Monday, December 23, 2019

21 by 2021

Happy Holidays to all you lovely readers! 

I realized with my Back to the Classics Wrap Up done I didn’t have any posts planned for December. So I thought I might share with you 21 books from my shelves that I spontaneously stacked up over the weekend and am challenging myself to read before 2021. 

I’m on track to have finished 125 books in 2019 but only 57 were from my shelves. The rest were mostly library books with the occasional loaner from a family member. I need to constantly kick myself metaphorically in the pants to read my own damn books! So here goes, as shown in the stack left, the titles I gathered:

The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope – If Karen does the Back to the Classics Challenge again, I will probably be able to choose this for one of the categories. This is the last book in Trollope's Palliser series. 

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – see comment above. Also, this is the last of Dicken’s completed novels that I have to read. I’ve been parceling them out since I “discovered” Dickens back in  2005. 

Mom, the Wolf Man and Me by Norma Klein – I bought this on a whim in 2019.  I think I might have read it as a child and I had a sudden nostalgic urge to read it again. 

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz – I liked The Magpie Murders so why not read more from this author?  I will likely include this in my March Mystery Madness list in 2020. 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers – I have really loved the first three novels by Chambers in her Wayfarer series and I expect no less from this novella. 

O, the Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – recently raved about by Simon at Stuck in a Book. He made it sound so charming, I had to find a copy and read it. 

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie – this was a recent purchase at Barnes & Noble. I was actually there browsing while waiting for my car to be serviced and thing led to another. 

The Minotaur by Barbara Vine – I bought this at a library sale years ago.  Barbara Vine is a pen name of the author Ruth Rendell. Why haven’t I read it yet? I will probably also use this for March Mystery Madness in 2020.

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne – I bought this also years ago when it was recommended on the podcast So Many Damn Books.  But I have also read and didn’t really like Wayne’s the Love Song of Jonny Valentine so I am a little worried about this one. 

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens – A Persephone by Charles Dickens’s great granddaughter. I don’t really know what to expect and I don't remember how I came across it as a recommendation.   

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray – Purchased based on the recommendation of many online sources. It is supposed to be darkly comical. Usually I like dark comedy. 

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – This was a recent spontaneous purchase at a library sale.  I generally like good historical fiction, so hopefully this will hit the spot. 

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley – Another recommendation from Simon but this time on the podcast Tea or Books with Rachel from BookSnob

Smoke City by Keith Rosson – I mentioned this book in a post in December 2018.  It just sounds so banana pants, I have to try it. 

Brick Lane by Monica Ali – This was a thrift store purchase and it has been languishing too long unread. I think once I get into it, I will really love  it. 

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow – I loved Ragtime by Doctorow but didn’t like Billy Bathgate.  I need to read a third book as a tie breaker.

The Golden Hour by Todd Moss – This is a thriller my dad gave me after he read it. I think it will be pretty forgettable, but you never know. 

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – This has been on my shelf for way too long.  I really enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible and need to try more from Kingsolver.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield – I adored The Thirteen Tale when I first read it back in 2006 and Lory at The Emerald City Book Review liked this follow up by Setterfield so I am hoping lighting will strike twice!  

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson – I have been a fan of Atkinson since I first read Case Histories and this is the latest in her series featuring private detective Jackson Brodie.  I have some crazy idea to read all the Brodie books before starting this one…I got as far as re-reading Case Histories in 2019...we'll see about the other three books.  

The Old Drift by  Namwali Serpell – I bought this earlier this year to give to my dad but ended up gifting him something else and keeping it.  I think I will like it. It is a family saga that takes place over generations in Zambia. If I do like it, I can always loan it to my dad when done. It's a win-win situation. :D

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 – Wrap Up Post

Hamlet was the last work I needed to read to complete the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. 😃 Below is the summary of the 14 works I read:

I really enjoyed everything but if pressed, my favorites would be A Glass of Blessings and The Way We Live Now.  

I’m not sure if Karen is going to keep on hosting this challenge in 2020 – I’m crossing my fingers that she will. because I really do find it helpful to structure my reading and get in those classic titles I’ve been meaning to read.  I wish any of you, dear readers, luck in also completing the challenge. Remember, you only need to have completed six categories to be successful!  đŸ˜Œ My contact is naessa[at]yahoo[dot]com

Monday, November 18, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Hamlet

Well, rather surprisingly to me, the Classic Play that I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate was Hamlet.  I was initially considering reading more Oscar Wilde and then I though instead maybe some Sheridan based on Reese’s excellent review of School for Scandal at the blog Typings.  I was looking for, you know, something light and comedic. Instead I read Shakespeare’s longest play and a tragedy to boot. I have a very good friend who teaches English and she convinced me to read it with her so we could discuss it since she is considering teaching it in future. Her go-to for teaching Shakespeare is Macbeth, which she can quote, amazingly to me, by heart.

I think like many readers, I was familiar with the play prior to reading it. I may have read it in high school or we may have only read the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy…the farther I get from my teen years, the more trouble I have remembering the details. But regardless, like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet has permeated the culture of the English speaking world by osmosis. Originally I wanted to listen to it on audio in tandem to reading the text, but since it is such a long play, I couldn’t find an audio book with the full four and half hour production.

Like I said, I knew the story (and am assuming you, dear reader, know it too), so what is my take away from the play? I was surprised that Hamlet is so morose. As I read, I pictured him as a tortured, goth teenager moaning about his parents and how unfair life is. I do understand that Hamlet does have legitimate cause for complaint; his father had been only dead for two months and no one seems to care or notice. However, I did find him particularly mopey-just my take. I understand from a little internet research that there are a multitude of ways to play and interpret Hamlet, so I may have been reading into it, since I was a pretty mopey teenager myself once upon a time. I also didn’t know that Polonius is supposed to be such a pompous windbag and I had assumed that Queen Gertrude was complicit in Hamlet Sr.’s death, but she appears to be innocent. Clearly there were many details I was unaware of and I am glad I read it and set the record straight. Maybe one of these days I will watch an adaptation or even see it live now that I am better acquainted with the play.

One other thing I really enjoyed was discovering a lot of phrases that I already knew but did not know came from this play. A few examples are below:
“…though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.”
 “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”
 “The lady protests too much, methinks.”
My friend and I had an interesting discussion on what we felt was the ultimate message of Hamlet. I wasn’t expecting a moral but she was, since she feels that Macbeth makes a clear point about the dangers of ambition. We decided there really isn't any one moral conclusion to Hamlet. Which is probably in part why the play has endured since it is so open to interpretation.

Thursday, October 31, 2019


Well today is the last day of RIP XIV and also appropriately Halloween. Here’s my wrap up. I did pretty well, if I do say so myself. 😎  I read all four books that I planned to read which makes up for being a total loser last year when I read none! đŸ˜©

  • Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson: The verdict is in: I thought it was really good! I really want to read her three other early novels now. I am not a big short story fan. I know that is what Jackson is known for but lazy reader me doesn’t want to read them…but novels, yes please! Hangsaman is a coming of age novel as only Shirley Jackson could write one. It is funny at times but generally unsettling.  The main character is 17 year old Natalie Waite who goes from her dysfunctional home to her first year at an all woman’s college to possibly a mental in The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson leaves room for the reader to imagine what really happened in the interstices.  If you are a reader who is comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity, this might be one to pick up and try. 

  • Slade House by David Mitchell: This is the one book that really suits the season since it is sort of a ghost-cum-horror story. If anyone has read The Bone Clocks by Mitchell, Slade House makes a nice complement to that novel but can also stands alone as a short, creepy read.  In the book, Slade House is a place that does and does not exist. It can only be accessed by certain people through a small iron door in a wall in a grubby, dark ally. Every nine years someone is invited to enter that door and find out what lies beyond, but leaving is another story...(sounds like the lyrics to Hotel California...LOL). 

  • Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie: I enjoyed this one a lot. I think the plotting of the mystery was really interesting  and the resolution was unexpected. The red herrings are particularly good ones.  The story features sadistic Mrs. Boynton who has terrorized her stepchildren all their lives. Now as adults, they are pathetic shells, still flinching at her baits and switches. When Mrs. Boynton ends up dead (was it natural or was it murder?), the list of suspects is pretty clear.  I also have a particular fondness for Christie novels set in North Africa or the Middle East as  Appointment with Death is. I think Christie does a good job of giving the reader a good sense of place when her books are set in these regions.

  • Snake Ropes by Jess Richards: This was the one non-starter for me. I think this book would appeal to fans of Helen Oyeyemi…readers who enjoy the fantastical and books with dark fairy tale overtones. That’s just not my jam but it might be yours.  The story is about two young women whose narration alternates chapters throughout the book. The first narrator is Mary. She on an island under a matriarchy where the handwork of the women is the main source of trade with the “Tall Men” who come from the mainland. Since the death of her mother, Mary has been the main caregiver of her baby brother, whom she hides for his own safety when the Tall Men arrive.  The nother narrator is Morgan. She is imprisoned in her family home, not allowed to wear shoes and forced to keep house for her narcissistic mother and her enabler father. Her only solace are the books she reads and her dreams of escape. Eventually the two stories converge and both women discover how to battle the forces trying limit their power and potential.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

As I Lay Dying – #1930Club

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been trying to read all 100 books listed on the 100 Best Novels which is a list of English-language novels published in the 20th century.  I do understand that this 100 Best Novels list was a marketing ploy on the part of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, which – SURPRISE- publishes all 100 titles.  I also understand that any list of "best" books is incomplete and subjective.  But for me it has been an interesting challenge to try and tick off every title and while there have been a few stinkers, there have been wonderful discoveries too.  

When the 1930 Club (hosted by Simon, who blogs at  Stuck in a Book and Karen, who blogs at Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings) was announced for November, I saw that As I Lay Dying, which is on the 100 Best Novels list, was published that year. My choice was made! I worried at first that I wouldn’t finish it in time for the 1930 Club, but it is pretty short (my edition had 244 pages) and aside from some of the stream of consciousness bits, not too difficult to digest.   

As with some high falutin’ modern classics, the story is simple: Aggie Bundren is dying. Her feckless husband has promised her that she will be buried in Jackson where her “people” are from, which is 40 miles away from their farm. She dies and the journey with her corpse is bedeviled by bad luck and ignorance on the part of the Bundren family.   A journey that should take a couple of days ends up taking over a week and meanwhile, the body starts to decompose in the summer heat.

This is the second novel I’ve read from Faulkner and I am confident he will never become a favorite of mine. Despite the book's brevity, it still behooves the reader to read it fairly slowly. I did think the sections that were straight dialogue were great. I looked up a few samples of Mississippi accent on YouTube so I could get the right voice in my head. U.S. Southern dialects and accents are all really different from another and I needed some verisimilitude. 

In Faulkner's depiction of the various character’s innermost thoughts, he often uses references and vocabulary that wouldn’t be known to persons of the Bundren’s socio-economic class.  It is here where the book didn't work for me. I get that there is a line between what one states and what one thinks and we don’t think in words but it was jarring nonetheless.  Especially when the speaker/thinker is supposed to be a child. The characters also drove me insane! I realize it was purposeful, but they all make the worst choices, whether out of ignorance or spite or selfishness. I think what makes the book and the characters so frustrating is that, while the book doesn't come right out and say it, in death they are honoring their mother in a way they neglected to when she was alive. But this is foolish. She is dead and there is no point to this ritual. It only damages and impoverishes them further. The devotion should have been shown when she was alive and could have had some benefit from it. But this is often the way of human motivation I think. 

In some ways As I Lay Dying reminded me of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road which also features poor, rural whites in the American South in the first half of the 20th century. But Caldwell went more for comedy - dark comedy, but still comedy. I guess some readers might find humor in the various setbacks that plague the Bundren family as they journey (or maybe in the youngest child Vardemann's confused thoughts, "My mother is a fish") but I found As I Lay Dying pretty bleak. 

I am glad to have read it however. I am glad that Faulkner’s works exist. He had an significant influence on other writers;  Cormac McCarthy for one, whom I’ve never read and Toni Morrison for another, whom I revere. I can see the through line to Morrison, although I find her books and her style to be much more compelling. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: The Wings of the Dove

Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. Yet he knew in a moment that Kate was just now, for reasons hidden from him, exceptionally under the impression of that element of wealth in her which was a power, which was a great power, and which was dove-like only so far as one remembered that doves have wings and wondrous flights, have them as well as tender tints and soft sound. It even came to him dimly that such wings would in a given case – had, truly, in the case with which he was concerned –spread themselves for protection. Hadn’t they, for that matter, lately taken an inordinate reach, and weren’t Kate and Mrs. Lowder, weren’t Susan Shepheard and he, wasn’t he in particular, nestling under them to a great increase of immediate need?”

No lie: it took me over two months to read The Wings of the Dove. The edition I read had over 500 pages, but it wasn’t the length of the book that slowed me down, it was Henry James and his MANY, MANY, carefully chosen words.  I read pretty much every line twice if not three or four times and even then, I often wasn’t sure if I understood the sentence.  It’s a good thing that one of the main characters is also a little dense. When things had to be spelled out to him, it was to my advantage as a reader too. Also, I had seen the film waaay back in 1998 or so and was familiar with the plot.  But this is a psychological novel; the plot is barely there.  James takes paragraphs and sometimes pages to explain one thought or perception.  I realize that it might have been better for me had I a solid base in James and worked my way up to his later, more complex works.  I read his first novel, Daisy Miller, earlier this year and found it both delightful and not difficult in the least. My reason for reading the Wings of the Dove now instead of later were fueled by the fact that (a) I owned a copy of this book already and (b) it is on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list of the best English-language novels published in the 20th century from which I intend to someday read every title.  So I persevered. 

As I stated above, there is not much of a plot. The story is simple:  young Morton Densher and Kate Croy are Londoners who want to marry but feel they cannot due to certain social constraints that would be smoothed away if only either of them had any money. Along comes dove-like Milly Theale, a very rich but naĂŻve (or is she?) American who has a crush on Morton and not too much longer to live. Will Morton marry Milly for her money as Kate hopes? Is Kate really doing Milly a favor as she would like to believe? Can Kate and Morton’s relationship survive this, whatever the outcome? 

While this book was a lot of work for me, it didn’t put me off Henry James. I am not much of an athlete and the analogy may be poor, but runners don't avoid running a marathon because it is too challenging, right?  I have at least two more "difficult" James’ titles that I HAVE to read due to my personal goal of reading all the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and I would certainly be interested in reading some of his more accessible novels like Portrait of a Lady or Washington Square.  

I read this for the category Classic Tragic Novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: My Brilliant Career and Green Dolphin Street

I was torn about my options for the category of a Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. While I was very tempted to buy a copy of NgĆ©gÄ© wa Thiong'o s A Grain of Wheat, I decited to be “good” and limited my choice to only books available from the library. Reviewing my library options, I couldn’t decide if I should read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin or Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge, so I read them both!

The library edition of Green Dolphin Street that I read was published as part of a reprint series titled “The Best Seller Library” which had to have been issued at least in the 1970s or beyond since The Godfather was part of the series. Also included were (all 12 titles were listed on the back) were Gone with the Wind and Dr. Zhivago so you have an idea of what kind of book Green Dolphin Street is... EPIC.

First published in 1945, it is a historical novel that begins on one of the UK Channel Islands in the 1840s when 
Marianne and Marguerite Le Patourel are still children.  Marianne and Marguerite are sisters. They are six years apart in age and could not be more different in both looks and temperament. Marianne, the eldest, is small and dark while Marguerite is tall and fair. They are also quite different in personality. Marianne is driven and ambitious; a perfectionist. Marguerite on the other hand is far more carefree and openly affectionate. Unfortunately they both fall for the same boy, William Ozanne. This love triangle is the driving force of the novel. Eventually William ends up in New Zealand (which is how this book qualifies as set in Oceania) and he writes the Le Patourel family that one of the daughters should make her way to him and become his wife. But which one does he choose?

I have read a few of this type of historical saga throughout my reading life. They require a certain commitment since they tend to be long and detail-laden. The edition I read was 500 pages long with small font. I’ll be honest, at about the halfway mark, I began to flag. I rallied and finished the book, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea. I might have enjoyed it more had I read it younger, because it wasn't the length so much as the drama that wore me out. I much preferred Goudge’s contemporary novel The Rosemary Tree, which is a more intimate story on a smaller scale. What both books did have in common, however, is an infusion of Christian mysticism which I appreciated and I understand is typical of Goudge's writing. Some attitudes towards non-whites and the lower classes in Green Dolphin Street are dated, though on the whole, I felt the author was at least trying to be sympathetic to the Maori.

My Brilliant Career is an entirely different kettle of fish! It comes across as far more authentic. I don’t believe that it is entirely autobiographical, but Franklin published it in 1901 when she was only 21 and the teenage emotions in the book (which sometimes run VERY high) seemed very realistic to me. It is also much shorter than the Goudge novel which was the reason why I decided to read both.

One thing both books have is a very headstrong main character. Sybylla from My Brilliant Career grows up as a tomboy in relative comfort on a ranch in the outback somewhere. When she is about eight years old, her family move to Possum Gully to farm cattle which turns out to be a disastrous move. Within a few years, drought and alcoholism have impoverished the family. Sybylla is the oldest and she has never gotten along with her mother, who grew up in a more refined household and who struggles to maintain both her pride and her gentility against the odds. 

Eventually Sybylla is allowed to stay with her wealthy maternal relatives. Here Sybylla is pampered and spared the backbreaking work of Possum Gully. She can indulge in her love of music and literature. Sybylla has a secret wish to someday become a writer. While staying with her grandmother, Sybylla also meets a number of eligible men, from ranch hand jackaroos to the rich and handsome neighbor, Harold Beechman. But is Sybylla willing to give up her independence and the possibility of a brilliant career to marry?

I won’t give the ending away, but I can tell you that as a reader, Sybylla is very frustrating and the author defies a conventional narrative. As I wrote, the book was written by a very young woman and Sybylla displays all the contradictions and insecurities of a teenager. I remember, I was one too.

Friday, September 6, 2019


I'm a little late but still keen to participate in RIP XIV.  I was a total loser last year and read NOTHING.  Officially I will try for Peril the Third which is read one book between September 1 and October 31 that fits thematically in to the RIP categories:

Mystery * Suspense * Thriller * Dark Fantasy * Gothic * Horror *Supernatural

What could be easier, right?  My four possible picks are:

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson: I've read her better known novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. I am super curious about her other four. Why are they not as popular? 

Slade House by David Mitchell: I have been meaning to read for the past three years... Will 2019 be the charm? This is the one book that might actually be classified as Horror...

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie: I've seen the televised version of this with David Suchet but I don't remember who the murderer was luckily! I will probably re-watch the adaptation for fun after I read it.

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards: I honestly don't really know if this book fits any of the prompts.  I have an idea it might be "gothic". I bought it for a read-along hosted by a now defunct podcast a few years ago.  

I'll come back in November and wrap it up if I manage to read any of the planned titles. RIP is a fun exercise to read seasonally which I appreciate and I love seeing what other bloggers list and read as well. 

Happy Reading!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Robertson Davies Reading Week - August 25 to 31- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

"Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business."

That above definition of Fifth Business (which I think Davies must have invented…I didn’t find any other reference to it when doing a google-search) comes at least half way through the book.  But it works and if you think about it, there are plenty of literary figures who fit that bill; characters who act as catalysts and observers of the main event while not being main players themselves.

In this book, it refers to the protagonist, Dunstable (aka Dunston, aka Dunny) Ramsay who narrates the book in the form of a letter to his former boss, the headmaster of a private boy’s preparatory school in Canada.  Ramsay has just retired from 40+ years teaching, and he is expressing his dissatisfaction with the reductive, anodyne farewell article in the school paper, written by a college who barely knew him.

It is a little difficult to write what this book is about because the narrative itself dodges and weaves.  The reader fairly quickly forgets the epistolary setting, though Ramsay will remind the reader of the format from time to time. At first it feels like a cradle to grave autobiography as Ramsay recounts his upbringing by stolid, Scotch stock Canadians in a small village in the early part of the 20th century.  But then there is an event that will change young Dunny’s life forever.  While walking home at age 10, he ducks to avoid being hit by a snowball thrown by his friend/nemesis Percy Boyd (aka Boy) Staunton. The  snowball instead hits young, pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the wife of the local Baptist minister, causing her to go into labor prematurely.  That event and its repercussions will reverberate all through the book right up to the last line…but as I stated above, the narration dodges and weaves so when it does pop up for the final time, it is a bit of a gut punch.

I have to wonder if John Irving read Fifth Business and was in any way inspired to write A Prayer for Owen Meany with its stray baseball which has consequences further on in THAT novel.  In fact, I was reminded more than one of Irving while reading Fifth Business, in particular in its themes of guilt/redemption and coincidence/destiny, and yet they could not be further apart in many other ways, not the least of which is length.  Fifth Business came in at a concise 252 pages which is a fraction of Irving’s typical tome pages. 

There is a lot to chew on here in terms of themes on faith, obligation, guilt, self-invention and self realization... Presbyterian Dunny has a religious experience during WWI that sets him off on a quest to research and write about the lives Catholic Saints.  He also never forgets his debt to Mrs. Dempster or her premature child. Boy Staunton becomes filthy rich and politically powerful, a nice counterpoint to what Dunny is not or does not want to become, but is Dunny using Boy or is Boy using Dunny?  And I haven’t even gotten the characters of Liesl and Magnus Eisengrim and how they will figure in Ramsey’s life. 

I read Fifth Business for the Robertson Davies reading week August 25 to 31 hosted by Lory at the blog The Emerald City Book Review . This was my first experience of Robertson Davies’ works and it is probably his most famous.  I feel like Davies is building towards something here, even though Fifth Business totally stands on its own. Therefore, I will very likely read the other two books in this trilogy: The Manticore and  World of Wonders. But I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good read that might make you ponder about deeper subjects. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano BuendĂ­a was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. “ This from One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most famous opening lines in literature. I mean, how can you not want to read on?

I opted to read this book for the category “Classic from the Americas or Caribbean” for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.  As an American, I really felt I needed to NOT read a U.S. author in this case and I had a copy of this one already, so it fit the bill.  Another reason I picked  this classic over any other North American, South American or Caribbean classic is because it is just so damn famous. I do read for pleasure of course. But I also read for enlightenment and out of curiosity which means I sometimes read books that I appreciate more than I adore and this was one of those.  I'm glad to have read it; I feel like the experience makes me a better reader over all, but I can't say I'll be seeking out more from any Garcia Marquez soon. Lo siento Gabriel.

So what is the book about? It is about the Buendia family that establishes the village of Macondo in the jungle of Columbia at some point prior to independence from Spain. The patriarch, JosĂ© Arcadio Buendia, is looking for a paradise near the ocean but ends up settling near a swamp instead. If I understood the book correctly, JosĂ© Arcadio is a descendant of the indigenous inhabitants of Columbia whereas his wife, Ursula, descends from Spanish colonialists. Their families have, however, been intermarrying for generations and the two are actually cousins.  Macando remains isolated for many years with little outside contact except from traveling gypsies. JosĂ© Arcadio and Ursula have two sons: the eldest named for his father and  the younger named Aureliano and a daughter, Amaranta.  

The names Arcadio  and Aureliano will repeat through seven generations of the family as Macando becomes a town and then a city with contact via railway to the rest of the country and eventually the establishment of an American owned and operation banana plantation nearby. Some Buendias do leave Macando for other places, but they almost always come back until the last generation dies out and with it the town. The family is somehow, without realizing it,  trapped in this place where history seems to repeat every generation and the house originally built by JosĂ© Arcadio Senior is built up and allowed to fall in to ruin over and over again. The theme of incest, starting with the two cousins marrying, also is repeated throughout the book.  And of course, there is the magic realism where people float up to heaven, live for 150 years or are born with pig tails and no character in the book is startled by it. As a reader, one isn't really startled either because the narration has the same tone through out. 

I know I am not doing the book justice here. And frankly there are hundreds of better sources than I to expound upon what the book "really means" and the use of magic realism in the text. I think the more familiar one is with Colombian and Central American history, the more one will get out of the book. I think I got some of it, like the cyclical trajectory of successes and failures of the Buendia family work as an allegory of the imposition of Spanish colonialism and subsequent American imperialism in Central America. However, for me personally, I suspect I need to have a better grasp on the historical background to best appreciate this kind of book and I just don't know enough in this case.   

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: The Loved One

When I first posted my potential list of 12 books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate, Joseph from the blog The Once Lost Wander suggested I read Three Men in a Boat after Native Son to cheer me up a bit…   Oops! I actually read Three Men in a Boat a couple of months ago. BUT it turns out The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, which I read for the category Classic Novella, is actually a comedy as well,  albeit a dark one since it pokes fun at the funeral industry.

I had only read Brideshead Revisited from Waugh before and I didn’t know he could be funny or quite so mean.  The Loved One is a satire on British expats in Hollywood and that particular American funeral institution, Forest Lawn, called Whispering Glades in the book.  Seriously, google the original Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. You will see that Waugh did not have to add too many fictional touches to make his version of the cemetery and mortuary over-the-top and tacky.

No one comes off well in The Loved One.  It is about a washed-up expat Englishman, Dennis Barlow, who used to write for Hollywood but now works at a funeral home for pets called The Happier Hunting Ground.  Through circumstances Dennis meets AimĂ©e Thanatogenos (very Dickensien, that name!), who works as a cosmetologist at Whispering Glades. Aimee began as a beautician for living people but has found her mĂ©tier in the mortuary field.  The beautiful Aimee is pursued by Dennis, who plagiarizes classic poets to woo her, as well as by Mr. Lovejoy, the head embalmer at Whispering Glades, who makes the corpses she works on smile in a special way, just for her. Icky, right?  

If you like your humor dark, dry and a little morbid, The Loved One might be for you. I laughed out loud many times. And certainly it is miles apart from the much longer and more serious Brideshead Revisited. I still have to read A Handful of Dust and Scoop from Evelyn Waugh and now I really don’t know what to expect but am looking forward to them for that very reason!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Native Son

I chose this book for the 20TH Century Classic category for Karen’s Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge at Books and Chocolate.  This was a very uncompromising book about the life of a young black man in Chicago in the late 1930s who commits two horrific crimes.    The book was surely controversial when it was first published in 1940 and I would argue it is still so now.  
“He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him.” 
“But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.”
The story starts off with Bigger killing a rat in the shabby one room he shares with his mother, sister and brother. On that same day, Bigger will go for a job interview with Mr. Dalton, the kindly white man who wants to help Negros by giving them menial jobs and donating ping pong tables to community centers in black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Mr. Dalton owns the company that rents that crappy one room to Bigger’s mother in one of the few crowded neighborhood where blacks are "allowed" to live in Chicago. Even when confronted with this fact later in the book, Mr. Dalton does not understand how no amount of ping pong tables will make up for that kind of systemic racism and discrimination.  

This book is terribly frustrating to read. Bigger goes to work for the Daltons as a chauffeur, which really is an excellent opportunity for him and he destroys that opportunity. But the reader also sees where Bigger is overwhelmed culturally, out of his element, so much so that he can’t consider any options, any other way of behaving. He knows how to act in his black neighborhood where he is a bully motivated mostly by fear, but he is flummoxed in the world of white people. And equally, many of the white people with whom he interacts don’t understand either that he comes from what might as well be a different universe from them. The view into Bigger’s thoughts and motivations do not excuse his actions, but they do help make them understandable. Even if throughout the book the reader wants to step in and set him straight constantly. 

The weakest part of the book for me was the endless, rousing closing argument made by Bigger’s lawyer at his trial. It’s a little too over-the-top and over long with its message when the book was doing just fine before I thought.  I’m not sure if Wright didn’t trust his readers to get it or if he just wanted to preach his points. Still, this is a book very much worth reading and still unfortunately relevant. I'm glad to have read it. I think next I need to check out James Baldwin's Notes from a Native Son which contains an essay about this novel. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Suite Française

My choice for the category “Classic in Translation” for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate was Suite Française by Irene NĂ©mirovsky. This is one of those books that meets the Challenge’s bylaws in that it was first published in 2007 but actually written in 1942. The story of the author’s life and how the book came to be published is worthy of a novel itself. NĂ©mirovsky was originally from the Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) but had immigrated to France with her family as a teenager. She was a popular and well-known author in France. Her debut novel David Golder was a best seller and published when she was only 26 years old.

However, when France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, NĂ©mirovsky, as a woman of Jewish ancestry and denied French citizenship, began to feel the pressure put upon Jews by the French government under the occupation. Ultimately, she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered (she died actually of typhus but let’s call a spade a spade. There was never any intent that she should survive her deportation). Her daughters survived the war hidden by friends of the family. NĂ©mirovsky’s oldest daughter, Denise Epstein, had kept the manuscript but not read it thinking it was her mother's journal and fearing the experience would be too painful. When she later discovered it to be an unfinished manuscript she approached a publisher and the rest is history.

The novel Suite Française is the first two sections of what the author envisioned as a five-part chronicle of life during wartime under the occupation. NĂ©mirovsky was writing as the actual events were unfolding.  The first section is titled “Storm in June” and it depicts an ensemble of characters as they flee Paris at the onset of the invasion in 1939. It reminded me a bit of The Grapes of Wrath in how the best and the worst in people will come out in desperation as people traveled on foot or in vehicles with as much of their worldly possessions as they could carry with the situation becoming more and more dire the further they went. It was very vivid.

The second section titled “Dolce” is a little less tense and definitely more romantic. It takes place in a village located in Vichy France where German troops are sequestered and the characters are only tangentially related to those introduced in the first section. The story’s focus is an unrequited love affair between a French woman and a German officer with other characters showing some of the initial signs of underground resistance by the French and the burden of collaboration.

The edition I read had notes from the author at the back which give hints as to where the final volumes were headed plot wise.  I think the final version would have been epic and an instant classic had the author lived to write it.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Cannery Row and The Scapegoat

I read two books for the Back to the Classics category “Classic from a Place You’ve Lived” for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate and both are thanks to Jane who blogs at Reading, Writing, Working, Playing who encouraged me to read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck back when I posted my potential list in January 2019 and who wrote such an appealing review of The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier last month that I was impelled to read it right away. I even had an old Book of the Month hardcover edition of it, inherited from my mother. Another encouragement to read both was the fact that Cannery Row is so short; It wasn't stressful to read both books

The Scapegoat takes place in France (in a village called St. Gilles somewhere in the Northwest) and I lived in Bordeaux, France for a year in the late 1980s when I was in college. Later in the early 1990s I lived for a year in Monterey, California. I know I visited Cannery Row at least once while there, but I only remember it as being very “touristy”. I have fonder memories of the Monterrey Aquarium.

My journey through Steinbeck’s works has been up and down. I first read Travels with Charley, which I loved. But then I read East of Eden which I didn’t love. But when I read The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, I was very impressed with the writing and that positive impression carries over to Cannery Row as well. The descriptions are vibrant and colorful.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen" and he would have meant the same thing. 
The book is collection of semi-connected vignettes about the inhabitants of the row, most featuring Doc, a marine biologist/procurer of marine animals, Mack the leader of a crew of lay-abouts, Lee Chong, the grocer. There is virtually no plot. At best, one could say that it is about Mack and the boys wanting to throw a party for Doc which goes awry. In some cases, Steinbeck borders on clichés with some of his characters, particularly that of the hooker with a heart of gold, but generally I found the characters to be realistically flawed and it was clear that Steinbeck had a real affection for all of them, whatever their moral weaknesses.

My history with du Maurier is equally mixed. In brief, no book has quite lived up to Rebecca in my estimation. But nonetheless, The Scapegoat was an interesting and propulsive read and boy does it have a plot! Two men meet by chance in Le Mans, France and they are by all accounts identical. One is an Englishman named John, a professor of French history whose command of the language is that of a native. The other is a French count called Jean.  I won’t say how, but in true soap opera tradition, they end up switching places.                                                                                            The book then follows mild mannered John who sees the chance to live another person’s life both a challenge and freeing. John is an orphan and a loner who has always had difficulty connecting to other people. When he steps into the rather profligate Jean de Gue’s shoes, he is thrust into a complicated familial and cultural situation that invigorates him. The book almost reads as a thriller as John navigates one tricky situation after the next. And at any time, the real Jean could return and then what? The Scapegoat’s plot is completely implausible yet du Maurier makes it believable.  My only niggle was the ending but not because it was a bad; it just didn’t end the way I wanted it to.  

Friday, May 24, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: The Way We Live Now

One of my favorite things about the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate is the indulgence of the excuse to read Dickens and Trollope, my two most loved Victorian era authors.  Accordingly, for the category “Very Long Classic”, I opted to read the doorstopper, The Way We Live Now which just happens to be Trollope’s longest of the 40-plus novels he wrote over his long career.

Now, of course, the title could be changed to “The Way They Lived Then” since Trollope meant the book to be a commentary on late 19th century upper-class society and their twin obsessions with status and money. But as with so many classics, there is plenty in the novel which still applies to our modern lives. 

But how to write a short review of such a long novel? That’s the challenge. The story is rich with a variety of subplots and intrigues, but the majority of them all revolve around one man: Auguste Melmotte.  Mr. Melmotte is a financier, a capitalist, a man who makes nothing himself but is able to use the money of others to make more money, chiefly for himself. His origins are murky, his past checkered. But as long as he appears to have the Midas-touch he is courted by the upper classes outwardly while behind his back they despise him. There is particular interest in Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, who is to be sacrificed to anyone with a title, provided the groom is willing to only have limited control over Marie’s dowry.

Marie, however, has other ideas about who she will marry. She is enamored of  Sir Felix Carbury, Baronet. Felix is a useless idiot who loves no one but would like a way out of his debts. His mother, Lady Carbury, is all for the match since Felix, though he is her favored child, is rapidly depleting her own finances which she supplements by writing terrible books. Lady Carbury’s daughter, Hetta, has no problem with her mother’s favoritism. She only wants to be free herself to marry young but poor Paul Montague. But her mother wants Hetta to marry her much older cousin, Roger Carbury, who has an estate outside of London. 

Paul Montague wants very much to marry Hetta if only his can get his finances in order, which are ultimately tied up with Melmotte and his dealings. But that’s not all. Roger Carbury is his closest friend and a father figure to him. Marrying Hetta may destroy that friendship. And, to complicate matters further, Paul is pursued by a certain Mrs.  Hurtle, an American widow to whom he was once (and may still be) engaged.

There is so much more in terms of plot and characters than this bare bones outline, like the snobbish Longstaffe family who are inextricably bound up in Melmotte’s financial machinations or Ruby Ruggles, a country girl who wants to throw over her bumpkin finance John Crumb in the forgone hope that Felix Carbury will marry her. Also there is a wonderful parallel plot about gambling at cards among the aristocrats which satirizes the kind of high finance perpetuated by people like Melmotte.

I really enjoyed The Way We Live Now. I didn’t find it quite as charming as some of his previous novels, however; mostly because I found it hard to really root for any of the characters. They were all frustrating, though some such as Lord Nidderdale, Marie Melmotte, Hetta Carbury, Mrs. Hurtle, etc. were less egregious in the errors of their ways than others. But I always found them interesting and I was invested in their fates.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: Three Men in a Boat

'In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being “a general disinclination to work of any kind.”

What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell.  From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it.  As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day.  They did not know, then, that it was my liver.  Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.'

I read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome for the Classic Comic Novel category of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by blogger Karen at Books and Chocolate.  Apparently, the book started off as a travel guide for points of interest along the Thames.  That part of the book was a bit of a miss for me since I am not very well acquainted with British history. Nor am I familiar with boating and the technicalities of that such as using tow lines, punting, etc. 

Occasionally in the travelogue parts, the writing was flowery about sunsets and flowers and the like and the tone more serious.  But was it funny? Generally, yes. The sense of humor was very familiar; fairly broad and a bit silly. The punchlines usually weren’t terribly clever such as never finding a cab when you need one but when you don’t there are tons.  My first real laugh came when the narrator is describing his dog Montmorency, who “came to live at my expense…” That is a perfect description of the dogs and cats in my home. They live at my expense…total freeloaders! đŸ˜ș

There is no plot. Three young men set off boating for two weeks on the Thames. Some shenanigans and minor disasters happen and there are many digressions, like the inadvisability of offering to store a wheel of cheese for a friend for any length of time or a friend who gets himself and his fellow tourists lost in a maze and almost lynched by the mob of people trying to get out.  

I read the unabridged text in physical form but because it was only two hours and twenty minutes, I also later listened to the abridged audio version narrated by Hugh Laurie  which was delightful.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The 1965 Club: At Betram's Hotel and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

I read two other books for The 1965 Club that I wanted to post about. The page count of the two books COMBINED is only a little more than half of the total page count of The Magus, which was refreshing.  I read both in a matter of a couple of days.  Also, both are by favorite authors of mine:

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie is the third to last of the Miss Marple mysteries. It is probably not the best jumping in point for any reader who is new to Miss Marple since it is fairly slow and the murder comes only very near the end.  Miss Marple, however,  is my favorite of Christie’s detectives and I unreservedly love all the books which feature her.  I just wish Christie had written more Marple mysteries for me to enjoy.  

The story is that Miss Marple spends a fortnight at Bertram’s Hotel as a gift from her nephew and his wife.  Miss Marple spent time at the hotel as a girl at the turn of the century and at first is delighted to discover that the establishment is practically unchanged since the Edwardian era. There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about how times have changed, in particular how young women of a certain class are not looked after by their mothers as they should. 

However, soon our elderly sleuth starts to notice that the hotel is too perfect …or rather a facsimile of an Edwardian Era hotel; she begins to wonder what the hotel is fronting behind its facade. Meanwhile, the London police are also taking a closer look at Betram's since it has been linked ever so tenuously to some recent heists. But it isn’t until absentminded Canon Pennyfather, who was staying at the hotel, goes missing that the mystery really starts. 

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut could have been written today it many respects. It is an angry satire about greed and America.  But it was to me mostly message and not a lot of story.  Personally I think Slaughterhouse-Five and/or Cat’s Cradle are better crafted.  But this short book might be like music to your ears if you are left-leaning and appalled by the lack of compassion in much of the current political scene in the West. 

The story (what story there is) is about two men named Rosewater.  The first one is Eliot Rosewater, who is the beneficiary of an enormous corporate trust fund, the Rosewater Foundation, which he is barred from managing but from which he reaps the cash rewards. The other man is Fred Rosewater, a distant relative of Eliot, who sells insurance and while not poor, is decidedly not rich. An ambitious lawyer working at the Rosewater Foundation realizes that if he can get Eliot deemed incompetent and convince Fred to sue as the legitimate recipient of the Foundation’s funds, he (the lawyer) can make a pile of cash on the lawsuit and subsequent transaction. 

There is a lot of quotable stuff in this book, but the t-shirt slogan and truest message of the book is this one, when Eliot is asked how he would baptize children. This is pure Vonnegut: 

'Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule I know of, babies-: God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Monday, April 22, 2019

The 1965 Club: The Magus by John Fowles

Confession #1: I actually read the 1977 revised version of The Magus, which was originally  published in 1965. Alas, the revised version is what was available at the library.

Confession #2: I read most of the book in March because this baby is over 600 pages long!

The Magus was John Fowles third published novel. Today, I think he is better known for his debut The Collector or his fourth novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman.  The reason I chose to read The Magus (other than its publication date) for the 1965 Club was because it is on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels in English of the 20th Century, a list I have been slowly reading through on since 1998.  I still have 25 titles left to read and cross off. 

The story is narrated by Nicholas Urfe and it begins very much like a 19th century novel, "I was born in  1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf, Queen Victoria." 

The first 50 pages or so are Nicholas recounting his childhood and education, bringing the reader to to the present day as he is in his mid-twenties and ready to flee gray London for a teaching job at a boy's boarding school located on a remote Greek island. Also Nicholas is fleeing an intense relationship with a young Australian woman which Nicholas is too immature to handle, though he doesn't realize it at the time. 

"The thing I felt most clearly, when the first corner was turned, was that I had escaped; and hardly less clearly, but much more odiously, that she loved me more than I loved her, and that consequently I had in some indefinable way won. So on top of the excitement of the voyage in to the unknown, the taking wing again, I had an agreeable feeling of emotional triumph. A dry feeling; but I liked things dry. I went towards Victoria as a hungry man goes towards a good dinner after a couple of glasses of Mananzilla. I began to hum, and it was not a brave attempt to hid my grief, but a revoltingly unclouded desire to celebrate my release."

I'm not sure if it comes across in the above quote, but Nicholas is kind of an a**hat. It is something I as a reader had to wrestle with, since the book is entirely in Nicholas' point of view and we tend to want to empathize with first person narrators. 

Once Nicholas is on the island, he meets a mysterious millionaire, Maurice Conchis, who owns a private villa not far from the boarding school. It quickly becomes clear that Conchis is very interested in and possibly manipulating Nicholas, but to what end? As the book progresses, both Nicholas and the reader begin to doubt reality and question Conchis' motives. To say any more would be to go into spoiler territory. Just know that the original title of the book was "The Godgame".

I do think I would have appreciated the metaphysical aspects of The Magus more had I read it when I was younger.  As a novel, it is very much a thought-experiment and it asks some really big questions about psychology, religion, mythology, free-will, etc. It is a book I admired more than I actually enjoyed. 

I read this for the 1965 Club hosted by bloggers Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings and I thank them both for this opportunity