Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft by Thor Heyerdahl

I always like to include at least one classic on my book group's potential reading list, and last year, the group voted to include Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft as one of our 2015 reads. I thought an adventure story would be a fun summer read, but as August got closer, I began to worry that no one would show up to the book discussion. How many people want to discuss a book that's been around forever but hardly anyone reads anymore? 

Well, to my surprise and delight, I had a full house for the book group discussion -- seven people showed up! Nearly everyone had read the book except one member who watched the documentary. I myself put off reading the book off until a week before the discussion, and I was actually worried that I wouldn't finish it in time. Two days before the meeting, I still had 120 pages to go. However, the final three chapters were so riveting I read it all in one sitting. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For those who don't know the story, Kon-Tiki is the true story of six men (five Norwegians and a Swede) who test author Heyerdahl's theory: that it's possible that hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago, people from South America traveled across the Pacific Ocean as far as Polynesia, more than 4000 miles away. Heyerdahl first made the connection before WWII, while visiting French Polynesia, when he was struck by the likeness of the tiki god statues to South American carvings. After the war, he was in New York City and began planning the journey and found five men to accompany him on what sounds like an insane voyage in 1947. With private donations and some help from the American and Peruvian governments, Heyerdahl and the five other men built the raft from balsa wood had it towed out of the way of shipping lanes, and hoped for the best. 

Over the next three months, the men sailed across the Pacific on the Humboldt current, facing storms, sharks, and whales, with nothing to steer the raft, and mostly basic equipment, though they did have a radio. Most people doubted they would ever reach their destination. I'm fascinated by the romance of sailing, but the thought of floating in the middle of the ocean, thousands of feet above the ocean floor scares me silly. And they did this willingly! But the story is really interesting, especially the encounters with marine life like whale sharks, and what they ate and what they saw every day. 

Whale sharks can get up to 40 feet long, almost as long as the Kon-Tiki raft.
I was surprised at what a fascinating, quick read this book was. I liked most of it though there was a part in the middle where Heyerdahl explains the history of Easter Island which I found a little dry and mostly skimmed. I also wish the book had gone into a little more detail about life on the boat -- how did everyone get along for 101 days, stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere -- literally?

I did a little research afterward, and this book has sold more than 20 million copies and has been translated into many different languages.   My book group mostly liked it, though we did wonder why it was such a huge publishing phenomenon. My guess was that it really captured the public imagination -- it's a pretty amazing feat. It was also made into an award-winning documentary film, and in 2012, made into a fiction version of the film which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. I haven't seen either of the film versions yet but the library owns both so I hope to watch one or both of them soon.

Overall, an excellent read, and I'm counting it as my Non-fiction Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Classics Spin #10

Nothing like a Classics Spin to get me out of a blogging slump -- I'm down to only sixteen books on my Classics Club list! This made signing up for the latest Classics Spin really easy. Next Monday, I'll be assigned a book from this list based on a random number assigned by the Classics Club. Here's my list:

1. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
2.  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
3. Armadale by Wilkie Collins
4. New Grub Street by George Gissing
5. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
6. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
7. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
8. The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
9. No Name by Wilkie Collins
10. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
11. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
12. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
13. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
14. One of Ours by Willa Cather
15. A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell
16. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

And to make it an even 20, I'm repeating four books: 

17. The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
18. New Grub Street by George Gissing
19. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
20. No Name by Wilkie Collins

I'm really hoping for Hardy, Collins, or maybe Anthony Powell. New Grub Street sounds interesting too. Which books should I be dreading? And is anyone else signing up for the next Classics Spin? What books are you hoping for?

Updated: My lucky spin number was 5, so I'll be reading Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell! Very happy with my spin pick!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Austen in August: Guest Post and Giveaway at Roof Beam Reader

Welcome to Austen in August! Today I have the honor of a guest post at Roof Beam Reader! Please click on the link and take a look as I'm reviewing John Mullan's What Matters in Jane Austen: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved -- and I'm giving away a copy! 

Update: The winner of the giveaway is . . . AUSTIN!!  Please contact me at karenlibrarian13 [at] yahoo [dot] com with a good mailing address so I can mail your prize! Congratulations!

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those really long classics that's been on my to-read list forever. I'd always been intimidated by the sheer length of it -- it's more than 1200 pages long! Originally, I had planned to read something by Zola for Paris in July, but then a couple of months ago I started listening to an audiobook called The Black Count by Tom Reiss, a biography of Alexandre Dumas' father, Alex Dumas. That story is pretty amazing. Alex Dumas was born the illegitimate son of a nobleman and a Caribbean slave yet became a General in the French Army. Dumas's father inspired his swashbuckling tales, and I couldn't help wishing I'd actually gotten around to read The Count of Monte Cristo and was worried about spoilers. So, I stopped listening to the audio and checked out Monte Cristo instead -- all 37 discs of the audiobook! It took me more than a month, but I finally finished it and I'm counting it as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge

I'm sure most people already know the set-up of the story, so here's the short version: young Edmond Dantes, a French sailor, spends fourteen years imprisoned in the infamous Chateau d'If after being unjustly accused of treason. His three anonymous accusers are jealous of him for various reasons, and unfortunately, the prosecutor covers up the truth to hide his dirty little secret. Poor Edmond is the victim and they essentially lock him up and throw away the key. Naturally, he is despondent, and after four years of solitary confinement, he's ready to end his own life when he receives an unexpected visitor -- another prisoner accidentally tunnels into Edmond's cell.  

This mysterious prisoner is Abbe Faria, an Italian priest who becomes Edmond's friend, mentor, and father figure. Over the next ten years, he teaches Edmond languages and sciences and gives Edmond hope. He also gives Edmond the means to plot the perfect revenge on the four men who have ruined Edmond's life. It takes years, but Edmond eventually gets justice. 

This book is one of those great epic tales -- it has daring escapes, murders, duels, daring escapes, romance, villains, buried treasure, vengeance, and more. There are a lot of characters (which I sometimes confused -- why are two of the main characters named Morrel and Morcerf? Maybe I missed something in translation). I was really impressed by how Dumas kept my interest in such a long and complicated story. I had a few quibbles with some of the amazing coincidences, but that's really just a product of its time. I was also a little bothered at the end with some of the fallout from Edmond's vengeance. Yes, he deserved justice, but at what price? 

The Count of Monte Cristo has been adapted and abridged many times, but it's really worth taking the time to read (or listen to) the original version. I listened to a lot of it on audio but also read parts of it in the excellent Penguin translation. The audiobook was good -- I will listen to pretty much anything narrated by John Lee. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this and I definitely want to read more books by Dumas. The Man in the Iron Mask is still on my Classics Club list, and I think I might also have the courage now to tackle another whopping French epic, Les Miserables, though I think I'll put it off for next summer. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

On Very Long Books

I'm beginning to feel like it's been to long since I actually wrote a book review -- summer is generally the time when I get a lot of reading done, but lately, I've been obsessed with really long books. Specifically, The Count of Monte Cristo and the Outlander series.

Monte Cristo, unabridged, is more than 1,200 pages long, so it definitely qualifies as one of the longest books I've ever read (disclosure: I am also listening to it on audio on my commute to work, which is only 15 minutes each way). Each of the Outlander books have page counts of more than 800 pages, probably closer to 900 -- and the series gets longer as it progresses.  So far, I've read about 900 pages of Monte Cristo and have now read half of the Outlanders. This is definitely going to impact my end-of-year book count -- I normally shoot for around 100 books, but I don't even think I'll hit 90 if I continue with all the doorstoppers (I still have half of Trollope's Pallisers series on the horizon.

So it made me think about the other really long books I've enjoyed -- there's something just so wonderful about getting really engrossed in a long novel or series, and knowing that you get to settle in with these characters and stories for a good long time. As I look through my Goodreads list of my favorite long books, I noticed a lot of them are historicals and fantasy novels -- makes sense when you think of all the world-building they pack in. And of course there are quite a few Victorians! Here are some of my favorite really long books:

1.  Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. (1013 pages). I first read this when I was in the sixth grade, and I've reread it many times. The underlying racism does make me uncomfortable, but I'll always love Scarlett O'Hara and her spunk. I wouldn't want to be her friend, but she's one tough chick.

2.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens. (989 pages). By far my favorite of all of Dickens' works -- it has everything! Mystery, satire, humor, a great love story -- and one of the first literary detectives in the English language, the wonderful Inspector Bucket. There's also a great miniseries adapted by the BBC in 2005.

3.  The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. The first book by Trollope that I ever read, and still one of my favorites. It's a great satire about politics and a pyramid scheme (amazingly timely when I read it in 2009) -- great drama, great characters. It's more than 780 pages and 100 chapters, and I could hardly stop reading it. I would seriously sneak away to read just one more chapter.

4. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. A charming, delightful Victorian romance novel about two families. Very Jane Austen-esque without being a complete ripoff.

5.  Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. (611 pages). One of the first classics I ever read for pleasure. I reread it a couple of years ago and loved it just as much the second time around.

6.  The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt. Great story about artistic families around the turn of the century in England. It's long with lots of plot and fascinating characters, just the thing for a lazy summer read.

7.  Middlemarch by George Eliot. Big and sprawling with a long list of characters living in a provincial town in 1830s England. Starts out a little dry but well worth sticking with the entire 800 pages.

8. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Great neo-Victorian about a pickpocket who gets involved in long con to fleece an heiress out of her inheritance. I think Sarah Waters is one of the best writers of historical fiction around, and this book includes one of the best plot twists I've ever read.

9. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (838 pages). Another neo-Victorian, about a prostitute named Sugar and her relationship with a perfume magnate.

10. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. (782 pages). Imagine if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens got together and wrote their own version of Harry Potter. The wonderful BBC TV adaptation is airing now in the U.S. If you're scared by the length, maybe watching it on TV will get you hooked. I loved every page of it!

What are your favorite long books to read during the summer months? And what are the longest books you've ever read?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Back to the Classics Mid-Year Giveaway: The Winner!

And the winner of the Back to the Classics Challenge Mid-Year Giveaway is. . . .

Cat from Tell Me A Story!!!

Congratulations, Cat, you've won your choice of any Penguin Clothbound Classic valued under $20 (US). I've sent you an email notifying you of your prize.

And thanks to everyone else who entered the giveaway, and to everyone who's signed up for the 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge! Keep reading those classics!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Back to the Classics Challenge: Mid-Year Check-In and Giveaway!

2015 is halfway over! How's everyone doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge?

I'm pleased to report that I've already finished eight of of the twelve categories, and I'm making good progress on #9!  Here's what I've read so far:
  • 19th Century Classic: Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope
  • Classic by a Woman Author: Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • Very Long Classic: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  • Classic Novella: Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Classic With a Name in the Title: Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope
  • Humorous or Satirical Classic: Frozen Assets by P. G. Wodehouse
  • Forgotten Classic: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley
  • Children's Classic: Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
I think my favorites were Lady Anna  and Mary Poppins, and of course Wodehouse is always a hoot. I did find Pickwick to be a bit of a slog, but I mostly listened to the audiobook. I'm also about a third of the way through my Classic in Translation, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, just in time for Paris in July!

I'm so pleased with my progress. And how is everyone else doing? As a little incentive, I'm having a giveaway! Just like last year, one lucky winner will receive a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic of his or her choice (up to US $20).  

Here are the rules for the Giveaway:

Updated: Since it is a holiday weekend here in the U.S., the deadline has been extended to July 10. 

1.  To enter, you must already have been signed up for the challenge (sorry, the cutoff date was back in March.) If you have not already on the list, YOU ARE NOT ELIGIBLE.

2.  Challenge participants must have already linked at least one review to one of the twelve categories in the 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge. If you've signed up but haven't posted any reviews, the cutoff date to post is July 10. 

3.  Any new links to the Challenge must follow the original parameters for the Challenge.

4.  Challenge participants must leave a comment below, letting me know which book they've most enjoyed reading for the challenge. If you like, you can also tell me which Penguin Clothbound Classic you would choose if you won (you can change your mind if you're the winner). Include an link or an email address so I can let you know if you've won. 

5. One lucky winner, drawn at random, will receive his or her choice of Penguin Clothbound Classic valued up to $20 (US) from either Amazon.com OR The Book Depository. The winner must live in a country where they can receive delivery from Amazon.com or The Book Depository. If you're not sure, click here to see if The Book Depository delivers to your country. 

6.  Comments and links must be posted no later than July 10, 2015 at 11:59 p.m., U.S. Central Standard Time. On July 11, 2015, I'll post the name of the winner. 

7.  The winner must contact me with a good address by July 16, 2015, at 11:59 p.m., or I'll choose another winner. 

So what are you waiting for?  Post some reviews, tell me which books you liked best, and let me know which Penguin Classic you'd pick if you won! 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Paris in July 2015

It's almost time for Paris in July 2015!! If you're not familiar, it's an annual event hosted by Thyme for Tea. Bloggers are encouraged to explore all things French, including books, movies, food, music, etc. I already have a list of French Classics from my TBR Shelves (can count any of these as my Book in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge):

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (I'll probably combine this with an audiobook version since it's so long)
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
La Debacle by Emile Zola
The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

Books set in France:

Julius by Daphne Du Maurier
The Glassblowers by Daphne du Maurier

Nonfiction books about France:

Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir (from my TBR Pile Challenge list)
The Black Count by Tom Reiss
The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher (can count this as a nonfiction classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge)

and possibly A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse -- my daughter just read this and loved it.

So who else is signing up for Paris in July 2015? What are you planning to read?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Victorian Celebration 2015

I've already read two Victorian novels so far this summer . . . how many more can I finish? Allie from A Literary Odyssey is hosting another Victorian Celebration this summer, so signing up was a no-brainer for me. Here are just a few of the Victorian novels on my TBR shelves:

Red Pottage by Mary Chomoldely
No Name by Wilkie Collins
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden
Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
New Grub Street by George Gissing
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau

. . . plus about a fifteen books by Anthony Trollope. Seriously.

Right now, I'm leaning toward Thomas Hardy since I loved Far From the Madding Crowd; also, Return of the Native is on my Classics Club list, though I don't own a copy, so I've been putting it off. Allie is also allowing books from non-British authors, so I may read some Zola or Victor Hugo, which also counts for Paris in July.

Anyone else signing up for the Victorian Celebration? What are you planning to read? Have you read any of the books on my list?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Well, it took a movie adaptation, but I think I am finally converted to liking Thomas Hardy. I had read Tess of the D'Urbervilles several years ago, which I thought dragged on forever, and The Mayor of Casterbridge later, which was better, but I didn't love it. However, with Far From the Madding Crowd I'm beginning to see the appeal of Hardy.

If you don't know the story, here's a brief setup. Independent and beautiful, but poor, Bathsheba Everdene first draws the attentions of sheep farmer Gabriel Oak. She rejects his proposal, and after a reversal of fortunes, she ends up giving him a job as a shepherd at the farm she has just inherited. Bathsheba has also caught the attentions of a wealthy older farmer, Mr. Boldwood, whom she also rejects. Bathsheba doesn't think she can be tamed by any man and wants to run the farm on her own. Both Oak and Boldwood wait patiently, loving her from afar, until the dashing bad-boy Sergeant Troy arrives and turns Bathsheba's head, and surprise! -- things do not end well for some of the characters. 

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It was quite an easy and straightforward read, and I really liked the character of Gabriel Oak. Bathsheba was a little frustrating at times, but I give Hardy credit for creating a strong, complex female character. It's a great story, with great writing and great characters. I can definitely see that Hardy was also a poet:

It was now early spring—the time of going to grass with the sheep, when they have the first feed of the meadows, before these are laid up for mowing. The wind, which had been blowing east for several weeks, had veered to the southward, and the middle of spring had come abruptly—almost without a beginning. It was that period in the vernal quarter when we may suppose the Dryads to be waking for the season. The vegetable world begins to move and swell and the saps to rise, till in the completest silence of lone gardens and trackless plantations, where everything seems helpless and still after the bond and slavery of frost, there are bustlings, strainings, united thrusts, and pulls-all-together, in comparison with which the powerful tugs of cranes and pulleys in a noisy city are but pigmy efforts. (Chapter XVIII). 

Having now read most of Dickens and an awful lot of Trollope, I can see how different both of them are from Hardy. Hardy's books are more pastoral and poetic, Dickens' works have more gritty characters and settings, with social commentary and melodrama, and Trollope's books are usually middle and upper-class characters, with some sly satire. Hardy also makes a lot of insightful observations. Here's what he has to say about Bathsheba:

When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who never had any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.  (Chapter XXIX)

Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba and Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak. 

I confess, I probably would not have attempted this book if I had not seen the movie adaptation first -- I usually prefer to read the book first, but my husband surprised me by taking me to a movie with period costumes so I could hardly refuse. I now have the courage to tackle more Hardy. I have two of his books on my TBR shelves, A Pair of Blue Eyes and Under the Greenwood Tree; also, The Return of the Native is on my Classics Club list. 

Bloggers, how do you like Thomas Hardy? Has anyone else seen the movie? And which book by Hardy should I read next?