Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Back to the Classics 2021: WRAP UP!

Limping to the finish line, here's my wrap up of the nine books read and blogged for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

1. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán  

2. A humorous or satirical classic.

     Right You Are, Jeeves,  Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Jeeves and the Tie That Binds by P.G. Wodehouse 

3. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. The animal can be real or metaphorical. (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird).

     Setting Free the Bears by John Irving 

4. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.

     A Grain of Wheat by  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

5. New-to-you classic by a favorite author -- a new book by an author whose works you have already read.

     Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

6. A children's classic. 

     The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 

7. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. You may read it in translation or in its original language, if you prefer. 

     His Excellency, Eugène Rougon by Emile Zola 

8. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. 

     Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser  

9. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction). It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure. 

     She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard

As always, a huge thank you to Karen at Books and Chocolate for organizing this and doing all the heavy lifting. My email is naessa [at] yahoo [dot] com. Most were winners and I am very glad to have read them all; any excuse to explore classic novels I’ve been meaning to get to for years!

Monday, December 6, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021- She: A History of Adventure.

This title was a perfect pic for the category “Travel or Adventure”.  She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard was first published in serial format between 1886 and 1887 and is a classic tale of a “lost world”. It is also very much worth remembering that the novel was written at the zenith of British Imperialism and when there were still parts of the globe “undiscovered” by Europeans.  I’ll bet the creators of Indiana Jones also drew inspiration from Haggard’s books.

The book is set up as a double frame narrative.  In the prologue, the “editor” claims to have received the story as a manuscript sent to him by Mr. Horace Holly, a man with whom he only has the slightest acquaintance. Along with the manuscript, Holly has sent his wish that the editor publish and profit from the tale as he sees fit, since Holly doesn't intend to return from his adventures.  Then the text jumps to the manuscript itself which starts with Holly recounting a strange visit from his best friend Vincey who (a) knows he (Vincey) is going to die soon, (b) can recount his family history going all the way back to ancient Greece and Egypt, (c) has a five year old son (Leo) whom he wants Holly take on as his ward, and (d) gives Holly a wooden box to be opened only upon his son’s 25th birthday.  It’s a lot to take in, but of course Holly says yes, his friend promptly dies and the boy comes to live with him. Fast forward 20 years, they open the mysterious box on Leo's birthday and adventure ensues. As a result of what they find, Holly, Leo, and their faithful servant, Job take off for Africa to investigate the origins of Leo’s family history and discover the lost tribe of the Amahagger and their mysterious queen, “she-who-must-be-obeyed”, Ayesha.  

For me, the premise of the book was better than the execution. I expected racism and sexism, but I didn’t expect to be bored. I found most of this novel to be cartoonish and very longwinded about details I didn't really care about. And I like a lot of longwinded Victorian authors (Dickens, Trollope), so I think it is Haggard’s style that simply doesn’t appeal to me.  I don’t regret reading it, but I also don’t see myself seeking out any further books from Haggard’s oeuvre.   

There are some aspects of the story that did surprise me, considering the era in which the book was published. Both Holly and Leo fall in love with Queen Ayesha with no jealousy or alpha-male competition between them. They both respect her and accept her superiority to them, which I found interesting.  On the other hand, Ayesha’s main interest in life is waiting for her long lost lover, who may or may not be reincarnated in Leo, to return to her.  I mean, she is 2000 years old, but still pining for the one who got away? That seems a little reductive. 

This is the 9th book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 that I’ve managed to blog, while I have read actually 11. But I think I have to call it a day at nine and wrap it up here. I still have trouble finding the time to do the write ups and also to read everyone else's posts. I am sorry that I haven't been as present in commenting on my friend's blogs as in previous years. I really need to re-think how I want to move forward in 2022.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Back to Classics Challenge 2021: Sister Carrie

"When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility.

This book is as much about Carrie Meeber, the young woman who comes from rural Wisconsin to Chicago in the 1880s as it is about George Hurstwood, the older married Chicago business manager who falls for her. This book was controversial when first published since Carrie lives what would be considered an immoral life when she shacks up with men who are not her husband. But the book also bucks convention (and probably pissed off critics of it) because Carrie is not punished for this. In fact, despite certain challenges, she thrives. 

The book opens with 18 year old Carrie on a train from her small town in Wisconsin on her way to Chicago sometime in the late 1880s. She meets a flashy but charming salesman, Charles Drouet, who will later play a great role in her life. But at this point, she is basically a country hick with no idea of what a city like Chicago has to offer and also to take from a fresh girl like her. Her married sister lives in the city and the expectation is that Carrie will get a job and help them by paying room and board out of her salary. Her sister’s husband is a dour Swede who has no imagination or interest in what a young girl might want out of life. His expectation is that she should be happy working in any of the various factories employing cheap labor. Carrie’s sister is slightly more sympathetic, but not much. Carrie soon finds that almost all her earnings are eaten up by room and board and the cost of transportation to and from work. She has no money at the end of the week, nowhere to go and no one to go with her.  Her chance meeting with Drouet will later pay off in taking her away from this existence, which serves only to grind her down. Drouet can offer her something better. 

Drouet, in turn, is very admiring of George Hurstwood, the manager of a local “resort” (sounded like an upscale bar to me). George is older, successful and surrounded by local celebrity and big wigs who come to the bar. He is also unhappily married with two grown children. When George meets Carrie (Drouet introduces them almost as if he is showing Carrie off as a possession, though he calls her his wife) he falls head over heels in love with her. 

Definitely this is a realist novel along the lines of Emile Zola (which fits nicely with The House of Ulloa and the Zola title I read earlier this year). I’m not that particular about language or prose but I have to say, Dreiser’s dialogue and description is sometimes pretty flat and matter-of-fact. 

What I liked most about this book was its time capsule quality. Dreiser really brought the streets of the nascent Second City to life and later those of New York as well. He gave me a glimpse of how some people lived during those times and, sometimes down to the penny, what a dollar could get you and where. I liked those details. The plotting was a little hackneyed maybe, but overall I appreciated this classic novel and especially I appreciated Dreiser’s non-judgmental stance. Also, I learned that “out of sight” meaning “terrific” or “great” was a common phrase in the last 19th century! I had always assumed it originated in the 1960 or '70s, but no. The trivial things we readers learn, right?

Chicago in the late 19th century

Another book from the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels published during the 20th century. I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “20th Century Classic”. Sorry for those of you who were looking forward to me reading the next book in the Alexandria Quartet for this prompt, but it just didn't work out. I will read it, for sure. But not in time for the 2021 challenge, alas!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - His Excellency, Eugène Rougon

Inspired by Karen at Books and Chocolate and her enthusiasm for the novels of Emile Zola, I decided a few years ago to read all of his Rougon-Marquand series - 20 books total - in the recommended reading order (as opposed to the order of publication). This initial bout of enthusiasm lead me to read The Fortune of the Rougons waaay back in 2013.  The best laid plans of mice and men as some one once said…it only took me eight years to read the next book.  At this rate, I will be 120 or so when I am done with the series. 

His Excellency, Eugène Rougon takes place fairly soon after the events of The Fortune of the Rougons. Eugène Rougon is a lawyer from the provinces who went to Paris to make his fortune and luckily (or shrewdly) put his faith in Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851 when Napoléon, who was then President of France, staged a successful coup and crowned himself emperor Napoléon III.  When the book opens, while the Empire is still at the height of its powers and popularity, Rougon is resigning his influential post in the national assembly. All those who relied upon him and his political power are astonished and disappointed; one by one they desert him. 

But it would appear Rougon is playing a long game and when he finds the opportunity to insert himself back into the Emperor’s good graces, he strikes and soon becomes, next to the Napoléon III, the most powerful man in the country. His sycophantic hangers-one soon flock him again and all are given power, favors and positions accordingly, but eventually things go too far and Rougon, or rather one of his cronies, oversteps the bounds of his office and Rougon finds himself politically walking a fine line.

I liked this book, though it was pretty heavy on the politics and I don’t think with either this or The Fortune of the Rougons (it has been too long since I have read Germinal to remember if it is any different), that Zola is a particularly subtle writer. The best thing I found about this title was the character, Clorinde de Babi, a young, beautiful Italian noblewoman with whom Rougon becomes obsessed and to his peril, he underestimates. The introduction I read suggested Clorinde was based on the mysterious, real-life Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione, who was one of Napoléon III’s many mistresses and a fascinating person historically. Clorinde is as politically astute as Rougon in this novel, if not more so. However, as a female, her options are limited and her power necessarily more indirect and behind the scenes. 

Definitely these first two books have been a great window for me on the Second Empire historical period in France and I expect as I read on, my view will only be deepened. Though, it is very clear that Zola was no fan of the Emperor and this isn’t an unbiased view by any means. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, much of the political  practices criticized in the novel, the cronyism, the corruption, the abuse of power, etc. is not something left in history or unique to France or the 19th century, I’m afraid.

I read this title for the category "Classic in Translation" in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 hosted by Karen. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - The Wind in the Willows

I need to get crackin' if I am going to successfully complete the Back to the Challenge this year. I am reading the books just fine. But when it comes to actually blogging about them, I am challenged.

Apparently in a different edition from the one I read, the intro/afterword by Jane Yolen points out that The Wind in the Willows is really three distinct sets of stories: (1) Mole and Ratty, (2) the Adventures of Mr. Toad and (3) the Pan interlude.  I found this break down to be completely accurate and as an adult, I much preferred the snuggly comforts of Mole and Ratty. There’s lots of eating and being cozy and warm by the fire in their chapters. Mr. Toad, while amusing, is likely going to appeal more to readers who are children.  Toad is very naughty and usually gets away with whatever he gets up to, despite his occasional attempts at repentance.  The Pan chapter reminded me of C.S. Lewis in its religious overtones and it is actually the part that gives rise to the title of the book.  

According to the introduction by Margaret Hodges in the edition pictured above that I read (with absolutely stunning illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard), the book was written for Kenneth Graham’s son and was based on bedtime stories he made up for the boy.  Mr. Toad, is in fact based on the young Alistair Graham as a small child, which accounts for much of Toad’s petulant and impulsive behavior…if you have ever met a four year old human, you will know what I mean.  And I did like Mr. Toad’s adventures and found them occasionally laugh-out-loud funny – particularly when his mansion is overrun by piratical stoats and weasels. 

I can also understand why, when this book has been adapted for stage and screen, that only the Mr. Toad parts are included in the adaptation. Mole and Ratty’s tales are really just a succession of meals and naps. But that isn’t to down play them at all. They were absolutely my favorite part and I spent a lot of time thinking about just how I would arrange my cozy den if I were an anthropomorphized mole, water rat or badger. As someone who falls somewhere on the very introverted side of humankind, good friends, delicious meals and a comfortable bed are paradise –just add books to make it perfect. It is interesting that Mr. Toad is the only character who actually gets a proper, human like house, which is spacious, multi-storied and rambling, not close and warm. It also helps that I read this back in February. It doesn’t get that cold in my part of Southern California, but February is typically rainy and, in the evenings at least, chilly. This is a wonderful book to snuggle up to.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 Children’s Classic category. Many thanks to Cleo at  for giving this book such a glowing treatment last year. It totally lived up to that post and my expectations.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021- Orley Farm

 “For many years this prosperous gentleman had lived at a small country house, some five-and-twenty miles from London, called Orley Farm. This had been his first purchase of land, and he had never given up his residence
there, although his wealth would have entitled him to the enjoyment of a larger establishment. On the birth of his youngest son, at which time his eldest was nearly forty years old, he made certain moderate provision for the infant, as he had already made moderate provision for his young wife; but it was then clearly understood by the eldest son that Orley Farm was to go with the Groby Park estate to him as the heir. When, however, Sir Joseph died, a codicil to his will, executed with due legal formalities, bequeathed Orley Farm to his youngest son, little Lucius Mason

The above paragraph is the third one on page one, where Trollope sets up the major plot of the novel. That codicil to the will is contested but ultimately upheld and the mother of the infant Lucius Mason is able to keep Orley Farm for her child and away from the grasping hands of her angry and covetous adult stepson, Joseph Mason Jr. However, some 20 years later, the case is re-opened and the still beautiful Lady Mason isn’t so sure she has the strength to endure yet another lawsuit and trial. Lucius Mason has now reached his majority and wishes to be his mother’s defender in this matter and yet she refuses his assistance and instead relies on that of the family solicitor Mr. Furnival as well as that of their neighbor, Sir Peregrine Orme.   

Ultimately, the question is less is Lady Mason guilty of forgery or perjury and more will she be found guilty of such at the trial. One of the larger questions Trollope is looking at in this novel is the amorality of the law and whether a lawyer is supposed to care more about the truth and justice than they are about their client’s innocence or lack thereof in the eyes of the law. 

Also, of course, there are also multiple romantic subplots and much gentle humor among the handwringing drama. This is a Trollope novel, after all. I found it interesting that Trollope introduces some lower class characters into Orley Farm with the commercial travelers, Mr. Mr. Kantwise and Mr. Moulder. It isn’t unheard of in his novels, but usually he sticks quite closely to the upper middle and upper class in his books. Another interesting character normally not seen in a Trollope novel is the “moulded bride”, young Mary Snow, the low born fiancée of the impoverished yet brilliant lawyer, Felix Graham. Felix, who becomes part of Lady Mason's legal team, is involved in a sort of love quadrangle between himself, Mary Snow, the beautiful Madeline Staverly and young Perry Orne, grandson of Sir Percival. Also among the potential romances are the shenanigans of Lucius Mason and the wily and sly Sophia Furnival and Madeline's brother, Augustus.

I really enjoyed reading Orley Farm. It is a very long novel, but those are often my favorites from Trollope…wherein he introduces many subplots and characters with whom I can get acquainted and involved. There is also some nice continuity with other novels with Mr. Chaffenbrass, another member of Lady Mason's defense, who was previously seen lawyering in The Three Clerks and Phineas Redux.  

I totally gave in to my whim and read Trollope for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “Classic by a Favorite Author”. Unfortunately, in this book as in so many others, Trollope betrays his ugly anti-Semitic attitude, which is a real black mark on him. Not uncommon for the time but I feel I should always call Tony out on this, because there were writers and other people of that era who were not nasty anti-Semites, regardless of the prevailing sentiment. Despite this flaw, Trollope remains next to Charles Dickens, my favorite Victorian novelist. Once a reader is in his thrall, there is no going back, I fear.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - A Grain of Wheat

 Verily, verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24

My first novel by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o but definitely not my last. Ngũgĩ came to my attention sometime around 2010 when I was becoming better acquainted with book prizes and he was rumored to be a front runner for the Nobel Prize in Literature for that year. Mario Vargas Llosa ended up winning instead, but perhaps Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o will win it in the future at some point.

Set on the even of Uhuru (Freedom), Kenya’s official freedom from the colonial powers of the British Empire in 1963, the story is more or less of centered around the reclusive Mugo. Mugo is so introverted and quiet that those around him fill his silences with what they want to think and hear. What they don’t know is that Mugo is harboring a secret that has been plaguing him for many years, driving him even more away from village society and into a self-imposed isolation. 

Apart from but also connected to Mugo are Gikonyo, a local business man, his wife Mumbi and his rival, the Karanja, who works at the local research station and who is considered a collaborator since he did not fight but worked for British during the war. Mumbi was sister to Kihika, a local hero and Mau Mau freedom fighter who was betrayed which lead to his capture and hanging. The village leaders are trying to get Mugo to give a speech at Uhuru because they believe him to have been a fervent supporter of Kihika and in his own quiet way, a hero of the rebellion. All the characters come to Mugo, in part to try and convince him to speak, but also to confide in him their own troubles and cares. Because Mugo is so quiet, they assume he is sympathetic to them and their feelings. Everything comes to a head on the day of Uhura when old rivalries are settled and the truth about Kihika is revealed.

There is a much smaller side story of the white district officer, John Thompson and his unhappy and unfaithful wife, who will be leaving Kenya after independence because he frankly does not want to be subject to and governed by blacks. His story intertwines with the others because during the war of independence, Thomson was an officer at a detention camp where Mugo was held.  

I really enjoyed this book. It was a great look at Kenya and its history, looking very much at its future and already noting the cracks in the foundation of self-rule. To paraphrase The Who, “meet the new boss, just the same as the old one”. And what to make of this biblical analogy of the death of the seed which brings life to the plant? Is Ngũgĩ using this to remind the reader that the death of colonialism will bring forth the flowering of Kenyan independence?  Or is he referencing the death of the rebel leader Kihika who will bring forth the fruits of self-rule which was achieved in part because of his sacrifices? It is interesting to think about.

I had to read this book quite carefully, because there were a lot of subtle time shifts in the narrative. Also, there was the occasional use of untranslated Kikuyu/Swahili and Kikuyu names took some getting used to in order to differentiate one person from another. But I really enjoyed that aspect of the book because it made the experience more immersive. 

I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “Classic by a POC author”.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - Setting Free the Bears

For the Back to the Classics 2021 category “Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title”, I read John Irving’s debut novel, Setting Free the Bears which I have owned for many years... ahem… decades.  I think like a lot of readers, if they have read any Irving at all, the first Irving I read was The World According to Garp, after seeing the movie which came out in 1982. For many years thereafter, up to the late ‘90s I was a huge Irving fan and had read his novels (six) published between 1978 and 1998.  I wouldn’t say I am no longer a fan, but for whatever reason, I stopped reading him in the new millennium; well, until recently. 

Anyone who has read a few Irving novels will notice some of his signature trademark tics across his books: Vienna, bears, wrestling, orphans, bizarre deaths, etc. Not every book has every peculiarity in it, but they all have his special brand of epic tragicomedy I believe, at least the seven that I’ve now read. I didn’t encounter any Charles Dickens until 2005, but after having re-read The Cider House Rules in 2019 and now Setting Free the Bears for the first time, it is clear to me that “Dickensian” is an adjective that can be applied to Irving’s novels. 

Published in 1968, Setting Free the Bears is a frame story narrated by Hanne Graff, a Viennese university student. When Hanne flunks out of university, he takes up with the slightly unhinged Siggy Javotnik, a radish eating, salt stealing maniac, and they decide to take a motorcycle road trip. Their goal is to go all the way to Italy and the coast. The opening and closing of the novel are set during their journey in present day mid-1960s Austria, but the middle section is the life history of Siggy’s parents during World War II interspersed with Siggy’s current day obsessive plans to free the animals from the Vienna zoo (hence the title). Also central to the story is a young woman Hanne meets along the way called Gallen at an alpine hotel. Basically, however, Hanne is the straight man to the farcical Siggy and the real story within the story is the history of the Anschluss in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria and the politics and betrayals of the partisan guerilla forces in Yugoslavia during and after the war.  

The book has its charms and hit a number of the Irving markers (Vienna, bears, orphans) but on the whole, I found it awkwardly plotted, often stilted and generally it felt overly long. All John Irving books are pretty chunky, but as a reader, I don’t normally feel it; in this one I did. I think this book is maybe best left to Irving completists, though possibly had I read it a few decades ago at the height of my love for Irving I would have liked it more. I suspect some of what made it awkward and long was just the creakiness of a debut novel.  Irving was warming up to hit his later stride starting with Garp. I am glad to have read it, however. I particularly appreciated learning more about the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 and the political makeup of Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation. I’d never heard of Draža Mihailović and the Chetniks but I think I should have, as should everyone. He was on the cover of Time in 1942, for goodness sake! Google him, I ask you all, if you’ve not heard of him. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The 1936 Club: A Shilling for Candles

After missing out on the 1956 club in 2020 because I can’t read a calendar apparently, I am really glad I managed to both READ a book and POST about it for the 1936 Club hosted by bloggers Karen at Kaggsy and Thomas at Stuck in a Book I was super pleased to find I actually owned a copy of A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey which was first published in the UK in 1936. I have now read all but one of Tey’s mysteries. On the whole, her books are in my opinion a little hit and miss, but so far all have been well worth reading, even if every title didn’t always blow my socks off.  If you like Golden Age crime fiction, Tey should be on your reading list for sure. 

In the opening chapter of A Shilling for Candles, a man taking an early morning walk on the beach finds the body of woman in a bright green bathing dress who has clearly drowned. He hurries to the nearest coastguard station to phone the police. Unfortunately suicides are not uncommon in this particular area of costal Kent, but eventually the police determine that the woman drowned most likely at the hands of a person or persons unknown based upon a couple of small details about the body. The police also determine that the woman was renting a nearby cottage and that the obvious suspect is her “house guest”, a young man named Tisdall whom she impulsively invited to stay with her when she discovered him about to pawn literally the clothes off his back in London a few days earlier. It turns out that the drowned woman was the famous movie star Christine Clay and that generous, impulsive action of helping a person in need, such as the house guest, was characteristic of her. Who would want to kill her? Was Tisdall? Or her explorer husband who was allegedly out of the country at the time of death? Or was it the composer Jacob Harmer, who was working with her on her current film and who wagging tongues rumor was her lover?

I enjoyed reading it this book. I gulped in down over the course of two days, which was very satisfying. However, I didn’t think this is Tey’s best mystery. The resolution was a little out of left field for my tastes. But up until that point, I enjoyed the investigation along with its obfuscation and red herrings.

There are quite a few colorful characters in the book. There is a really awful journalist, Jammy Hopkins, dogging the detective's, Inspector Grant, heels. The readers are introduced to Grant’s friend and connection to the theater world, actress Marta Hallard who will feature in at least two future books. Grant is an atypical lead detective when compared to literary detectives created by Tey’s contemporaries like Christy, March, or Allingham; he isn’t in and of himself very interesting or quirky. Not that this detracts from the books, however. It is just something I’ve noticed. 

The real highlight for me in A Shilling for Candles was the eccentric Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the local Chief Constable, who does some mighty good sleuthing in the book.  Tey could have easily spun off a series featuring teenage Erica solving crime, having romantic escapades and cracking wise. 

Interestingly enough, Tey calls out class consciousness front and center when Grant finds out the husband of the victim is a lord and is loath to question him in a confrontational manner. I found it noteworthy that Grant recognizes this behavior and knows it’s not “right” and yet, it’s how one is expected to behave. On the other hand, one of the characters is Jewish and Tey uses some weird backhanded comments on this as an ethnicity which is not atypical for a book published in the 1930s but it is always jarring when I encounter it. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 – P.G. Wodehouse


I chose to read some Wooster and Jeeves for the category “Classic Humor or Satire”. I’ve seen a few episodes of the hilarious adaptations starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry but had never read any Wodehouse before. And here I had this chunky  bind up that I bought at a library sale or Goodwill years ago, just begging to be read.  I am so very glad I took the plunge - they were so very, very funny!  

The below listed three titles are sequential but late in the series, published in 1960, 1963 and 1971 respectively. There is a lot to be gained reading them in order, I believe, since there is usually a little throw back to events and characters in previous novels and when I reached the third book, I was laughing out loud while reading.  

So now my plan is to read all the Wooster and Jeeves novels in order. It won’t take me too long to achieve this – a couple of years maybe. There’s a total of 16 novels I believe, but the individual books are fairly short – under 300 pages.  The plots are pretty much all the same, Bertie gets into trouble, usually meaning well, and Jeeves gets him out of it. Some of the humor is in that repetition.

How Right You Are, Jeeves

When Bertie Wooster’s valet, Jeeves, takes a holiday, Bertie heads down to Brinkley Court to stay with his Aunt Dahlia. Dahlia wants Bertie to prevent her goddaughter, Phyllis Mills, from marrying the American playboy Willie Cream, both of whom are also staying at Brinkley Court. Also guests of the manor are Willie’s mother, the thriller writer Mrs. Homer Cream, a novelist, Phyllis step-father, Aubrey Upjohn who unfortunately was also the headmaster at Bertie’s boarding school and has a long memory, and the spunky Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham who tends to get Bertie in trouble whenever she is around. The ridiculous plot thickens and Bertie gets into all kinds of trouble due to both Bobbie and his own silliness.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Bertie is induced to return to Totleigh Towers despite the fact that its owner Sir Watkyn Bassett once jailed him for a college prank and frankly can’t stand him. Also, Sir Watkyn’s daughter, Madeline, has vowed to become Mrs. Wooster if her current engagement to Gussie Fink fails. When that affiance is threatened, Bertie has no choice but to enter the lion’s den and patch up Gussie and Madeline’s relationship to avoid dreaded matrimony himself. Of course, many other hijinks ensue: Bertie is (falsely) accused of theft and then kleptomania, spends a night in jail; Jeeves impersonates a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector; a garish alpine hat is sacrificed.

Jeeves and the Tie That Binds

We learn that Jeeves belongs to a club for manservants in which pertinent details of their employers are committed to a book “to inform those seeking employment of the sort of thing they will be taking on”. Bertie is afraid that the book (with an incredible 18 pages devoted solely to him) will fall into the wrong hands. For once, Bertie isn’t wrong. Jeeves and Wooster go to stay at Aunt Dahlia’s with the aim of helping Bertie’s old pal Harold “Ginger” Winship who is standing for Parliament in the by-election at Market Snodsbury. Unfortunately, Ginger’s impetus for politics is his fiancée, Florence Cray, one of Bertie’s old paramours. Also staying at Brinkley Court is Madeline Bassett and her suitor, Lord Sidcup, one of Bertie’s avowed enemies. Without any spoilers, this is the novel where Bertie finally commits to a relationship.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021: The House of Ulloa


The earthy and gothic atmosphere of this 19th century Spanish classic novel reminded me at tad of Wuthering Heights in its rustic setting reflecting a landscape of corruption, cruelty and decay, only instead of the Yorkshire moors, the majority of the novel takes place in provincial Galicia. But that comparison only goes so far. Don Pedro Ulloa is no Heathcliff and Pardo Bazán  using the backdrop to tell a story steeped social satire and criticism and not that of a doomed, star-crossed relationship and ghosts. 

The book is narrated in close third person through the eyes of Father Julian, a naïve, very young priest who has been commissioned to come to the Ulloa estate and manage it for the marquis, Don Pedro. However, Father Julian is entirely out of his element. The house and farms are, in fact, “run” by Don Pedro’s farmhand/huntsman, Primitivo, who has the lazy, feckless Don Pedro completely under his thumb. The more Julian tries to get a handle on the situation, the worse it becomes. When Don Pedro marries, Julian hopes this will change the balance of power on the estate, but things don’t work out as he hopes and Julian’s chaste but close relationship with the new mistress of the house is also threatened. Then, when the entire region is in the grips of a local election where Don Pedro has been made the candidate for the conservative faction, things come to a head. 


One factor of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was the descriptions of the countryside, which is rough, wild and sometimes bleak but also beautiful. The comparison of this provincial landscape is juxtaposed with the dissipated and claustrophobic atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela, where Father Julian and Don Pedro go to visit the marquis’ cousins and find Don Perdo a wife. 


The backdrop of the novel is the Glorious Revolution which took place in Spain in 1868 when Queen Isabella II was deposed and exiled. Of course, I know virtually nothing about Spanish history, so getting even an inkling of that background was great in the context of the novel and in the notes in the annotated Penguin edition that I read. It’s a pity that more books by Pardo Bazán are not available in English, though maybe more are in the works?  In the introduction, it was suggested she is often compared to Emile Zola, a comparison she personally disagreed with. But, while I’ve only read two books by Zola, I can see where one might make the comparison, in particular because Pardo Bazán is quite frank about the more earthy and realistic sides of life. 


I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 category “Classic by a New to You Author”. I was introduced to The House of Ulloa and Emelia Pardo Bazán by the blogger Sylvia Cachia. Thanks Sylvia!

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Herr Settembrini hauled him over the coals quite properly and managed to firm up his conscience at least temporarily extracting something like a promise never again to participate in such horrors. “Pay attention,” he demanded, “to the human being inside you, my good engineer. Trust it clear and humane thoughts and abhor this wrenching of the brain, this intellectual swamp. Illusions? Secret of Life? Caro mio! When the moral courage to decide and differentiate between fraud and reality begins to melt away, that marks the end of life itself, of formed opinions, of values, of any improving deed, and the corruptive process of moral skepticism begins its awful work.” Man was the measure of all things, he added. Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. It would be better a millstone were hung about his neck and here were drowned in the deepest well.

I read The Magic Mountain last year and had I had my act together, would have used it for the Back to the Classics 2020 challenge.  But it took me seven months to read it because I read it in German, which meant I had to stop and look things up many, many times. I also acquired the English translation for those passages that were particularly convoluted; where it was more than just a vocabulary word standing in my way.  It is hard for me to not want to “understand everything” when reading in German.  I have to remind myself that I don’t always understand everything in English either - hello Henry James!  I think that Mann used about 5 different words to say “mountain side” or “slope”, for example, not one of which I knew. I read the first third fairly enthusiastically …then let it languish and read only sporadically for months until I made myself read the final third in a go in December 2020.   I think though, in the long run, it wasn’t a bad idea to take such time to read it. It is a book that has a lot of complex ideas which take time to sink in. 

Reese at Typings asked me to review it anyway, and so here goes nothing. 😃 The plot of The Magic Mountain is very easy to sum up. In the first decade of the 20th century, Young Hans Castorp goes to visit his cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and doesn’t come down for seven years.  But of course, it is about much more than that. Hans physically stays on the mountain, but his mind travels widely. This is a novel of ideas where Mann uses the characters to express various philosophies that interest him and presumably the reader. The blurb on the English translation I used by John E. Woods suggests that the characters in the sanatorium are metaphors for Europe on the brink of the First World War.  That is no doubt true, but I couldn’t help but also feel that the book was taking the pulse of the time it was published in 1925. Of course, I have the benefit of knowing what is coming historically, but much of the text felt prophetic to me about the upcoming reign of European fascism and I also believe the arguments and ideas expressed in the novel are still relevant to our current culture, in particular, in its positing of humanism versus populism.  

This debate between humanism and populism is literally expressed in the characters of Herr Settembrini, whom I quote above, and Herr Naphta.  I’m linking this online essay that I found which expresses  this argument and its bearing on our current situation in the West better than I ever could:  Reading the Magic Mountain in the Age of Populism. Both Settembrini and Naphta are wrestling for Hans’ soul as they argue their points in the novel. I don’t think that Mann tips his hand as to which philosophy he personally supports.  I imagine, in their extremes, he supported neither but I appreciate that he lets the reader draw their own conclusions as to right and wrong.  

The beauty of The Magic Mountain is it is one of those books that one could read probably every year and get something different and deeper out of it every time. And don’t let my droning on about philosophical debate give the wrong impression of the book. It is also quite funny in places. Hans Castorp is a bit of a bumbling fool and many of the guests/patients are ridiculous. It is an interesting juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the deadly serious. I’m glad I read it, though for an introduction to Mann, I would suggest reading Buddenbrooks first. It is shorter and more approachable, for sure. I’ve not read any other books by Thomas Mann yet, though I may try the novella, Death in Venice, next. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021

I am super pleased to participate for my eighth year in this challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.  Below is what I have tentatively chosen to read for the Back to the Classics challenge 2021 categories. 

1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899 – The answer is “Trollope”. Of the books I own, I can read either the both fairly shortish books Doctor Wortle’s School or Cousin Henry or the chunkster Orley Farm

2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. Well, I must continue with the Alexandria Quartet, right? All are available on e-book from the library too, which makes it easy.  I’m crossing my fingers I will read all three of the remaining titles in 2021 but we’ll see; the next one is Balthazar

3. A classic by a woman author. I have another Monica Dickens novel, Mariana, published by Persephone that I need to read. I am also tempted to splurge and buy some more Dorothy Whipple titles from that publisher. Actually, I have a lot of female authors on my shelf that need reading: The Stone Angel by Margaret Lawrence, The Locust Have No King by Dawn Powell and any number of Barbara Pym titles... This and the 19th century category are the easiest for me to fill from stuff I already own.

4. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. I might tag along in June with the Hunchback of Notre Dame read-along hosted by One Catholic Life. 

5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author. While I really would love to read The Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o which I have owned for over 10 years, that was only published in 2004. But I would also like to try some of his earlier works such as A Grain of Wheat which was published in 1967. Maybe if I read this, it will spur me on to finally pick up Wizard. 

6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.  I would like to read The House of Ulloa by  Emilia Pardo Bazán which was recommended to me by blogger Sylvia at Sylvia Cachia. Or another option (and recommendation from Sylvia and many other bloggers ) is the Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy by Sigried Undset. 

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author -- a new book by an author whose works you have already read. I might just get a little lazy here and read another Trollope. :D 

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. Oh, how perfectly The Wizard of the Crow would fit here too! I am going to read Setting Free the Bears by John Irving which was first published in 1968. I used to love Irving and I might have actually read this at some point in my hazy past? I can’t be certain. I let you know if any of it seems familiar, though Irving does have a tendency to recycle certain things in his fiction - like bears and Austria and wrestling.  

9. A children's classic. I am definitely going to read The Wind in the Willows as recommended by Cleo at Classical Carousel. All I knew about this book previously was the ride at Disneyland, but Cleo’s cheerleading has made me super keen to dive in to this kid's classic. 

10. A humorous or satirical classic. I have a bind up of Jeeves and Wooster novels by P.G. Wodehouse that will fit this category perfectly. I've never read any Wodehouse; I've only seen the Fry and Laurie televised adaptations.

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction). It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure. This is one of the tougher categories for me since it isn't something I naturally gravitate towards. I have a copy of She by L.Rider Hagger that would fit the bill. Or maybe I will read Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

12. A classic play. I might go for an Oscar Wilde play here.  Or “A School for Scandal” by Sheridan. Definitely something comic. 

Thanks a million to Karen for hosting. I know it takes time and effort on her part to post the links and keep track, etc. I am so grateful to her for giving so many bloggers this opportunity yet again. :D