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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Having read the first two books of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series (In the Woods and The Likeness) I knew not to expect a traditional mystery or any continuity from the previous novels. In this series, while each book does contain the story of a crime and the resolution of that crime, the plot takes a definite back seat to character development and, in my opinion, the reader is often required to accept a fair amount of implausibility regarding the storyline. But I don’t think that French is interested in having a water-tight whodunit in her books. I think she is more interested in showing the thoughts and emotions of a character under certain stressors and it is that deep dive into character that makes readers (at least those who like that sort of thing) come back for more.

Faithful Place centers on Frank Mackey, who was the undercover handler of Cassie, the main character in The Likeness. Frank has been estranged from his dysfunctional family ever since he left home at 19. But events from the past cause him to rekindle his familial relationships, if only to exploit them. When Frank ran away to England, his original intention was to go with the love of his life, Rosie. Only Rosie never showed and young Frank assumed that she had dumped him because of his crazy family…for fear that he would turn out to be just like them. So Frank left alone, eventually became a police officer in Dublin and maintained only intermittent contact with his youngest sister. However, when a small blue suitcase with Rosie’s identification is found in the ruins of an abandoned home in the neighborhood, Frank is drawn back to his old haunts to try and find out whether or not Rosie even made it out of the neighborhood alive 20 years ago.

As I stated above, these novels are heavy on character development and Frank is to put it bluntly, an a**hole much of the time.  I sympathized with him some, but it was pretty clear to me that he is underhanded and manipulative, which makes him good at his job in undercover, but not so good in his interpersonal relationships. This didn’t bother me. I don’t necessarily mind unlikable characters.  
As in the previous two books, Faithful Place is narrated in the first person, so the reader has more or less the same opportunity to put things together the as the narrator does. I believe that both Frank and I realized who the perpetrator was at the same time. What is less certain is if Frank realized in the course of the novel that he is much more like his hair-trigger abusive father and manipulative mother than he would like to admit. 

This is my second book for the R.I.P. XI Challenge "Peril the Second" hosted by the blog Stainless Steel Droppings.  It was pretty fun (and easy!) to direct my reading to suit the challenge and I look forward to participating in the XII Challenge next year.

Monday, October 10, 2016

R.I.P. - PERIL OF THE SHORT STORY: The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard

This book counts for both the Peril of the Short Story for R.I.P. XI hosted by the blog Stainless Steel Droppings and for my last read for the category Classic Short Stories for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 hosted by the blog Books and Chocolate.

Initially I was going to read some Daphne Du Maurier short stories, but the two collections that I had did not fit the Back to the Classics criteria, since they only had 6 stories each and the rule is the book must contain at least 8 stories.  So I was delighted to happen upon this book at my library; all the stories were originally written and/or published well over 50 years ago and the volume has 13 stories in it (no doubt that “unlucky” number was purposefully chosen). 
I chose this collection primarily because of the opening novella titled Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu. This is supposed to be the granddaddy (or grandmammy?) of the modern vampire novel, including Dracula.  My reaction to Carmilla is somewhat similar, however, to my reaction to Dracula. I sometimes have trouble with old-timey horror because often it is so obvious to the modern reader just what is going on, it can make the protagonists seem a bit thick when they don’t cop on. But that aside, the bits in Carmilla about the narrator being stalked by a black beast in her dreams were quite scary.
I was also happily surprised to see stories by favored authors M.E. Braddon and E.F. Benson included. Of the 13 tales, I think I liked best “The Transfer" by Algernon Blackwood for sheer originality (the monster wants more than just blood in this one).  Also, just for a consummate expression of paranoia  as well as for originality, “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant is worth reading. In a more traditional vein (pun intended!), I quite enjoyed “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker (which per the introduction is a chapter that was cut from the novel for length reasons).  It reminded me of the parts of Dracula that I liked best, such as Jonathan Harker’s first encounter with the count in his castle.  And finally I was pleased to read the entertaining “Mrs. Amworth" by E.F. Benson and the romantic yet chilling, “Good Lady Ducayne" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

All in all this is a good collection of a variety of vampire tales from the mid –Victorian period to the Edwardian and a must for any blood-sucking fiction completist. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


This is my first completed read for the R.I.P. Challenge XI: Peril the Second. I first heard about this title months ago on the Radio 4 podcast Open Book in an interview with the author and it stuck with me enough for me to recall it when I was browsing the new books section at my local library. Open book classified this book at “Gothic” and I would agree with that. The book is never really terrifying and yet the author managed to maintain an eerie atmosphere all the way through.

The Loney is one of those books where the reader may not be quite sure what exactly happened when they reach the end of it, which I know can be frustrating for some. However, I like it when this type of story is done well; I like having room for interpretation. And I think the author got the balance right most of the time. I don’t read a lot of this type of book, but it reminded me a bit of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House in in terms of keeping the reader off-kilter.

On the surface, the story is about an ultra-religious Catholic family in the mid-1970’s and their quest to heal their disabled son via miracle, whatever that takes. The book is narrated by the younger son as an adult looking back in hindsight upon events which took place when he was a teenager. The fact that the narrator is never named is something I only noticed after finishing the book. The unnamed narrator serves as a caretaker for his older brother and has a complex and difficult relationship with his overbearing mother. Most of the story takes place in an isolated stretch of coast in England where the narrator has come on a pilgrimage with his family, their priest and other church members.

But dig a little deeper and the reader will find that The Loney is also about the difference (if any) between superstition and religion and the potential harm of either, in particular when wielded upon young, impressionable minds. And that is where perhaps the real horror lies.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

R.I.P.Challenge 11 (Readers Imbibing in Peril)

Unlike last year, when I almost didn’t manage to complete all 12 challenges in the Back to the Classics Challenge at Books and Chocolate , this year I have a mere one book more to go and it is only September.  So I thought I would participate in the R.I.P. Challenge 11 hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings .  I have observed this challenge on the internet from a far for many years and now seems like the perfect time to take the plunge.  Most importantly, this challenge is very easy to commit to, since there are quite a few Perils to choose from, it runs for a full two months (September 1 to October 31), and the works need only fall into the broad categories of (i) mystery, (ii) suspense, (iii) thriller, (iv) Gothic, (v) horror or (vi) dark fantasy.
So I have chosen to try the Peril the 2ond: Read 2 books from any of the above listed 6 categories AND Peril the Short Story: Read one or many short stories  

For Peril the 2ond I will read in the category of Mystery, Faithful Place by Tana French.  I have been meaning to get back into this series for a while and here is the perfect opportunity. In the Category of Gothic, I will read The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley which I first heard about on the BBC Radio 4 podcast and recently stumbled across at my library in the new books section.

For Peril the Short Story, I will read The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Sheppard, which actually will double up with my final category in the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Short Stories.

I do wish I could add in some crispy fall weather to help with the challenge, but is is over 100 degrees today, so I will just have to let the books transport me to cooler climates. I think this will be a lot of fun and I look forward to reading other bloggers posts in conjunction with the challenge!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

BONJOUR TRISTESSE by Françoise Sagan

My first thought for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge category “A Classic In Translation” was to try something from Collette, since I had never read her and was curious to try.  But I also have this nutty idea to read the entire Rougon-Macquart  series by Zola (I have only read two: The Fortunes of the Rougons and Germinal…only  18 more to go! – cue crazed laughter).  But in the end, I spontaneously decided to go for something different, but still translated from the French interestingly enough. I read Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (translated into English by Irene Ash) which was first published in 1954 when Sagan was just 19.  I didn’t realize that this is a novella, but that was a happy surprise in that it didn’t take me long to finish it.

The story is about Cécile, a 17 year old who has been living in Paris with her widowed father and his string of live-in girlfriends for two years since leaving her convent boarding school.  Cécile should be studying for her entrance exams to university, but frankly she can’t be bothered.  Like her father Raymond, she is too busy having fun to worry too much about exams or anything else she finds unpleasant.  She spends most of her time attending parties and social events in her father’s circle of like-minded men and women.  However, when she goes to the French Rivera for the summer with Raymond and his latest gal pal, their family friend, Anne, shows up unexpectedly.  Cécile and her father are drawn to Anne’s common sense stability, a trait they both lack. However, Cécile soon feels threatened by Anne and Anne’s relationship with and influence over Raymond and drama and tragedy ensue.

This book is very much a character study of Cécile. There is some dialog and description but much of the book is inside Cécile’s head. And because she is a spoiled, immature teenager who doesn’t have the emotional experience to navigate the threat that she believes is posed by Anne’s presence, often the inside of her head is a confusing and contradictory place to be.

I liked the novella OK but I am not going to rush and read any further books by Sagan.  It is great when I read a classic and discover a new author with a huge back catalog for me to explore, but when that doesn’t happen, that is OK too!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Before I’d ever read this book, before I even knew the basic outline of the story, I knew that Things Fall Apart was “supposed” to be a book about the advent of colonialism in Nigeria and the resulting destruction of the indigenous culture. But well over half the book is about Onkonkwo, a successful farmer and leader who is respected (but not particularly loved) in his village. Frankly, Onkonkwo is as rigid and unyielding as any intolerant, colonizing Englishman and/or Christian  missionary. I mean, there has to be a reason that Achebe made his central character so very unsympathetic. Personally, I think that any forceful challenge to Onkonkwo’s belief system would have knocked him for a loop. His entire life was blind faith in tradition, regardless of how such tradition made him feel or how it affected his loved ones and I am not sure just how much this book was intended to be an indictment of European colonialism as I had been led to believe. I realize that Achebe wrote further books that are loosely considered to be part of a series, so perhaps those books address this topic more specifically.

I was not super keen on the storytelling style of this book. It just is not my taste; very simplistic and bare-bones, which totally suits the story, but it isn’t something I particularly enjoy. And the title, a reference to a poem by Yeats (which I only know because I think Picard quoted on Star Trek Next Generation once), belies that simplicity. What I did like were the little authorial hints about other villages with other traditions, and the glimpse into a tradition and culture which is now most certainly non-existent in the form presented in the novel, although bits and pieces surely remain today in modern Nigeria. Even though I didn’t really love the writing style, I think that this is a book that can be understood and appreciated on a variety of levels. It is deceptively simple and subtle.

I read this book for the category “Classic by a Non-White Author” in the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate. I am glad I finally got to it since it has been on my list for many years and particularly I wanted to read it before I tackled Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen since my Father told me that one could see a definite link between the two books.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Lolita by Vladimir Nabukov

No plot summary needed because I think most people are well acquainted with this particular story. I read this book as my choice for the “Banned or Censored Classic” for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. This book was banned in the UK  and in France, in the late 1950s although it was eventually published in both countries. I can’t find any Internet evidence, however, that it was banned in the U.S. at all which really surprised me, given that Forever Amber was banned less than 10 years earlier and having read both, I would say that Lolita is more explicit and much, much more disturbing.

I read Reading Lolita in Teheran a few years ago. Probably mostly because the title alludes to it, but I specifically recall  Azar Nafisi’s deconstruction of this novel.  In particular she elucidated on how Humbert Humbert not only physically imprisons Delores, but how he denies her her own existence outside of himself figuratively and metaphorically as well. This is something I thought a lot about as I read Lolita.    

 I know that Nabokov is revered for his writing but I wasn’t really able to appreciate it as such. I realize there is a lot that I missed; references to other works, etc. But even if I could unequivocally state that this was the best written novel ever, it is, in my opinion, a very unpleasant story and no amount of Humbert Humbert's charm can deflect from that.  There are a few books that I have read where I am sure that I would have appreciated them more when I was younger, but this is a book that I am glad I read when I was older and somewhat wiser. I don’t know if I would have been able to see past some of the roadblocks that Humbert puts up had I been a younger and more naïve reader.

I don’t know what Nabokov’s intent was when writing this book, but clearly publishers and the public at large have also been seduced by Humbert Humbert. Just look at the freaking cover art for most of the editions of it (thankfully mine published by Everyman’s Library only has a photo of the author); why is Delores objectified again and again? Why do we use the term culturally “Lolita” to mean a “nymphette” as defined by Humbert? These facts are as disturbing as the book itself.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


I chose Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple for my “Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.  This is the third title that I have read by Whipple after The Priory and Someone at a Distance, both of which I just now realize I read for the last two Back to the Classics Challenges! 

I own all three of these books in the Persephone re-issue editions. Whipple was a very popular author in her day, but fell out of favor (and print) until many of her titles were resurrected by Persephone. I believe she is currently the author with the most titles re-published by Persephone; they currently offer seven of her novels and one short story collection.

Greenbanks is primarily the story of Louisa Ashton, the mother and grandmother of a large, middle class family whom she raised in the family home of Greenbanks somewhere in northern England. The book is set in the first quarter of the 20th century and there is a very definite theme running through the book regarding the options and restrictions placed on women across the generations, since Louisa grew up very much a Victorian while her granddaughter Rachel comes of age post WWI.  While Louisa’s grown children and their wives and husbands often mystify her, she has a very special relationship with granddaughter Rachel.

There isn’t much of a plot, but it is easy for the Whipple-loving reader to become immersed in the world of Greenbanks without it because she wrote so well and her characters are so exceptionally well-drawn.  Outside of Louisa and Rachel, who are very sympathetic characters, it is worth mentioning Ambrose, Rachel’s father and the insufferable husband of Louisa’ daughter Letty. Most of the time reader just wants to slap him, but occasionally there are small glimpses into his interior and his genuine incomprehension of other people and their motives and behaviors.  I did actually feel a bit sorry for him from time to time.

I find there to be something comforting about the way Whipple writes and the kinds of stories she tells, even though she doesn’t shy away from unpleasant subjects or characters. There is a smooth quality to her writing style, if that makes any sense, that keeps me turning the pages and I very much look forward to trying one of the further 4 Whipple titles from Persephone in future. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Separate Peace - Back to the Classics 2016

I first read A Separate Peace as a high school freshman. I can see why this book would be placed on a high school reading list: it is short, the language isn’t too complicated and there are some obvious themes of guilt and redemption to be mined for essays.  This book screams loss of innocence/coming of age.
I didn’t remember too much from back when I first read it, over 30 years ago. On the second read I was reminded of The Lord of the Flies, just with the savagery buried much, much deeper under the surface.  

A Separate Peace is rather dark story of adolescent male friendship.   The narration is given in flashback from the perspective of Gene Forrester, who attended an all-male boarding school located in New England in the mid 1940’s, just on the cusp of the United States entering the war.  Gene is from the south and it is only just barely referenced that his background is less grand, less old-south aristocratic, than he projects to his classmates. To me, this hints at Gene having the tiniest of a chip on his shoulder.
Gene’s roommate and best friend is Phineas (Finny), who is a natural leader, charismatic and popular at the school. Again, it isn’t explicit, but I think it is suggested that Finny is from the right kind of New England Brahman family.  So in short, Gene doesn’t really belong and Phineas does, or at least this is Gene’s perception.

Gene admires Finny, but also wants to set himself apart from him and be recognized for his own merits at school. Gene suspects that Finny is trying to bring him down and sabotage him academically.  Personally, I think the book is ambiguous on whether or not there is any truth in Gene’s paranoia and since the reader doesn’t get any direct insight into Phineas’ headspace, it is hard to say if he is genuine or not.  In any case, Gene’s perceived competition with Finney over their last summer term leads to tragic results.
I re-read this title for the category “Re-Read a Classic from School” in the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Grapes of Wrath-Back to the Classics 2016

My pick for the 20th Century Classic (any book published between 1900 and 1966) for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted on Books and Chocolate was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. My completion of this title is a double whammy, since I am slowly working my way through reading all of the Modern Library's Top 100 and this book is on that list as well. This puts me at now having read 68 out of the 100.   : )

The following quote from Steinbeck about the creation of the Grapes of Wrath was included the introduction by Robert Dermott in the Penguin edition that I read: “I have done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags …” He certainly met his objective as far as I am concerned; this book wore me out and it made me mad. I admire the novel for its tenacity, but reading it was like figuratively getting punched repeatedly. There were very few light moments, such as when the two younger Joad children use a flush toilet for the first time.

It is amazing to me that the book was researched, written and published during the Great Depression; Steinbeck was writing about something that was happening in real time which gives the novel a real sense of urgency and anger I think. I can understand also why its publication was is/was controversial. Not only is it irreligious and frank about sex, it also is a call to arms politically. However, it is important to note, that regardless of how liberal this book’s politics are, there is only one brief mention of the non-white migrant farm workers of this era. This is not their story even though they must have suffered just as much. And even more discouraging is to think that the type of human exploitation explored in the novel is not something of the past, but continues to happen even now, over three quarters of a century later.

The book has an interesting structure as the longer chapters that chronologically recount the Joad family’s journey from the Oklahoma dust bowl to the alleged paradise of California is interspersed with shorter chapters that read almost like sermons or Tom Waits lyrics.  I found it a challenging read, mostly due to the content.  I had to make myself read parts of it, so I was glad of those shorter chapters because the provided a break from the downward spiral of the family's prospects as they move west.  All in all, a very powerful book which I am glad to have finally read.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

I found it interesting that unlike other classic literary horror characters such as Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there is almost nothing in the novel Frankenstein that corresponds with the popular image of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster or the 1931 movie.  The introduction by Maurice Hindel from the beautiful Penguin clothbound classic edition that I read (pictured above) notes that Shelley incorporated what was then cutting edge science (galvanism, ie electricity) to allow Frankenstein to bring his creation to life. But it wasn’t even raining on the night of the monster’s creation in the book…so no thunder or lightening needed.  In fact, there is no description of the making of the monster at all; it mostly happens off the page.
What I like most about the book (besides its length, only 225 pages!) was its structure.  It starts off as a series of letters from a dilettante arctic explorer Captain Walton to his sister back in England. In his letters, he tells of rescuing a man who is near death with cold and exhaustion. Once this man is nursed back to health, he relates to Walton his story about why he is alone out on the ice and within the rescued man’s narrative a first person account of the monster’s short and unhappy life is given. So it is a story, within a story within a story, like a set of nesting dolls.

What I didn’t like was Victor Frankenstein’s constant “why me?” moaning and teeth-gnashing, all the while doing nothing to actively change the situation for which he and his hubris is directly responsible.  It isn’t just that he comes off as unsympathetic, but I found most his behavior unaccountable. I much preferred the monster’s narrative over Frankenstein’s and while the monster’s actions are equally despicable, I feel as if I understand where his motivations lie.  There are also some preeettty craaaazy leaps of faith the read must make in order for the story to hang together. For example, not just that Victor was able to make a man from left over body parts, but also things such as how the monster just happens to find three intact novels in the forest, he just happens to be able to eavesdrop on a Turkish girl learning French enabling him to learn French, etc.  This really strained my credulity.
Of course, what is fantastic about the book is the questions it asks about humankind in the here and now (like all great science fiction). Certainly one of the questions the book raises can be extrapolated to modern man and modern science:  just because we can do something (split an atom, genetically modify corn, clone sheep, etc.) should we?  And just how much responsibility do we have for our creations when they escape our control? But for me, most important and most poignant is the question of who is the real monster of the story.

I read this for the  2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate for the Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Dystopian Classic category

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

While The Pickwick Papers is considered Charles Dickens’ first  novel, it actually began as a commission to write brief, satirical sketches about a private Gentlemen’s Club to accompany comic drawings for serial publication.  However, Dickens soon convinced his publishers that this should be the other way around and the drawings should be commissioned to accompany his ever mushrooming story regarding the adventures of the members of the Pickwick Club.  [There is also a rather sad side story of the original illustrator, Robert Seymour, committing suicide after the first two issues were less successful than anticipated and whispers of Dickens’ bullying ways contributing to his untimely demise.  Dickens addresses and defends these rumors in the preface to the 1867 edition which was included in the Modern Library Classics edition that I read which is pictured above.]
Since I did know the history of the book prior to reading it, I readily noticed as it went on that the chapters got longer, the plot more convoluted and the character arcs more apparent. Most importantly, the titular Pickwick starts off as object of ridicule but ends up (along with his faithful servant Sam Weller) being the hero of the book. The notion of satirizing private clubs is eventually dropped and replaced with social critiques of Victorian society which will later be more fully expressed in subsequent Dickens’ novels such as Bleak House and Little Dorrit. All this makes for a slightly rambley and inconsistent read and no doubt there were humorous bits I didn’t fully grasp since I am so far removed from the type of society Dickens was satirizing, but nevertheless I did really enjoy it.   
I don’t know if The Pickwick Papers is the best place to start with Dickens, but then again, maybe it is or rather maybe it doesn’t really matter? Martin Chuzzelwit will forever remain my favorite if only because it was the first book of Dickens that I read and made me fall in love. I admit the superiority of certain other works by Boz, but that title will always be on the top of my list for purely sentimental reasons!  And certainly The Pickwick Papers has everything that I love about Dickens, exaggerated characters, humorous pokes at human nature, sympathy for the poor, indignant anger at hypocrisy, etc.   So perhaps this first novel is absolutely the best place to start, because if you like this “sampler’, you will probably like the rest of Dickens as well!

This book was my read for the category of 19ths Century Classic in the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

THE LOST WORLD by Arthur Conan Doyle

I read The Lost World as my Adventure Classic for the Back to the Classic Challenge 2016 at the book blog Books and Chocolate.

The reader’s enjoyment of The Lost World will definitely depend upon her (a) suspension of disbelief and (b) her ability to look past the racial stereotypes of the Victorian/Edwardian era.  Arthur Conan Doyle is, of course, much better known for Sherlock Holmes than for the adventures of Professor Challenger, who  is introduces in this book and who went on to be featured in two further novels and two short stories.  The Lost World was a fun sort of romp in its way, but I doubt I will ever read any further adventures of Professor Challenger. Personally, my window to have read and really enjoyed this type of book was probably some time in my tween to early teen years, back when I did read a couple of Jules Verne and HG Wells books.

The book is very short (less than 250 pages) and the plot is fairly simple: Professor Challenger, a pompous yet intelligent bull of a man, alleges to have discovered a land that time forgot somewhere deep in the Amazon, but no one believes him because all of his evidence was accidentally destroyed upon his return. Intrepid newspaperman E.D. Malone, always on the lookout for a good story, is also seeking out a daring and dangerous assignment in the hopes of impressing the woman he loves.  Malone, along with big game hunter Lord Roxton and biologist Professor Summerlee, band together to travel to the Amazon to try to either prove or disprove Challenger’s claim. Adventure ensues!

As I mentioned above, there are more than a few unfortunate racial stereotypes to be found in the book, along with attempted genocide, slavery, and a general belief in the superiority of “civilized” white Europeans over any other group. I can’t put my finger on why these attitudes bother me in some books but in others (like The Secret Garden), they do not.   What I did enjoy about The Lost World was the sense of adventure and discovery expressed in the story.   It is hard to imagine today that there is a square foot of the earth’s surface that hasn’t already been surveyed and catalogued but I think a person at the turn of the 20th century could very well conceive of an undiscovered island or plateau just waiting for scientific discovery and research.  I also loved the illustrations (drawings and faked photos) in the book. I am a total sucker for that type of thing!

I don’t regret reading this at all, but as I wrote above, I think I read this book too late in life. I had a similar experience with two other Victorian classics: Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but for different reasons.  I honestly enjoyed the forward written by Michael Crichton, in the Modern Library edition that I read shown above, more than I did the actual book.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


The Small House at Allington is the fifth book in Anthony Trollope’s 6 book Barsetshire Chronicles series and it was my choice for the category “A classic which includes the name of a place in the title” in the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate. With its emphasis on making a “good” marriage and its loose plot surrounding two marriageable sisters who are upper class but impoverished, the book reminded me a tiny bit of Austen, but still written in Trollope’s particularly endearing, witty style.
The story begins with an introduction of the Squire of Allington, Mr. Christopher Dale, who lives in the Great House; rejected by his beloved many years before, Squire Dale has never married. In fact, this type of stubbornness is supposed to be a Dale family trait and it will echo throughout the novel; once a Dale makes up his or her mind, they never go back. The squire’s heir is his nephew Bernard Dale, a young officer in the Engineer corps. Mr. Dale also has two nieces Lillian Dale (Lily) and Isabelle Dale (Bell) who live with their widowed mother in the Small House, more or less upon the squire’s charity. Their mother pays no rent for the use of the house and garden and the squire has financially aided his nieces from time to time, basically allowing them to be raised as if they were part of the landed gentry, when in fact they are poor relations and would have a much lower social standing if they had had to rely only on their mother’s small income.
When Bernard brings his friend Adolphous Crosbie to visit at the Great House, romance ensues. During this visit, the squire informs Bernard of his wish that Bernard marry Bell. Meanwhile, Crosbie, who is very charming but also exceedingly ambitions, falls in love with Lily, though he erroneously assumes that the squire will settle money on her upon her marriage. However, Lily is also loved by neighbor John Eames, a young, somewhat awkward man, just beginning to make his way as a clerk at the Income Tax Office in London.  
For Trollope fanatics, there is also a small sub-plot involving Lady Dumbello (the former Griselda Grantley who was featured in the fourth book of the chronicles, Framely Parsonage), Mr. Plantagenet Palliser (who will figure in the the Palliser Novels I assume), and a lovely cameo by Mr. Harding of the first book in the series, The Warden.
In terms of the plot, I found that the book really represented a break from any previous Trollope novel I have read (which admittedly is not that many, just seven so far); I was so sure from the outset that I knew how it would end and I was so, so wrong. There is no neat bow tying up all the storylines by the last page, which is rare in my experience of Victorian romances in general.
In any case, I loved it. I particularly liked the portraits of Crosbie and John Eames, seeing where they paralleled and where they diverged; in fact I liked both characters a lot, even though they both behave very badly at times. And I also really enjoyed the Trollope take down of the aristocratic but morally bankrupt de Courcey family.

Thursday, February 4, 2016



The Franchise Affair is the first book that I have completed for the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate and it fills the category of Classic Detective Novel. This is the fourth Tey mystery that I have read and I can say that I am impressed at how they each have been very different from each other, although I don’t think Tey is going to ever knock Agatha Christie of the pedestal on which I have placed her.

The book is billed as an Inspector Grant mystery (he of the famous Tey title Daughter of Time), but actually, he is barely in the story. Instead, the “detective” in this case is an amateur sleuth: Robert Blair is an unmarried, middle aged small town solicitor whose routine is rather thrillingly disrupted when a local mother and daughter are accused of kidnapping and forcing a 16 year old-school girl to work as a maid for them. To say more than that would be to spoil the plot!

I enjoyed the mystery side of the story alright. Although I did think it seemed a little familiar while reading and it turns out that The Franchise Affair is loosely based on a real event that took place in the 1700s (which is obliquely referenced in the book). I soon realized that I read a Guardian article written by Sarah Waters about The Franchise Affair ages ago. A little googling and I was able to find the link; it is really an excellent article: The Lost Girl - Guardian Article, but read it after reading the novel unless you want to get spoiled!  

What I found a little hard to swallow about The Franchise Affair were characters who think they can tell a criminal by way a person’s eyes are set or by the shape of their forehead, etc., that smacks too much of pseudo-sciences like phrenology. So I read much of this book with an entire salt cellar. And as the Sarah Water’s article mentioned above explains much better that I ever could, there is a lot of virulent class prejudice and middle class fear of the lower class expressed in the story, which can be an unpleasant experience for a modern day reader.