Friday, January 1, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021

I am super pleased to participate for my eighth year in this challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.  Below is what I have tentatively chosen to read for the Back to the Classics challenge 2021 categories. 

1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899 – The answer is “Trollope”. Of the books I own, I can read either the both fairly shortish books Doctor Wortle’s School or Cousin Henry or the chunkster Orley Farm

2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. Well, I must continue with the Alexandria Quartet, right? All are available on e-book from the library too, which makes it easy.  I’m crossing my fingers I will read all three of the remaining titles in 2021 but we’ll see; the next one is Balthazar

3. A classic by a woman author. I have another Monica Dickens novel, Mariana, published by Persephone that I need to read. I am also tempted to splurge and buy some more Dorothy Whipple titles from that publisher. Actually, I have a lot of female authors on my shelf that need reading: The Stone Angel by Margaret Lawrence, The Locust Have No King by Dawn Powell and any number of Barbara Pym titles... This and the 19th century category are the easiest for me to fill from stuff I already own.

4. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. I might tag along in June with the Hunchback of Notre Dame read-along hosted by One Catholic Life. 

5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author. While I really would love to read The Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o which I have owned for over 10 years, that was only published in 2004. But I would also like to try some of his earlier works such as A Grain of Wheat which was published in 1967. Maybe if I read this, it will spur me on to finally pick up Wizard. 

6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.  I would like to read The House of Ulloa by  Emilia Pardo Bazán which was recommended to me by blogger Sylvia at Sylvia Cachia. Or another option (and recommendation from Sylvia and many other bloggers ) is the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigried Undset. 

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author -- a new book by an author whose works you have already read. I might just get a little lazy here and read another Trollope. :D 

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. Oh, how perfectly The Wizard of the Crow would fit here too! I am going to read Setting Free the Bears by John Irving which was first published in 1968. I used to love Irving and I might have actually read this at some point in my hazy past? I can’t be certain. I let you know if any of it seems familiar, though Irving does have a tendency to recycle certain things in his fiction - like bears and Austria and wrestling.  

9. A children's classic. I am definitely going to read The Wind in the Willows as recommended by Cleo at Classical Carousel. All I knew about this book previously was the ride at Disneyland, but Cleo’s cheerleading has made me super keen to dive in to this kid's classic. 

10. A humorous or satirical classic. I have a bind up of Jeeves and Wooster novels by P.G. Wodehouse that will fit this category perfectly. I've never read any Wodehouse; I've only seen the Fry and Laurie televised adaptations.

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction). It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure. This is one of the tougher categories for me since it isn't something I naturally gravitate towards. I have a copy of She by L.Rider Hagger that would fit the bill. Or maybe I will read Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

12. A classic play. I might go for an Oscar Wilde play here.  Or “A School for Scandal” by Sheridan. Definitely something comic. 

Thanks a million to Karen for hosting. I know it takes time and effort on her part to post the links and keep track, etc. I am so grateful to her for giving so many bloggers this opportunity yet again. :D

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 - Wrap Up Post

For a while in early December, I thought if I push myself, I could get all twelve categories done and dusted in time, but I then I thought about it a bit and realized that there was no need to rush. I’m not being graded and frankly, no one cares. So I decided to abandon the category of reading an abandoned classic (arf arf) and while I did read an Adapted Classic (The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope) and a Classic in Translation (The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann that I only finished YESTERDAY), I will not post about them.

I won the drawing last year and meant to post the picture of what I bought with the prize gift certificate when I posted about The Duke’s Children, but alas. So I am including it in this post. It is a lovely reference book about Trollope’s works. I love these kinds of books. You don’t read them cover to cover but just flip through them from time to time and used them when needed. Of course, I could look up the same information on the internet, but physical books are still my preferred medium.  I wanted what I purchased to be something I would keep and cherish and this totally fit the ticket. 

Here's what I did read and post about:

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899 - I read Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1970 - I read Justine by Laurence Durrell, the first book in the Alexandria Quartet. 

3. Classic by a Woman Author - I read The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

4. Classic by a Person of Color - I read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

5. A Genre Classic - I read Ubik by Philip K. Dick

6. Classic with a Name in the Title - I read Trilby by George du Maurier

7. Classic with a Place in the Title - I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

8. Classic with Nature in the Title  - I read The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

9. Classic about a Family - I read Evelina by Frances Burney

As always, many thanks, Karen at Books and Chocolate, for hosting this challenge.  I am so looking forward to taking part (and hopefully being more successful!) in 2021. naessa [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Ubik

PKD was a weird guy. That’s my summation after having now read only two of his novels.  I chose Ubik for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 – “Read a genre classic”.

In reading this book, it became very clear right away that PKD had a lot of fun imagining what one would wear in his projected future. It is all pretty outlandish, such as:

 “A young stringbean of a girl with glasses and straight lemon-yellow hair, wearing a cowboy hat, black lace mantilla and Bermuda shorts…” 

or this

 “a beetle like individual wearing a Continental outfit: tweed toga, loafers, crimson sash and a purple airplane-propeller beanie”. 

Dick imagines a (colorfully dressed) world where telepathy and pre-cognition are commonplace. There are organizations created to harness these powers and other organizations that exist to curb them. Glen Runciter is the CEO of Runciter Associates, a company that uses telepaths and pre-cogs to counteract the nefarious actions of companies, like the Hollis Agency, that use these abilities to steal business secrets from corporations. When Runciter ends up killed in a job gone bad and his team desperately try to get him to a mortuary in Switzerland before his brain activity goes cold, where he may live on as a non-corporeal entity. Only nothing goes as planned and fabric of time and space seems to be disintegrating. 

Similarly to the other Dick novel I’ve read The Man in the High Castle, when I got to the end of Ubik, I was left wondering what had I just read? What does it all mean or is it just the rambling of a fertile imagination? Is Dick having the reader on or is there some deeper meaning to the text that I am missing?

It is interesting to note that Dick may have been a visionary in his prediction of a corporatized world of tomorrow in this book (everything has a cost – everything is commoditized), but like Asimov in the Foundation Series, he could not envision a smoke-free future. Even when I had a two-pack-a-day habit, I assumed (probably influenced by Star Trek) the future would not include tobacco smoking. It does make you appreciate it when a writer does get at least bits and pieces of the future (that we now live in) “right”. Not that we currently live in a smoke-free environment, but in Ubik, there’s more lighting up that in an average episode of "Mad Men". 😀

I enjoyed reading Ubik, but I have to admit that the book didn’t quite work for me as science fiction due to its farcical, over-the-top tone. It’s all pretty madcap but never very convincing. And the ending is either mind-blowing or just plain confusing. It’s almost like a koan, one could meditate upon it for eternity. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Justine

I had ambitious plans to read Lawrence Durrell’s entire Alexandria quartet for the challenge in 2020 but unfortunately, I’ve only managed the first book and don’t see myself tackling the other three in 2020. My blogging friend Major called it, when he commented on my January 3, 2020 opening post for the challenge, 

I found it impossible to understand, I was totally lost, I had no idea what the writer was doing. I was routed, utterly defeated. Not even Pynchon challenged me so.”

I’ve only read one book by Pynchon and it was pretty tough going, so I’m giving the point to Durrell here, BUT I do know what Major meant. Much of the dreamy, plotless, non-linear narrative of Justine was incomprehensible to me. 

Here’s what I did get: Everybody loves Justine. Justine loves no one but has affairs left and right, possibly because she was sexually abused by an uncle as a child, the book suggests. Justine has an affair with our nameless expat British narrator. He, in turn, is in a relationship with a tubercular prostitute with a heart of gold, Melissa. Justine’s husband, Nessim, is tolerant of his wife’s behavior, until he isn’t and then he takes up with Melissa.

Here’s what I think I got: Justine is supposed to represent the city of Alexandria. Or maybe all three of the main characters supposed to represent facets of the city: Nessim the Coptic Christian, Justine the Jew, and Melissa the Greek (The Arab and Muslim population are pretty much ignored by Durrell). 

Here’s what I did not get at all: At some points, Durell switches to the past…maybe the Napoleonic invasion of Alexandria or maybe the Persian invasion or the Ottoman invasion…all which were centuries apart from one another. Who knows? It’s all very dreamlike and enigmatic.

As a reader, I need a lot more plot than this book provided. I usually have a tin ear for gauzy, poetic writing.  But I think the biggest problem was that even when I did understand what was happening, I didn’t care a whit about any of these people or what happened to them.  However, I know and respect other readers who LOVE these books, so I do think this is very much a matter of “reader taste”.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 category “20th Century Classic”.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Evelina

It might be a stretch to include Frances Burney’s Evelina as a “Classic about Family”, but hear me out. 

Told entirely in letters, Evelina is the story of an abandoned child who is raised by her guardian, the Reverend Villars, who was also the guardian of Evelina’s deceased mother, Caroline. When Caroline came of age, Rev. Villars, against his better judgment, allowed her to join her rich but dissolute mother, Madam Duval, in Paris. Mme Duval, in her laxity, allowed Caroline to elope with Sir John Belmont. The product of that legitimate union was Evelina. But Caroline died soon after Evelina’s birth and Sir John refused to recognize the marriage publicly. So Evelina, now 17, has been raised in the country, far from wicked London or Paris and knows little about her true parentage and no one in society knows who she is.

But that all changes when Evelina is allowed to travel to London with family friend, Mrs. Mirvan and her daughter, Maria, who is Evelina’s closest friend. In London, because she grew up so sheltered, she puts her foot wrong many times. And, coincidentally, she also runs into her grandmother, Mme Duvall, who has decidedly questionable goals for her newfound granddaughter. 

Most of the letters are from Evelina to her guardian, the Reverend Villers. Villars most naturally worried about his ward’s ability to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and remain morally upstanding. Not only is Evelina exploited by her déclassé French grandmother and her middle class London cousins, there are also the boorish Captain Mirvan and the predatory Sir Clement Willoughby to contend with. Apparently, the book was favorite of Jane Austen, so let the name “Willoughby” be a warning to you, if you have read Sense and Sensibility

Take heart, however! All is not totally dire for Evelina.  Not only does she have the support of Mrs. Mirivan and Rev. Villars, she also meets and charms the rich and handsome Lord Orville. And the complications of her parentage are eventually sorted out to her advantage. That’s my stretch: this is a book about a naïve girl with essentially no family who ultimately is recognized by her family. Ta da!

It was an interesting book to read because, thankfully, Evelina does get wiser as the plot advances and I really enjoyed the tour through London’s 18th century pleasure gardens and other entertainments depicted in the first volume. And the book really underscored just how vulnerable a woman was in this society if she had no father or brother to protect her. But, ultimately, the book is a romantic comedy that used artifice to ensure the lovers are kept apart, which isn’t my favorite thing to read from any century and the “comedy” aspect of it was often too farcical for me to appreciate.  Many of the scenes meant to be humorous, came off as mean spirited and not funny to me. How much of this is my personal taste and how much of this is changes in society over the last 200 plus years, I don’t know.

I read the Oxford World Classics paperback which was annotated, thank goodness. The florid style of dialogue was hard for me to parse at times and the explanations of what was acceptable behaviorally as a young woman in Georgian England were immensely helpful in understanding the plot. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room is the third book that I’ve read for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge that takes place in Paris. And it is even contemporaneous with The Dud Avocado.  Similar to Sally J. Gorce, the main character, David is also an American in post war 1950s Paris, living off a trust fund while he figures himself out and there is lots of drinking and casual sex.  But that is where the comparisons end. 

One of the things that David is trying to figure out is his sexuality, though he may not always be consciously aware of this as a narrator. His father wants him to return to the States and settle down.  He has proposed to his American girlfriend, Hella, who says she needs time to think. And then when out and about at a gay bar in Paris with a family friend, Jacques, who is homosexual, David meets Giovanni.  

Up to this point, David considers himself to be heterosexual, despite having had a brief homosexual experience as a boy. He has frequented this gay bar many times before with Jacques, but always as a person apart from the rest of the crowd; not “one of them”. In fact, David’s attitude towards the transsexuals or more feminine men that are also at the bar is downright hostile.  He spends a lot of time comparing himself to other men and worried that he doesn’t appear sufficiently masculine.  But despite this, David begins an intense relationship with Giovanni and moves in with him while Hella is out of the country (hence the title of the book).  But when Hella returns, David goes back to her and doesn’t (a) tell Giovanni he is leaving him and (b) doesn’t tell Hella he had an affair with Giovanni. 

Clearly, David has a lot of problems. And his behavior and inability to come to terms with his bisexuality/homosexuality has negative repercussions for everyone in the book.  Needless to write, this is not a happy story. Maybe that’s why I kind of hated it? I feel terrible for not liking such a well-respected classic like this title. But it just left me cold. I could believe David’s self-loathing and indecision but I didn’t feel like Hella or Giovanni’s actions were real. It was too melodramatic for me to swallow.  I think this is a case where if I were to experience it in another format (on the stage or screen) I would love it, but in print, I couldn’t read the passion into it, even though there are some beautifully depicted scenes. 

I read this for the Back to the Classics Category “Classic by a POC Author”. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: The Dud Avocado


You know, these American girls are just like avocados….” His avocado arrived and he looked at it lovingly. “The Typical American Girl,” he said, addressing it. “A hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing.” He began eating it. “How I love them,” he murmured greedily. “So green—so eternally green.” He winked at me.

Interestingly enough, three of the books I have read for a Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 have been set in Left Bank Paris.  Moving up a century and half from Trilby, The Dud Avocado takes place in the Latin Quarter in the 1950s. And similar to George du Maurier, Elaine Dundy knew of what she wrote, since like her protagonist, she too moved to Paris after World War II to live off her allowance for as long as she could. I don’t know exactly what the exchange rate was back then, but as I understand it, the dollar was amazingly strong and one could live pretty well in Western Europe on a modest U.S. income. 

This was my second stab at The Dud Avocado, which I’ve owned for probably at least a decade. It was kind of a cover-buy because I really loved the pictured Virago naked hard back and sort of Gollum-like, I felt a need to possess it, regardless of its contents. I am glad I gave it another chance because I really enjoyed this novel about a footloose, slightly zany young American woman named Sally J. Gorse. Also, like Trilby, this book is pretty frank about sexual mores in the mid-20th century, though again, there are still different expectations placed on women compared to men. Possibly because the author is female, she is a little sharper in her condemnation of this gender gap. Fittingly enough, the category I read this for is “Classic By a Woman Author”. 

Judging from the goodreads reviews, this is a bit of a marmite book, where either the reader gets Sally and her brand of humor and adventure, or they don’t. I did find Sally occasionally frustrating but I also I laughed out loud more than once as I read about her days and nights with the pseudo-intellectuals and American ex-pats at the Paris cafes, how she gets an acting job in a local English language production, how she is duped into a vacation in the South of France and ends up as an extra in an international film production, etc. There is a little bit of a plot arc, but really the joy of reading the book is just following Sally and wondering what she is going to do or say next. 

This book gets compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s a lot, which is interesting because actually both books were published in the same year: 1958. I can see some similarities between Holly Golightly and Sally J. Gorce in their way of living without thinking of consequences …ah youth.  Ultimately, however, they really aren’t very similar and I don’t think they would like each other, were they to meet. Sally is, for all her worldliness, fairly naïve and she lives off of a trust fund. Holly grew up poor and is a call girl (in my opinion – I know others interpret her way of living through rosier glasses) and lives off of tips from her men clients.