Sunday, June 26, 2022

Back to the Classics 2022: Maud Marth by Gwendolyn Brooks

I felt like one of the cool kids when I listened to the most recent Backlisted podcast and heard that the very well-read Andy Miller had only just come across this book. And here, I read it months ago. ūüėÜ Both Andy and I liked it a lot. 

Gwendolyn Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, the first Black poet to receive that honor.  Though born in Kansas, she moved to Chicago when just an infant and was made Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968. This is her only novel and it does read like a very long prose poem, so I suspect anyone who enjoys her poetry will also enjoy Maud Martha. Normally, poetry is not my thing. I often find it inscrutable. But not so Gwendolyn Brooks. Here is a sample:

"But I am certainly not what he would call pretty. Even with all this hair (which I have just assured him, in response to his question, is not "natural," is not good grade or anything like good grade) even with whatever I have that puts a dimple in his heart, even with these nice ears, I am still, definitely, not what he can call pretty if he remains true to what his idea of pretty has always been. Pretty would be a little cream-colored thing with curly hair. Or at the very lowest pretty would be a little curly-haired thing the color of cocoa with a lot of milk in it. Whereas, I am the color of cocoa straight, if you can even be that "kind" to me. 

He wonders, as we walk in the street, about the thoughts of people who look at use. Are they thinking he could do no better than - me? Then he thinks, Well hmp! Well huh! – all the little-good lookin' dolls that have wanted him – all the little sweet high-yellows that have ambled slowly past his front door – What he would like to tell those secretly snickering ones! – That any day out of the week he can do better than this black gal. "

It is split into vignettes depicting trajectory of Maud Martha’s girlhood to womanhood in midcentury Chicago. Her homelife and childhood is happy, though she is somewhat in the shadow of her prettier older sister. When she marries and moves in to her own apartment, life definitely takes a bit of a turn. Her husband leaves a lot to be desired. But both he and Maud Martha are also worn down by the sometimes casual sometimes blatant racism of the era. 

The middle section titled “kitchenette folks” is the longest, depicting the residents of the building Maud Martha lives in with her husband. It reminded me some in its scope (but not style) of The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor.

My edition of the novel was only 180 pages long. This is  a short novel but one which tells volumes despite its brevity and simplicity of the language.  I read this for the Back to the Classics category "Classic by a BIPOC Author" for the challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Back to the Classics 2022

Hello bloggin friends! A little late to the party but let’s see if I can read and blog about a few of these in 2022. A few I have actually already read. I just need to make the time to write up the blog posts!

1. 19th Century Classic: I have a few Anthony Trollope novels on my shelf that I could read here. Cousin Henry, The Kellys and the O’Kellys, John Caldigate or The American Senator are what I can choose from if I stick to what I already own. But I've been pretty strict limiting my book purchases in the past two years and now I feel like indulging. BUY BUY BUY. So maybe I will read something I don't own yet. 

2. 20th Century Classic: For now, I am going to leave this open. I read plenty of backlist but would like to reserve this spot for one of the 27 books I have left to read from Modern Library Top 100

3. Woman Author Classic: I read a Furrowed Middlebrow imprint title from Dean Street Press every two months with a group on the reading app Litsy. I will probably pick one of these, since they are always mid-century novels by lesser known British female authors.

4. Translation Classic:  I might stick with Zola for this. The next title in the recommended reading order is La Cur√©e (The Kill). So far I’ve read the free editions available on Gutenberg but I think Oxford University Press has them all in print. I might start buying them. For the annotations and for the unexpurgated versions, since Victorian translators often edited out parts of novels to assuage British sensibilities. 

5. BIPOC Classic:  I've already read this month the book that will fit perfectly for this category. It is the American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks' only novel: Maud Martha.

6. Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic: Well, I have one more Josephine Tey novel, The Singing Sands, to read. Maybe I will pick that. On the other hand, I have a hankering to re-read some Lord Peter Wimsey novels.

7. Classic Short Story Collection:  I have two beautiful Virago naked hardbacks with Daphne DuMaurier’s short stories. This is what I should pick.  I’m not much of a fan of short stories in general. I might not manage this one at all. 

8. Pre-1800 Classic:  I have already read The Golden Ass by Apuleius in February which was “published” in the late second century CE and will fit the bill. 

9. Nonfiction Classic: This is tough for me since I avoid nonfiction. Maybe I will pick Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. If any of you have a suggestion, I am all ears. 

10. Longest on your TBR: I think here I will pick another from Modern Library Top 100.  I have a print out of this list and have been working on it since 1998, so pretty long! 

11. Classic Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit: This is subject to change, but I might pick Norman Collin’s London Belongs to Me or Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer.  

12. Wild Card Classic: I recently bought a copy of Wilkie Collin’s The Law and the Lady. I haven’t read any of his books in a while and I love a good Victorian sensation novel.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Back to the Classics 2021: WRAP UP!

Limping to the finish line, here's my wrap up of the nine books read and blogged for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

1. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Baz√°n  

2. A humorous or satirical classic.

     Right You Are, Jeeves,  Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Jeeves and the Tie That Binds by P.G. Wodehouse 

3. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. The animal can be real or metaphorical. (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird).

     Setting Free the Bears by John Irving 

4. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.

     A Grain of Wheat by  NgŇ©gń© wa Thiong'o

5. New-to-you classic by a favorite author -- a new book by an author whose works you have already read.

     Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

6. A children's classic. 

     The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 

7. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. You may read it in translation or in its original language, if you prefer. 

     His Excellency, Eug√®ne Rougon by Emile Zola 

8. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. 

     Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser  

9. 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. 

     She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard

As always, a huge thank you to Karen at Books and Chocolate for organizing this and doing all the heavy lifting. My email is naessa [at] yahoo [dot] com. Most were winners and I am very glad to have read them all; any excuse to explore classic novels I’ve been meaning to get to for years!

Monday, December 6, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021- She: A History of Adventure.

This title was a perfect pic for the category “Travel or Adventure”.  She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard was first published in serial format between 1886 and 1887 and is a classic tale of a “lost world”. It is also very much worth remembering that the novel was written at the zenith of British Imperialism and when there were still parts of the globe “undiscovered” by Europeans.  I’ll bet the creators of Indiana Jones also drew inspiration from Haggard’s books.

The book is set up as a double frame narrative.  In the prologue, the “editor” claims to have received the story as a manuscript sent to him by Mr. Horace Holly, a man with whom he only has the slightest acquaintance. Along with the manuscript, Holly has sent his wish that the editor publish and profit from the tale as he sees fit, since Holly doesn't intend to return from his adventures.  Then the text jumps to the manuscript itself which starts with Holly recounting a strange visit from his best friend Vincey who (a) knows he (Vincey) is going to die soon, (b) can recount his family history going all the way back to ancient Greece and Egypt, (c) has a five year old son (Leo) whom he wants Holly take on as his ward, and (d) gives Holly a wooden box to be opened only upon his son’s 25th birthday.  It’s a lot to take in, but of course Holly says yes, his friend promptly dies and the boy comes to live with him. Fast forward 20 years, they open the mysterious box on Leo's birthday and adventure ensues. As a result of what they find, Holly, Leo, and their faithful servant, Job take off for Africa to investigate the origins of Leo’s family history and discover the lost tribe of the Amahagger and their mysterious queen, “she-who-must-be-obeyed”, Ayesha.  

For me, the premise of the book was better than the execution. I expected racism and sexism, but I didn’t expect to be bored. I found most of this novel to be cartoonish and very longwinded about details I didn't really care about. And I like a lot of longwinded Victorian authors (Dickens, Trollope), so I think it is Haggard’s style that simply doesn’t appeal to me.  I don’t regret reading it, but I also don’t see myself seeking out any further books from Haggard’s oeuvre.   

There are some aspects of the story that did surprise me, considering the era in which the book was published. Both Holly and Leo fall in love with Queen Ayesha with no jealousy or alpha-male competition between them. They both respect her and accept her superiority to them, which I found interesting.  On the other hand, Ayesha’s main interest in life is waiting for her long lost lover, who may or may not be reincarnated in Leo, to return to her.  I mean, she is 2000 years old, but still pining for the one who got away? That seems a little reductive. 

This is the 9th book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 that I’ve managed to blog, while I have read actually 11. But I think I have to call it a day at nine and wrap it up here. I still have trouble finding the time to do the write ups and also to read everyone else's posts. I am sorry that I haven't been as present in commenting on my friend's blogs as in previous years. I really need to re-think how I want to move forward in 2022.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Back to Classics Challenge 2021: Sister Carrie

"When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility.

This book is as much about Carrie Meeber, the young woman who comes from rural Wisconsin to Chicago in the 1880s as it is about George Hurstwood, the older married Chicago business manager who falls for her. This book was controversial when first published since Carrie lives what would be considered an immoral life when she shacks up with men who are not her husband. But the book also bucks convention (and probably pissed off critics of it) because Carrie is not punished for this. In fact, despite certain challenges, she thrives. 

The book opens with 18 year old Carrie on a train from her small town in Wisconsin on her way to Chicago sometime in the late 1880s. She meets a flashy but charming salesman, Charles Drouet, who will later play a great role in her life. But at this point, she is basically a country hick with no idea of what a city like Chicago has to offer and also to take from a fresh girl like her. Her married sister lives in the city and the expectation is that Carrie will get a job and help them by paying room and board out of her salary. Her sister’s husband is a dour Swede who has no imagination or interest in what a young girl might want out of life. His expectation is that she should be happy working in any of the various factories employing cheap labor. Carrie’s sister is slightly more sympathetic, but not much. Carrie soon finds that almost all her earnings are eaten up by room and board and the cost of transportation to and from work. She has no money at the end of the week, nowhere to go and no one to go with her.  Her chance meeting with Drouet will later pay off in taking her away from this existence, which serves only to grind her down. Drouet can offer her something better. 

Drouet, in turn, is very admiring of George Hurstwood, the manager of a local “resort” (sounded like an upscale bar to me). George is older, successful and surrounded by local celebrity and big wigs who come to the bar. He is also unhappily married with two grown children. When George meets Carrie (Drouet introduces them almost as if he is showing Carrie off as a possession, though he calls her his wife) he falls head over heels in love with her. 

Definitely this is a realist novel along the lines of Emile Zola (which fits nicely with The House of Ulloa and the Zola title I read earlier this year). I’m not that particular about language or prose but I have to say, Dreiser’s dialogue and description is sometimes pretty flat and matter-of-fact. 

What I liked most about this book was its time capsule quality. Dreiser really brought the streets of the nascent Second City to life and later those of New York as well. He gave me a glimpse of how some people lived during those times and, sometimes down to the penny, what a dollar could get you and where. I liked those details. The plotting was a little hackneyed maybe, but overall I appreciated this classic novel and especially I appreciated Dreiser’s non-judgmental stance. Also, I learned that “out of sight” meaning “terrific” or “great” was a common phrase in the last 19th century! I had always assumed it originated in the 1960 or '70s, but no. The trivial things we readers learn, right?

Chicago in the late 19th century

Another book from the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels published during the 20th century. I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “20th Century Classic”. Sorry for those of you who were looking forward to me reading the next book in the Alexandria Quartet for this prompt, but it just didn't work out. I will read it, for sure. But not in time for the 2021 challenge, alas!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - His Excellency, Eugène Rougon

Inspired by Karen at Books and Chocolate and her enthusiasm for the novels of Emile Zola, I decided a few years ago to read all of his Rougon-Marquand series - 20 books total - in the recommended reading order (as opposed to the order of publication). This initial bout of enthusiasm lead me to read The Fortune of the Rougons waaay back in 2013.  The best laid plans of mice and men as some one once said…it only took me eight years to read the next book.  At this rate, I will be 120 or so when I am done with the series. 

His Excellency, Eug√®ne Rougon takes place fairly soon after the events of The Fortune of the Rougons. Eug√®ne Rougon is a lawyer from the provinces who went to Paris to make his fortune and luckily (or shrewdly) put his faith in Charles Louis Napol√©on Bonaparte in 1851 when Napol√©on, who was then President of France, staged a successful coup and crowned himself emperor Napol√©on III.  When the book opens, while the Empire is still at the height of its powers and popularity, Rougon is resigning his influential post in the national assembly. All those who relied upon him and his political power are astonished and disappointed; one by one they desert him. 

But it would appear Rougon is playing a long game and when he finds the opportunity to insert himself back into the Emperor’s good graces, he strikes and soon becomes, next to the Napol√©on III, the most powerful man in the country. His sycophantic hangers-one soon flock him again and all are given power, favors and positions accordingly, but eventually things go too far and Rougon, or rather one of his cronies, oversteps the bounds of his office and Rougon finds himself politically walking a fine line.

I liked this book, though it was pretty heavy on the politics and I don’t think with either this or The Fortune of the Rougons (it has been too long since I have read Germinal to remember if it is any different), that Zola is a particularly subtle writer. The best thing I found about this title was the character, Clorinde de Babi, a young, beautiful Italian noblewoman with whom Rougon becomes obsessed and to his peril, he underestimates. The introduction I read suggested Clorinde was based on the mysterious, real-life Virginia Oldo√Įni, Countess of Castiglione, who was one of Napol√©on III’s many mistresses and a fascinating person historically. Clorinde is as politically astute as Rougon in this novel, if not more so. However, as a female, her options are limited and her power necessarily more indirect and behind the scenes. 

Definitely these first two books have been a great window for me on the Second Empire historical period in France and I expect as I read on, my view will only be deepened. Though, it is very clear that Zola was no fan of the Emperor and this isn’t an unbiased view by any means. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, much of the political  practices criticized in the novel, the cronyism, the corruption, the abuse of power, etc. is not something left in history or unique to France or the 19th century, I’m afraid.

I read this title for the category "Classic in Translation" in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 hosted by Karen. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - The Wind in the Willows

I need to get crackin' if I am going to successfully complete the Back to the Challenge this year. I am reading the books just fine. But when it comes to actually blogging about them, I am challenged.

Apparently in a different edition from the one I read, the intro/afterword by Jane Yolen points out that The Wind in the Willows is really three distinct sets of stories: (1) Mole and Ratty, (2) the Adventures of Mr. Toad and (3) the Pan interlude.  I found this break down to be completely accurate and as an adult, I much preferred the snuggly comforts of Mole and Ratty. There’s lots of eating and being cozy and warm by the fire in their chapters. Mr. Toad, while amusing, is likely going to appeal more to readers who are children.  Toad is very naughty and usually gets away with whatever he gets up to, despite his occasional attempts at repentance.  The Pan chapter reminded me of C.S. Lewis in its religious overtones and it is actually the part that gives rise to the title of the book.  

According to the introduction by Margaret Hodges in the edition pictured above that I read (with absolutely stunning illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard), the book was written for Kenneth Graham’s son and was based on bedtime stories he made up for the boy.  Mr. Toad, is in fact based on the young Alistair Graham as a small child, which accounts for much of Toad’s petulant and impulsive behavior…if you have ever met a four year old human, you will know what I mean.  And I did like Mr. Toad’s adventures and found them occasionally laugh-out-loud funny – particularly when his mansion is overrun by piratical stoats and weasels. 

I can also understand why, when this book has been adapted for stage and screen, that only the Mr. Toad parts are included in the adaptation. Mole and Ratty’s tales are really just a succession of meals and naps. But that isn’t to down play them at all. They were absolutely my favorite part and I spent a lot of time thinking about just how I would arrange my cozy den if I were an anthropomorphized mole, water rat or badger. As someone who falls somewhere on the very introverted side of humankind, good friends, delicious meals and a comfortable bed are paradise –just add books to make it perfect. It is interesting that Mr. Toad is the only character who actually gets a proper, human like house, which is spacious, multi-storied and rambling, not close and warm. It also helps that I read this back in February. It doesn’t get that cold in my part of Southern California, but February is typically rainy and, in the evenings at least, chilly. This is a wonderful book to snuggle up to.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 Children’s Classic category. Many thanks to Cleo at  for giving this book such a glowing treatment last year. It totally lived up to that post and my expectations.