Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Last Ten Books Tag

I saw this meme first on Simon's blog at Stuck in a Book and thought it looked like fun. The original tag was created by Mark Nash on BookTube.  There are ten questions about the last book that....

1. The last book I gave up on
I rarely DNF books. But I did abandon Kushil's Dart by Jaqueline Carey which I picked up in a Little Free Library in my neighborhood a couple of years ago.  I have been wanting to read more Fantasy and had heard good things about this title from other sources. But reading the back cover, the first few pages and in particular the goodreads reviews, I realized there is an erotic component with sado/masochistic tendencies to the story and while I don’t think I am a prude (maybe I am?), that isn’t something I really want to read about in any genre.
2. The last book I re-read
I recently finished listening to Our Mutual Friend on audio as narrated by David Troughton (excellent job he did!).  I first read this title with my eyes a few years ago. It isn’t my favorite Dickens in particular because I have real trouble accepting how the Bella Wilfer story-line is handled, but listening to it did make me appreciate just how funny Dickens can be and also how I wish he had had the opportunity to at least finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood because Our Mutual Friend also has some excellent crime/mystery elements and it would have been fascinating to see Dickens develop more in that direction..
3. The last book I bought
The last book I bought was Smoke City by Keith Rosson. I was thinking it would be longlisted for the 2019 Tournament of Books (it wasn’t) and the description totally intrigued me - from goodreads:
Marvin Deitz has some serious problems. His mob-connected landlord is strong-arming him out of his storefront. His therapist has concerns about his stability. He’s compelled to volunteer at the local Children’s Hospital even though it breaks his heart every week.
Oh, and he’s also the guilt-ridden reincarnation of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner who lit Joan of Arc’s pyre in 1431. He’s just seen a woman on a Los Angeles talk show claiming to be Joan, and absolution seems closer than it’s ever been... but how will he find her?
That just sounds so amazingly weird and I was ordering presents for others online and…well, you know how that happens! 
4. The last book I said I read but actually didn’t
I don’t know that I have ever done that?  I wasn’t an English major so never felt any pressure in that regard. Nobody cared if I had read Moby Dick or not. LOL I do recall as a 12 year old lying about watching the movie Saturday Night Fever (I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies) and using scenes from the movie-to-book adaptation of which I obtained a contraband copy to support my “proof” that I had seen it.  Kids are weird!
 5. The last book I wrote in the margins of
I rarely write in a book or highlight passages. However, I am currently reading Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann in German and am occasionally writing a note or translation in the margins to help cement it in my brain.   
6. The last book I had signed
I‘ve purchased second hand books that turned out to have been signed, but I have never myself requested that an author sign a book.  
7. The last book I lost
I don’t lose books often. I did leave a copy of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Parasites on a plane in 1986 (I never went back to it) and I also left a copy of Saul Bellows' The Adventures of Augie March on a train in the mid 1990s. This was unfortunately a library copy so I had to replace it and to add insult to injury, I kinda hated it. But I did eventually finish it.
8. The last book I had to replace
I accidentally ordered the U.S. version of Becky Chambers’  Record of a Spaceborn Few earlier this year and had to replace it with the much classier UK hard cover edition.
9. The last book I argued over
Like may bookbloggers, I don’t know many people IRL who read books with the intensity that I do. So even if I wanted to argue there is no one to counter-argue. The closest I come to lively book discussion is on the Tournament of Books group site The Rooster on goodreads.

10. The last book you couldn’t find
I think what is meant by this is a book that you want to read but cannot find in any store or library. I don’t know that there is any book that I have wanted to buy that I could not find!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 – Wrap Up Post

It’s a wrap!  I have officially completed the  Back to theClassics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.

AND I managed to choose and read all 12 titles from books I already had on my shelves. YAY!  

Details are as follows:

1. Fittingly, I started this literary journey off with A CLASSIC TRAVEL OR JOURNEY NARRATIVE, FICTION OR NON-FICTION.  I read Orient Express by Graham Greene, first published in 1933. It wasn’t as good as his better known books such as The Quiet American in my opinion, however.  

2. Then I moved on to a sure fire good read:  A CLASSIC CRIME STORY, FICTION OR NON-FICTION.  I read and really enjoyed  The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey.

3. The enjoyment factor took a nose-dive with my choice of  A 20TH CENTURY CLASSIC. While I am glad to have read Winesberg, Ohio  by Sherwood Anderson because I can now cross it off the Modern Library 100 Best of List, I think this was probably my least favorite of all 12. Too bleak and monotone for my taste.

4. I was pleasantly surprised with my choice of  A CLASSIC WITH A COLOR IN THE TITLE. I read The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorn and once I got past that unnecessary prologue, I found it really interesting and strange (in a good way).

5. My absolute star was the book I read for  A CLASSIC IN TRANSLATION.  I loved Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami. Such a great book about a really unpleasant man!

6. Next up was A CLASSIC WITH A SINGLE-WORD TITLE which I fulfilled by reading  Passing by Nella Larson, a short but very powerful read.

7. Possibly the hardest to choose for was the category RE-READ A FAVORITE CLASSIC.  I finally landed on Wuthering Heights by Emilie Bronte. This turned out to be a great choice because I think this is a book upon which one’s perspective can change dramatically with age and experience.

8. For the choice of   CHILDREN'S CLASSIC  I read and enjoyed the Newbery award winning Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, a book a never read as a child.

9. For my favorite category of A 19TH CENTURY CLASSIC I read  Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop which was not his best in my opinion, but nonetheless, wonderful because Dickens was a genius.

10. For A CLASSIC BY AN AUTHOR THAT'S NEW TO YOU  I read  Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston which was pretty fabulous.

11. For the choice of A CLASSIC THAT SCARES YOU I girded my loins and read Light in August by William Faulkner, which wasn’t as difficult as I had feared.

12. Finally I read No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym for the category of  A CLASSIC BY A WOMAN AUTHOR  which I really loved as I have loved everything I’ve read by Pym thus far. 

As usual, I am so looking forward to the 2019 edition of this challenge and so pleased that Karen has graciously decided to continue hosting for another year. Contact information is: naessa[at]yahoo[dot]com.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

Like many readers, I buy books with the best of intentions and yet often don’t act upon them, i.e. read my own damn books. To wit, I own nine Barbara Pym but had only read two of them. Now I’m up to three! Because I read Pym’s No Fond Return of Love, first published in 1961, for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 category “Classic by a Woman Author”.

One of the most delightful things about No Fond Return of Love was the realization that there is a “Pymverse” of London in the late 1950’s in which many (maybe all?) of Barbara Pym’s characters operate. For careful readers there is a tiny Easter egg from Excellent Women in Less Than Angels and now I found another follow up tidbit from Less than Angels in No Fond Return of Love. I love this idea and really look forward to discovering more of these little surprises as I read more of Pym’s works.

No Fond Return of Love covers familiar territory found in her other books: academia, marriage vs singledom and the Anglican Church. The main protagonist is Dulcie Mainwaring who decides to attend a weekend conference on publishing (she works freelance as an indexer and research) to help her get over her broken engagement. Dulcie likes researching people as well. ‘I love finding out about people’, said Dulcie, ‘I suppose it’s a sort of compensation for the dreariness of everyday life’.  I have to imagine that Dulcie shares this curiosity about in the lives of strangers with Barbara Pym herself.

At the conference, Dulcie meets the rather difficult and sulky Viola Dace, a fellow indexer and Aylwin Forbes, a handsome, married forty-something author with whom both Viola and Dulcie maybe, sort-of fall in love. It’s all very Pymsian as their lives intertwine, making the London suburbs seem more like a cozy village rather than a sprawling metropole. And as usual, I laughed out loud multiple times. The humor is so subtle and surprising. I can see where Pym’s humor would not be to every reader’s taste, but when you get it, you really get it if you know what I mean.

This is now the last book that I needed to read for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018. Not as early as some but still happy to be crossing the finish line in good time! My wrap up post will be forthcoming. :D

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Light in August by William Faulkner

I am just a lil’ bit behind on blogging.  I actually read Light in August back in August.  This book was my choice for the Back to the Classics Challenge category “Classic that Scares You”.  I think for most readers it is clear where the scare factor comes in! Faulkner is pretty famous (infamous?) for being difficult to read.  And this was the first book of his that I have ever finished (I started Wild Palms and Absalom, Absalom ages ago but never got too far in either). 

I finished Light in August, but did I understand it?  I am happy to report that it was very accessible, though not a particularly cheery book. Faulkner sprinkles portmanteau words like “fecundmellow” throughout the book which were interesting. I can see how they emphasize and add to the atmosphere. 

And this book has a lot of atmosphere.  The reader can almost chew it. The book opens with a young pregnant woman walking down a dusty road. Lena Grove has walked from Alabama to Mississippi because she has convinced herself that her baby’s daddy, Lucas Burch, just hasn’t gotten a chance to send for her yet.  When she gets to Jefferson, Mississippi she meets a former co-worker of Lucas’ named Byron Bunch who immediately falls in love with Lena.  Byron and his predicament, because he is an honorable man and feels bound to reunite Lena with the neer-do-well Lucas and Lena’s delusional devotion to Lucas, are almost the comic relief in the book. Only it is more of a tragic-comedy. 

Lena’s arrival in Jefferson coincides with a house on fire wherein a murdered woman has been found. The dead woman, Miss Burden, is an outcast, even though she is well off and white, because her father and grandfather were abolitionists from the North.  The book takes place in the 1920s but clearly the locals have long memories.  

That kicks off the story but there is so much more as the narrative twists and turns. The structure of the novel is interesting. I didn’t notice at first how far I had been lead from the opening until about half way through. The real focus is Joe Christmas, a drifter who had been living behind the Burden house and may or may not have been her killer and Joe may or may not be “black”.  The story eventually morphs into Joe’s story; how he ended up in Jefferson and why he behaves the way he does and it does finally lead back to where is starts. 

Light in August is a story of the South and a story of pathos, hatred, violence and racism.  Like I said, not cheery but definitely worth reading. Now that I’ve tackled Faulkner’s “easy” stuff I have to move on to As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Maybe next year? We’ll see

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie - The 1944 Club

Oh I had such ambitions for the 1944 Club but as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men…  I hope I do get to Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge one of these days and I have The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow gathering dust here on my shelf. What I did manage to read was Towards Zero by the inimitable Agatha Christie.
I love Agatha Christie. All of her mysteries are fairly short and a total breeze to read. I always desperately want to know who did the crime and I almost never guess right.  
The book starts off rather slowly and confusedly, starting first with a semi-retired octogenarian solicitor named Mr. Treves ruminating on the many threads that lead up towards a murder,
‘“All the converging towards a given spot…And then when the time comes – over the top! Zero Hour. Yes all of them converging towards zero…” He repeated: “Towards Zero..”  Then he gave a a quick little shudder.’  
Then the scene moves to a man who made failed suicide attempt now convalescing in hospital and then to Superintendent Battle (one of Christies lesser known and lesser used detectives) solving a boarding school theft involving his teenage daughter by using psychology. The reader may wonder what is going on. Where are the dead bodies?
But then the story starts to move in to classic Christie mystery mode as a summer house party at  Gull’s Point, home of  widowed Lady Tressilian, starts to form.  For the cast of characters there are living at Gull’s Point  Lady Tressilian, bedridden but still formidable (and rich), and her companion, Mary Aldin who may not be as willing to give up her best years to playing nursemaid to an old woman as she seems.  Coming for a fortnight’s visit is Lady Tressilian’s former ward and heir, Neville Strange and his new, rather vulgar (and much younger) wife, Kay, Neville’s ex-wife, the long suffering Audrey and Thomas Royde who grew up with Audrey and has been carrying a torch for her for decades. Finally, turning up like a bad penny is lothario Ted Latimer who has the hots for Kay.
What could possibly go wrong?
Christie does a good job keeping the tension high and when the murder does happen, I was surprised at who was killed because it really could have been any of them; everyone’s tempers were quite frayed by that point.
The resolution of the mystery and romantic pairings are perhaps a little too convenient but honestly I don’t mind that. I had a lot of fun being duped by the red herrings and enjoying the upper class scene of pre-war Britain.
Many thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings for starting the club.  Even though I didn't get to everything I intended this time, it is always good fun thinking about the possible reading choices and checking out what other people read for the prompt!

Friday, October 5, 2018


I meant to post this LAST MONTH but then life got in the way. 

I definitely want to participate in Readers Imbibing Peril XIII which started waaay back on September 1 and runs through to October 31. This year it is hosted by blogger My Capricious Life.  

I mean, how could I skip this? It is the THIRTEENTH EDITION! Muwahaha!

At this point, however, I am only going to try for Peril the Third, which is to read only one book that fits within any of the following R.I.P. definitions: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, or Supernatural. I think I can manage to squeeze in one book in the next three weeks. 

I am planning on reading Slade House by David Mitchell which I meant to read last year for RIP XII but didn't get to. This is also a book I have owned for a while and as usual I have to push myself to read what I own instead of becoming distracted by new books or library books.

Another October Blog-event I hope to take part in is the 1944 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings between October 15 and October 21. 

Originally I had planned to read Dangling Man by Saul Bellow but because I am currently reading Humboldt's Gift by Bellow now I have decided against more Bellow. He is not the kind of author I could "binge-read" as the kids say.   

Instead, I think I am going to read one of the two Agatha Christie books published in that year: Towards Zero or Death Comes as the End.  I don't own a copy of either but her books read so fast and they aren't very long, I hardly feel guilty about sneaking them into my reading now and again. :)

Alas, here in Southern California, there isn't much weather-wise to mark the Fall season so I am really pleased when there are prompts to help me direct my reading choices!  Do any of you read seasonally or do you, like me, let external forces nudge you in one direction or another?

Monday, September 3, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston

"When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then, after that some angels got jealous and chopped him up into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine."

I happily chose Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for the 2018 Back to the Classics category “Classic by a new-to-you author”.   As my online friend Kathy pointed out in her excellent review at Reading Matters, readers have Alice Walker to thank for reviving interest in Hurston’s work in the mid-1970s.  

According to the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Harper Perennial Modern Classic that I read (pictured), Hurston was the preeminent woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. Gates suggests that her work fell into obscurity by the late 1950s and early 1960s possibly because her writing did not reflect the politics of other African Americans artists and thinkers of that era.  Gates goes on to compare Their Eyes Were Watching God with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I’ve not read that novel, but I was reminded of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening because Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in my opinion, primarily about one woman’s attempt to break free of societal constraints put upon her sexuality and her ambitions.  The book does indirectly address racism, but it is incidental to the rest of the narrative.

First published in 1937, the story is about Janie Crawford who is raised by her grandmother. Nanny was born into slavery and has a conservative view about marriage and wants Janie to marry the older, financially stable Logan Killicks.  But Janie at 17 has a more romantic view of marriage and what adventure life can offer her, if she is willing to chance it.  Eventually she gets her opportunity and without giving too much away, I think that this is ultimately a very positive and life affirming book, even if there are struggles along the way.

The dialogue is written entirely in dialect while the narrative is in standard American English. This does take some getting used to and it would have been much easier to read if Hurston hadn’t imitated phonetic pronunciations quite so often. On the other hand, while I read the print version, this book in audio would be pretty amazing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Back to the Classic Challenge 2018: The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Possibly my favorite category on the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate is to read a book from the 19th century because I love Dickens and Trollope and look for any excuse to read them.  This year I chose The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, published in 1841.   

According to the introduction by Norman Page of the Penguin Classic edition that I read, The Old Curiosity Shop was not intended to be serialized but rather was meant only be a short story about the inhabitants of a  London curiosity shop related by the fictional Master Humphrey  in a periodical titled “Master Humphrey’s Clock”.   But Dickens’ reading public didn’t want short stories narrated by Master Humphrey; they wanted a novel about Little Nell and her Grandfather from the shop.

And so the author obliged them by writing a story about Little Nell and her Grandfather’s quest to escape the clutches of the evil money-lender Quilp.   Quilp tries to mastermind their retrieval with the help of the obsequious lawyer Samson Brass, Brass’ sister Sally (who may be a villainess but is still a better lawyer than Samson though not allowed to practice due to her gender), and Nell’s ne’er-do-well  brother Fred.  Tangentially allied to this side is also Fred’s drinking buddy Dick Swiveller.  On side of righteousness is Nell and Grandfather’s former servant Kit who is thrown out of a job when they leave London but who regains his fortunes and finds support in the most unlikely corners. As usual, Dickens loves writing about coincidences and chance encounters. Most of his novels in my experience couldn’t happen without them!

As often is the case with Dickens’ novels, the bad guys are the most interesting characters. Little Nell honestly does not have any personality other than her saintliness.  My favorite character was Dick Swiveler. As his last name suggests, he is able revolve or pivot and his character arc, while only a small part of the novel as a whole, was most interesting to observe.

I only have two more Dickens' novels to read: Dombey and Son and Barnaby Rudge.  I would rate The Old Curiosity Shop on the lower end of my personal list. While all Dickens novels revel in sentiment, I personally found that this one was particularly obvious in its depiction of good vs. bad.    This observation should be taken with a grain of salt, however, because essentially I adore Dickens and think he is a genius. His least successful effort is well worth reading in my opinion and The The Old Curiosity Shop was wildly popular in its time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

This title was recommended to me by blogger Kathy at Reading Matters in her review of The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  In that review, Kathy mentioned that Johnny Tremain was a a children's classic  in which the child protagonist was allowed to be imperfect, which made for a more complex and ultimately more fulfilling reading experience. 

So imagine my surprise and joy when I discovered that I actually had a copy of the book! I am not sure how I obtained it. It might have actually belonged to one of my siblings and just migrated to me. The copy I read does not have the Newbery stamp in gold foil on the front (unlike the pictured version in this post ) and it is priced at only $3.50, so it must have been first purchased sometime in the late 70's/early 80s.   

I agree with Kathy that Johnny is an interesting and realistic character. He is not idealized and he does not always make the "right" decision.  His arrogance gets him into trouble more than once. But he is also quick thinking and loyal which earns him friends and support when he most needs it.

For a book aimed at 12 year olds written 75 years ago, I thought the story was pretty gripping reading it as an adult now!  Only the last chapter sort of loses the plot a bit.  I was a little disappointed that the book completely sidesteps the issue of slavery but I guess that is not uncommon for a book written in the 1940's. 

The story takes place on the cusp of the American Revolution in Boston. Johnny becomes involved with many of the key players in that conflict, such as Paul Revere and John Hancock and he also takes part in certain events like the Boston Tea Party. There were quite a few names that I had to google; if I learned about them in elementary school, I have since forgotten.  

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate for the "Children's Classic" category.  

Monday, July 2, 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: Passing by Nella Larsen

For the category “Classic with a Single Word Title” in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate I chose to read Passing by Nella Larsen.  This book had been on my list for quite a while now so I was really glad to use this excuse to get to it. Passing is one of my favorite kind of books in that it is a novella that reveals multitudes in just over 100 pages (114 in the pictured Penguin classic that I read). I am always in awe of authors that can successfully pull that off.

The story is told from the point of view of Irene Redfield, an African American who is light-skinned enough to pass as “white”, though she only occasionally chooses to do so for small things where this gives her an small advantage, such as having a glass of iced tea in a Chicago hotel restaurant that would normally not allow blacks in.   In all other respects, Irene lives what she considers to be a fulfilled life in 1920’s Harlem, NY, an active member of the growing black middle class.  However, while having her refreshing glass of iced tea one hot afternoon, she runs into an old school friend, Clare Kendry.  What Irene soon discovers is that Clare doesn’t just "pass" from time to time but lives permanently as a white woman. No one in Clare’s social circle, particularly not her white husband, knows about her true origins, which means that she has had to cut off all ties with her former black neighborhood and friends. This chance encounter brings Clare back into the orbit of Irene’s life which has both seductive and dangerous consequences for both women.

As previously stated, there is a lot packed in these pages. Clearly the construct of race and racism, both overt and internalized, is the main focus, but there’s a lot of other subtext that can be read between the lines. The introduction by Thadious M. Davis emphasized repressed sexuality between Clare and Irene which isn’t something I picked up on personally, but I did think there were interesting intimations about marrying for security and the roles one plays in marriage as a woman that one can also tease out of the narrative.   

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The category Reread a Favorite Classic from the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate was definitely the hardest choice!  I rarely re-read, but if I "have" to, what book to choose from so many favorites? 

I ultimately decided to re-discover Wuthering Heights.  The first time I read this book I was 21 years old and my real inspiration to read it was the Kate Bush song (♫♯"Heathcliff, its me Cathy, I've come home, I'm so cold, let me in at your window...").  I am glad to have read the book so young and to have the opportunity to re-read it now 30 years later. The book portrays destructive and all consuming passion which I think as a young adult I could inhabit and even admire. Now in middle age, I see the tragedy and senselessness of it. I don't think that either interpretation is right or wrong; it is more a matter of age and experience playing into the reader's perception. And in my mind, that is what makes a classic "classic" in part: the ability of the work to engender different impressions or interpretations upon multiple readings. 

It is also so interesting to read this on the heels of Bel Ami since there isn't any likable character in Wuthering Heights either.  Even Nelly Dean, the servant telling the tale to Mr. Lockwood, is suspect in my mind.  First of all, we only have her word that what she is relating is how it happened and secondly, she does cause small amounts of harm when she withholds information from the other principals in parts of the story.  

I think that most people are familiar with the story of Heathcliff and Cathy who due to their upbringing and personalities can't live without each other but also can't, in the society and world they inhabit, live with each other.  The  result of their inability to be together as they wish leads to tragic misunderstandings, long memories and cold-blooded (or maybe fiery-hearted?) revenge. 

Upon re-reading I did not remember ANY of the second volume! Which makes me wonder if I did read it 30 years ago...I think I did but with little thought to what I was reading if that makes sense!

What I really enjoyed most upon re-reading (Note: I actually listened to most of this on audio, narrated by Carolyn Seymour) was the structure of the book and the way the narrative is framed.  Mr. Lockwood is renting Thrushwood Grange 20 years or so after the events of the book take place and the story is then related to him by Nelly over the course of a few nights. I just love the way the story is wrapped in a story which is wrapped in a story. 

Friday, June 1, 2018


UPDATE: Les Misérables One-Chapter-a-Day Read-along hosted by Nick over at One Catholic Life continues a pace! 

I have the second book “Cosette” of Les Misérables behind me which had TWO enormous hurdles: The first roadblock was the 19 chapters about the battle of Waterloo.  Normally I dislike abridged novels but honestly this section could have been cut without any sacrifice to the story at hand.  Although I am told it is an excellent depiction of the battle and the strategy therein, I am afraid its brilliance was lost on me. I have trouble reading action in books anyway. My ability to imagine spatial relationships is terrible. My biggest take away is that if it hadn’t rained when it did, it is possible that Napoleon would have been successful and European history might look a little different as a result.   

The second roadblock titled “Parenthesis“ was a screed on monastiscm and its applicability in (then) modern life.  Again, this could have been cut. It is very clearly a subject dear to Hugo’s heart but it is more of a newspaper editorial than a part of a novel.  It was more interesting to me than the battle of Waterloo, but Hugo also name checked quite a few philosophers and their ideas in this section which all went pretty much right over my head!

We still haven’t got to the digressions on the Paris sewer system which for some reason I think I am going to like. :)

Otherwise I am still enjoying the book when we are keeping to the actual story line. The action has finally moved to Paris and there have been two rather daring escapes which had me biting my nails! Next check in will presumably be mid-August.  A  bientôt mes amies!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Back to the Classic Challenge 2018: Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

For the Classic in Translation category for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate, I read Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I only picked up this title last year because I had planned to buddy read it with a friend. As French authors go, I was aware of de Maupassant but never felt the urge to read any of his books; Zola and Balzac cried out to me more loudly, for whatever reason. But I am so very glad I did read this book because I loved it!

Bel Ami is chock full of despicable characters but I didn’t mind that at all. The story is about a young provincial named Georges Duroy who, when discharged from the French military moves to Paris to seek his fortune.  Georges is moderately intelligent but physically very good looking. When the book opens, he is so hard up he only has enough cash to see him through one meal a day until his next payday.  His luck turns, however, when he runs into a former acquaintance from his service days in Algeria, Forestier.  Forestier is a journalist working at an upstart broadsheet called La Vie Française run by a financier who largely uses the paper to launder money and promote politicians who support his financial dealings.  Forestier gets Georges a job on the paper too and there begins, in fits and starts, Georges rise in Parisian society as he learns, often the hard way, how to get ahead.

From the outset Georges is a venial character and the embodiment of the perfect anti-hero.  He is never satisfied with what he has and is ever eyeing others who are better off, envious of their good fortune. He is ignorant of social norms and affectations and consequently often puts his foot wrong, sometimes avoiding total embarrassment only by the skin of his teeth. Georges uses people, particularly women, to get ahead with no self-awareness or sense of shame.  With every stumble Georges made I wondered if NOW was the time he would get the comeuppance he so richly deserved.  I won’t give away whether he does or not! 

Is this book a satire?  I am not sure because the behaviors and events are not exaggerated but rather all too realistic. It is very critical of Parisian society and politics without ever overtly stating so.  In some ways the plot reminded me of The Red and the Black by Stendhal which has another amoral social climber and is set in an earlier generation, but I enjoyed Bel Ami so much more!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


For the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate I opted to read that old chestnut, The Scarlet Letter for the category “Classic with a color in the title”. 

I think I may have read an excerpt from this book in high school although I am fairly sure it we did not have to read the whole book.  In any case, the “plot twist” as it were was known to me before I started the book but I had never read the story in full of Hester Prynne, a woman living in a 17th century Puritan community who is forced to wear a red letter “A” on her clothing as punishment for having an adulterous affair.  The liaison resulted in a child, Hester’s husband is AWOL and Hester refuses to reveal the name of the man with whom she had the affair. 

I certainly can see why this title is often selected for American High Schoolers to read and write essays on.  It is relatively short, deals with America colonial history and it is chock full of potential themes for essays. But, on the other hand, it is extremely verbose and melodramatic.  It took me a comparatively long time to read 250 pages. And the prologue, which had scant little to do with the actual book, was a dull distraction for me personally. Although it was interesting to note that what Hawthorne was satirizing  about American politics hasn't changed much in the past 160+ years. 

Despite my occasional struggles with the windy prose, I did like it. It was really forward thinking for its time. In fact, I would argue for many it would STILL be considered forward thinking. Hester is a very interesting female character to have been written in the mid 19th century, strong and principled in her way.  And it was wonderfully Gothic with lots of supernatural elements that I did not expect that at all, such as scarlet letters burning in the sky.

My favorite character in the book was the love-child Pearl.  She is and isn’t a “normal” child as portrayed in the book, but she was a breath of fresh air amid the dourness of the adult charachters.  I like how she represents all that the adults in the novel could not outwardly express; she is  living embodiment of Hester's shame but also her refutation of that shame.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn

My final book for The 1977 club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblins was Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym.  This is the fourth title of Pym’s that I have read.  I didn’t quite love it as much as Excellent Women and Less than Angels, but I highly enjoyed it nonetheless and was really glad for the excuse to read another book by her.

Quartet in Autumn is about four work colleagues in their mid to early sixties in London in the mid 1970s.  All four are solitary but not necessarily lonely.  They are: Letty, who has plans to retire to the country with her widowed friend Marjorie; Marcia who lives alone in a rather neglected row house after the death of her mother and the cat Snowy many years earlier; Edwin, a widower whose chief hobby is attending Anglican services in various different London neighborhoods and Norman, a rather grumpy fellow who likes complaining to the local council about cars that have been parked too long on his street.

Of course I have quite a few more Pym titles to read, but in many ways this book was typical Pym with its sly humor and sharp if sometimes sad observations.  Is "Pymsian" a term like Dickensian?  These four co-workers only have the slimmest connection to each other, but because their lives and orbits are so narrow, when Marcia and Letty retire, this change affects them all in subtle ways none could have anticipated.  There is a very bittersweet tinge to this novel and yet, without giving anything away, then ending is, if not hopeful, at least open-ended.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The 1977 Club: A Morbid Taste for Bones

I read a second book for The 1977 Club hosted by the bloggers Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish RamblingsA Morbid Taste for Bones is the first Brother Cadfael mystery by Edith Mary Pargeter writing under the pen name of Ellis Peters.  Ultimately Peters wrote 21 historical mysteries set in 12th century Britain featuring amateur sleuth and monk Cadfael.  As an introductory novel I thought this was pretty good.  At less than 200 pages, Peters deftly set up the world and characters, providing a solid base for the future books.    

Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey who came to the brotherhood late in life, which of course serves him well as a detective because it enables him to have knowledge his brethren and/or hoi polloi lack! In his secular life he was a soldier and a sailor and spent many years fighting in the Holy Land where he developed an interest in herbs and medicinal plants. 

In this first novel, Cadfael journeys with his Prior and a handful of other monks to Gwytherin, Wales to obtain for the broader glory of Shrewsbury Abbey the remains of St. Winefred who is buried there. Prior Robert is an ambitious man and wants to put Shrewsbury on the map, so to speak, by obtaining a reliquary.    Their goal is thwarted, however, when  local landowner Rhisart objects to the Saint’s bones being moved.  When the landowner mysteriously turns up murdered the game is afoot!  Did one of the Benedictines murder him in order to get their relics at any cost or did Rhisart have a local enemy who decided to take advantage of the controversy and take out a rival?

I really enjoyed the historical background of the story, the peek it provided into Welsh customs of the day vis-a-vis those of the English and Cadfael as a character. It is possible that there were anachronistic aspects in the book, but I didn’t notice any that took me out of the story. The mystery itself was a little weak. But considering this book is the first of 21, I can easily forgive this. 

Some of the books were adapted for television starring Derek Jacobi in the 90’s. I’ve seen bits and pieces of these, but never a full episode, but I expect they are pretty good.  

Monday, April 16, 2018


Its that time of year again! Actually, this is only my second time participating in The 1977 Club which is put on by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings. The idea is simple, just read a book published in the club year (they move decades, next time it is back to the 1920s) and blog about it.

Soooo, there are a couple of books I have out from the library that I am still reading and may post about later, but I think I will be the only blogger who read Judy Blume for this event. 😊
In 1977 I turned 12 and my Aunt gave me a signed copy of this book. I began junior high that year and actually was a couple of years too old for this book. At 12 I was just starting to read "adult" books and I remember thinking this was too childish for me.   I believe am actually better able to appreciated it now upon re-reading. I think this book was possibly (given the level of history taught to me in elementary school) my first encounter with the Holocaust as well as with segregation in the U.S. South. The miniseries "Roots" was first broadcast in 1977 and in 1978 "The Holocaust" miniseries (with Meryl Streep and Tovah Feldshuh who I loved) came out. Yes, I learned a lot of history from television supplemented by books!

I mentioned these historical events because these are things that young Sally is also grappling with, but in real time, as a 10 year-old Jewish girl moving to Florida from New Jersey in the late 1940s. She doesn't really know what a concentration camp is or why there are separate drinking fountains at the drug store.  Blume really gets children and how they are aware of but don't fully understand the adult world. Sally thinks that Adolf Hitler might be hiding out in her Miami neighborhood.  She dreams of being a spy in Germany and killing Hitler and rescuing her cousin Lila who did not survive the war. She also dreams of being discovered by Hollywood and starring in movies with her idols Margaret O'Brian and/or Esther Williams. I remember having equally ludicrous (but very real to me) fantasies as a 10 year old.

Blume is also not shy about showing Sally in a negative but realistic light. Kids are mean sometimes. The author is also frank about how kids are curious about sex and romance...even though they don't really know exactly what it is they are questing after. I do remember appreciating that as a child, in particular in Are You There God, It's Me Margaret which I did read when I was maybe 10 or 11.   

I don't think I would recommend this book to an adult unless they were a die-hard Judy Blume fan, but I think it would probably still entertain a ten year-old reader and might encourage them to delve in to history. I had a lot of fun re-visiting it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018


I managed to read all of the books that I set out to read for March Mystery Madness.  I liked them all (some more than others), even the Elizabeth George title of which I was most wary.

  • In a Strange City by Laura Lippmann was your standard PI novel with a nice dollop of Baltimore/Edgar Allen Poe history tossed in. It is the sixth book in an ongoing series featuring Lippman's detective Tess Monaghan who,like Lippman, is a former journalist and B-more resident.
  • The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor is a debut novel that is heavily influenced by Stephen King IMO. So expect a bit of horror with the mystery and check out Lark's and Melody's excellent reviews as well if this sounds like a book you might like! 
  • The Broken Shore by Peter Temple was good in a hard-boiled kind of way. It takes place in the aughts in Australia but definitely has its roots in classic noir detective fiction. 
  • I listened to Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd written by Alan Bradley and narrated by Jane Entwistle. This is the first time I have tried any of the Flavia de Luce mysteries on audio and it really was a fun experience. I highly recommend the audio as performed by Ms. Entwistle if you are a fan of this series. 
  • The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö was pretty cool. I would definitely class it as a procedural and I enjoyed that nuts and bolts aspect of it. I think it has aged very well considering it was first published in the 1960s. 
  • Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George did disappoint me somewhat, but I think in large part because she has written characters to whom I have really become attached. So, you know, kudos for that Liz. I have decided I will continue with at least the next book since I already own it and we'll see: the jury is still out.

I had a lot of fun reading mostly mysteries in March and will try to do this again next year.  Of the above listed, my favorite was Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd.  I love this series. It can be a bit twee and a little manic at times, but so much fun for readers who love Flavia as a character. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


On March 11, 2018 I officially finished the first section titled "Fantine" of Hugo's massive tome.  As a reminder, I am taking part in the Les Misérables one-Chapter-a-Day Read-along hosted by Nick over at One Catholic Life.   I have to admit, I haven't always stuck to the one-chapter a day format: occasionally I read more than one chapter a day and on some days no chapter at all.  But I am pretty much pacing myself and so when I do read ahead or have to catch up, it is only two or three chapters at a time.  

And I admit, I really am enjoying this slow way of reading. I was a bit worried that I wouldn't remember earlier events, but I think I am actually remembering more than I usually would because of the slower pace. Go figure!

The story so far is pretty great. I had never read Hugo before but he certainly reminds me of Dickens in his use of the novel as a form of social criticism and an appeal to the reader for social justice and compassion. Also, characters like the terrible Mme and M. Thénardier are very "Dickensian"  in their depiction. I suspect, however, that using the novel as a form of social criticism was the thing to do in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe. I don't mean to suggest that Hugo was influenced by Dickens or vice-versa.

I am not going to give a plot summery here, but I had certain expectations entering into this book based on its reputation and bits and pieces that I have picked up without having ever read it or having seen a full adaptation of it. It has been interesting in reading first third of the story to see where my assumptions are wrong, such as the majority of the the story takes place (so far) outside of Paris, how Fantine and Jean Valjean meet, etc. 

Now I am knee deep in the next section, named after Fantine's daugther: "Cosette". Allons-y mes amis!

Monday, March 12, 2018

BACK TO THE CLASSICS 2018: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

For the Back to Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate  category  20th Century Classic” I chose Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.   My reason for this title over many others was due to the fact that it is short and it is included on the Modern Library’s list of the  best 100 novels of the 20th century that I have been working my way through since 1998.

Winesburg, Ohio  is a collection of  vignettes (they are not short stories in my opinion) about certain residents of a small Ohio town in the late 1800’s, just before economy and society  moves from farming to factories.    As indicated in the first section of the book, “The Book of the Grotesque” the characters portrayed are shown in a very exaggerated, distorted way which often focuses on the unpleasant; those aspects of a person that one usually keeps hidden.

I am certainly glad to be able to tick this book off my list, but I didn’t really like it.  As short as it was, I found it difficult to read about such unhappy people over and over.  Almost everyone is yearning to escape and connect. But even those who do escape ultimately end up back in Winesburg. There are few happy exceptions.   People determined to finally express themselves lack the courage when finally faced with the opportunity.

Anderson’s writing has many admirers, Hemingway and Faulkner among them as I discovered n the introduction by Irving Howe in the Dover Thrift edition that I read.   But I found the description of the characters’ unhappiness and their expression of despair to be pretty unvaried as the book wore on.

Friday, February 23, 2018

BACK TO THE CLASSICS 2018: The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

My second completed book for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate is The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey.  It fills the category of “Classic Crime Story”. The book was published in 1929 and was Tey’s first book as well as the first Inspector Grant Mystery.

The mystery/crime is established in the first chapter when a man who had been waiting in a crowded line of people, all pressing and pushing to get their SRO tickets for London’s hottest musical is found stabbed to death.  The other theatergoers of course saw nothing as they were paying more attention to  getting to the front of the line than they were about the people around them. The case is then handed over to Scotland Yard’s rising talent, Inspector Alan Grant.  The man had no identification on him so Inspector Grant has not only to find out who killed him but also who the victim was. 

I quite enjoyed the procedural aspects detection in this book: tracking down tie manufacturers, tracing bank notes and so on.  I equally liked the undercover aspects of the story as Grant sends his sergeants disguised as peddlers or down-on-their-luck soldiers to gather information from gossipy maids and he himself travels to the Scottish highlands posing as a casual angler, but of course he is casting for more than just fish!  I also think that Tey really does excel in her characterization. The supporting cast in this book is really well drawn, in particular Miss Diamont and Mrs. Everett in my opinion. I think either of them could have walked off the pages and on to their own novels!  I think it is a pity that Tey didn’t write many non-genre novels, though she died fairly young (in her early 50s), so who knows what she would have accomplished had she had more time?   

Where the book is weakest, is in its plotting.  And while, as I stated above, there is a lot of interesting detective work in following up clues,  Tey breaks one of the “rules” of detective fiction in allowing her main detective to be ruled by intuition over facts sometimes.  That said, I enjoyed some of the red herrings in the story anyway!

Just as a caveat, as is often with books of this era, there is a fair amount of casual sexism and racism contained within the pages.  Also,  The Man in the Queue  isn’t going to knock The Daughter of Time off its top spot as my favorite of Tey’s books, but I did find it a satisfying read.