Thursday, December 18, 2014

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

If time travel ever becomes a reality, DO NOT travel back to ancient Rome -- unless you have a death wish, because according to this book, everyone in Rome is trying to kill everyone else.  I, Claudius is like the Sopranos, but with togas but no baked ziti (tomatoes didn't arrive until the 1500s).  First published in 1934, this is the story of Claudius, an unlikely Roman emperor who lived from 10 BC to 54 AD.   Claudius stuttered, walked with a limp, and was slightly deaf.  Not the first choice for an emperor, normally, but he basically escaped being assassinated like everyone else for that exact reason -- everyone treated him like an idiot, and he never seemed like a threat to anyone.  He kept his mouth shut and his ears open and managed to outlive most of his family, which is pretty amazing.

It's quite a fascinating read, but it took awhile -- I can only read about so many backstabbers (sometimes literally) and murderers and plotters, and then I have to take a break.   There was so much plotting and deception, I can't believe people carried on normal lives.  At one point, Claudius does mention that most of this craziness actually involved only several hundred people, and that four million Roman citizens were basically enjoying normal, productive lives -- it was just the senators and aristocracy and their wives that were all involved in this mayhem.

I liked this book but it took a lot longer than I expected.  It's 468 pages, which doesn't usually take me that long, but this book is not a fast read.  There's hardly any dialogue, and it's densely packed with historical facts and people, sometimes it just seemed like Roman history thinly disguised as fiction.  Graves does a lot of telling, and not showing.  I don't know if he was imitating the style of classical writers, but it did get a bit tiresome.

Bust of the actual Claudius from a museum in Naples, Italy.
It was also complicated because there are so many characters, I could hardly keep track of them all ; also, many of them share the same names; for example, Claudius starts out by referring to his father and grandfather, but he never mentions their first names because they're all named Tiberius Claudius something something.  I really wish I'd started a list of the characters and their relationships while I was reading it -- I definitely would have appreciated a family tree or appendix.

I really wish I'd gotten around to reading this last winter, before I actually visited Rome.  Sadly, I didn't have nearly enough time to see all the things I wanted, though the Colisseum was amazing, and we saw the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill as well.  I missed the Circus Maxims and the Appian Way, but we drove under an aqueduct before we even checked into the hotel.  There are ruins EVERYWHERE.

There's the Colisseum, just smack in the middle of Rome.  No big deal.
I have already requested the 1976 BBC miniseries, one of the most popular ever show here in the States on PBS.  Nothing says holiday fun like murderous backstabbing Romans, right? 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green

This is my final book for the Back to the Classics Challenge!  I can't believe I took so long to finish it.  I  think I took so long to get to this category (mystery/suspense/thriller) because I had a hard time deciding which book to read.  The only book I own that qualifies is The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens.  I kept putting it off (I've gone off Dickens somewhat this year in favor of Trollope) but I finally got an audio copy from the library, and I just couldn't get into it.  (I'm not sure if it was the reader, or if it's because the main character kept referring to the girl he loves as Pussy.)

Instead, I decided to look for another author.  I thought about Agatha Christie, but I honestly think I've read every single one of her mysteries, except for the Tommy and Tuppence stories.  I was searching online for other classic mysteries and I discovered The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green, an early mystery published in 1878, a full nine years before Sherlock Holmes, and by a woman!  Naturally, I was intrigued.

Here's the setup:  Mr. Raymond (we never learn his first name), is the junior partner of a New York law firm.  One day, he is alone in the office, when a very agitated young man informs him that Mr. Leavenworth, a longtime client of the firm, has been found shot and killed in the library of his home.  In the absence of the other partners, Mr. Raymond agrees to go to the home and do whatever he can to help, and is therefore drawn into the mystery.  The body was found in a room locked from the outside, and a servant girl is missing.  Suspicion immediately falls upon Mr. Leavenworth's two beautiful nieces, cousins whom he adopted when their parents died years ago. Mary, the younger of the two, was Mr. Leavenworth's intended heir, but Mr. Raymond is immediately smitten with the other niece, Eleanor.

However, the evidence is rather bad for the two cousins.  There are scraps of burned paper found in the grate, a missing key, and most damning, the fact that Eleanor knew how to fire the very same pistol used to shoot her uncle.  Mr. Raymond is so convinced of the ladies' innocence that he begins working with Mr. Ebeneezer Gryce, a private detective, to get to the truth of the matter.

I was really hoping that this would be an amazing discovery for me, a brilliant book that nobody reads anymore.  But sadly, it was a really slow read for a mystery.  It's rather wordy and melodramatic, almost a cross between a mystery and a Victorian sensation novel.  There's not a lot of motivation or character development.  For example, it seems that Mr. Leavenworth chose Mary heir to his fortune when she was a child, simply because she was a blonde!  And Raymond mentions over and over that the two cousins are beautiful and charming, but that's pretty much it for their descriptions.  Most of the characters are fairly flat.  The most interesting characters were Mr. Gryce and his assistant, the mysterious "Q" who is a master of disguise.

However, I'm probably judging it too harshly by modern standards.  For its time, it was most likely groundbreaking.  It was very popular and Anna Katherine Green wrote a total of more than 40 books, including eight other books about Mr. Gryce.  She was one of the first to write a series of novels about a detective, and also wrote about female detectives.  It's not among the best detective stories I've ever read, but I think it's worth reading simply for its historical value.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Announcing the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015

It's back!!  Once again, I'm hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I'm hoping to encourage bloggers to read more classics.  By reading and posting about a minimum of six classic books, one lucky winner will receive a $30 gift from or The Book Depository!

This year I've made two changes to the format.  First of all, there are no required categories.  That's right!!  If there is a category you don't like (or more than one), you can just skip it, and still qualify for the drawing!

Secondly, I've increased the categories from eleven to twelve.  I had so much fun choosing categories, I couldn't decide, and so this year I've decided to make it an even dozen.  This results in a slight change to the way I'll calculate entries into the drawing.  Here's how it's going to work:
  • Complete six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!
So without further ado, here are the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015:

1.  A 19th Century Classic -- any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic -- any book published between 1900 and 1965.  Just like last year, all books must have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify as a classic.  The only exception is books that were published posthumously but written at least 50 years ago.)

3.  A Classic by a Woman Author.

4.  A Classic in Translation. As in last year's category, this can be any classic book originally written or a published in a language that is not your first language.  Feel free to read it in its original form if you are comfortable reading in another language.  

5.  A Very Long Classic Novel -- a single work of 500 pages or longer.  This does not include omnibus editions combined into one book, or short story collections.  

6.  A Classic Novella -- any work shorter than 250 pages.  For a list of suggestions, check out this list of World's Greatest Novellas from Goodreads.

7.  A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title.  First name, last name, or both, it doesn't matter, but it must have the name of a character.  David Copperfield, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote -- something like that. It's amazing how many books are named after people!

8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic.  Humor is very subjective, so this one is open to interpretation.  Just tell us in the review why you think it's funny or satirical.   For example, if you think that Crime and Punishment and funny, go ahead and use it, but please justify your choice in your post. 

9.  A Forgotten Classic.  This could be a lesser-known work by a famous author, or a classic that nobody reads any more.  If you look on Goodreads, this book will most likely have less than 1000 ratings.  This is your chance to read one of those obscure books from the Modern Library 100 Best Novels or 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  Books published by Virago Modern Classics, Persephone, and NYRB Classics often fall into this category.  

10.  A Nonfiction Classic.  A memoir, biography, essays, travel, this can be any nonfiction work that's considered a classic, or a nonfiction work by a classic author.  You'd be surprised how many classic authors dabbled in nonfiction writing -- I have nonfiction books by Dickens, Trollope, Twain, and Steinbeck on my shelves. 

11.  A Classic Children's Book.  A book for your inner child!  Pick a children's classic that you never got around to reading.  

12.  A Classic Play.  Your choice, any classic play, as long as it was published or performed before 1965.

And now for the rest of the rules:  

  • All books must be read in 2015.  Books started prior to January 1, 2015, are not eligible.  Reviews must be linked by December 31, 2015. 
  • All books must have been published at least 50 years ago; therefore, 1965 is the cutoff date.  The only exception is books published posthumously, but written before 1965. 
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible!  Books may also count for other challenges you may be working on.  
  • Books may NOT cross over categories within this challenge.  You may NOT count the same book twice for different categories in this challenge.  One book per category -- otherwise, they won't count.  
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link your review from Goodreads or other publicy accessible online format.  
  • Please sign up for the challenge using the linky below BEFORE MARCH 31, 2015.  If possible, please link to your sign-up announcement post, if possible or applicable.
  • You do NOT have to list your books prior to starting the challenge, but it's more fun if you do!  You can always change your list at any time.  Books may be read in any order.
  • Please identify the categories you've read in your wrap-up post so that I can easily add up your entries for the prize drawing!  Adding links within the post would be greatly appreciated. 
  • The prize will be awarded the first week of January, 2016.  All qualifying participants will receive one or more entries, based on the categories completed, and will receive a $30 (US) gift card from or The Book Depository, as long as they live in a country that can receive shipment.  See here for list of countries.  
So, that's the challenge!  Please sign up with the linky below.  I'll be posting a list of my own possible reads for the challenge in the next few days.  Happy reading!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Reminder: Back to the Classics Challenge Ends Soon!

Hey, remember the Back to the Classics Challenge??  Well, there's still time to post your reviews and your wrap-up posts if you want to qualify for the drawing!!  I had a total of 132 people sign up (including myself) and so far, only seven people have submitted wrap-up posts to qualify.  If you're one of the other 131 people, and you've posted reviews of at least six classic books from the categories, it's not too late for you to write a short wrap-up post to be entered into the drawing for the prize giveaway, a $30 (US) gift card from or the Book Depository.  

The official challenge rules are here, but please keep in mind that I need to see a wrap-up post and don't forget that all books for this challenge must be 50 years old to qualify; therefore, any book published AFTER 1964 is ineligible for this challenge and WILL NOT COUNT.

If you didn't make the original sign up (the deadline was back in March), never fear, because the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 is definitely on!!  I'll be posting details soon.  

So, how is everyone doing with the challenge?  I've finished ten of the eleven categories, and I'm nearly finished with my last book, a classic mystery.  (Though I'm not putting my own name into the drawing).   Please let me know in the comments section how you're doing -- if you finished, which books did you like best?  Worst?  If you didn't finish, how far did you get?  If nothing else, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you knocked some of those classics off your TBR pile!  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

With less than a month until the end of Adam's 2014 TBR Pile Challenge, I still had three books left to finish.  I nearly gave up with more than 1000 combined pages to read by the end of December, but decided I there was still enough time to give it a final shot.  I chose Norwegian Wood as my first read because, quite honestly, it was the shortest of the three and I thought I could knock it out fairly quickly.

Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age story about a young Japanese man, Toru Watanabe.  The story begins with a prologue of Toru in middle age as he suddenly relives a memory of an old girlfriend which is triggered by hearing the Beatles song "Norwegian Wood."  We flash back to the late 1960s, and learn about his troubled history with the beautiful and fragile Naoko, whom he'd originally met when Naoko was the girlfriend of Toru's childhood best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide when they were all 17.  Now in college, Toru and Naoko had rekindled their friendship after a chance meeting.  

The book follows the evolution of their friendship to the beginnings of a romance, but the course of true love never does run smoothly, and without spoiling too much, I'll just say that the couple is separated.  Toru is trying to hang on to his relationship with Naoka, but meanwhile he meets another girl Midori.  Toru is also influenced by an older student, Nagasawa who is brilliant but something of a cold-hearted playboy, though he has a long-suffering girlfriend.   Basically, the story examines Toru's maturing as he struggles to reconcile his feelings for the two women and starts making decisions about how to live his life. 

Overall, I liked Norwegian Wood, but I can't really say I loved it.  I do think the writing was excellent and insightful, and I loved reading a the descriptions of Japan, especially about everyday life.  However, there were some aspects of the book that made me sort of uncomfortable, especially how the female characters were depicted. There's a lot of discussion about their sex lives which tended to go into way more detail than I needed to know, plus I think it was kind of sexist.  I understand that it's told from a young man's point of view and it is his coming-of-age story, but I really feel like the female characters were essentially a man's fantasy about what young women should be like.  I know it's a completely different culture and I should expect women of a different generation to fulfill my expectations, but it still bothered me.  

Norwegian Wood was incredibly popular in Japan and has sold millions of copies all over the world, and made the author into a literary superstar.  I bought this book more than 10 years ago, when I was living in Japan at Yokota Air Force Base, in Fussa-shi, a suburb of Tokyo.  I think I bought it because I wanted to learn more about Japanese culture, but I'm not sure why I never got around to reading it while I was there.  I really wish I had because there are a lot of mentions of places in and around Tokyo that I've actually visited, and quite a few that I wish I'd seen. I think I would have gotten a lot more out of the Japanese culture depicted if I'd read it while I was actually in Japan. 

I also really wish I knew someone else who'd read it so I could have a real discussion about it.  I do think this would be a really great book for a discussion -- this would be great for a read along, or a book group.  I haven't included too many details because I hate giving away too many plot details.  

So, over ally, I don't think it will be one of my favorite reads of the year, but I'm very glad I read it and now I'm curious to read more by Murakami and possibly other Japanese writers.  I still have an unread copy of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata which is a Japanese classic that I hope to read next year.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

TBR Pile Challenge 2015

I probably have no business signing up for a reading challenge for 2015, as I've been in a terrible blogging slump lately.  However, I've signed up for the TBR Pile Challenge for three years in a row.  I can't not even try!

For the past three years, I've just chosen books that have been hanging around the TBR shelves for a long time.  They seem so random that when I've finished them, it doesn't even seem to have made an impact on the rest of the pile.  This year, I decided to select books all from the same shelf, so when they're done, it will seem more noticeable, if that makes any sense.  I made several lists grouping books together, like 12 Persephones, 12 Penguin Classics, 12 Viragos, etc., but what I finally decided on is a dozen nonfiction books.  I've really been into nonfiction the past few years.  Here's what I came up with: 

My attempt at an artistic photo.  

In alphabetical order, by author (the books in the photo are sorted by size, alternates in the small pile):

Demobbed:  Coming Home After the Second World War by Alan Allport.  A follow-up to one of my 2014 reads about WWII, Few Eggs and No Oranges.  I'm interested to see how people reacted as they adjusted to life after the war.
The Girls from Winnetka by Marcia Chellis.  A gift from BookSnob back in 2010. 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.  It's been on my to-read list for years, and a couple of years ago I found a copy for $1 at the Friends of the Library Sale.

Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullerton.  I had to include at least one book about Jane Austen, since I have at least ten unread on my shelves.  I bought this one at my very first Jane Austen Society convention, in 2009. 

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer.  I just hope it doesn't make me cry. 

I Married Adventure: The Lives of Martin and Osa Johnson by Osa Johnson. Two pioneering adventurer/photographers and their memoir.  I bought this at Disneyworld back when I lived in Florida.  You'd be surprised at how many interesting books they have in the gift shops at Disney!

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.  I'll probably read this in May for Asian-Pacific Heritage Month. 

Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold Packer.  Because I'm fascinated by the Victorian period.  

Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir.  I bought this at the Frick Museum gift shop in New York, because it's an NYRB classic, and because I love Impressionists.  

Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover by Jancis Robinson.  I think I bought this shortly after I was married, when I went to a lot of wine-tastings and read lots of books about wine.  If I don't love it, it's going into the donation bin at the library. 

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Clair Tomalin.  Another book from the Friends of the Library Sale (I've stopped going to these, because they're just too tempting).  I just finished reading The Garden Party and Other Stories, so now I want to read all about her. 

Letters From Hawaii by Mark Twain.  Bought in Honolulu in 2010.  I should have read it while I was there.  


A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman.  A nonfiction book about mid-century women authors from my Persephone shelf.

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford.  Because I loved The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, which was my favorite book from the 2014 TBR Challenge, and one of my top reads this year.

So, bloggers, what do you think?  I'm pretty excited about all of these, and none of them seem like homework (which is holding me back from the last few reads on my 2014 list).  Which ones have you loved?  Which ones should I ignore in favor of my alternates?  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Back to the Classics Challenge 2015??

So, this is just a short post to find out how many people would be interested if I continued to the Back to the Classics Challenge next year!!  I know I've been very remiss in posting lately, so I may have lost a lot of followers; also, so far only three bloggers have posted links to their final wrap-up posts (there's still a month left!!  You only need six books to qualify for the drawing!)

However, I'm not one for giving up easily!  Besides, I've already figured out what categories to use for next year -- and I have an idea for a pretty big change that will make the challenge easier.

Bloggers, what do you think?  Anyone up for another Back to the Classics Challenge for 2015??

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reading England 2015 Challenge

As usual, I have no business signing up for any challenges since I can't even write a decent blog post for two whole months, but o from Behold the Stars is hosting one that's so intriguing, I can't resist (and yes, I'm still signing up for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.  More on that later).

Anyway, it's a Reading England Challenge for 2015.  Basically, the idea is to read different books set in the different counties of England.  I have about ninety books on my TBR shelves that I've classified as Brit Lit, so there have to be some I can use, right?  

Details of the challenge are here, but I'm signing up for level 2, four to six counties. Here are some possible selections (and if I have the appropriate counties wrong, please let me know.  I'm also open to suggestions.

I'm trying to limit my choices to classic books.  Here's what I've come up with so far from the TBR shelves and other books on my radar:

Buckinghamshire:  Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

Cornwall:  Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Cumbria:   Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

Devon:  A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

Dorset: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Lancashire:  Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

London:   New Grub Street by George Gissing

Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham

Norfolk:  Armadale by Wilkie Collins

Somerset:  No Name by Wilkie Collins

The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by P. G. Wodehouse

Yorkshire:  Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
Of course I have lots more books by Trollope on the TBR shelves, but a bunch of them are the Palliser novels which I think take place mostly in London, plus some Irish novels.  One could do an entire challenge of novels set in London, and I think the idea is to spread the reads out amongst various counties.  

Any other suggestions?  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

I'm terribly, terribly behind with book reviews -- I actually read this book over the summer, and finally got around to finishing this, though I have little chance of completing this years TBR Pile Challenge. But anyway:  

The Edwardians begins with this author's note: 

 No character in this book is wholly fictitious.

Written in 1930, this is a book about the end of an era.  It begins in 1905 at a house party at Chevron, a massive estate owned by a fictional young Duke, Sebastian, who is 19.  It ends six years later, on Coronation Day, June 22, 1911, at the after the death of Edward VII.  

Sebastian's mother, Lucy, has invited a variety of guests, including a famous explorer, Leonard Anquetil.  He observes the society matrons and other upper-crusties from an anthropological viewpoint.   Late at night, he and Sebastain scale the roof of the great house and Anquetil predicts what Sebastian's future will hold.  It's more than a page, but here's a small chunk of it:

My dear boy, your life was mapped out for you from the moment you were born.  You went to a preparatory school; you went to Eton; you are now at Oxford; you will go into the Guards, you will have various love-affairs, mostly with fashionable married women; you will frequent wealthy and fashionable houses; you will attend Court functions; you will wear a white-and-scarlet uniform -- and look very handsome in it too -- you will be flattered and persecuted by every mother in London . . . . 

Naturally, Anquetil is mostly correct.  There's a long digression into one of Sebastian's affairs, though interestingly told from the point of view of the lady in question.  Sebastian then gets involved with a very unexpected young lady.  Will Sebastian fulfill the destiny predicted by his friend Anquetil? 

Though I found some parts a bit slow, I enjoyed The Edwardians.  However, I read it, I couldn't help thinking shortly, Europe would explode into the Great War and that Sebastian, then aged about 29, would surely go off to fight in the war.  Based on my recent reading of Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, I know that there's a very high chance that a young many of Sebastian's era and social standing would die in battle, or be wounded or shell-shocked, thus ending the male line or rerouting it significantly, as was feared in Downton Abbey.  Of course, after the War many estates fell apart due to lack of funds, servants, and heirs, but that's a different story.  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Long Absence

Wow.  I can't believe it's been more than two months since I last posted anything.  If anyone at all is still following this blog, I apologize for my absence.  Work and life have just gotten really intense in the past couple of months, and lately, the thought of blogging has just felt like homework.

I spend most of my day at work in front of a computer, and I work so many hours that when I get home, the last thing I feel like doing is sitting at a laptop and writing something clever that nobody's ever said before.  I'm still reading, but I feel like I can't think of anything clever and insightful that is worth sharing.  Plus, I feel like I need to spend more time with my family.  I have two daughters, and in less than a year, my oldest will be leaving for college, so I need to spend more time with her (not to mention the stress of the college application process -- and she's also learning how to drive!)

Anyway, I'm not giving up this blog altogether, but I just wanted to let everyone know I haven't fallen off the face of the earth.

If you're still participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge, don't worry -- I'm still giving out a prize at the end of the year, so don't forget to post if you're still reading the classics!!  I'm not sure if I'll be hosting it again next year, but I am definitely committed to choosing a winner and awarding the prize!!  I'll be posting reminders through the end of the year.

Thanks again for not giving up on me!