Monday, March 20, 2017

Back to the Classics 2017: The Red and the Black

I chose The Red and the Black for the category of “Classic in Translation” for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate .

First published in 1830, The Red and the Black reminded me of Crime and Punishment in its psychological excavation of the human mind and the conflicting emotions present in one person.  But I appreciated Dostoyevsky’s novel much more, although I can’t exactly pinpoint why.  My feelings about The Red and the Black may be akin to how some readers really hate Wuthering Heights and its tortured, unpleasant lead characters.  In the introduction written by translator Roget Gard in the Penguin edition that I read, he suggests that like Jane Austen’s Emma, Julien Sorel, the hero of The Red and the Black, is a creation that perhaps only the author can truly love and appreciate.  

First, let me say that I enjoyed Emma and Wuthering Heights.  And I am glad to have read The Red and the Black. I do understand that no one in this novel is actually supposed to be particularly sympathetic to the reader, but I didn’t find any of main protagonists particularly interesting either. Another stumbling block for me was the (now) historical setting. While the Penguin edition that I read pictured above did have excellent notes by Roger Gard, Stendhal clearly expected his readers to be familiar with 1829 French politics and the then recent restoration of constitutional monarchy after the upheavals of the French Revolution and the First Empire. Had I a better understanding of the historical nuances, I think I would have understood more of the book’s satirical aspects.

The story is about Julian Sorel, the son of a carpenter in a village at the foot of the Jura Mountains. His father and his brothers abuse him for wanting more than the life of a mill worker.  Julian is physically very attractive and actually crazy smart (has an eidetic memory) but he is not well educated academically nor is he socially adept, which is a big drawback for an ambitious man in hyper-class conscious 19th century France.  He first believes his only way up and out of the peasant class is through the Catholic Church but he resents the fact that under Napoleon I, had he been born a mere 30 years earlier, he could have distinguished himself militarily despite his plebian background. Julian has almost a literal Napoleon complex, although his “shortcoming” is not his height but his shame about his origins.   

As the book progresses, the reader sees how Julian achieves and fails to achieve his ambitions. I think what made him maddening to me as a character is that he is basically a prick. He does stuff, like seduce the wife of his employer, not because he loves her but because HE CAN.  Who doesn’t know people like that today?  So I think my real “complaint” is that the book is too well written really. This is a realist novel which feels very modern; fashion and politics have changed some in the almost 200 years since the book was written, human nature has not.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


A delicious sensation of comfort lapped around her, enfolding her as softly as did the immense bed. The sheets were of linen so fine that they felt like silk and they were also scented not with lavender but with rose petals and verbena”. 
That is a description of Miranda’s first night at Dragonwyck, but it also made me think of the satisfaction one gets from reading a good gothic romance:  comforting yet indulgent.  Miranda is a young woman living in 1844 rural Connecticut who dreams of a sweeping romance that she secretly reads about in novels. In her heart, she feels she is destined to more than the hard life of a farmer’s wife. When her distant relation, Nicholas Van Ryn, invites her to his estate, Dragonwyck, located in the Hudson valley, Miranda senses this is the escape she has waiting for; the door to the life she deserves.
Since  Dragonwyck is a gothic romance in the tradition of Mary Stewart or Daphne Du Maurier, the reader soon discovers, as Miranda meets her cousin and sees the estate, that this will be no Cinderella story.  Nicholas is both charming and sinister and Miranda feels herself drawn to him, despite the fact that he is married and far, far above her station socially. 
In addition to being a traditional gothic novel, Dragonwyck is also a historical novel which highlights not only better known events such as the Mexican-American war, but also (to me at least) more obscure occurrences such as  the Astor Place Riots in New York City.
I learned in the afterword written appropriately by the doyenne of historical fiction, Philippa Gregory, that Dragonwyck, first published in 1944, was only Seton’s second novel, which I think shows a bit. It was a fun read and I was compelled to turn the pages. However occasionally I found the insertion of historical events and persons to be a little awkward and the plot could have used more polishing in places. I do think, however, that Seton excels in characterization. Miranda was believably naïve yet ambitious and Nicholas is completely mesmerizing and chilling with qualities that seemed almost vampiric at times.
I read this for the Romance Classic category in the 2017 Back to the ClassicsChallenge at the blog Books and Chocolate and I chose it because of Lark's intriguing review. I could have also put it in the Gothic Novel category but since straight up romance is not my favorite genre (and I have read all of Austen’s novels), I thought this would be a good compromise! The above picture is actually from the movie, which I have not seen. For me, casting Vincent Price as the handsome Nicholas Van Ryn doesn't work!

Sunday, February 26, 2017


My first completed read for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate is for the category A Russian Classic. I read the very short (139 pages in the Signet paperback edition that I read) One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I had read Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward many years ago and thought it was fantastic and One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich also did not disappoint.
Like the title indicates, this is the recitation of one man’s day, from when he wakes in the morning to the time he goes to sleep, as an inmate of a Soviet prison labor camp in Siberia under Stalin’s regime.  It is both horrific and absurd in its depiction of life in the gulag and the lengths that one must go to to survive.  From the moment he wakes, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is calculating how to make the most of opportunities, from cadging tobacco off of better-off inmates, to rejoicing over an extra three ounces of bread at dinner.  Who’s the zek’s [prisoner] main enemy? Another zek. If only they weren’t at odds with one another – ah, what a difference, that’d make”.  
There are hierarchies among the prisoners and hierarchies among the guards that must be observed; internal prison politics that must be respected; opportunities must be quickly assessed and taken advantage of, often at another’s expense and all this while living in inhumane conditions, under-fed, overworked and with little protection against the sub-zero temperatures.  But what makes this book fascinating, however, is Ivan Denisovich’s practical and accepting attitude toward it all and his small moments of joy and satisfaction over small pleasures and victories. The simplicity and matter-of-fact quality of the narrative belie the brutal and inhumane environment to which the prisoners are subjected.
Even though the book is fiction, Solzhenitsyn did actually spend 11 years in a Siberian forced labor camp, so this is really a true-to-life dystopic novel of sorts. Apparently, the book was not suppressed in the USSR (my book has an introduction, a forward AND an afterword!) but  was actually used by Khrushchev as part of his anti-Stalin campaign when it was first published in 1962.

Monday, January 16, 2017


Happy New Year all!  It is going to be a while before I get around to reading my first book qualifying for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge because I am trying to read as many books from the 2017 Tournament of Books shortlist as possible . 

I have been following the TOB since 2013. I found out about it when the blogger Citizen Reader mentioned Wil Wheaton’s judgment in favor of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. I admit, I was mostly intrigued at the time by the name of Wil Wheaton. While I loathe Wesley Crusher, I am a big Star Trek fan (but I don’t know if I am a trekker or a trekkie, the distinction is lost on me, so maybe neither) and I bear the actor no ill-will for the terrible Gary-Stu he played as a child in the 1990s.  

But I digress.  For those of you unfamiliar with the TOB, it is set up like NBA play off brackets and takes place in March just like the play offs. The entire thing happens online. The judges (usually writers themselves) read the two books from their assigned bracket and determine which one will move forward. Color commentary is then provided by the TOB organizers, although there are also occasionally guest commentators.  Then there are the comments from the peanut gallery, ie the bookternet. And that’s where it can get bloody! But usually in a good way. I don’t comment. I can use the excuse that since I am on the west coast, once I am off work and ready to rumble, everyone else is in bed. But really it is because I don't feel sharp enough to keep up with the crowd - and they are razor sharp. Next to the fabulous commentary, I love the access to the transparency of the judgments. Unlike other “legit” book prizes (the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Nobel, etc.) I get to read exactly why the judge chose one book over another, which is always interesting.

So below is a list of the shortlist with notations on which ones I have already read and which ones I can readily get from the library.  Will a little luck I will be able to have at least 10 of the books under my belt come March so I can follow along better.  

Have any of you read any of these or are they on your radar? Do any of you follow the TOB? 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder *
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue *
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Nix by Nathan Hill
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan*

Version Control by Dexter Palmer
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Black Wave by Michelle Tea

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
*play in round

Monday, December 19, 2016


Its official! Karen at Books at Chocolate is graciously hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge again.  Below is a list of the 2017 categories with some of my potential titles:

A 19th Century Classic – I will probably read a Dickens’ novel. I only have a handful left: The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, Nicolas Nickelby, or Barnaby Rudge.

A 20th Century Classic –I will definitely choose something from the Modern Library’s 20th Century best of list. I still have 30 of those left to read.   Just based on books I already own, possible choices might be Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald or the Wings of the Dove by Henry James.

A classic by a woman author – I am totally spoiled for choice on this one but I think I might make it The Professor’s House by Willa Cather because I so loved My Antonia which I read in November of this year.

A classic in translation – Again, there is a lot to choose from in this category, but I think I would like to try Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant or if I end up reading Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal, that would also fit.

A classic published before 1800 – This would provide me with an opportunity to read something from ancient Greece or Rome. Maybe Metamorphoses by Ovid? I really have no clue and might need to think on this one a while longer.  

A romance classic – I am going to see if my next  planned Trollope will fit here…either Phineas Finn or The Way We Live Now .  All the Trollope I have read thus far has had a strong romantic plot (or two or three), so I suspect either book will work for this category.   However, I may read Dragonwyke by Anya Seton since I recently purchased a used copy on the strength of a review over at Lark Writes and which appears to be a more traditional romance in the vein of DuMaurier.

A Gothic or horror classic – I am definitely going for gothic over horror and I have two contenders: The Monk by Mathew Lewis or The Castle of Otranto by Walpole. Actually, both were published in the 1700s so they could also work for #5 in a pinch.

A classic with a number in the title – I might re-read Slaughterhouse 5 since I only read it the one time. But I am also considering The Three Musketeers by Dumas Pere or One Hundred Years of Solitude (published in 1967 it JUST squeezed by at being 50 years old in 2017)by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title – I might read The Yearling. I can’t remember if I read it as a child or if I just saw the movie. I will be sure to have tissues handy. I am sure it will make me weep (again).

A classic set in a place you'd like to visit – At first I was going to choose a literary location…but I have already read all the Barsetshire books by Trollope and the Miss Marple books by Chrstie and those are the only two fictional places I can think off the top of my head.  So perhaps I will read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay in this category (another squeaker first published in 1967) which is set in Australia .

An award-winning classic -  I would like to read The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever  which won the National Book Award in 1958. This is another book that is also on the Modern Library’s 20th Century best of list, so  if I complete it, it is a twofer.

A Russian Classic  There is an off chance that I might read War and Peace in 2017, but if not, I also would like to try The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol OR if I am pressed for time, A Day in the Life of  Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, which is under 200 pages.

I look forward to staring the New Year with one of the above mentioned titles.  I will definitely also be checking out the sign-up page regularly to see other bloggers’ choices.   

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


My main use of this blog is for my participation in on-line challenges.  But I thought I would also share the books that I purchased during my October visit to that book-Mecca known as Powell’s Books located in Portland, Oregon because I love reading about these sorts of things on other people’s blogs.  It is like window shopping without leaving your living room.
  1. Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb – I have since finished this book. It is the 2ond book in the Farseer Trilogy which is part of a larger fantasy series set in a world called The Realm of the Elderlings. I would like to eventually read the entire series which is something like 16 books total.
  2. Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift–  I had heard good things about this novella so I wanted to give it a try. It sounds like the sort of precisely executed novella about small moments that I often admire.
  3. Fishnet by Kirstin Innes – I heard about this title on Booktube as quite a few reviewers recommended it.  I am currently reading it. It is interesting, the story is about a woman who begins to research the world of prostitution after her sister disappears, but it also has an obvious agenda which I am not 100% sure about. We’ll see. My conventional and religious upbringing might be getting in my way.
  4. The Red and the Black by Stendhal  - My friend Greta kindly bought this for me.  I love the Penguin black-spine paperback classics. Greta and I are going to read it together sometime, possibly in 2017 and if so, I will hopefully be able to work it into Karen’s Back to the Classic Challenge 2017.  
  5. Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley  – I know this series is a bit twee and not to everyone’s taste,  but I like the Flavia de Luce mysteries and this is the most recently published title. I am not quite caught up but I like having them on my shelves even unread because they are such pretty colors.
  6. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons – I bought this on Greta’s recommendation and I have already read it. It was very good and is only 128 pages long.  An Oprah pick, so it is naturally heart-wrenching, but it didn’t totally gut me, which was a relief.
  7. Good Morning Midnight by Lucy Brooks-Dalton – I heard great things about this book from one of my goodreads friends (and podcaster extraordinaire – check out Reading Envy if you are interested). This is a speculative fiction book about the end of the world where possible the only two survivors are a man stranded in Antarctica and a woman orbiting the earth from space.
Finally, I would also like to share this picture from the last page (be careful  - SPOILERS may be ahead) of one of the used copies of The Red and The Black that I was perusing. I ended up not purchasing this Modern Library hard copy only because there was some wonky water damage that affected the print elsewhere. But I thought this hand-written comment at the bottom was hilarious. Hopefully I will not feel the same way when I reach the end!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


I managed to read all 12 books for the challenge by September, but (a) quite a few were short-ish (less than 300 pages), (b) 3 of the longest were by Trollope, Dickens and Whipple who are writers I love and so am able speed through their works, despite any heft and (c) I did some business travel this year, which is rare for me, which did allow me to get a lot of reading done in hotels and airports.
  • The first book I read was for the category A Classic Detective Novel.   The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey is the fourth book I have read from her.  It was a good mystery (and refreshingly bloodless) but there was quite a bit of virulent class prejudice that was a bit hard to swallow.
  • The next book was The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope which was for A Classic Which Includes The Name Of A Place In The Title.  This is the fifth book in the Barsetshire Chronicles and I absolutely adored it.
  • I went on to read The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle which ticked the box for An Adventure Classic.  The book was a lot of fun, but its dated racism soured the experience for me a bit.
  • The fourth title fit the category A 19th Century Classic, I went with my original pick which was  The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.  I was a little worried that I wouldn’t get on with it at first, but I ended up really loving it.
  • I then read Frankenstein by Mary Shelly to fill the spot for A Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Dystopian Classic.  I have to say I was a bit let down by this book, but I think my expectations were impossibly high. I am keeping my copy and will re-read/re-evaluate it at some point.
  • For the category A 20th Century Classic I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This book almost put me into a slump. It is fantastic, but such an emotional journey, it wrecked me just a bit.
  • Next up was A Separate Peace by John Knowles which I first read in high school and chose for the category Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college). I quite enjoyed the re-visit and I think I appreciate the story much more now as an adult than as a teen.
  • Then I read Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple for A Classic by a Woman Author.  Since Whipple is one of my favorite authors, it is no surprise that I adored this title.
  • Next up was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for the category A Classic Which Has Been Banned Or Censored.  Like The Grapes of Wrath, this book broke me a little bit as well.
  • I then read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to fit A Classic by a Non-White Author. I really enjoyed this book for its insight and subtle complexity.
  • My penultimate choice was Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, translated from the French by Irene Ash, which fit the bill for A Classic in Translation.
  • Finally, for the category A Volume Of Classic Short Stories, I read The Dracula Book of Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard, which was fun but I didn’t find too many of the stories to be that scary.
One of the best things about this challenge is how easy it is in terms of choice and options. Also, like last year, I was able to fill the majority of the categories with titles from my own shelves, which is always a nice feeling: Of the 12 books, two were from the library, seven I already owned and three I bought used for around a dollar each.