Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

This is my third in my classic french literature reading – I have read Dangerous Liaisons and Madame Bovary. Once again, I was surprised by its modern feel.

Here is the blurb …

Guy de Maupassant’s scandalous tale of an opportunistic young man corrupted by the allure of power, “Bel-Ami” is translated with an introduction by Douglas Parmee in “Penguin Classics”. Young, attractive and very ambitious, George Duroy, known to his admirers as Bel-Ami, is offered a job as a journalist on La Vie francaise and soon makes a great success of his new career. But he also comes face to face with the realities of the corrupt society in which he lives – the sleazy colleagues, the manipulative mistresses and wily financiers – and swiftly learns to become an arch-seducer, blackmailer and social climber in a world where love is only a means to an end. Written when Maupassant was at the height of his powers, “Bel-Ami” is a novel of great frankness and cynicism, but it is also infused with the sheer joy of life – depicting the scenes and characters of Paris in the belle epoque with wit, sensitivity and humanity. Douglas Parmee’s translation captures all the vigour and vitality of Maupassant’s novel. His introduction explores the similarities between Bel-Ami and Maupassant himself and demonstrates the skill with which the author depicts his large cast of characters and the French society of the Third Republic.

This is an interesting novel as the main character – Georges Duroy – is vile; selfish and self-centred, he uses others (but mostly women) to improve his social and financial position. This is interesting as it is unusual (at that time – first published in 1885) to have such an unsympathetic character at the heart of a novel (the hero so to speak). What does de Maupassant mean bu it? At this time most novels (English at least) had a didactic purpose – to make us (the readers) better people. Is he showing us the world as it is (or was)?

This novel also highlights how linked (and therefore biased) journalism and politics were – and the manipulation of policy to enrich a few men.

One aspect of this novel that I love is the contemporary social detail – the metro is being built, France has soldiers in Algeria, etc.

If you are interested in 19th century France (or Paris), then I highly recommend this novel. It’s gritty (and a bit grubby) and shows are darker side of life.

Here is another review …

http://insidebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-review-bel-ami-guy-de-maupassant.html

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Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther – Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther – Elizabeth Von Arnim

This novel was highly recommended by a friend and it didn’t disappoint – it is charming.

Here is the blurb …

What on earth could have induced Mr Anstruther to fall in love with Fraulein Schmidt? He is an eligible English bachelor from a good family with great expectations; she is the plain, poor, ‘spinster’ daughter of a German scholar. But Rose-Marie Schmidt is also funny, intelligent, brave and gifted with an irrepressible talent for happiness. The real question is, does Mr Anstruther know how lucky he is?

This is an epistolary novel and a one-sided one – we only have Rose-Marie’s (Fraulein Schmidt) letters. But don’t let that put you off – the plot is easy to follow. In fact this book is about Rose-Marie: her zest for life, her joy in nature, her determination to be herself no matter the external circumstances (financial, cultural and social).

I thought this novel was a joy to read – light-hearted, but serious, optimistic, but never cloyingly so.

More reviews …

Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther – Elizabeth von Arnim

Review: “Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther” by Elizabeth von Arnim

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

 

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

As this is a beautiful book, I had to by a paper copy (full price $32.95, so clearly I liked the cover). I selected this for my book club because, for a while, it seemed to be recommended everywhere (and it was shortlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction).

Here is the blurb …

This voyage is special. It will change everything…

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This chance meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, a journey on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost…

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.

I found the experience of reading this novel to be disconcerting – individual scenes and sentences were brilliant, but the whole novel was somewhat disappointing. I can’t quite put my finger on why the novel wasn’t amazing given that the individual parts were. I loved the setting – it was beautifully described (and clearly well-researched), the characters were nuanced and interesting – I think it was the plot (not that I need much of a plot). It needed tighter editing and some of the characters (and their stories) removed.

However, I enjoyed it, but my expectations were high and it didn’t quite reach them.

More reviews …

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Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

I decided to read this novel as Mercy from Mercy’s Bookish Musings recommended it (and I usually like what she likes). And, what clinched the matter was that it was available at the library.

Here’s the blurb …

Father and Son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter, are men of the land. Suffolk farmers. Times are hard and they struggle to sustain their property, their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business.

But an even bigger, more brutal fight is brewing: a fight between each other, about the horrible death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, in Zambia ten years earlier. A past they have both refused to confront until now.

Over the course of a particularly mauling Suffolk winter, Landyn and Vale grapple with their memories and their pain, raking over what remains of their fragile family unit, constantly at odds and under threat of falling apart forever. While Vale makes increasingly desperate decisions, Landyn retreats, finding solace in the land, his animals – and a fox who haunts the farm and seems to bring with her both comfort and protection.

Alive to language and nature, Midwinter is a novel about guilt, blame and lost opportunities. Ultimately it is a story about love and the lengths we will go to find our way home.

This is a slow, quiet story about a father and son always at loggerheads. It is told from both perspectives – alternating chapters – and so we, the readers, can see how they want to connect with each other, but they always manage to say the wrong thing.

Landscape is very much a part of this novel: the cold damp of Suffolk and the baking heat of Africa. This is also a farmer’s story – the love of the land, the desire to pass it on to the next generation (at what cost?), livestock and the importance of treating animals well and how hard it is to make a living on the land.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/16/midwinter-by-fiona-melrose-reivew

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

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The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart – Holly Ringland

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart – Holly Ringland

The cover of this book is so beautiful and I kept seeing it everywhere, so I had to buy it.

I particularly enjoyed all of the Australian flora references – Ms Ringland made the harsh outback almost seem inviting.

Here is the blurb …

The most enchanting debut novel of 2018, this is an irresistible, deeply moving and romantic story of a young girl, daughter of an abusive father, who has to learn the hard way that she can break the patterns of the past, live on her own terms and find her own strength.
After her family suffers a tragedy when she is nine years old, Alice Hart is forced to leave her idyllic seaside home. She is taken in by her estranged grandmother, June, a flower farmer who raises Alice on the language of Australian native flowers, a way to say the things that are too hard to speak. But Alice also learns that there are secrets within secrets about her past. Under the watchful eye of June and The Flowers, women who run the farm, Alice grows up. But an unexpected betrayal sends her reeling, and she flees to the dramatically beautiful central Australian desert. Alice thinks she has found solace, until she falls in love with Dylan, a charismatic and ultimately dangerous man.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is a story about stories: those we inherit, those we select to define us, and those we decide to hide. It is a novel about the secrets we keep and how they haunt us, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. Spanning twenty years, set between the lush sugar cane fields by the sea, a native Australian flower farm, and a celestial crater in the central desert, Alice must go on a journey to discover that the most powerful story she will ever possess is her own.

I had a run of reading about domestic violence and this came at the end and I must admit I was over it by then, so the timing was wrong for me and I haven’t recommended this novel to anyone. I really enjoyed the parts about the flowers: growing them, harvesting them and the secret meaning of the flowers. Ms Ringland creates a fabulous sense of place; by the ocean, by the river, by the crater and her female characters are amazing – the men not so much, but I think that might be the point.

More reviews …

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-lost-flowers-of-alice-hart-review-holly-ringlands-dark-floral-fairytale-20180412-h0yogi.html

https://www.betterreading.com.au/news/australian-masterpice-the-lost-flowers-of-alice-hart-by-holly-ringland/

 

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Dear Mrs Bird – A J Pearce

Dear Mrs Bird – A J Pearce

I can’t remember where I first saw this – it was definitely somewhere online – and then the very next day I saw it at Boffins. I very much enjoyed reading this novel – it reminded me of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society possibly because they have a similar world war two feel.

Here is the blurb …

A charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

This is a charming and funny story about hope, friendship and the strength of the human spirit. It is mostly light-hearted, but it is set during World War Two, so expect some sadness.

This is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Another review …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/18/dear-mrs-bird-by-aj-pearce-review

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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

This was the second French classic for my historical fiction group and once again I was surprised by how easy it was to read – much easier than an equivalent piece of English literature.

Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

When the novel was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between 1 October 1856 and 15 December 1856, public prosecutors attacked the novel for obscenity. The resulting trial in January 1857 made the story notorious. After Flaubert’s acquittal on 7 February 1857, Madame Bovary became a bestseller in April 1857 when it was published in two volumes. A seminal work of literary realism, the novel is now considered Flaubert’s masterpiece, and one of the most influential literary works in history.

It was incredibly modern – concerned about consumerism and the role of women. I must admit that I didn’t find Emma at all sympathetic – melodramatic, selfish and self-centred, but she was stuck in a small rural community with no friends, married to a man with whom she had nothing in common. Her life lacked purpose, interest and romance, so of course she had to create drama and excitement.

Here is an article from the NY Times…

and here is the First Tuesday book club talking about Madame Bovary

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s3165716.htm

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

This book is everywhere – I think ReeseWitherspoon is going to make it into a movie – so I finally sucombed and bought a copy while we were in Sydney.

It reminded me of a dark version of the Rosie Project – here’s the blurb …

Smart, warm, uplifting, the story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes the only way to survive is to open her heart

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. All this means that Eleanor has become a creature of habit (to say the least) and a bit of a loner.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the story of a quirky yet lonely woman whose social misunderstandings and deeply ingrained routines could be changed forever—if she can bear to confront the secrets she has avoided all her life. But if she does, she’ll learn that she, too, is capable of finding friendship—and even love—after all.

There were some laugh out loud moments, which is a good thing because clearly something bad had happened to Eleanor. Although, I felt the laughs were a bit easy on the part of the author (just playing off Eleanor’s autism/aspergers?).

Despite Eleanor’s unpleasantness we do warm to her and want the best for her, which I think is a credit to Ms Honeyman. It is quite an achievement to create a sympathy for an unpleasant character. This is a novel about human connection and kindness and trauma (or more particularly recovering from trauma), but it has a light touch and leaves us feeling hopeful for Eleanor’s future and for all of our futures – it is not too late to make connections and live happily in the world.

More reviews

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/04/eleanor-oliphant-is-completely-fine-by-gail-honeyman-review

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/eleanor-oliphant-is-a-most-unusual-and-thought-provoking-heroine-1.3157828

 

 

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Math Girls – Hiroshi Yuki

Math Girls – Hiroshi Yuki

I found this book in the maths section of Kinokunia and I had to have it. I wish I bought the second at the same time.

Here is the blurb …

Math isn’t hard. Love is.

Currently in its eighteenth printing in Japan, this best-selling novel is available in English at last. Combining mathematical rigor with light romance, Math Girls is a unique introduction to advanced mathematics, delivered through the eyes of three students as they learn to deal with problems seldom found in textbooks. Math Girls has something for everyone, from advanced high school students to math majors and educators.

I loved this book – I had my piece of paper beside me and worked through the problems as they did.

The plot is OK, but it doesn’t matter it is a novel with maths!

Here’s a review by the American Mathematical Society

https://www.maa.org/press/maa-reviews/math-girls

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At the Edge of the Orchard

At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracy Chevalier

I like Tracy Chevalier novels – my favourite is the The Lady and the Unicorn. This one was selected by another book club member – we also read Remarkable Creatures last year.

Here’s the blurb …

From internationally bestselling author Tracy Chevalier, a riveting drama of a pioneer family on the American frontier

1838: James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of northwest Ohio. They and their five children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

1853: Their youngest child Robert is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country. In the redwood and giant sequoia groves he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the new world to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.

Chevalier tells a fierce, beautifully crafted story in At the Edge of the Orchard, her most graceful and richly imagined work yet.

As always, the level of historical detail in this novel is extraordinary – I do like to learn while being entertained at the same time. This one is about trees – apples (spitters and eaters) and the huge trees – redwoods and sequoias – in California.  I loved all of the detail about planting, grafting and tending the trees, about collecting specimens and transporting them over oceans to try to grow in a new continent (apples to the americas and the redwoods back to England).

I had little to no sympathy for any of the characters – violent, drunks (sometimes both) and damaged. I am sure it was a sign of the times – living was hard, etc. but it makes for unpleasant reading.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/06/at-the-edge-of-the-orchard-tracy-chevalier-review-stephanie-merritt

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/at-the-edge-of-the-orchard-review-tracy-chevaliers-engrossing-family-drama-20160331-gnv0c8.html

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