NOW that the gifts have been given, the friends and family visited or entertained, it's time perhaps to entertain ourselves by settling down with a good book for the pure pleasure of reading. Bypassing the big-budget books and deluxe boxed editions, shopped-out readers can find just what they may be looking for among the paperbacks.
Penguin Classics publishes a fine selection of 19th-century English novelists, including Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. They've recently come out with paperback editions of Anthony Trollope.
For years, I avoided Trollope because I'd seen his picture: a bearded, bespectacled 19th-century man of letters whom I mistakenly assumed to be either a minor Russian novelist (a kind of cut-rate Tolstoy) or Marxist thinker. (He did look a bit like Trotsky, and critical blurbs kept commending his sense of social realism!)
It was thanks to a course in graduate school on the English novel that I finally made the acquaintance of this funny and delightful English novelist. Almost no one I know of who has read Trollope has been anything but charmed by the experience. Penguin Classics currently offers Phineas Finn (746 pp., $6.95) from Trollope's Palliser series (serialized some years ago on PBS), and the first four novels in the Barsetshire series, including his fresh and engaging Dr. Thorne (566 pp., $7.95), edited and introd uced by mystery writer Ruth Rendell, a self-sufficient story that is an excellent example of Trollope at his best. For those who may prefer handsome hardcover editions of both the Barsetshire and Palliser series, these are available from Oxford University Press for $16.95 and $14.95, respectively.
The Oxford University Press World's Classics series offers an eclectic and international selection, from Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country (128 pp., $4.95), the tragicomic story of a married woman's infatuation with her son's tutor, newly translated and edited by Richard Freeborn, to perhaps the most moving of Theodore Dreiser's novels, Jennie Gerhardt (378 pp., $5.95), the story of a poor, sweet-natured Midwestern girl struggling to find love and a decent life in the cynical and hypocritical societ y of America in the 1880s and 1890s, the so-called Gilded Age. This edition of Dreiser's second novel, originally published in 1911, is edited by Lee Clark Mitchell, who informs us that a scholarly edition of Dreiser's works now in progress will supply the author's longer first version of this novel. That had a happy ending, which Dreiser's friends found improbable - even though Dreiser had based the happy ending on the real-life experiences of one of his sisters, who was the model for Jennie. Another in th is series, Charlotte Bronts first novel, The Professor (292 pp., $4.95), also has a happy ending, one of the reasons it has been less esteemed than her subsequent treatment of the student-mentor love theme in "Villette." Margaret Smith's introduction to the World's Classics edition makes the case that "The Professor," like Bronts later works, is admirably modern and realistic: an honest portrait of women and men who have to earn their living and work out their relationships without relying on the old-fashio ned fictional devices of surprise legacies or gallant, rich fiances riding to the rescue.
The appearance earlier this year of David Gilmour's biography "The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa" (Pantheon), focused new attention on the aristocratic Sicilian whose only novel, "The Leopard," published just after his death in 1957, has come to be regarded as a masterpiece of Italian literature. Pantheon has issued a paperback edition of The Leopard (312 pp.) selling for $12. For $15, however, you can buy an elegant little hardcover edition (300 pp.) - the same translation by Arch ibald Colquhoun - which also includes Lampedusa's "Two Stories and a Memory." This is one of Alfred A. Knopf's revived Everyman's Library series, a welcome, and one hopes successful, attempt to provide attractive, reasonably priced hardcover editions of books no library should be without.
A far cry from the dying sunset days of the old order in Lampedusa's Sicily, the Germany of the 1920s portrayed in Hans Fallada's famous novel, Little Man, What Now? (Academy Chicago, 384 pp., $8.95), was a nightmare of wild inflation and socioeconomic instability. Fallada depicts the travails of an ordinary, lower-middle-class German couple struggling to keep their heads above water. This is a timely as well as a touching book.
On a lighter note, Malcolm Bradbury's diverting satire Eating People Is Wrong (298 pp., $4.95), first published in 1959 and available now from Academy Chicago, takes us on a witty guided tour of the antics of a colorful collection of eccentric academics at a provincial British university. And lighter still, the inspired silliness of British novelist. P. G. Wodehouse animates a freshly reissued bath of his books, from the 1913 The Little Nugget (223 pp.) to the 1968 Do Butlers Burgle Banks? (159 pp.), all
available from Penguin at $4.95 or $5.95 each. Readers with a taste for light, class-conscious British mysteries can pick up some of the newly reissued Agatha Christie novels published by Harper at $4.99 apiece: The Seven Dials, Murder on the Orient Express, Crooked House, and Ordeal by Innocence are among those already available, and many more are in the works.
One of literary history's intriguing oddities is The Young Visiters (Academy Chicago, 103 pp., $15), a novel for adults written by a nine-year-old English girl, Daisy Ashford, in 1890 and published nearly three decades later, after gathering dust in a drawer. Ashford, as Walter Kendrick notes in his introduction to this charmingly illustrated hardcover edition, never went on to write anything more as an adult. But this youthful effort is a unique blend of precocious sophistication and childish misconcept ions of how adults behave, that not only amuses, but sets you thinking about how differently a child perceives the world.
A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance (Vintage International, 555 pp., $12), winner of last year's Booker Prize, is a richly satisfying read: the intertwining love stories of a pair of modern-day scholars and the 19th-century poets (a Browning-like man and Christina Rossetti-like woman) who are the subjects of their research. In addition to the inventions of her own two narratives, Byatt has also invented a number of quite wonderful poems and stories purportedly written by "R. H. Ash" and "Christabel LaMot te," which are a delight in and of themselves.
While the Brothers Grimm collected folk tales to help preserve oral folk traditions, the stories collected in Jack Zipes's Beauties, Beasts and Enchantment: Classic French Fairy Tales (Meridian, 598 pp., $14.95) were the products of highly literate 16th- and 17th-century aristocrats, mainly women, who recited these stories in their salons. Among the 36 tales in this collection are two versions of "Beauty and the Beast," well-known favorites like "Puss in Boots" and "Blu Beard," by Charles Perrault, and m any fascinating less-known tales that illuminate the manners and mores of France in the age of Louis XIV.
First published 30 years ago, Niccolo Tucci's vivid and engrossing novel Before My Time (Moyer Bell Limited, 638 pp, $12.95) is a kind of expanded memoir of the larger-than-life expatriate Russian family that Tucci's Italian father married into. This new paperback edition features an introduction by Doris Lessing.
Coming to grips with the elusive spirit of the American plains is what Richard Rhodes sets out to do in The Inland Ground: An Evocation of the American Middle West (323 pp., illustrated, $12.95). The University Press of Kansas has issued a revised edition of this unusual and offbeat series of "takes" on diverse aspects of the region, from its roadside signs to the University of Iowa's Writing Center. It's still a work of considerable freshness and originality.
Historian, biographer, and novelist Paul Horgan takes us from the dawn of geological time through the Amerindian, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American eras in his Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the American Southwest, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1,020 pp., $19.95) Volume One: Indians and Spain, Volume Two: Mexico and the United States, published in a single paperback. Originally published in 1954, this h istory has the leisurely grace of old-fashioned storytelling, complete with evocative descriptions and colorful characterizations. It is even suitable for reading aloud.