now slum area of Britannia Mews. She has worked everything out, getting a special marriage licence so that when her parents track her down it’s too late for them to do anything about it.

Adelaide like many a woman before her thinks that she will be able to transform her husband, starting with scrubbing their rooms, but it’s not long before she realises she’s made a terrible mistake, but she’s never going to admit that to her over-bearing mother, she’ll stick it out come what may, despite having to live amongst filthy people the likes of which she’s never met before.

I enjoyed the second half of this book more than the first and I have to mention that for a filthy slum Britannia Mews was remarkably lacking in vermin. In reality someone like Adelaide would have moved out at the first glimpse of cockroaches, bedbugs and rats. But that’s me being pernickety I suppose.

This one is on my Classics Club list.

The Children Who Lived In A Barn by Eleanor Graham

Mobius Dick cover

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham was first published in 1938. My copy is a Persephone reprint. The author is probably better known as an editor for Puffin and Penguin books, and as such she obviously knew better than anyone that the best way to write a book for and involving children is to get rid of the parents as fast as possible, which she duly does in this book.

The Dunnet family consists of the parents and five children who range in age from thirteen to seven. Susan is the eldest and luckily she’s a very level-headed and competent girl, she has to be because their rather feckless parents take off for Switzerland where Mrs Dunnett’s mother has taken ill. They’re completely confident that Susan can look after everyone until they get back, but they don’t return and even worse the children are evicted from the family home as the landlord wants the house.

The villagers are mainly helpful and a farmer offers them the use of an old barn to live in. They set to work making it habitable and as the summer approaches they make a decent job of looking after themselves although the bulk of the work has fallen on Susan who has to learn how to wash and sew. She’s at her wits’ end trying to make ends meet.

Susan has become a little mother figure with help from a local teacher, the baker and some others, but the local district visitor is determined to get them all put into a ‘Home’ for orphans. She’s a thoroughly despicable character, but to be fair nowadays there is no way that ‘home alone’ children would be allowed to look after themselves, they’d all be taken into local authority ‘care’ immediately.

This is a charming story even although the reader has to suspend disbelief, not only when the children are allowed to stay in the barn, but also the reason why the parents haven’t returned is fairly pathetic and totally unlikely. It’s well written otherwise although I have to say that it always annoys me when the youngest girl in a family is portrayed as spoiled and whining as is Alice in this book – such nonsense as I should know!

There’s a preface by the author Jacqueline Wilson in which she explains that when she was growing up it was normal for children to be given a latch key and to be by themselves at home – until their mother got home from work. All quite true, there were millions of us growing up like that, really bringing ourselves up, I don’t know when it was decided that children had to be chaperoned all the time, possibly around the late 1970s.

I’m fairly sure I didn’t read this one when I was wee, I think I would definitely have remembered it as it would have been right up my street. Have you read it?

This one is on my Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

The endpapers are taken from a 1938 screen printed design by John Little.

Arrowhead

Long Summer Day by R.F. Delderfield

Long Summer Day cover

Long Summer Day by R.F. Delderfield was first published in 1966 and it’s the first book in his A Horseman Riding By trilogy. It’s a good read, I’ll probably give it four stars on Goodreads.

It begins in 1901 and ends in 1911. At the beginning Paul has been invalided out of the army, he was in the cavalry and had been fighting in the Boer War, a bullet wound to his knee had ended all that. The end of his army career has come at more or less the same time as the death of his father which means that he has inherited a half share in a very lucrative scrap metal business. The war had made it even more successful than it had been, but Paul isn’t at all interested in the business and is happy to leave the running of it to his ‘uncle’ Franz, his father’s business partner.

Paul knows that he wants to live an outdoor life and despite having no experience of it he’s drawn to farming. When a large estate is advertised for sale he goes to view it and falls in love with the place. The locals make up a great cast of quirky characters and I can see that this series is going to be an enjoyable journey through British social history. I’m presuming that the next two books will be dealing with the two World Wars that changed society so much.

This one was on my new Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

New Classics Club list

At last I’ve got around to compiling my new list of 50 classic books to work my way through for the Classics Club. I completed my original list – and then some – a wee while ago, I think I got to 68 when I decided it was probably time I counted how many classics I had read, but the original list of 50 is here if you’re interested.

My new list is of mainly quite old books, I’m quite strict about what I regard as a classic and almost all of these books are ones that I’ve had in the house for donkey’s years awaiting their turn for a moment in the limelight by actually being read.

I’ve already read and reviewed a couple of them, I got Down and Out in Paris and London in spin number 16.

1. The American Senator by Anthony Trollope
2. Nana by Emile Zola
3. The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott
4. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
5. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
6. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor
7. Montaigne
8. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
10. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Laclos
11. Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter
12. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
13. The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett
14. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15. Orkneyinga Saga
16. The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham
17. A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon
18. The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith
19. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
20. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
21. Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim
22. The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim
23. The Earth by Emile Zola
24. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
25. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
26. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
27. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
28. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
29. Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant
30. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Parrot by Hugh Lofting
31. If This Is a Man Primo Levi
32. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
33. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
33. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
34. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
35. The Trial by Franz Kafka
36. Maurice by E.M. Forster
37. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
34. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
35. Long Summer Day by R.F. Delderfield
36. Post of Honour by R.F. Delderfield
37. The Green Gauntlet by R.F. Delderfield
38. The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham
39. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
40. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
41. Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp
42. Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff
43. The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
44. Sing For Your Supper by Pamela Frankau
45. The Tempest by Shakespeare
46. An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer
47. Angel Pavement by J.B. Priestley
48. Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett
49. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
50. Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

I’ve managed to get a nice split of 25 books by female authors and 25 by male authors, if I’ve counted correctly, and 10 of them are Scottish authors. Towards the end I cheated a bit (to my mind anyway) and added authors that I wouldn’t normally think of as being classic authors as they’re a bit modern-ish in my eyes. A few of the books are children’s classics.

What do you think of my list? Have you read any of them?

Classics Club = 68 classics read since 2012

I joined the Classics Club way back in 2012 with the intention of reading 55 classics by the time my 55th birthday came around. Sadly I missed that deadline, shockingly I’m getting on for 58 now! I recently realised that I must have passed my target so I thought it was about time I counted up. Below is the result and if you click on the titles it’ll take you to my thoughts on the book. The list isn’t chronological – I’m not that well organised.

I’m just going to continue with the Classics Club though. Over the years my idea of what a classic book is has changed a lot. In the beginning I was just counting much older books, mainly Victorian, but recently I’ve been a lot less strict about that. I do feel that it’s a bit strange calling something a classic when it has been written well within my lifetime, but I think a lot of people regard 30 years in print as meaning that a book is a classic – fair enough I suppose. Going by that my list of classics read since 2012 would be much longer than the one below. I’ve really enjoyed reading them, some more than others of course but I’ll write about that in another post soon.

1. In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
2. Linda Tressel by Anthony Trollope
3. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
4. The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas
5. Swan Song by John Galsworthy
6. An Academic Question by Barbara Pym
7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
8. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
9. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
10. The Talisman by Walter Scott
11. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
12. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
13. The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope
14. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
15. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
16. The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett
17. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
18. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
19. Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
20. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
21. O Pioneer! by Willa Cather
22. Moby Dick by Hermann Melville
23. The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby
24. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
25. An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
26. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
27. England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell
28. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
29. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
30. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
31. Witch Wood by John Buchan
32. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
33. The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
34. Love by Elizabeth von Arnim
35. Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitgerald
36. Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
37. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
38. One of Ours by Willa Cather
39. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
40. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
41. Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym
42. The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy
43. An Eye for an Eye by Anthony Trollope
44. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
45. The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola
46. The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola
47. The Castle by Franz Kafka
48. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
49. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope
50. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
51. Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
52. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
53. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
54. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
55. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
56. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
57. My Antonia by Willa Cather
58. Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
59. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
60. Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
61. Germinal by Emile Zola
62. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
63. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
64. Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
65. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
66. In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim
67. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
68. Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

 Alone in Berlin cover

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada was a completely random choice by me at the library. The book was first published in 1947 and although it’s a Penguin Modern Classic, I had never heard of it.

What a read it is! Given the subject matter it is obviously not a comfy read in fact it’s really quite horrific in parts, especially when you realise that a lot of it was based on actual happenings.

The setting is Berlin in 1940. It’s a city full of fear, run by thugs and gangsters in various uniforms, with spies everywhere. Many of the people are Nazi Party members, often just so they can get a decent job, but then they are expected to contribute so much money to various Nazi funds. It’s quite similar to the austerity that the British government likes to control those of us in the UK with – only worse.

But some of the people are tired of living in fear and when Otto Quangel’s soldier son is killed it’s the last straw for him. He has to do something to fight against the Nazis and decides that the best thing he can do is write postcards criticising the Nazis and the war and leaving them around Berlin, thinking that they will be passed around by whoever finds them. His wife Anna thinks that they should be doing more than that but as he would be executed if he was caught she agrees that it is enough and ends up helping him.

Sadly almost all of the postcards are handed in to the Gestapo as soon as they are found. Everyone is too terrified to have something like that in their possession. Gestapo Inspector Escherich has the job of tracking down the perpetrator, and his superiors aren’t impressed that it is taking him so long to do it, he’s living in fear of being sent to a concentration camp if he can’t find the culprit.

Meanwhile the other inhabitants in their tenement block are brought into the story. Mrs Rosenthal is an old Jewish woman, on her own now since her husband was taken away by the Gestapo. The Persickes are red hot Nazi thugs, drunken and violent and keen to get their hands on Mrs Rosenthal’s possessions.

Alone in Berlin tells how the Nazis got a grip on the German people in 1933 and by the time they started taking over other countries their own people were also well under control. Of course lots of them were very enthusiastic Nazis but those who weren’t had to keep their heads down, otherwise they would lose them!

It had never occurred to me before that while people in the UK were having to live with harsh rationing, a lot of Germans were enjoying the good life as so much stuff had been looted from the countries that they were over-running.

This is a great read but Hans Fallada got the idea for it from an actual couple who did exactly what Otto and Anna had done, and came to a similar end – a horrible thought.

The author had quite a wild life himself, with alcoholism and drug addiction. I’ll definitely be seeking out his other books.

This book is a Penguin Modern Classic so I read this one for the Classics Club.

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Introduction to Sally cover

Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim was published in 1926, but of course von Arnim was being coy about it as it only has that
“BY THE AUTHOR OF “ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN” tag.

To begin with I thought this was going to be a sort of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady rewrite but it turned out to be quite different.

Mr Pinner is a shopkeeper and is married to a very pretty woman and they live in London. After ten years of marriage they still have no children which is a huge sadness to Mr Pinner in particular, that coupled with the fact that Mrs Pinner is argumentative leads him to think that given his time again he wouldn’t have married her. Eventually Mrs Pinner does get pregnant and has a little girl who turns out to be even prettier than her mother. Mr Pinner wants to call her Salvation as he feels she has saved their marriage as Mrs Pinner is now too taken up with her baby to quarrel about anything. They compromise and call her Salvatia, but of course that is shortened to Sally, much to her parents’ annoyance.

As Sally grows up she attracts too much attention from men, they come into the shop just to catch a glimpse of her, it’s good for business but Mr Pinner can’t stand all these men lusting after his daughter and they end up trying to hide her from them. When Sally is sixteen her mother dies and so Sally has to help in the shop, the business turnover doubles overnight but Mr Pinner can’t take the strain of looking after Sally on his own. The Pinners are a God fearing family and it grieves Mr Pinner that even the local doctor and vicar are lusting after his daughter. – These married gentlemen – what could it be but sin they had in their minds? They wished to sin with Sally, to sin the sin of sins, with his Sally, his spotless lamb, a child of God, an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

Mr Pinner decides to move out of London for Sally’s sake. He finds a shop in a teeny village which is owned by a man who wants to move to London and they exchange premises. The village of Woodle seems ideal to Mr Pinner, but he doesn’t realise that it is close to Cambridge and when term time begins it has students going through it. When one particular ogling student Jocelyn Luke sets eyes on Sally he’s so overcome by her beauty that he mentions to her father that he wants to marry her. Mr Pinner can hardly believe his luck and in no time he has married Sally off to him. He’s keen to pass the responsibility of looking after Sally on to a husband.

Too late Mr Luke realises that although Sally looks like a dream, she sounds absolutely dreadful. He tries to improve her speech but Sally is unable to pronounce an ‘h’. In fact she seems not to realise that there is such a letter in the alphabet and she has no interest in improving herself. Usband – as she calls Mr Luke seems always to be angry with her, except at night time when he is too busy – Oh Sally-ing! as Sally calls it.

I began by thinking that this book was just a bit too daft but in the end I really enjoyed it. It’s all a bit of a hoot as the very innocent Sally continues to wow all the males she comes into contact with, without even trying, and despite her obvious ‘common’ background.

It is of course all very wrapped up in snobbery and the differences between working class people and the various other types, up to ‘the pick of the basket’ as Sally’s parents had described the aristocracy.

There’s an article from The Independent here in which they seem to think that Elizabeth von Arnim has been unknown to readers for years, but we know differently don’t we?!

One other thing I want to mention – this book has a rubber stamp inside it saying: Josiah Parkes & Sons Ltd
WORKS LIBRARY

The book was published in 1926 and I couldn’t help wondering what the company actually did, so I Googled them and came up with this.

They made keys and locks amongst other things and I love the old photos of the workforce and their surroundings. Real social history going back to the time when to work for a company was like being part of a big family with a library for the workers and no doubt lots of clubs for them all to socialise in. Mind you standing on those cobbles all day must have been hard on the feet!

I read this one for Reading My Own Damn Books and the Classics Club and also The Women’s Classic Literature Event.

Her Son’s Wife by Dorothy Canfield

Her Son's Wife cover

Her Son’s Wife by Dorothy Canfield was first published in 1926 but my copy is a Virago from 1986.

Mrs Bascomb is a schoolteacher, she’s a widow with one son who is at college. She has a very high opinion of herself as a mother and a teacher and her overbearing attitude has resulted in her son Ralph growing up without her really knowing what he is like as he has had to hide his real self from his mother, she wouldn’t approve of him. She has plans for her son to become a high flying lawyer like all the men in her family have been. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that he might have different plans.

Her plans go awry when it turns out that Ralph has got married, and to what she regards as a very unsuitable and common young woman called Lottie. The young couple move into Mrs Bascomb’s home which she has scrimped over the years to pay off the mortgage. But it isn’t long before she feels like a stranger in her own home. Mrs Bascomb despises the sort of woman who can’t get along with a daughter-in-law, but it’s hard for her to admire Lottie as she turns out to be a dirty, selfish and lazy flibberty-gibbet.

Not long after the wedding Lottie gives birth to a daughter and of course Granny Bascomb falls in love with the baby, but Lottie complains that her mother-in-law is trying to take the baby away from her and the result is that Mrs Bascomb moves out for a few years, taking up a teaching post in another town. Years later there is a reconciliation and Mrs Bascomb moves back into what is really her home. Ralph is somewhat relieved as Lottie is too busy flirting with any man that she sees to even feed their daughter and money is tight as always.

Mrs Bascomb realises that Ralph is deeply unhappy with his situation and at last it dawns on her that he behaves as he does because of her, her strong personality was the reason that he was so weak-willed. She decides that she has to do something to change his life and arranges for him to get a job that he will enjoy. But Lottie still has to be dealt with and Mrs Bascomb decides to encourage Lottie’s tendency towards hypochondria, employing a quack doctor to order her to bed to help her bad back.

Mrs Bascomb knows exactly what is going to happen and at least she does feel guilty about her actions. She’s going around constantly washing her hands. Ralph even discovers her up during the night – washing her hands. She’s doing a ‘Lady Macbeth’ of course – which is apt because she has just condemned Lottie to a slow death, and sure enough ten years later Lottie is still in that bed, still getting constant visits from the quack doctor and now really bed-ridden from lack of use of her muscles.

I’ve read a few of Dorothy Canfield’s books now and I think this is the one which I’ve least liked. There really aren’t any likeable characters in it. Lottie is ghastly but her mother-in-law is much worse, she’s a manipulative control freak and just gets worse when she wakes up to her own nastiness.

I read this one for the Classics Club Challenge.