Saturday, January 04, 2020

Back to the Classics - 2020

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting Back to the Classics 2020 - thanks, Karen, for hosting again. You have many loyal fans and I know it takes time and effort to host a challenge.

Here's my tentative lineup for this challenge. Feel free to throw out suggestions for the categories which are still undecided.

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope - 2nd in the Palliser series

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1970. 
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - haven't read it since I was in high school, so definitely due for a reread.

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton - one of the few remaining books on my Classics Challenge; I liked the mini-series from long ago, so I have high hopes for this one.

4. Classic in Translation. 
The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello - I love Italy and hope to visit again soon, and I've heard this is an Italian classic.

5. Classic by a Person of Color. Any classic work by a non-white author. 
Not sure what I want to read here--looking for suggestions

6. A Genre Classic. Any classic novel that falls into a genre category -- fantasy, science fiction, Western, romance, crime, horror, etc. 
Again, not sure what I will go for here, although I do love Westerns and mysteries

7. Classic with a Person's Name in the Title. First name, last name or both.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens - I didn't read a Dickens in 2019 and really missed him - I've been wanting to reread this one for a long time.

8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Any classic with the proper name of a place (real or ficitonal) - a country, region, city, town, village, street, building, etc. 
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy - another of the few remaining titles on my Classics Challenge list. I planned to read it in 2019, but never got around to it.

9. Classic with Nature in the Title. A classic with any element of nature in the title (not including animals). 
Not sure what I'll choose here

10. Classic About a Family. This classic should have multiple members of the same family as principal characters, either from the same generation or multiple different generations. 
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott - I'm rereading this in Feb and am also looking forward to the new movie.

11. Abandoned Classic. Choose a classic that you started and just never got around to finishing, whether you didn't like it at or just didn't get around to it. 
The Italian by Ann Radcliffe - I started it in 2019 but ran out of steam, but I would like to finish it.

12. Classic Adaptation. Any classic that's been adapted as a movie or TV series. If you like, you can watch the adaptation and include your thoughts in your book review. It's not required but it's always fun to compare.
Not sure - so many to choose from.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading in 2020!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Back to the Classics - 2019 Wrap Up Post

Karen at Books and Chocolate hosted Back to the Classics again in 2019, and I got 11 out of 12 of my books read. I never found time for the tragic category--maybe that was my subconscious protecting my mood!

So I have 2 entries in Karen's year-end drawing, and my email is janetgs05(at)gmail(dot)com.

1. 19th Century Classic: Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope - really enjoyed this first in the Palliser series. Will read the next one in 2020...and so on.

2. 20th Century Classic: Brideshead Revisitedby Evelyn Waugh - one of the saddest books I've ever read...and reread. Beautifully written but heartbreaking.

3. Classic by a Woman Author: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte - meh! Anne is just not for me. Too whiny.

4. Classic in Translation: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy - fabulous, although I could do without some of the philosophizing on the history of history. That said, I loved the story, characters, setting, and this was an excellent, readable translation.

5. Classic Comic Novel: My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell - loved, loved, loved this book, and gave it to two siblings for Xmas.

6. Classic Tragic Novel:

7. Very Long Classic: Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot - very good but Middlemarch reigns supreme. I'm looking forward to finally finishing the bio I started years ago on Eliot so I can read what motivated her to tell this story.

8. Classic Novella: Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey - love this kind of pyschological thriller.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean): Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck - excellent travelogue by one of my favorite authors.

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania: Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay - ambiguous, creepy, gets under your skin.

11. Classic From a Place You've Lived: Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather - lovely warm, interesting book about a young woman from the Colorado plains.

12. Classic Play: St. Joan, George Bernard Shaw - meh - really what was the point of this play? Maybe it works on the stage but very forgettable.

Thanks to Karen for hosting this challenge, which is really the only one I do anymore. 

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Catching up on posts - classics and not-so-classics

It's been almost a month since my last post--but work has been busy, life has been busy, know the drill.

I'm rounding out my Back to the Classics 2019 challenge with two books - bringing me to 11 out of the 12 I committed to. The only category I missed was Classic Tragic Novel--I had picked Mayor of Casterbridge to read, but never could find the spirit to deal with a Hardy tragedy.

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot - the last complete novel by George Eliot (Maryann Evans) and one I've been wanting to read for years. Except for Felix Holt, which I tried and failed to read, I've now read all of Eliot's novels. I still consider Middlemarch her masterpiece, but Daniel Deronda was an interesting, multi-faceted novel and it was so enjoyable to spend time with Eliot's narrator, who is kind and gentle and forgiving. Daniel is an orphan, raised by a guardian (Sir Hugo Mallinger), whom everyone assumes is his natural father. The majority of the novel actually focuses on another character, Gwendolen Harleth, a beautiful, spirited young woman, much like Emma Woodhouse at the beginning of Jane Austen's Emma. The novel is about finding not only one's identity but one's moral compass--Daniel's journey is one of finding his parentage and family history and embracing it, but he serves as a conscience for many of the characters and a moral support for virtually all of them. That's a lot for one man to bear, but Daniel does it with grace, beauty, and a generous spirit. Published in 1876, it is contemporary to its time and I found myself looking up political and world issues that provided the setting for the novel.

Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw - I read this for the Classic Play category. I chose it because I visited Rouen in 2017, and learned a fair amount about Joan D'Arc in the city where she was burned as a witch in in 1431 at age 19. I also chose this play because I was planning to see Mother of the Maid at the Marin Theatre Company in late November and actually finished reading the play on the plane to SFO. I've only read Pygmalion by Shaw, so I was expecting something biting and witty, sharp and memorable. Instead, I found the play terribly dull. Perhaps on stage it would have shone brighter, but the only bright spot was Joan's interactions with the Dauphin. The play premiered in 1923, three years after Joan was canonized by the Catholic Church. I can only think that her elevation to sainthood was the inspiration for the play, but I really didn't find a theme to latch onto. It seemed more of a history lesson than anything else.

Non-classic recent reading included the following:

Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl - loved, loved, loved this memoir by the last editor of Gourmet magazine. Well written, compelling, chock-full of anecdotes about notable foodies, New York, Conde Nast, chefs, and restaurants...and recipes. There are a few that I absolutely have to try. Now I'm eager to read some of her other books, notably about her life as a restaurant critic.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird - I really wanted to love this book--absolutely fabulous premise--but the story arc just frustrated me so much I ended up really not liking it at all. The novel is a fictionalized account of a slave woman who became a member of an African-American unit in the U.S. Army after the Civil War. There are virtually no known facts about Cathy Williams and so the author was at liberty to invent a way for her to become a soldier. I actually liked the part that took place during the Civil War--Cathy's journey from slave to cook's helper in the Union Army was plausible and interesting. Her drive to be a soldier was also plausible, and even when she donned men's clothing and enlisted was plausible. Where I really started to dislike the story was when Cathy had to have a love interest--and not only a love interest, but an entirely goofy, quasi-mystical attachment to her commanding officer who was also the guy she saved early in the story....but I'm committing spoilers and you might actually want to read this book. Suffice it say, I found the second half of the book to be frustrating, implausible, and a waste of a good story.

Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks, by Andrea Lankford - I love National Parks. I love hiking in them, visiting historical sites, enjoying nature, and I love the idea of National Parks - setting aside places that can be protected and where the native flora and fauna are given a chance to live as well. This was an interesting memoir of a former NP ranger - I found the stories she told to be fascinating and a little dispiriting. Any time you peel back the cover of an organization, you will find some less than ideal stuff. There's a reason Landford is no longer working as a NP ranger - it's a stressful job, and so often rangers have to act as police officers, dealing with all sorts of issues that the general public bring to these national treasures. I'm glad I read the book, and it hasn't changed my mind about supporting the NPS as much as I can. Bottom line - when you visit a NP, give the ranger a break -- follow the rules, don't chide them for having a cushy job, and respect the work they do to search and rescue people who need their help.

Friday, November 29, 2019

My Family and Other Animals

Ever since stumbling onto the PBS Durrells of Corfu series earlier in the year, I have been looking forward to reading My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell, on which the series is based.

It was as delightful as the series and was remarkably true to the book in tone, plot, and characters. My Family and Other Animals is the first book (1956) in a trilogy in which Durrell recounts his family’s life on the Greek island in the 1930s. Gerald is ten when his widowed mother moves with her four children from damp, dreary England to sun-soaked exuberant Corfu.

Gerald, who went on to become a world-famous naturalist and author of many books, is a delightful child in love with the natural world and eager to observe and explore the teeming, fertile world into which he is dropped. His older brother is Lawrence Durrell, or Larry in the book, and is 23 when the family moves, a struggling novelist, confident in his abilities and arrogant in his artistic sensibilities. The other brother, Leslie, while he is the antithesis of erudite Larry--he is love with guns and hunting--shares a swagger with Larry that has completely escaped their sister, Margo, who is a teenager and plagued by the traditional teen problems--acne, low self-esteem, and raging hormones. Rounding out the family is Mother--a curious and attractive mix of helplessness and capability, with a mamma bear's protective ferocity when it comes to her family.

The rest of the characters are the friends they make in Corfu, including the naturalists who befriend and mentor Gerald, or Gerry as his friends and family call him, the local doctor, a series of tutors for Gerry, and Spiro, a native of Corfu who loves and admires the English and takes the Durrell family under his wing and shepherds them devotedly.

I really loved this book--it is a perfect mixture of family anecdotes that remind me fondly of James Thurber's reminiscences (notably My Life and Hard Times) and descriptions of the birds, insects, fish, and plant life of Corfu. In particular, I loved Gerry's recounting of the time he watched two pairs of swallows build nests and raise their families--comedy writing that made me laugh out loud. Dry and witty but with a deep understanding and love for the animals being described.

Milo Parker plays Gerry Durrell

I am really looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. I also just put Corfu on the must-visit list.

This book counts for the Back to the Classics challenge in the humor category.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Tables Turned - Wordsworth

Who wants to go hiking near Windermere?
I found this on Twitter this morning, courtesy of the Keats-Shelly Blog, and liked it so much I wanted to share it.

The Tables Turned 
William Wordsworth (written in 1798)

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Brat Farrar

During my October mystery month, I managed to finally read Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar. This is a wonderful, classic mystery, complete with doppelgangers, family fortunes, English countryside, extended family, and a pretty good mystery.

It reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier's The Scapegoat, which I read last year in that the protagonist, Brat Farrar, has to prove that he is really the person he is pretending to be, so it takes a lot of concentration on his part to remember all the details he has learned as well as anticipate or project how the other person would have behaved in a given situation.

In a nutshell, Brat is impersonating the older of a pair of twins who was presumed to have committed suicide was he was 13 but since the body was never found, only a suicide note, the family is open to the idea that he ran away after his parents died because he was grief stricken.

Although the book was fun to read, the entire plot is on pretty shaky ground--it's hard to really project how family members would really react when a lost boy shows up on the eve of turning 21 and inheriting the family estate, undercutting the expectations of his twin brother who didn't disappear, but this family seems to really take it all in stride and accept Brat pretty willingly, all things considered.

With DNA testing, this type of plot really can't work in the modern world, athough it might be fun to watch the plot gymnastics of an author trying to modernize the story.

There is a mini series from 1986, which maybe I'll try to watch this winter.

Mark Greenstreet as Brat Farrar

I'm counting this one for the Back to the Classics Challenge in the category of novella, as the edition I read was 240 pages, just under the 250 page cutoff.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Travels with Charley

I read this John Steinbeck memoir of a cross-country trip slowly and savored not only the language but Steinbeck's perspective of America in 1960. Starting from his home in Sag Harbor, New York in September, Steinbeck and his elderly poodle Charley traveled in a camper, named Rocinante (after Don Quixote's horse), across the upper part of the continental U.S., down California, and then across the lower part of the country, and then up the eastern seaboard.

I love traveling, road trips, and Steinbeck, and so this book was a joy to read, not only in terms of seeing the country unfold along a ribbon of highway but also in how Steinbeck seeks to understand and talk with people he meets along the way. I loved how he and Charley struck up conversations so that they could listen to people's stories. The subtitle of the book is "In Search of America," and I think this is a noble ambition--to hit the road and try to understand what common threads constitute the warp and weft of the American experience.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?
I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found...
Eventlessness collapses time.

I think my favorite part was when Steinbeck stopped in a redwood forest and wrote of the magic hush that these magnificent, ancient trees impose upon us mortals. Also, I absolutely, positively have to visit Deer Isle, Maine!

The hardest part to read was the part in Louisiana, where Steinbeck witnessed the shameful ugliness of racial hatred during the time of forced integration of schools. This part was hard to read but I'm glad that Steinbeck included it. Today, almost 60 years after Steinbeck hit the road with Charley, we are still struggling to be inclusive and sweeping the past under the rug is never wise or good.

John Steinbeck with Charley in Sag Harbor.

I'm counting this book as my classic from the Americas category in the Back to the Classics challenge.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Wrapping up RIP 14 - Peril the 1st it is!

I spent a happy October reading mysteries as part of the annual Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) reading challenge, and with six books read I easily accomplished the highest pinnacle, Peril the 1st (a four-book mark).

Here's what I read:
  • A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows - birder murder series #1 - absolutely wonderful, Canadian detective in England, a birder, of course, and a good mystery, and a pun or at least a double meaning, which gratifies my love of the nuances of language.
  • Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey - at under 250 pages, I am counting this as my novella for the Back to the Classics challenge. About 3/4 of the way in, I had the feeling that I had read this book already, but I don't recall when or where or how...Enjoyed it immensely;
  • The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follett - 3 solid stars - I think I like Follett's historical fiction more than his bread-and-butter spy thrillers, but this kept my interest almost until the end, and then it seemed a bit...silly?
  • In the Woods, by Tana French - riveting, Irish archaeology, Dublin, an exceptionally interesting double mystery, ambiguous ending, lots to like here, eager to read the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and then watch the new TV series, airing in November, I think.
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay - excellent, review here.
  • Black Spirits and  White: A Book of Ghost Stories, by Ralph Adams Cram - reading this with the GoodReads True Book Talk group; written in late 19th century, fairly conventional ghost stories, but good, well-written and atmospheric.
I started Nathaniel Hawthorn'es Twice Told Tales, but found it unreadable - relentlessly grim and dull.

Reading mysteries in October is a tradition I have grown to love. 

Happy Halloween everyone!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Single Thread

I'm a long time fan of Tracy Chevalier, and have read about half of her books, beginning with Girl With a Pearl Earring, and I just finished A Single Thread. One of the things I like about Chevalier is that the subjects (settings, premise) of her novels vary widely. She really can never be accused of repeating herself.

A Single Thread is about Violet Speedwell, a thirty-something spinster who lost her fiance in the Great War and has just moved out of her mother's house in Southampton and is trying to build a life for herself in the cathedral town of Winchester.

The novel explored and examined a number of activities that I am absolutely fascinated by. Violet joins the cathedral embroidery society whose mission is to make kneelers and cushions for the cathedral, and she learns to embroider. It's been years since I did any embroidery or cross-stitch because I want to save my eyesight for reading, but hearing Violet's meditations on the relaxed focus that embroidery can impart made me want to pull out my floss and start a new project!

Violet meets a very nice older man with whom she develops a deep friendship, and he happens to be a bell-ringer, not only at Winchester Cathedral but also in his own village's parish church. Again, I loved hearing about the intricacies of bell ringing--from the mathematical construction of the patterns, to what a peal of bells actually involves, to the physical strength it takes to ring and well, to  the community and social structure of the bell-ringers themselves.

And then there's the cathedral itself. I love medieval architecture and reading about someone who is able to spend hours in the cathedral was wonderful. She finds Tudor era graffiti, goes up to the bell tower, and learns some of its secret passageways. Seriously good stuff!

In many ways, A Single Thread is a coming of age story. Despite Violet being 38, WWI essentially froze her in time and stunted her development as an adult. By breaking away from her domineering mother, supporting herself, finding friends, and building a life for herself that has meaning and purpose, she is finally able to shuffle out from under the oppressive weight of WWI and live fully.

Sadly, WWII is looming on the horizon--the story takes place in the early thirties, when Hitler was coming to power, and many people couldn't really believe he would survive long politically.

I really enjoyed A Single Thread and watching Violet grow into herself. There were suspenseful sections--Chevalier does a great job of introducing a physical threat to Violet that provides an undercurrent of unease that undercuts the seemingly mild life that Violet leads. I also really enjoyed the extended family that Violet creates for herself out of a medley of friends that are themselves on the fringes of society.

Oh, and yes, Violet does visit Jane Austen's grave at one point :)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Picnic at Hanging Rock

What a perfect first book for RIPXIV!

Picnic at Hanging Rock has been on my TBR list for decades, and I decided to make it my "Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania " for the Back to the Classics challenge this year.  Set outside Melbourne, Australia in 1900, written by Joan Lindsay (she was 70 years old) and published in 1967, it is an intriguing story about the disappearance of three school girls and their teacher on February 14, 1900 at the picnic grounds at Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia.

Hanging Rock is a real place (although actually lots of places carry this name).

The girls attend the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, and the four girls who disappear are senior girls, about 16 years old, who get bored and decide to go have a look at the rock formation up close.  They are followed by one of the teachers who is chaperoning the picnic.

Mrs. Appleyard, the proprietress of the school for girls, has stayed behind at the school and is, of course, distraught when the party of picnickers return and she learns that some are missing.

The rest of the novel focuses on the efforts to find the girls and teacher--first by the police, and then by a young Englishman visiting relatives in the area who glimpsed the girls when they walked by his own picnicking party. He and the local groom take it upon themselves to search for the girls, with some luck.

The story of the novel is really about the effects of the stress that the disappearance of the girls and teacher have on the other girls and teachers and staff of the school, the two young men who were the last to see them, and Mrs. Appleyard, who must not only inform the parents of the missing girls but also face the prospect of closing the school due to negative publicity.

Be forewarned, the novel ends without any explanation of what happened to the girls and teacher. According to the foreword to the edition I read by Maile Meloy (who suggesting reading the novel before reading her foreword!), Lindsay did write a chapter that explained the disappearance but her "publisher told her to cut it, so she did." She did give the chapter to her agent with instructions to allow its publication after her death.

I agree with the publisher--the book is really good in setting the reader up to be engaged in wondering what could possibly have happened to the girls and teacher. Reading what the missing chapter contained was a bit of a letdown, so my advice is to read the book cold and then read about it after finishing it.

Other thoughts - I really liked how Lindsay showed how insignificant humans are in the world. Throughout, she talked about all the creatures who inhabit the landscape of Hanging Rock (the snakes, the insects, the animals, the vegetation), and how their worlds and ours coexist with little real interaction. I think Lindsay's vision is that sometimes these separate worlds collide and those collisions rip holes that cannot be mended.

A great spooky thriller with a grimness to it, set over 100 years ago in a mysterious, exotic setting.

With regards to adaptation...Peter Weir did a classic version in 1975 (which I have yet to watch), and then there is a 6 episode series from 2018 (also haven't seen).

Finally, here is a fascinating article about the writing of the novel and the making of the Weir movie.  Lindsay said many of the scenes came to her in dreams, she wrote the whole thing in a few weeks, and was inspired by this painting, "At the Hanging Rock," by William Ford.