Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Back to the Classics 2017: My Final Wrap-Up

Wally is not as impressed with my efforts as I am.

JUST UNDER THE WIRE.  Well, not really. There are still 5 days left in the year.   But I am currently reading furiously books from the 2018 Tournament of Books long list plus there is the usual end of year/holiday activity so I did actually cut it a little too close for my comfort this year!

Below are the 12 books I read for this challenge, with links to my reviews.

1. A Russian Classic: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
2. A Romance Classic Dragonwyck by Anya Seton 
3. A Classic in Translation : The Red and the Black by Stendhal  
4. A 19th Century Classic:  Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
5. A Gothic Classic: No Name by Wilkie Collins and The Monk by Matthew Lewis 
6. A Classic by a woman author: Less than Angels by Barbara Pym
7. An award winning Classic: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings 
8. A 20th Century Classic: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
9. A Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title:  The Call of the Wild by Jack London
10. A Classic with a number in the title: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, Père 
11. A Classic set in a place you would like to visit: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay 
12. A classic published prior TO 1800:  The Oresteia by Aeschylus  

My favorites were Nicholas Nickleby, No Name, Less than Angles and The Yearling.  My  least favorites were The Red and the Black and The Monk. I am glad to have read all of them however, and bonus points to me  for having read Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Call of the Wild which I can also now tick off my list of Modern Library 100 Best that I am making my way through.

Many thanks to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting and doing all the heavy lifting!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017: The Orestia by Aeschylus

Orestes pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
For the last category of the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge:  A CLASSIC PUBLISHED PRIOR TO 1800, I went  WAY before 1800,  about two thousand years earlier to 5th century BCE and read The Oresteia by Aeschylus.   Aside from a handful of plays in high school read and/or performed, the only play I have read in my life was Lady Windermere’s Fan, which I read for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge and which I found to be not only delightful but also very quick read.
The Orestia was not quick or delightful actually.  But the experience was interesting and worthy. What slowed me down was the essay by the translator Robert Fagles and W.B. Standford which preceded the plays which was almost as long as all three works put together. It was tough reading, very scholarly. But it added EVERYTHING to my understanding of the plays…without it I would have been pretty lost.  Really, my  only understanding of much of ancient Greek literature comes from the Psych 101 course I took in college over 25 years ago…and that was of course filtered through Freudian thought.
Briefly, the Oresteia is one of the many tellings (there are other extant versions of the story by Sophocles and Euripides for example) of the myth of the curse over the family of Agamemnon, he of the Trojan War fame.  In this version, Agamemnon has willingly sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to win the war and naturally, his wife Clytemnestra isn’t happy about this. So she kills Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. Agamemnon is in turn avenged by their son Orestes, who kills his mother.  Orestes is then pursued by the Furies for matricide. This all comes to a head in Athens where the goddess Athena presides over a trial to determine if Orestes can be acquitted of his crime and the Furies pacified by becoming "The Kindly Ones" (or the Eumenides , which is actually the title of the third play). 
According to Fagles’ interpretation of the trilogy, what Aeschylus was trying to do with the plays was to show his audience the civilizing effect of law on society  in the way the Furies are moved from a force of raw vengeance to a force for justice.  That is paraphrasing a 90 plus page essay, but that is basically my take away in a nutshell.
 I am glad to have read it for its reverberations in later literature.  Let’s hope it pays off in my future reading. Already I am thinking of The Kindly Ones which is the title of the 6th book in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, which I read a few years ago.   

Saturday, December 2, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

I chose Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay as my read for the Back to the Classics 2017 Challenge category “Classic Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit”.  I have never been to Australia and probably never will visit given the expense and the distance but I have long been interested in it as both a country and a landscape.  Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fiction, but Hanging Rock is a real volcanic rock formation located in Victoria, Australia.
The story features the students and teachers of a girl’s boarding school located a few miles from Hanging Rock, a popular local attraction for day trips and outings.   As the book opens on Valentine’s Day 1900, the girls and two of the teachers are preparing to go for a picnic at the rocks.   Later, however, party turns tragic, when three girls and one teacher go missing. This mysterious event affects not only the remaining staff and students but also two young men who happened to also be at Hanging Rock that days; some of the ripple effects are quite terrible, while others are quite providential.
This is a very short book (198 pages in the pictured Penguin edition I read)  and it is structured as a faux-history/ true crime format which I found interesting.  In particular, the ambiguity in the book really worked for me and the lush, atmospheric writing was a pleasure to ponder and digest. I think there is a lot of subtext in the book, for the reader who cares to look for it. I was especially drawn to the author’s depiction of the natural world as something independent and uncaring of humans, but always present and threatening.  However, there is an actual “ending” to the book which was cut from the manuscript when the book was first published in 1967 which somewhat takes away the ambiguity I so enjoyed and definitely pushes the book in to speculative fiction territory. 

There is also a really good film of Picnic at Hanging Rock directed by Peter Wier.  It is pretty good, as I recall; very atmospheric and creepy.

Friday, November 10, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas père

“All for one and one for all” was never actually stated in the translation by Jacques Le Clercq in the 1999 Modern Library edition that I read.  I wonder where that comes from and if it is maybe even apocryphal?  

I find my reaction to finally experiencing a classic fiction source that has sparked so many adaptations, spin-offs, etc. to be quite varied.  Which is normal, of course. But I still have this idea that I am obligated to appreciate anything deemed “classic”. Silly, yet true.  Frankly, I was less than enamored when I finally read Frankenstein and also I thought The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would have been a thousand times better if had been less familiar with the story prior to reading it.  However, I have been delighted by pretty much everything I have read by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

Which brings me to Les Trois Mousquetaires by Alexandre Dumas.  I liked it, but with reservations which are mostly based on reading a book written 200 years ago and which is set in a time period 200 years before it was written. I don’t know why sometimes my 21st century mores get in the way of reading older books and sometimes they don’t.  But in this case, I was annoyed by the moral ambiguity of 17th century Europe as portrayed by a 19th century author…in particular since the one female villain is so severely punished (her greatest evil seeming to be having the intellect of a man but born in to a female body) whereas the male bad guys are actually respected as worthy adversaries. Milady deserved better.  Frankly, I much prefer her depiction in the 1993 movie version starring Rebecca De Mornay. Whatever faults that movie may have (Charlie Sheen as Aramis?), it gives Milady (and Athos) a more nuanced personality than in the book. I guess one could argue that the book does allow for a more generous reading of Milady in the negative spaces, but you have to be a better reader that I am to get that.

My other reservation is that it isn’t particularly well written. There is literal mustache twirling going on.  One of the chapter title’s is literallyThe Plot Thickens”.  This book’s success rests I think on its characters, who are very memorable, despite their questionable behavior. I mean, these guys are constantly walking around, looking for a fight. And they very often actively work AGAINST the best interests of France in their support of Queen Anne.   Who knows, maybe Dumas was deliberately writing them as anti-heroes? That is for someone’s term paper to work out!

So, in summary, I am happy to have finally experienced Dumas’ original but I don’t think I will read on in his oeuvre.  I read this for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge: Read a book with a number in the title.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Yikes, this was a creepy book.  It made me think of the more memorable Twilight Zone episodes I have seen.  I would classify it as Horror, a genre I almost never read, but to my relief it was light on the gore factor and heavier on the suspense side of things.  

It is wisely a fairly short book (my paperback had 258 pages), I only wish I had been able to read it in one go at night…because this book, if you get into it, will make you question those normal creaks and sighs a quiet house makes…perfectly normal sounds…perfectly innocent sounds….nothing to worry about…right? 

The scare factor of Bird Box rests primarily on our fear of the unknown.  In the book, there is something outside which causes humans to go berserk and harm themselves and others when they see it.  To combat this, people have taken to boarding up their windows and if they go outside, they have to use blindfolds.  The main character of the book is Malorie who has been living alone with her two children for four years. At the start of the book, she has decided to take the supreme risk of leaving the house for forever and taking a boat down the river to some sort of sanctuary…and she has to do all this blindfolded with two blindfolded children who are only four years old, not knowing if they will be harmed by the creatures (whatever they are), other humans who may of inexplicably survived and/or other animals. 

My only criticism is the book is that it was a little unclear as to the practicalities of humans and/or dogs surviving on canned food over many years which has a naturally limited shelf life not to mention quantity.  But that is a small niggle. I wanted to read a scary book and this one did the job most adequately! 

This was my second RIP 2017 read which means I have completed Peril the Second! Muah Ha ha! 

Thursday, October 12, 2017


I can't believe it is October already!  Reading Shutter Island was akin to a rollercoaster ride; it was a little scary but thrilling and once I got going, I couldn’t really stop. I read its 325 pages amazingly quickly, pretty much over the course of one Sunday.  

The initial plot set up is quite simple: two Federal Marshals are sent to investigate the disappearance/ escape of a female inmate at the seemingly impregnable Ashecliff Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts.    
“From the sea it didn’t look like much. You have to picture it the way Teddy Daniels saw it on  that calm morning in September of 1954. A scrub plain in the middle of the outer harbor. Barely an island, you’d think, so much the idea of one. What purpose could it have he may have thought.  What purpose.”    
The story is told in close third person from the perspective of Agent Daniels who is mourning the death of his wife from a few years prior and also probably suffering from what we now call PTSD as a result of his experiences in WWII.  As Daniels investigates the mystery with his new partner Agent Aule, it soon becomes clear that Daniels has a lot of personal baggage that he is lugging around. The reader quickly starts to wonder who Daniels really working for and does he have an ulterior motive for taking this case? And how legitimate is Ashecliff Hospital? Are the rumors of experimental therapy true? 

As the story progresses there are secrets upon secrets to be unearthed and nothing is what it seems or rather, situations can be misinterpreted…what could be considered sinister from one perspective could appear completely benign in a different light.  Lehane did a great job of keeping the reader slightly off balance for about the first half…then the book slips into nightmare-mode filled with acute paranoia and one's sense of reality is dangling only by a thread…

I knew part of the “twist” in the plot, even though I’ve never seen the film, but there were plenty of other reveals and details that I didn’t know that made reading it enjoyable none the less.

This was my first RIP read of 2017! One more chilling yet thrilling book to go.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

R.I.P. XII Challenge

With triple digit heat, it doesn’t feel much like fall in my neck of the woods. And yet, the calendar says that on September 22, Autumn will officially begin.  And that means that the RIP challenge (R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril ) is back, hosted in this year by Andi at Estella’s Revenge and Heather at My Capricious Life

I participated last year for the first time and enjoyed the excuse to get to some of the spookier books on my to-be-read list.   I am again signing up for Peril the Second, which requires me to read only two books that fit in any of the following genres: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, Gothic, horror or supernatural.   

This may change, but I plan on reading Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane  (I’ve not seen the film BUT somehow, somewhere the “twist” ending was spoiled for me but hopefully I will like the book anyway)and Bird Box by Josh Malerman,  which is supposed to be creepy as all get out. 

There is also a group read planned for Slade House by David Mitchell which I might read as well, since I also have a copy and I have really enjoyed everything else I have read by Mitchell.  We'll see if I manage it.

Are any of you taking part in the RIP XII or do you have any seasonal reads on deck for the fall months?

Friday, August 25, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017: The Call of the Wild by Jack London

As a animal lover and dog owner, at first I wasn't sure if I could handle this book...and this after reading The Yearling! The story is told from the point of view of Buck, a young Saint Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix (google them, they are gorgeous dogs) who is dognapped from his northern California home and sold as a sled dog up north at the height of the Klondike gold rush of the late 1800s.

This is a very short novella, the Puffin edition pictured above is only 150 pages long, which was good for me because I didn't find the writing style that engaging although it was very descriptive and evocative of place.  Buck encounters hardship along the way but he also has joyful moments. It is questionable, however, if the ending is a happy one. It depends upon the perspective of the reader.

I did think that much of the canine behavior depicted was familiar based on dogs I have known, but I also think London  anthropomorphized a little too much now and again.  Dogs are smart, don't get me wrong. And in many ways, they are smarter than humans. But I don't think they reason in the same way that humans do and sometimes London attributed this kind of thinking and action to Buck. 

I chose Jack London's The Call of the Wild for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 category of a "Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title".   This is also another two for the price of one since it is also included on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, of which I now have only 28 left to read.
Here are two of my fierce huskies!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Initially I was going to read The Yearling for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category “Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title”.  However, I have now decided to use it in the “Award Winning Classic” since The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1939.  (I think I will read The Call of the Wild for the Animal category instead…but we’ll see 😃. )

I am fairly sure I either saw the movie as a child and/or read an abridged version of the book, because lots of it seemed very familiar.  Since I was aware of the basic story line, I figured the book would make me cry and it did, but probably for different reasons than it would were I still a child. Although as best I can tell (i.e. Wikipedia), the book wasn’t written for children, I can see how it could be marketed to tweens and teens. It is a coming of age story after all. But I think a more mature reader will be able to see points that would probably be overlooked by a child or even a young adult. 

So, clearly the story is more than just a boy who adopts an orphaned fawn in post Civil War Florida.  In fact, the fawn, named Flag, doesn’t even show up until about half way through the novel. The focus of The Yearling is the boy, Jody Baxter, and his transition from 12 to 13 and from boy to man.  Jody is an only child, his parents having lost 6 children before his birth. His father tends to humor him, believing that the trials of adulthood will come soon enough, whereas his mother, hardened perhaps as a preventative to more loss, is more strict,  The Baxter’s nearest neighbors are the rough and slightly dangerous Forresters who live 14 miles away.  The nearest town is Volusia, a day’s ride and across the St. Johns River. This is where the Baxters go to trade and purchase goods they can’t raise themselves and to visit the coquettish Grandma Hutto.  

I appreciated that Rawlings does not romanticize the past or a life lived off the land. The book is pretty clear in its message that neighbors are mandatory for survival and that subsistence farming is hard and precarious work. There is also a strong message about taking only what one needs and hunting only for meat and not for sport.

All the dialogue is in dialect, which is normally a pet peeve of mine, but it didn’t bother me in this case. I had no trouble understanding it and in fact, it enabled me to really “hear” the speech rhythms of the characters. There really wasn’t much I didn’t love about this book. I loved the detail of the Florida scrub and wildlife; I loved the description of the food, clothing and domiciles.  I didn’t even mind the parts about hunting.  Reading The Yearling gave me the same sort of satisfaction  as an adult that I had as a child reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books, that sense of a completely different time and place that you could jump into anytime you opened the pages.

I read the paperback edition pictured above re-issued for the 50th anniversary of the book and with reproduced beautiful woodcut illustrations from previous editions, which I really enjoyed looking at at the start of each chapter. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Octavia E. Butler at the Huntington Library

I thought I would share my recent trip to the Huntington Library on this blog since it is a piece of bookish tourism which I normally avoid, not for lack of interest, but rather because I am lazy and traffic-phobic, particularly if I have to drive in or near Los Angeles.

However, when I heard about this exhibit featuring the too-soon departed Octavia Butler, I knew I could not let the opportunity pass me by, especially when it was is  a mere 45 minute drive away.   I only found out about science fiction writer Butler when she died in 2006 at the age of 58.  At that point in my life I was morphing from a semi-casual reader to the obsessed dedicated reader I am now.  I have since read four of her books and hope to read more…at the very least I hope to finish the Exogenesis trilogy this year.  
This is one of Butler's notes to her self
In the exhibit, there is a lot of emphasis on the pioneering aspects of Butler’s life as a black woman working in a field which typically published works only by white male authors.  But in my experience of her work, it is Butler’s ability to tell stories that sets her apart from her peers, more so than her gender or her race.  I readily admit that I have not read that much sci-fi or fantasy but what I admire about Butler is her uncompromising ability to challenge the reader into thinking about how the stories have larger implications and echoes in the here and now.  Butler does not pull her punches and she goes places where other writers fear to tread, in my estimation.
I was a little unsure what the exhibit would look like, but it was visually extremely well put together with handwritten notes,  journals, and correspondence  combined with photographs, book jackets etc .  I think my biggest take away was the amount of research Butler did for her books.  There were even some of her library slips for books she checked out for background information (the woman kept everything!).

If you have never read any Butler and are interested, I recommend starting with  Kindred , a standalone novel about a modern African-American woman who time travels to antebellum Maryland and which is considered by many to be her finest book.

I am so very glad I made the effort to go.  Of course, while we were there, we did take a stroll around the gardens (despite the triple digit heat) and looked at some of the permanent exhibits and had lunch.  If you are ever in Southern California, the Huntington is well worth a visit.

One of my favorite parts is the library in the original Huntington mansion.  I wouldn't want a room quite this formal. But the size!  

This is  a picture of the Lily Ponds, just one of the many gardens on the over 100 acre estate. 
And a picture from the desert garden, more conducive to Southern California weather.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

For the 20th Century Classic category of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 hosted by the blog Books and Chocolate, I read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a twofer for me, since it is also included on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, which I am slowly making my way through. 

After reading this book, I can see why Baldwin’s writing is revered and the Modern Library included him on their list. This was a very immersive and intense read.  It is written in an almost rhythmic way and as other readers have noted elsewhere, Baldwin uses the cadence of Pentecostal preaching to great effect; it is kind of mesmerizing.   When I finished the book, I had a real urge listen to the title hymn which remember learning elementary school, so I youtubed a version of it.

There is very little story, rather Go Tell it on the Mountain is a character study and largely based on Baldwin’s own childhood and family.  There is young John (a stand in for Baldwin), who has just turned 14, his overburdened mother, his abusive lay-preacher father and his father’s bitter older sister, Aunt Gloria.  Baldwin gets in to the heads of each character, giving the reader an insight into their history, their psyche and their motivations, for better or for worse. 

I think there are a lot of take-aways from a book as rich as this one, but for me I appreciated the insight into the black experience in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, when slavery was still a living memory for some and for the role the church and religion can play in one’s life; how it can be a solace and a balm for some and a vindication for self-righteousness for others.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017: Gothic or Horror Classic

For the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category “Gothic or Horror Classic”, I actually have two books to post about.

The first book is The Monk by Matthew Lewis, which was published in 1796 and it fits pretty much all the criteria of a classic Gothic novel:  virginal maidens, evil clergy, wholesome heroes, bandits, dark forests, haunted castles, monasteries with secret passages…check, check and check.  This title would actually also work in the horror category I think with its depiction of the supernatural, persons buried alive, putrid corpse, etc.. But I didn’t really like it. It was all too ridiculously over-the-top for me to really enjoy.  Which isn’t to say it won’t be someone else’s cup of tea! I suggest anyone interested check out some of the five star reviews on Goodreads for a second or third opinion. I also think, if readers enjoyed The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, they might like The Monk as well, although The Monk is much more salacious and violent. 

My second book I adored, but I don’t think it really falls under the Gothic rubric. It is No Name by Wilkie Collins which was first published in 1862.  Instead, it is a pretty good example of a Victorian sensation novel which draws from the Gothic tradition, but is its own special sub-genre and most certainly includes aspects of Victorian social realism, in my opinion.   This is the fourth book by Wilkie Collins that I have read and while No Name doesn’t quite knock off The Woman in White from its top spot in my mind, it does come pretty close.
The story starts off idyllically with the Vanstone family, mother, father and two daughters, happily and comfortably ensconced in the English countryside. The older daughter, Norah, is quiet and obedient, but her younger sister Magdalen is a firecracker: impetuous, manipulative and fairly spoiled.  

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, since I personally prefer to go into books knowing as little as possible. However, I will say that Norah and Magdalen are disinherited from their father’s fortune due to a legal technicality and are thus forced to fend for themselves in the world with only their loyal former governess, Miss Garth, to aid them. 

Norah obediently accepts her fate and determines to eke out a living as a governess or similar but the passionate Magdalen is determined to regain the fortune which she feels was stolen from them and she will stop at nothing to achieve her aims. And when I write, stop at nothing… I mean it.  There is almost no length that she will not go to which must have scandalized some Victorian readers.  The joy in reading this book for me was Magdalen’s transformation from a petulant teen to a vengeful Fury.  I also adored the antiheroic Colonel Wragg, Magdalen’s partner in con-artistry, and their attempts to cross, double cross and triple cross anyone who stands in the way of their goals.  The plotting and characterization in this No Name made it enormously satisfying to read.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: Less Than Angels

For the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate) for the category “Classic by a Woman Author” I decided to go with Barbara Pym’s Less than Angels, which was first published in 1955.

Less Than Angels more or less revolves around the lives and loves of a handful of anthropology students and their lecturers in 1950’s London.   I write “more or less” but really it is so much more.  One could consider Tom Mallow, the anthropology grad student who comes back to London after two years of field work in Africa to write his PhD dissertation to be the main character and the plot to be how he handles the three women who love him.   However, in my experience with Barbara Pym novels, plot is really secondary to the characters and the small world they inhabit within the wider macrocosm of London. Pym worked for an anthropological society in the 1950’s and 60’s, so not only does she understand her subject matter, but she also very purposefully observes academics and the middle class as if they were anthropological subjects in their “native habitats”.

Less Than Angels is the third Pym title I have read and I particularly enjoy her  understated style and subtle humor. One of Tom’s love interests is Deirdre Swann, anthropology undergraduate who is uncertain of her choice of study. Deirde lives at home in the London suburbs with her mother, older brother and Aunt Rhoda.  I loved Rhoda, who sneaks around at night correcting her sister’s housework like refolding towels or setting out the juice glasses for the next morning’s breakfast.  Another favorite minor character is the Swanns’ neighbor, Mr. Lydgate, semi-retired from the colonial service, who sometimes sits at home in his study with an African mask over his head, wishing he were back there. “He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animals' heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expression--the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn't really feel.

Were it not for the internet, I doubt I would have ever encountered Pym’s work. I first heard about her from Thomas at the blog Hogglestock in 2011.  She is definitely one of those lesser known writers who inspire profound love and devotion when she connects with the right reader.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Back to the Classics 2017: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

I have often heard readers say that Dickens was “paid by the word” and that is why his novels are so long, but I don’t think that is true.  I am fairly sure it has been documented elsewhere that due to his enormous creative energy, he was often working on various projects simultaneously.  So the “wordiness” and extraneous stories are likely due to little time devoted to laying out the plot beforehand in combination with the serialized nature of the publications.  

I mention this because I noted that in the over 900 pages in the Penguin Classics edition of Nicholas Nickleby that I read, at least two story lines could have been cut without hindering the plot in any way.  Of course, this is neither here nor there if you love Dickens as I do and one of such plot lines concerning the proud, solidly lower middle class Kenwigs family was one of my favorites.  Probably inserted mostly for comic relief, Mr. and Mrs. Kenwig are determined that their children will do better than they have, “She will be a treasure to the man she marries, sir,’ said Mr. Kenwigs, half aside; ‘I think she’ll marry above her station, Mr. Lumbey.” says papa Kenwigs about his eldest daughter Morleena.  In fact, the family has pinned all of their hopes on Morleena inheriting her great uncle Lillyvick’s modest “estate”. Lillyvick is a water rate collector only slightly higher up the social ladder but unmarried and therefore heirless. 

The main story line concerns the eponymous Nicholas who has to fend for his mother and younger sister when his father’s death leaves them penniless.   The family appeals to their rich yet miserly uncle Ralph , who has little sense of familial duty  or affection and pawns them off as cheaply as he can.  Nicholas is sent to work as an assistant to the brutish school master Wackford Squeeres  in Yorkshire where he befriends the poor, abused Smike.   Meanwhile, back in London, sister Kate Nickleby’s situation becomes more and more precarious and she has no one to turn to since her mother is self-absorbed and useless and her uncle uncaring and selfish.  Eventually Nicholas leaves Yorkshire under bad circumstances with Smike in tow, which firmly cements his Uncle Ralph’s hatred of him. The rest of a book is a winding account of Nicholas’ trials and travails as he seeks his own fortune and tries to protect those closest to him while battling his uncle’s dastardly plans to bring him to ruin.

One thing that set this title apart from other Dickens novels I have read is the character of Nicholas himself. He is quick to anger and to react, which gets him into trouble often.  I agree that Dickens’ female protagonists are generally pretty sketchy, but his male protagonists are also often fairly passive. In comparison to David Copperfield say or Pip from Great Expectations, Nicholas was anything but passive.   I also think that this book was particularly keen in terms of class consciousness and the arbitrary accesses and barriers it engenders. Not only do we have the Kenwigs and their aspirations, but there are also the social climbing Wititterlys who are Kate’s employers for a time, not to mention Mrs. Nickleby who is a complete snob. 

I read this book for the category of A 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classic Challenge  2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. Of the eleven Dickens titles I have read so far, this one will definitely be considered one of my favorites.  It has all the qualities I love about Dickens:  adventure, romance, compassion, sentiment and a sense of humor. In additional to the aforementioned Kenwigs family, I also adored the character of John Brodie, the bluff and generous Yorkshireman who comes to Nicholas’ aid more than once.

Monday, April 24, 2017


 [Elizabeth Goudge (1900 – 1984)]

 Today, April 24, is the birth date of the author Elizabeth Goudge and in honor of this, Lory at The EmeraldCity Book Review is celebrating the life and works of one of her favorite authors by inviting other bloggers to read and review Goudge’s works along with her own reviews.  I had never read any books by Goudge previously, so I was curious and decided to join in.
I was tempted to read Green Dolphin Street (two sisters both in love with the same man in a historical setting) because it seemed to be a saga on par with say Gone with the Wind or Forever Amber but ultimately I opted for The Rosemary Tree because it was shorter and since I got a late start, time was of the essence.

The Rosemary Tree centers on the Wentworth family living in the mid-1950s in Devonshire, England.  John Wentworth is the awkward and forgetful, yet devout vicar of the village of Bellemaray, but should by rights be the squire, as he is the last male issue in the Wentworth family, which goes back as far as Elizabeth I as the local landowning gentry.  Instead, his great aunt Maria lives alone in the manor house.  This situation is resented by John’s wife Daphne, who married him very much on the rebound of a failed love affair.   John’s former nanny, Harriet, lives with John and Daphne and their three children.  Initially she came to stay as a housekeeper but it now so plagued by arthritis that she is wheelchair bound and only able to view the world from her bedroom window at the vicarage.

The story goes on to incorporate two teachers from the private school attended by the Wentworth children and a mysterious man who seemingly ends up in the village by accident but is soon befriended by both John and his Aunt Maria.   As for plot, there really isn’t one: the Wentworths’ marriage is troubled, the girls’ school is a misery for the teachers and the students and the mysterious stranger has a secret past and a secret connection to one of the other characters.  The book is far more concerned with the psychological make-up of the characters and what makes them tick and in particular how we humans can help our fellow humans heal and grow with compassion and communication.

The book heavily references The Secret Garden and Don Quixote and is infused with Christian mysticism and the concepts of redemption and second chances. What I think I liked most about it was that it showed how our actions can positively touch others and just how interconnected we are despite our best efforts to think we can live in isolation.  And while the book does have clear religious overtones, I think I can be read by anyone.  Its message of connection and forgiveness can be appreciated by a reader of any creed  or belief system. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

The 1951 Club: The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

 But as the middle of the country filled in on the map, it filled in red. The infected areas stood out in ruby lights now, for the wall map studded with pins had been replaced by a huge electronic military map...”  No, this is not a quote from the recent U.S. Presidential elections, but rather from Heinlein’s 1951 novella The Puppet Masters , a story about the U.S. being invaded by parasite slugs from outer space.

I read this book for the 1951 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.  I have never participated before (there have been similar events in the past featuring different years), but the 1951 Club is a reading week during which bloggers are encouraged to read a book/books that were published in the featured year and then post about them, thereby giving the participants an interesting  and fun overview of that window of time.

 Since I had already read many of the more popular titles that I found listed on the internet for 1951 AND I am really trying this year to get to more of the books I already own, I chose to read this Heinlein classic work of science fiction.

[Cover from the Italian edition - better than the US ones IMO - Title translates loosely as "Terror from the Seventh Moon"]
This is the third Heinlein title I’ve read and it does not age well at all. Whereas the square jaw, gung-ho “let’s kill some bugs” tone of Starship Troopers still works today (for me at least), I wonder if The Puppet Masters would be read at all any more if it didn’t have Heinlein’s name on it.  I do appreciate that Heinlein was trying in his way to push the boundaries of race and gender and there are women and minority characters in positions of power in the book. But he also has lines like this, “Listen son, most women are damn fools and children. But they’ve good more range than we’ve got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better- and the vile ones are viler.”  Oh dear.

But it was fun to read in a certain, pulpy way.  The protagonist is a kind of James Bond type of character who works for an ultra-secret government agency which has to first convince the President and Congress that there is even a threat at all before they can mobilize a defense, part of which is convincing the population to walk around naked (or nearly so) to show that they do not have an alien-parasite attached to them.  
Unsurprisingly for a book by a U.S. author of this era, there is also some unsubtle Cold War propaganda  included such as, “I wondered why the [aliens] had not attached Russia first; the place seemed tailor-made for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make.“ In fact, if this book has any hidden depths at all, it is probably in its depiction of one’s panic at losing one’s individuality and/or control over one’s own destiny which certainly ties into much of the West’s fears  of communism of at that time.

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