Saturday, November 30, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 – Wrap Up Post

Hamlet was the last work I needed to read to complete the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. 😃 Below is the summary of the 14 works I read:

I really enjoyed everything but if pressed, my favorites would be A Glass of Blessings and The Way We Live Now.  

I’m not sure if Karen is going to keep on hosting this challenge in 2020 – I’m crossing my fingers that she will. because I really do find it helpful to structure my reading and get in those classic titles I’ve been meaning to read.  I wish any of you, dear readers, luck in also completing the challenge. Remember, you only need to have completed six categories to be successful! 😌

Monday, November 18, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Hamlet

Well, rather surprisingly to me, the Classic Play that I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate was Hamlet.  I was initially considering reading more Oscar Wilde and then I though instead maybe some Sheridan based on Reese’s excellent review of School for Scandal at the blog Typings.  I was looking for, you know, something light and comedic. Instead I read Shakespeare’s longest play and a tragedy to boot. I have a very good friend who teaches English and she convinced me to read it with her so we could discuss it since she is considering teaching it in future. Her go-to for teaching Shakespeare is Macbeth, which she can quote, amazingly to me, by heart.

I think like many readers, I was familiar with the play prior to reading it. I may have read it in high school or we may have only read the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy…the farther I get from my teen years, the more trouble I have remembering the details. But regardless, like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet has permeated the culture of the English speaking world by osmosis. Originally I wanted to listen to it on audio in tandem to reading the text, but since it is such a long play, I couldn’t find an audio book with the full four and half hour production.

Like I said, I knew the story (and am assuming you, dear reader, know it too), so what is my take away from the play? I was surprised that Hamlet is so morose. As I read, I pictured him as a tortured, goth teenager moaning about his parents and how unfair life is. I do understand that Hamlet does have legitimate cause for complaint; his father had been only dead for two months and no one seems to care or notice. However, I did find him particularly mopey-just my take. I understand from a little internet research that there are a multitude of ways to play and interpret Hamlet, so I may have been reading into it, since I was a pretty mopey teenager myself once upon a time. I also didn’t know that Polonius is supposed to be such a pompous windbag and I had assumed that Queen Gertrude was complicit in Hamlet Sr.’s death, but she appears to be innocent. Clearly there were many details I was unaware of and I am glad I read it and set the record straight. Maybe one of these days I will watch an adaptation or even see it live now that I am better acquainted with the play.

One other thing I really enjoyed was discovering a lot of phrases that I already knew but did not know came from this play. A few examples are below:
“…though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.”
 “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”
 “The lady protests too much, methinks.”
My friend and I had an interesting discussion on what we felt was the ultimate message of Hamlet. I wasn’t expecting a moral but she was, since she feels that Macbeth makes a clear point about the dangers of ambition. We decided there really isn't any one moral conclusion to Hamlet. Which is probably in part why the play has endured since it is so open to interpretation.

Thursday, October 31, 2019


Well today is the last day of RIP XIV and also appropriately Halloween. Here’s my wrap up. I did pretty well, if I do say so myself. 😎  I read all four books that I planned to read which makes up for being a total loser last year when I read none! 😩

  • Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson: The verdict is in: I thought it was really good! I really want to read her three other early novels now. I am not a big short story fan. I know that is what Jackson is known for but lazy reader me doesn’t want to read them…but novels, yes please! Hangsaman is a coming of age novel as only Shirley Jackson could write one. It is funny at times but generally unsettling.  The main character is 17 year old Natalie Waite who goes from her dysfunctional home to her first year at an all woman’s college to possibly a mental in The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson leaves room for the reader to imagine what really happened in the interstices.  If you are a reader who is comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity, this might be one to pick up and try. 

  • Slade House by David Mitchell: This is the one book that really suits the season since it is sort of a ghost-cum-horror story. If anyone has read The Bone Clocks by Mitchell, Slade House makes a nice complement to that novel but can also stands alone as a short, creepy read.  In the book, Slade House is a place that does and does not exist. It can only be accessed by certain people through a small iron door in a wall in a grubby, dark ally. Every nine years someone is invited to enter that door and find out what lies beyond, but leaving is another story...(sounds like the lyrics to Hotel California...LOL). 

  • Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie: I enjoyed this one a lot. I think the plotting of the mystery was really interesting  and the resolution was unexpected. The red herrings are particularly good ones.  The story features sadistic Mrs. Boynton who has terrorized her stepchildren all their lives. Now as adults, they are pathetic shells, still flinching at her baits and switches. When Mrs. Boynton ends up dead (was it natural or was it murder?), the list of suspects is pretty clear.  I also have a particular fondness for Christie novels set in North Africa or the Middle East as  Appointment with Death is. I think Christie does a good job of giving the reader a good sense of place when her books are set in these regions.

  • Snake Ropes by Jess Richards: This was the one non-starter for me. I think this book would appeal to fans of Helen Oyeyemi…readers who enjoy the fantastical and books with dark fairy tale overtones. That’s just not my jam but it might be yours.  The story is about two young women whose narration alternates chapters throughout the book. The first narrator is Mary. She on an island under a matriarchy where the handwork of the women is the main source of trade with the “Tall Men” who come from the mainland. Since the death of her mother, Mary has been the main caregiver of her baby brother, whom she hides for his own safety when the Tall Men arrive.  The nother narrator is Morgan. She is imprisoned in her family home, not allowed to wear shoes and forced to keep house for her narcissistic mother and her enabler father. Her only solace are the books she reads and her dreams of escape. Eventually the two stories converge and both women discover how to battle the forces trying limit their power and potential.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

As I Lay Dying – #1930Club

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been trying to read all 100 books listed on the 100 Best Novels which is a list of English-language novels published in the 20th century.  I do understand that this 100 Best Novels list was a marketing ploy on the part of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, which – SURPRISE- publishes all 100 titles.  I also understand that any list of "best" books is incomplete and subjective.  But for me it has been an interesting challenge to try and tick off every title and while there have been a few stinkers, there have been wonderful discoveries too.  

When the 1930 Club (hosted by Simon, who blogs at  Stuck in a Book and Karen, who blogs at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings) was announced for November, I saw that As I Lay Dying, which is on the 100 Best Novels list, was published that year. My choice was made! I worried at first that I wouldn’t finish it in time for the 1930 Club, but it is pretty short (my edition had 244 pages) and aside from some of the stream of consciousness bits, not too difficult to digest.   

As with some high falutin’ modern classics, the story is simple: Aggie Bundren is dying. Her feckless husband has promised her that she will be buried in Jackson where her “people” are from, which is 40 miles away from their farm. She dies and the journey with her corpse is bedeviled by bad luck and ignorance on the part of the Bundren family.   A journey that should take a couple of days ends up taking over a week and meanwhile, the body starts to decompose in the summer heat.

This is the second novel I’ve read from Faulkner and I am confident he will never become a favorite of mine. Despite the book's brevity, it still behooves the reader to read it fairly slowly. I did think the sections that were straight dialogue were great. I looked up a few samples of Mississippi accent on YouTube so I could get the right voice in my head. U.S. Southern dialects and accents are all really different from another and I needed some verisimilitude. 

In Faulkner's depiction of the various character’s innermost thoughts, he often uses references and vocabulary that wouldn’t be known to persons of the Bundren’s socio-economic class.  It is here where the book didn't work for me. I get that there is a line between what one states and what one thinks and we don’t think in words but it was jarring nonetheless.  Especially when the speaker/thinker is supposed to be a child. The characters also drove me insane! I realize it was purposeful, but they all make the worst choices, whether out of ignorance or spite or selfishness. I think what makes the book and the characters so frustrating is that, while the book doesn't come right out and say it, in death they are honoring their mother in a way they neglected to when she was alive. But this is foolish. She is dead and there is no point to this ritual. It only damages and impoverishes them further. The devotion should have been shown when she was alive and could have had some benefit from it. But this is often the way of human motivation I think. 

In some ways As I Lay Dying reminded me of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road which also features poor, rural whites in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. But Caldwell went more for comedy - dark comedy, but still comedy. I guess some readers might find humor in the various setbacks that plague the Bundren family as they journey (or maybe in the youngest child Vardemann's confused thoughts, "My mother is a fish") but I found As I Lay Dying pretty bleak. 

I am glad to have read it however. I am glad that Faulkner’s works exist. He had an significant influence on other writers;  Cormac McCarthy for one, whom I’ve never read and Toni Morrison for another, whom I revere. I can see the through line to Morrison, although I find her books and her style to be much more compelling. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: The Wings of the Dove

Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. Yet he knew in a moment that Kate was just now, for reasons hidden from him, exceptionally under the impression of that element of wealth in her which was a power, which was a great power, and which was dove-like only so far as one remembered that doves have wings and wondrous flights, have them as well as tender tints and soft sound. It even came to him dimly that such wings would in a given case – had, truly, in the case with which he was concerned –spread themselves for protection. Hadn’t they, for that matter, lately taken an inordinate reach, and weren’t Kate and Mrs. Lowder, weren’t Susan Shepheard and he, wasn’t he in particular, nestling under them to a great increase of immediate need?”

No lie: it took me over two months to read The Wings of the Dove. The edition I read had over 500 pages, but it wasn’t the length of the book that slowed me down, it was Henry James and his MANY, MANY, carefully chosen words.  I read pretty much every line twice if not three or four times and even then, I often wasn’t sure if I understood the sentence.  It’s a good thing that one of the main characters is also a little dense. When things had to be spelled out to him, it was to my advantage as a reader too. Also, I had seen the film waaay back in 1998 or so and was familiar with the plot.  But this is a psychological novel; the plot is barely there.  James takes paragraphs and sometimes pages to explain one thought or perception.  I realize that it might have been better for me had I a solid base in James and worked my way up to his later, more complex works.  I read his first novel, Daisy Miller, earlier this year and found it both delightful and not difficult in the least. My reason for reading the Wings of the Dove now instead of later were fueled by the fact that (a) I owned a copy of this book already and (b) it is on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list of the best English-language novels published in the 20th century from which I intend to someday read every title.  So I persevered. 

As I stated above, there is not much of a plot. The story is simple:  young Morton Densher and Kate Croy are Londoners who want to marry but feel they cannot due to certain social constraints that would be smoothed away if only either of them had any money. Along comes dove-like Milly Theale, a very rich but naïve (or is she?) American who has a crush on Morton and not too much longer to live. Will Morton marry Milly for her money as Kate hopes? Is Kate really doing Milly a favor as she would like to believe? Can Kate and Morton’s relationship survive this, whatever the outcome? 

While this book was a lot of work for me, it didn’t put me off Henry James. I am not much of an athlete and the analogy may be poor, but runners don't avoid running a marathon because it is too challenging, right?  I have at least two more "difficult" James’ titles that I HAVE to read due to my personal goal of reading all the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and I would certainly be interested in reading some of his more accessible novels like Portrait of a Lady or Washington Square.  

I read this for the category Classic Tragic Novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: My Brilliant Career and Green Dolphin Street

I was torn about my options for the category of a Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. While I was very tempted to buy a copy of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o s A Grain of Wheat, I decited to be “good” and limited my choice to only books available from the library. Reviewing my library options, I couldn’t decide if I should read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin or Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge, so I read them both!

The library edition of Green Dolphin Street that I read was published as part of a reprint series titled “The Best Seller Library” which had to have been issued at least in the 1970s or beyond since The Godfather was part of the series. Also included were (all 12 titles were listed on the back) were Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zhivago so you have an idea of what kind of book Green Dolphin Street is... EPIC.

First published in 1945, it is a historical novel that begins on one of the UK Channel Islands in the 1840s when 
Marianne and Marguerite Le Patourel are still children.  Marianne and Marguerite are sisters. They are six years apart in age and could not be more different in both looks and temperament. Marianne, the eldest, is small and dark while Marguerite is tall and fair. They are also quite different in personality. Marianne is driven and ambitious; a perfectionist. Marguerite on the other hand is far more carefree and openly affectionate. Unfortunately they both fall for the same boy, William Ozanne. This love triangle is the driving force of the novel. Eventually William ends up in New Zealand (which is how this book qualifies as set in Oceania) and he writes the Le Patourel family that one of the daughters should make her way to him and become his wife. But which one does he choose?

I have read a few of this type of historical saga throughout my reading life. They require a certain commitment since they tend to be long and detail-laden. The edition I read was 500 pages long with small font. I’ll be honest, at about the halfway mark, I began to flag. I rallied and finished the book, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea. I might have enjoyed it more had I read it younger, because it wasn't the length so much as the drama that wore me out. I much preferred Goudge’s contemporary novel The Rosemary Tree, which is a more intimate story on a smaller scale. What both books did have in common, however, is an infusion of Christian mysticism which I appreciated and I understand is typical of Goudge's writing. Some attitudes towards non-whites and the lower classes in Green Dolphin Street are dated, though on the whole, I felt the author was at least trying to be sympathetic to the Maori.

My Brilliant Career is an entirely different kettle of fish! It comes across as far more authentic. I don’t believe that it is entirely autobiographical, but Franklin published it in 1901 when she was only 21 and the teenage emotions in the book (which sometimes run VERY high) seemed very realistic to me. It is also much shorter than the Goudge novel which was the reason why I decided to read both.

One thing both books have is a very headstrong main character. Sybylla from My Brilliant Career grows up as a tomboy in relative comfort on a ranch in the outback somewhere. When she is about eight years old, her family move to Possum Gully to farm cattle which turns out to be a disastrous move. Within a few years, drought and alcoholism have impoverished the family. Sybylla is the oldest and she has never gotten along with her mother, who grew up in a more refined household and who struggles to maintain both her pride and her gentility against the odds. 

Eventually Sybylla is allowed to stay with her wealthy maternal relatives. Here Sybylla is pampered and spared the backbreaking work of Possum Gully. She can indulge in her love of music and literature. Sybylla has a secret wish to someday become a writer. While staying with her grandmother, Sybylla also meets a number of eligible men, from ranch hand jackaroos to the rich and handsome neighbor, Harold Beechman. But is Sybylla willing to give up her independence and the possibility of a brilliant career to marry?

I won’t give the ending away, but I can tell you that as a reader, Sybylla is very frustrating and the author defies a conventional narrative. As I wrote, the book was written by a very young woman and Sybylla displays all the contradictions and insecurities of a teenager. I remember, I was one too.

Friday, September 6, 2019


I'm a little late but still keen to participate in RIP XIV.  I was a total loser last year and read NOTHING.  Officially I will try for Peril the Third which is read one book between September 1 and October 31 that fits thematically in to the RIP categories:

Mystery * Suspense * Thriller * Dark Fantasy * Gothic * Horror *Supernatural

What could be easier, right?  My four possible picks are:

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson: I've read her better known novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I am super curious about her other four. Why are they not as popular? 

Slade House by David Mitchell: I have been meaning to read for the past three years... Will 2019 be the charm? This is the one book that might actually be classified as Horror...

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie: I've seen the televised version of this with David Suchet but I don't remember who the murderer was luckily! I will probably re-watch the adaptation for fun after I read it.

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards: I honestly don't really know if this book fits any of the prompts.  I have an idea it might be "gothic". I bought it for a read-along hosted by a now defunct podcast a few years ago.  

I'll come back in November and wrap it up if I manage to read any of the planned titles. RIP is a fun exercise to read seasonally which I appreciate and I love seeing what other bloggers list and read as well. 

Happy Reading!