Monday, June 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - A Grain of Wheat

 Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24

My first novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o but definitely not my last. Ngũgĩ came to my attention sometime around 2010 when I was becoming better acquainted with book prizes and he was rumored to be a front runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature for that year. Mario Vargas Llosa ended up winning instead, but perhaps Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o will win it in the future at some point.

Set on the even of Uhuru (Freedom), Kenya’s official freedom from the colonial powers of the British Empire in 1963, the story is more or less of centered around the reclusive Mugo. Mugo is so introverted and quiet that those around him fill his silences with what they want to think and hear. What they don’t know is that Mugo is harboring a secret that has been plaguing him for many years, driving him even more away from village society and into a self-imposed isolation. 

Apart from but also connected to Mugo are Gikonyo, a local business man, his wife Mumbi and his rival, the Karanja, who works at the local research station and who is considered a collaborator since he did not fight but worked for British during the war. Mumbi was sister to Kihika, a local hero and Mau Mau freedom fighter who was betrayed which lead to his capture and hanging. The village leaders are trying to get Mugo to give a speech at Uhuru because they believe him to have been a fervent supporter of Kihika and in his own quiet way, a hero of the rebellion. All the characters come to Mugo, in part to try and convince him to speak, but also to confide in him their own troubles and cares. Because Mugo is so quiet, they assume he is sympathetic to them and their feelings. Everything comes to a head on the day of Uhura when old rivalries are settled and the truth about Kihika is revealed.

There is a much smaller side story of the white district officer, John Thompson and his unhappy and unfaithful wife, who will be leaving Kenya after independence because he frankly does not want to be subject to and governed by blacks. His story intertwines with the others because during the war of independence, Thomson was an officer at a detention camp where Mugo was held.  

I really enjoyed this book. It was a great look at Kenya and its history, looking very much at its future and already noting the cracks in the foundation of self-rule. To paraphrase The Who, “meet the new boss, just the same as the old one”. And what to make of this biblical analogy of the death of the seed which brings life to the plant? Is Ngũgĩ using this to remind the reader that the death of colonialism will bring forth the flowering of Kenyan independence?  Or is he referencing the death of the rebel leader Kihika who will bring forth the fruits of self-rule which was achieved in part because of his sacrifices? It is interesting to think about.

I had to read this book quite carefully, because there were a lot of subtle time shifts in the narrative. Also, there was the occasional use of untranslated Kikuyu/Swahili and Kikuyu names took some getting used to in order to differentiate one person from another. But I really enjoyed that aspect of the book because it made the experience more immersive. 

I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “Classic by a POC author”.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - Setting Free the Bears

For the Back to the Classics 2021 category “Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title”, I read John Irving’s debut novel, Setting Free the Bears which I have owned for many years... ahem… decades.  I think like a lot of readers, if they have read any Irving at all, the first Irving I read was The World According to Garp, after seeing the movie which came out in 1982. For many years thereafter, up to the late ‘90s I was a huge Irving fan and had read his novels (six) published between 1978 and 1998.  I wouldn’t say I am no longer a fan, but for whatever reason, I stopped reading him in the new millennium; well, until recently. 

Anyone who has read a few Irving novels will notice some of his signature trademark tics across his books: Vienna, bears, wrestling, orphans, bizarre deaths, etc. Not every book has every peculiarity in it, but they all have his special brand of epic tragicomedy I believe, at least the seven that I’ve now read. I didn’t encounter any Charles Dickens until 2005, but after having re-read The Cider House Rules in 2019 and now Setting Free the Bears for the first time, it is clear to me that “Dickensian” is an adjective that can be applied to Irving’s novels. 

Published in 1968, Setting Free the Bears is a frame story narrated by Hanne Graff, a Viennese university student. When Hanne flunks out of university, he takes up with the slightly unhinged Siggy Javotnik, a radish eating, salt stealing maniac, and they decide to take a motorcycle road trip. Their goal is to go all the way to Italy and the coast. The opening and closing of the novel are set during their journey in present day mid-1960s Austria, but the middle section is the life history of Siggy’s parents during World War II interspersed with Siggy’s current day obsessive plans to free the animals from the Vienna zoo (hence the title). Also central to the story is a young woman Hanne meets along the way called Gallen at an alpine hotel. Basically, however, Hanne is the straight man to the farcical Siggy and the real story within the story is the history of the Anschluss in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria and the politics and betrayals of the partisan guerilla forces in Yugoslavia during and after the war.  

The book has its charms and hit a number of the Irving markers (Vienna, bears, orphans) but on the whole, I found it awkwardly plotted, often stilted and generally it felt overly long. All John Irving books are pretty chunky, but as a reader, I don’t normally feel it; in this one I did. I think this book is maybe best left to Irving completists, though possibly had I read it a few decades ago at the height of my love for Irving I would have liked it more. I suspect some of what made it awkward and long was just the creakiness of a debut novel.  Irving was warming up to hit his later stride starting with Garp. I am glad to have read it, however. I particularly appreciated learning more about the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 and the political makeup of Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation. I’d never heard of Draža Mihailović and the Chetniks but I think I should have, as should everyone. He was on the cover of Time in 1942, for goodness sake! Google him, I ask you all, if you’ve not heard of him. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The 1936 Club: A Shilling for Candles

After missing out on the 1956 club in 2020 because I can’t read a calendar apparently, I am really glad I managed to both READ a book and POST about it for the 1936 Club hosted by bloggers Karen at Kaggsy and Thomas at Stuck in a Book I was super pleased to find I actually owned a copy of A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey which was first published in the UK in 1936. I have now read all but one of Tey’s mysteries. On the whole, her books are in my opinion a little hit and miss, but so far all have been well worth reading, even if every title didn’t always blow my socks off.  If you like Golden Age crime fiction, Tey should be on your reading list for sure. 

In the opening chapter of A Shilling for Candles, a man taking an early morning walk on the beach finds the body of woman in a bright green bathing dress who has clearly drowned. He hurries to the nearest coastguard station to phone the police. Unfortunately suicides are not uncommon in this particular area of costal Kent, but eventually the police determine that the woman drowned most likely at the hands of a person or persons unknown based upon a couple of small details about the body. The police also determine that the woman was renting a nearby cottage and that the obvious suspect is her “house guest”, a young man named Tisdall whom she impulsively invited to stay with her when she discovered him about to pawn literally the clothes off his back in London a few days earlier. It turns out that the drowned woman was the famous movie star Christine Clay and that generous, impulsive action of helping a person in need, such as the house guest, was characteristic of her. Who would want to kill her? Was Tisdall? Or her explorer husband who was allegedly out of the country at the time of death? Or was it the composer Jacob Harmer, who was working with her on her current film and who wagging tongues rumor was her lover?

I enjoyed reading it this book. I gulped in down over the course of two days, which was very satisfying. However, I didn’t think this is Tey’s best mystery. The resolution was a little out of left field for my tastes. But up until that point, I enjoyed the investigation along with its obfuscation and red herrings.

There are quite a few colorful characters in the book. There is a really awful journalist, Jammy Hopkins, dogging the detective's, Inspector Grant, heels. The readers are introduced to Grant’s friend and connection to the theater world, actress Marta Hallard who will feature in at least two future books. Grant is an atypical lead detective when compared to literary detectives created by Tey’s contemporaries like Christy, March, or Allingham; he isn’t in and of himself very interesting or quirky. Not that this detracts from the books, however. It is just something I’ve noticed. 

The real highlight for me in A Shilling for Candles was the eccentric Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the local Chief Constable, who does some mighty good sleuthing in the book.  Tey could have easily spun off a series featuring teenage Erica solving crime, having romantic escapades and cracking wise. 

Interestingly enough, Tey calls out class consciousness front and center when Grant finds out the husband of the victim is a lord and is loath to question him in a confrontational manner. I found it noteworthy that Grant recognizes this behavior and knows it’s not “right” and yet, it’s how one is expected to behave. On the other hand, one of the characters is Jewish and Tey uses some weird backhanded comments on this as an ethnicity which is not atypical for a book published in the 1930s but it is always jarring when I encounter it. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 – P.G. Wodehouse


I chose to read some Wooster and Jeeves for the category “Classic Humor or Satire”. I’ve seen a few episodes of the hilarious adaptations starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry but had never read any Wodehouse before. And here I had this chunky  bind up that I bought at a library sale or Goodwill years ago, just begging to be read.  I am so very glad I took the plunge - they were so very, very funny!  

The below listed three titles are sequential but late in the series, published in 1960, 1963 and 1971 respectively. There is a lot to be gained reading them in order, I believe, since there is usually a little throw back to events and characters in previous novels and when I reached the third book, I was laughing out loud while reading.  

So now my plan is to read all the Wooster and Jeeves novels in order. It won’t take me too long to achieve this – a couple of years maybe. There’s a total of 16 novels I believe, but the individual books are fairly short – under 300 pages.  The plots are pretty much all the same, Bertie gets into trouble, usually meaning well, and Jeeves gets him out of it. Some of the humor is in that repetition.

How Right You Are, Jeeves

When Bertie Wooster’s valet, Jeeves, takes a holiday, Bertie heads down to Brinkley Court to stay with his Aunt Dahlia. Dahlia wants Bertie to prevent her goddaughter, Phyllis Mills, from marrying the American playboy Willie Cream, both of whom are also staying at Brinkley Court. Also guests of the manor are Willie’s mother, the thriller writer Mrs. Homer Cream, a novelist, Phyllis step-father, Aubrey Upjohn who unfortunately was also the headmaster at Bertie’s boarding school and has a long memory, and the spunky Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham who tends to get Bertie in trouble whenever she is around. The ridiculous plot thickens and Bertie gets into all kinds of trouble due to both Bobbie and his own silliness.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Bertie is induced to return to Totleigh Towers despite the fact that its owner Sir Watkyn Bassett once jailed him for a college prank and frankly can’t stand him. Also, Sir Watkyn’s daughter, Madeline, has vowed to become Mrs. Wooster if her current engagement to Gussie Fink fails. When that affiance is threatened, Bertie has no choice but to enter the lion’s den and patch up Gussie and Madeline’s relationship to avoid dreaded matrimony himself. Of course, many other hijinks ensue: Bertie is (falsely) accused of theft and then kleptomania, spends a night in jail; Jeeves impersonates a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector; a garish alpine hat is sacrificed.

Jeeves and the Tie That Binds

We learn that Jeeves belongs to a club for manservants in which pertinent details of their employers are committed to a book “to inform those seeking employment of the sort of thing they will be taking on”. Bertie is afraid that the book (with an incredible 18 pages devoted solely to him) will fall into the wrong hands. For once, Bertie isn’t wrong. Jeeves and Wooster go to stay at Aunt Dahlia’s with the aim of helping Bertie’s old pal Harold “Ginger” Winship who is standing for Parliament in the by-election at Market Snodsbury. Unfortunately, Ginger’s impetus for politics is his fiancée, Florence Cray, one of Bertie’s old paramours. Also staying at Brinkley Court is Madeline Bassett and her suitor, Lord Sidcup, one of Bertie’s avowed enemies. Without any spoilers, this is the novel where Bertie finally commits to a relationship.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021: The House of Ulloa


The earthy and gothic atmosphere of this 19th century Spanish classic novel reminded me at tad of Wuthering Heights in its rustic setting reflecting a landscape of corruption, cruelty and decay, only instead of the Yorkshire moors, the majority of the novel takes place in provincial Galicia. But that comparison only goes so far. Don Pedro Ulloa is no Heathcliff and Pardo Bazán  using the backdrop to tell a story steeped social satire and criticism and not that of a doomed, star-crossed relationship and ghosts. 

The book is narrated in close third person through the eyes of Father Julian, a naïve, very young priest who has been commissioned to come to the Ulloa estate and manage it for the marquis, Don Pedro. However, Father Julian is entirely out of his element. The house and farms are, in fact, “run” by Don Pedro’s farmhand/huntsman, Primitivo, who has the lazy, feckless Don Pedro completely under his thumb. The more Julian tries to get a handle on the situation, the worse it becomes. When Don Pedro marries, Julian hopes this will change the balance of power on the estate, but things don’t work out as he hopes and Julian’s chaste but close relationship with the new mistress of the house is also threatened. Then, when the entire region is in the grips of a local election where Don Pedro has been made the candidate for the conservative faction, things come to a head. 


One factor of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was the descriptions of the countryside, which is rough, wild and sometimes bleak but also beautiful. The comparison of this provincial landscape is juxtaposed with the dissipated and claustrophobic atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela, where Father Julian and Don Pedro go to visit the marquis’ cousins and find Don Perdo a wife. 


The backdrop of the novel is the Glorious Revolution which took place in Spain in 1868 when Queen Isabella II was deposed and exiled. Of course, I know virtually nothing about Spanish history, so getting even an inkling of that background was great in the context of the novel and in the notes in the annotated Penguin edition that I read. It’s a pity that more books by Pardo Bazán are not available in English, though maybe more are in the works?  In the introduction, it was suggested she is often compared to Emile Zola, a comparison she personally disagreed with. But, while I’ve only read two books by Zola, I can see where one might make the comparison, in particular because Pardo Bazán is quite frank about the more earthy and realistic sides of life. 


I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 category “Classic by a New to You Author”. I was introduced to The House of Ulloa and Emelia Pardo Bazán by the blogger Sylvia Cachia. Thanks Sylvia!

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Herr Settembrini hauled him over the coals quite properly and managed to firm up his conscience at least temporarily extracting something like a promise never again to participate in such horrors. “Pay attention,” he demanded, “to the human being inside you, my good engineer. Trust it clear and humane thoughts and abhor this wrenching of the brain, this intellectual swamp. Illusions? Secret of Life? Caro mio! When the moral courage to decide and differentiate between fraud and reality begins to melt away, that marks the end of life itself, of formed opinions, of values, of any improving deed, and the corruptive process of moral skepticism begins its awful work.” Man was the measure of all things, he added. Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. It would be better a millstone were hung about his neck and here were drowned in the deepest well.

I read The Magic Mountain last year and had I had my act together, would have used it for the Back to the Classics 2020 challenge.  But it took me seven months to read it because I read it in German, which meant I had to stop and look things up many, many times. I also acquired the English translation for those passages that were particularly convoluted; where it was more than just a vocabulary word standing in my way.  It is hard for me to not want to “understand everything” when reading in German.  I have to remind myself that I don’t always understand everything in English either - hello Henry James!  I think that Mann used about 5 different words to say “mountain side” or “slope”, for example, not one of which I knew. I read the first third fairly enthusiastically …then let it languish and read only sporadically for months until I made myself read the final third in a go in December 2020.   I think though, in the long run, it wasn’t a bad idea to take such time to read it. It is a book that has a lot of complex ideas which take time to sink in. 

Reese at Typings asked me to review it anyway, and so here goes nothing. 😃 The plot of The Magic Mountain is very easy to sum up. In the first decade of the 20th century, Young Hans Castorp goes to visit his cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and doesn’t come down for seven years.  But of course, it is about much more than that. Hans physically stays on the mountain, but his mind travels widely. This is a novel of ideas where Mann uses the characters to express various philosophies that interest him and presumably the reader. The blurb on the English translation I used by John E. Woods suggests that the characters in the sanatorium are metaphors for Europe on the brink of the First World War.  That is no doubt true, but I couldn’t help but also feel that the book was taking the pulse of the time it was published in 1925. Of course, I have the benefit of knowing what is coming historically, but much of the text felt prophetic to me about the upcoming reign of European fascism and I also believe the arguments and ideas expressed in the novel are still relevant to our current culture, in particular, in its positing of humanism versus populism.  

This debate between humanism and populism is literally expressed in the characters of Herr Settembrini, whom I quote above, and Herr Naphta.  I’m linking this online essay that I found which expresses  this argument and its bearing on our current situation in the West better than I ever could:  Reading the Magic Mountain in the Age of Populism. Both Settembrini and Naphta are wrestling for Hans’ soul as they argue their points in the novel. I don’t think that Mann tips his hand as to which philosophy he personally supports.  I imagine, in their extremes, he supported neither but I appreciate that he lets the reader draw their own conclusions as to right and wrong.  

The beauty of The Magic Mountain is it is one of those books that one could read probably every year and get something different and deeper out of it every time. And don’t let my droning on about philosophical debate give the wrong impression of the book. It is also quite funny in places. Hans Castorp is a bit of a bumbling fool and many of the guests/patients are ridiculous. It is an interesting juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious. I’m glad I read it, though for an introduction to Mann, I would suggest reading Buddenbrooks first. It is shorter and more approachable, for sure. I’ve not read any other books by Thomas Mann yet, though I may try the novella, Death in Venice, next. 

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