Tuesday, December 31, 2013

TBR Pile Challenge 2013: Completed!

I did it!  For the second year, I achieved my goal and finished twelve of the books that I really, really wanted to knock off my TBR Pile -- I've owned some of them for a really long time.  Here's a link to my original post, and these are the books I completed, in order, with links to the reviews:

1.  Fidelity by Susan Glaspell. Another great Peresephone, though this one's set in America.  It's the story of a scandalous woman who returns back to her small town, years after running away with a married man.

2.  Captain Corelli's Mandolin  by Louis de Berniers.  Great wartime romance set on a Greek Island.  I liked it though the ending disappointed me.

3. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.  Another wartime story, though from the Japanese perspective, though it mostly dealt with domestic life in 1930s and 1940s.  A great story, one of my favorites of the year.

4.  Nella Last's War by Nella Last.  A wartime diary of an ordinary housewife in England -- wow, that's the third WWII book in a row!

5.  Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence.  A pleasant surprise -- I was really dreading this one but I found I really enjoyed it and sympathized with the main character.

6.  My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.  A great coming-of-age book about a painter torn between his need to express himself through his art and his Orthodox Jewish family.  Another treasure.

7.  Giants in the Earth by A. E. Rolvaag.  A pioneer story about Norwegian immigrants in South Dakota -- like Little House on the Prairie, but from the parents' point of view.

8.  The New York Stories of Edith Wharton.  A wonderful collection, all set in New York City or about New Yorkers.  Mostly great stories, with a couple of clunkers.

9.   The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hacek.  The book I'm most proud of completing.  It's more than 700 pages about an idiot soldier in WWI and all of his exploits.

10.  Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.  A great book, one of my favorite reads of the year.  I learned so much about China and it was so insightful about the rise of Communism -- and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

11.  The Duchess [Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire] by Amanda Foreman.  More great nonfiction!  A little too much detail about 18th century English politics for my taste, but a fascinating story about a tragic woman.  

12.  Kipps by H. G. Wells.  Another treasure I'm sorry to have kept on the shelf for so long.  It's a charming social satire about the rise and fall of a bourgeois young man in Edwardian England.  A great read.

I was lucky this year -- of the twelve that I completed, I really enjoyed most of them. Some of them really surprised me, like Kipps and Lady Chatterley -- I liked them much more than I expected.  Overall, I'd say my favorites were Wild Swans, My Name is Asher Lev, and The Makioka Sisters.  I'd highly recommend all of them -- I'm just sorry I waited so long to read them!

And now the books I still haven't finished. . . .

Collected Novellas by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  I started reading them out of order, since I'd selected one of them, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as the October read for my book group.  That one was a reread for me and I still loved it, but I just couldn't get through the second novella, Leaf Storm.  It was so depressing and dreary and I have no desire to ever finish it.  It's turned me off Garcia Marquez at the moment, I don't know if I'll ever finish the third novella, No One Writes to the Colonel.

And finally. . . . Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.  It's long, and it looks like it's going to be a really, really slow read.  Maybe I'll just save it for next year and count it towards some other challenge!

How about you, bloggers?  Did anyone else sign up for the TBR Pile Challenge last year?  Did you finish?  And have you signed up for next year?  I love this challenge and I've already signed up.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Back to the Classics Challenge Completed!

I've completed Sarah's Back to the Classics 2013 challenge!!  It took me almost the entire year, but I've done it, and it was great fun.  Here's what I read:

1.  19th century classic  -- The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Margaret Oliphant  2/27/13
2.  20th century classic -- The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki  4/25/13
3.  Classic from the 18th century, or earlier -- Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe  10/31/13
4.  Classic related to the African-American experience -- Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin  2/6/13
5.  Adventure classic -- The 39 Steps by John Buchan  6/13/13
6.  Classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title -- My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley  6/7/13

The five optional categories:

1.  Reread of a classic work -- Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton 1/4/13
2.  Russian classic -- Epic fail!!  I knew this was going to be the hardest one, and I just didn't get to it.  I actually did attempt to read Crime & Punishment a couple of weeks ago -- not an ideal holiday read, by a long shot (especially after just finishing The Earth by Emile Zola.)  Oh well.  
3.  Non-fiction classic -- All The Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim  11/8/13
4.  Children's or young adult classic -- The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham  5/28/13
5.  Classic short stories -- three or more stories by the same author, or by connected by the same genre or time period -- The New York Stories of Edith Wharton  8/2/13

This was a really fun challenge.  Of the eleven books, seven were from my own shelves.  It pushed me to try books I wouldn't have read, or not for a long time.  My favorite read would have to be a tie between the children's classic, The Children Who Lived in a Barn, and The Makioka Sisters.  Of course I love Wharton and Ethan Frome is one of my all-time favorites.  I think I've read it three or four times now and I still love it.

Least favorite -- My Dog Tulip.  Blech.  I was expecting a loving memoir about a man and his dog; instead, I got Too Much Information about the sex lives of German Shepherds -- a huge disappointment.  (At least it was short, and it was one more book from my own shelves I could cross off my to-read list). The other pet memoir, All the Dogs of My Life, was far superior.

Thank you again, Sarah, for creating this challenge!  And next year, I'm adopting this challenge (at least temporarily) and hosting it myself!  Details can be found here, so if you're interested, please sign up!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Back to the Classics Challenge 2014: My List

So, this year, I'm taking over for Sarah, and I'm hosting the Back to the Classics 2014 Challenge!!  (Click here for details, and to sign up.)  Of course I had to sign up for my own challenge!!  Of course I won't enter myself into the drawing -- my reward will be finishing ten classics, hopefully all from my own TBR shelves, and watching a movie! I'm trying not to repeat books from other challenges, so I can make more progress.  This list isn't strictly fixed, but here's what I want to read this year:

19th Century Classic:  Something by Anthony Trollope (I have twenty of his books unread on my shelves!).  There's an online Trollope reading group and they have some upcoming group reads, so I'll try to participate in one of them.  Maybe He Knew He Was Right.

20th Century Classic:  Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.  Or maybe some P. G. Wodehouse, I have several unread on my shelves.

Classic in Translation:  Zola!  I still have three of his books unread:  Nana, The Dream, and The Debacle.  It will probably be one of those.  Or maybe Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata -- a Japanese classic that I've owned for several years.

Classic By Woman Author:   Lots of these on the TBR shelves!  I'll probably choose something by Edith Wharton -- either Twilight Sleep or The Glimpses of the Moon.  Or maybe Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Classic by an Author Who's New To Me:   The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West.  I've never read anything by her, and I bought this when I was in Downton Abbey withdrawal.

Wartime Novel: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West.  Or maybe The Debacle by Emile Zola.

Optional Categories:

Classic American Novel:   I haven't read any Steinbeck in a long time, so maybe The Short Reign of Pippin IV (from the TBR shelves) or The Moon is Down, unless I use that one for my wartime novel.

Historical Novel: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather.  Or maybe I'll be brave and read The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.

Classic Mystery/Suspense Novel:  No Name or Armadale by Wilkie Collins.  Or maybe The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens -- it's one of the last books on my Dickens list.

Classic Book That's Been Adapted as a Movie or TV Series:  The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason, or if I want more Trollope, He Knew He Was Right;  And there's always I, Claudius, which is supposed to be one of the best series from PBS of all time.

So that's my list!  How do you like my choices?  I'm really excited about this challenge!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Announcing the Back to the Classics Challenge 2014 Sign Up

Okay, you've convinced me -- I had a lot of encouraging responses when I suggested that I might take over Sarah's Back to the Classics Challenge next year -- how could I refuse?  It's official!!!  Here's the post where you sign up.

The challenge will be very similar to the way Sarah created it.  Like last year, there will be six required categories that all participants must complete.  Everyone who reads and reviews six eligible books and writes a wrap-up post will automatically be entered into the drawing for an Amazon gift card for $30 (U.S) or a choice of book(s) from The Book Depository.

There will also be five optional categories for additional entries.  Participants who complete three of those (with corresponding posts) will also get an additional entry into the prize drawing;  those completing posts in all five categories will get another entry, for a total of three.  To receive the maximum of three entries, you would need to post eleven times.  

I am making one slight change, other than varying the book categories.  I'm a little stricter than Sarah regarding the definition of a classic.  In my opinion, a classic is a book that has endured for some reason ; therefore, I am defining a classic as a book that was written at least 50 years ago.  Therefore, any book written after 1964 is ineligible. [I've amended this from published to written so that posthumously published books are now acceptable. ]

Here are the rest of the guidelines:

  • All books must be read in 2014.  Books started prior to January 1, 2014 are not eligible.  Reviews must be linked by December 31, 2014.
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible!  Books can count for other challenges you may be working on.  However, books may NOT crossover categories within this challenge.  You may NOT count the same book twice for different categories in this challenge.  
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link your review from Goodreads or other publicly accessible online format.  
  • Please sign up for the challenge using the linky below BEFORE MARCH 1, 2014.  Please link to your sign-up announcement post (if possible/applicable).
  • You do not have to list your books prior to starting the challenge, but it is more fun that way :).  You can always change your list at any time.  You can read the books in any order (including mixing in the optional categories at any time).
  • You can decide to attempt the optional categories at any point (you can also bow out of the optional categories at any point as well).
  • 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 also be greatly appreciated. 
And finally. . . . The 2014 categories: 


  1. A 20th Century Classic
  2. A 19th Century Classic
  3. A Classic by a Woman Author
  4. A Classic in Translation  If English is not your primary language, then books originally published in English are acceptable.  You could also read the book in its original language if you are willing and able to do so.
  5. A Classic About War  2014 will be the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.  Any book relating to a war is fine -- WWI, WWII, the French Revolution, the War of the Worlds -- your choice.
  6. A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You This can be any author whose works you have not read before.  It doesn't necessarily have to be an author you've never heard of.  
Optional Categories:
  1. An American Classic
  2. A Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller 
  3. A Historical Fiction Classic.  This is any classic set at least 50 years before the time when it was written.  For example, Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind 70 years after the end of the Civil War; therefore, it is considered a historical novel.  A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Letter are also historical novels.  However, older classics set during the period in which they were written are not considered historical; for example, the novels of Jane Austen.
  4. A Classic That's Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series.  Any period, any genre!  This is practically a free choice category.  However, it's a separate category than the required categories.
  5. Extra Fun Category:  Write a Review of the Movie or TV Series adapted from Optional Category #4.  This should be some kind of posting reviewing the book read for the previous optional category above.  It can be any adaptation -- does not have to be adapted before 1964.  For example, if you chose Pride and Prejudice as your the optional classic above, you could review any adaptation -- 1940, 1980, 1995, 2005, etc. These two optional categories go together, but this must be a separate blog posting -- no fair just mentioning it in the book review!
And to clarify, you have to read different books for each category -- you can repeat authors or genres, but no fair using the same book multiple times within this challenge! The only book that you can repeat is in the movie/TV adaptation review.  

So that's the challenge!  I'll be posting my list of possible choices later this week. If you're interested in participating, please sign up in the linky below!

UPDATED: Sign-ups for this challenge are now officially closed.  But please check back -- maybe I'll be hosting it again in 2015!!  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Back to the Classics Challenge 2014???

This past year, one of my favorite challenges has been the Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much.  This was a great challenge -- basically, participants read and blogged about six required categories and five optional categories.  After completion, they wrote a wrap-up post.  Participants who completed the required categories and wrap-up post got one entry into a drawing for a $30 gift card; people who complete additional categories get additional drawing entries.  Simple, right? (For more details, click here). 

Well, 2013 was Sarah's third year in a row of hosting the challenge, and sadly, she announced recently that she just had too much going on to host it for the fourth year.  However, she did offer to let anyone take over the hosting duties, at least temporarily.  So it got me thinking. . . what if I took over hosting for 2014?  Am I completely crazy?  I've been emailing back and forth with Sarah, and I think the hardest part will be setting up the sign-ups -- I've had several giveaways, but I've never hosted a challenge before.  I think the hardest thing would be incorporating the Mr. Linky widget.  (I've already had fun creating my own button, above).  

Bloggers, what do you think?  Am I a mad fool to consider this?  How hard can it be?  And most of all, is anyone interested in signing up if I take the plunge and do this?  Please let me know in the comments!!  And if you have any ideas for categories, list those as well.  I have some ideas and if I do this, I'll post by the end of the week. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Kipps by H. G. Wells

Last year, when I was making up my TBR Pile Challenge selections, I picked several books that I had been dreading for one reason or another -- Lady Chatterley's Lover; The Good Soldier Svejk; Giants in the Earth; and, finally, Kipps by H. G. Wells.  As it turned out, the first three were much better than I expected, but Kipps kept getting pushed back to the bottom of the stack. 

Back in 2005, I began my quest to read more classics -- I realized how few I'd read.  Anyway, around that time I went to the St. Petersburg Festival of reading and got a bunch of books signed.  I mentioned to one author that I was trying to read more classics and she recommended Kipps, which I'd never heard of.  Oddly enough, though, I'd actually read another book by Wells back in college, Tono-Bungay, which hardly anyone else has read.  I did remember that I disliked Tono-Bungay; in fact, I really disliked the entire class, which was a modern British history class that everyone was dying to get into for some reason.  [Did I go to entire college of Anglophiles?  The professor was awful].  

Anyhow, I somehow ended up buying Kipps and then ignored it for about eight years.  Well, this was the year -- I was down to my last three unread books from the TBR Pile Challenge, and I packed Kipps into my carryon luggage for Thanksgiving vacation.  I thought if I finished all my other books, I would be forced to read this.  And it worked!!  Kipps turned out to be a hidden treasure, my favorite book by H. G. Wells so far.

Published in 1905, Kipps is a social satire, the story of the rise and fall of a young man, Arthur Kipps.  The story begins in the 1870s, when Arthur is a young boy and he is sent off to live with his aunt and uncle, who run a small draper's shop in a town called New Romney.  He doesn't know anything about his father, and has only vague memories of his mother.  When he's fourteen, he leaves school and is sent off to Folkestone to apprentice at a larger draper's shop.  After four years, a chance encounter one night leads to a series of events; the upshot is that Kipps finds out that someone is looking for him, because he's about to inherit a nice sum of money.  Kipps is an heir; the father he never knew died years ago in Australia, and his paternal grandfather was a gentleman and has left him twelve hundred a year. 

Overnight, Arthur's life changes.  He goes from being a common shop assistant to a well-to-do man, and he has a hard time adjusting to his new situation -- is he a commoner now, or a gentleman?  What about his old friends?  His aunt and uncle?  Arthur quickly finds a social-climbing fiancee and a new circle of friends, but doesn't quite know how to mix in Society.  I kept wondering if these new friends were real or whether they were just trying to bilk him out of his newfound fortune -- it reminded me of all these horror stories I hear about when people win the lottery and how it actually ruins their lives.  

There was one part in particular that really embodied Arthur's experience: he's in London, famished and trying to find a restaurant to have lunch.  He's too shy and embarrassed to go to an upscale restaurant -- to afraid to make a faux pas.  He decides to turn down a side street and go into the first working-class restaurant he sees.  He finds a fish and chip restaurant and is about to go in but realizes that now he's too well dressed, and won't fit in there either!  It's really sad.  

Naturally, Arthur's life isn't a fairy story, and as you'd expect, things take a bad turn.  But Kipps isn't so much about Arthur's financial situation as it is a social commentary, about class-consciousness, which is apparently far more rigid in England that it is in the U.S. -- I always read in books and see bits on British TV about people knowing their place.  (Don't get me wrong, we still have class-consciousness in America, but I think people just pretend it doesn't exist.  It does.  Plus racism is alive and well, but we don't need to go into that).  

Towards the end, I was eager to find out how Kipps' story would resolve.  I'm happy to report that it came as quite a surprise, but in a very satisfying way.  Arthur Kipps is a delightful character and I loved his story.  Another success from the TBR Pile Challenge!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

TBR Pile Challenge 2014

2013 wasn't even halfway over when I started planning my list for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge!  The goal:  read at 12 specified books that have been hanging around the TBR shelves unread for at least one year.  I've been revising this list for a while, and I think I'm finally done.  I'm nearly finished with the 2013 challenge, and this year, I'm trying to include more fun books -- I really liked most of the books on the list this year, but I was really dreading some of them.  I'm going to try and make this less of a chore this year.  Here's my list:

1.  Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge. Bought at the Borders liquidation.  Completed 7/3/14.

2.  Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.  One of many black-spine Penguin Classics on the TBR shelves.  Also bought at the Borders blowout.  Completed 12/29/14.

3.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  It's been on my to-read list for years, because it's on the Modern Library Top 100 list.  I'm especially interested because my oldest daughter is taking Latin and she's learning all about Roman culture.  I've never seen the PBS miniseries adaptation, so maybe I'll watch that too. Completed 12/17/14. 

4.  The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  I loved The Cazalets miniseries, based on this book.  Bought it (and the second in the series, Marking Time) for only $1 from the library's donation cart.  Completed 1/5/14. 

5.  Kim by Rudyard Kipling.  Another book from the ML Top 100.  I've only read 49 so far, so if I complete both this and I, Claudius, I'll be more than halfway through the list. Completed 5/10/14.

6.  Dusty Answer by Rosamund Lehmann.  A Christmas gift from about three years ago.  Completed 2/16/14.

7.  The Sisters:  The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell. Bought after reading (and loving) The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate -- in 2006. Completed 6/15/14.

8.  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.  I bought this while I actually lived in Japan almost ten years ago (via Amazon, ironically).  Still haven't read it.  Completed 12/5/14.

9.  Singled Out:  How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After WWI by Virginia Nicholson.   Bought during Downton Abbey withdrawal.  I'm thinking about reading up on WWI next year, in honor of the 100th anniversary.  There's also a WWI Library Thing readalong.  Completed 7/19/14. 

10.  Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant. Another Penguin I have wanted to read for years.  I've heard this one somewhere between Jane Austen (or is it Elizabeth Gaskell?) and George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I loved. Completed 2/1/14.

11.  The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West.  Also purchased during Downton Abbey withdrawal.  Completed 8/31/14.

12.   The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  From my Big Box of Penguin Classics.  My copy is actually the Graphic Deluxe Classics version, and the cover is really disturbing.  Completed 6/7/14. 


1.  Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch.  Yet another purchase from Borders before they closed.  Sigh.

2.  The River's Tale by Edward Gargan.  Another book about Asia purchased while I was overseas.  I should have really put this in the must-read list for the challenge.

So -- several Penguins, several non-fiction books, four from my Classics Club list, two in translation, and some lighter reading as well.  What do you think, bloggers?  Good list?  Which are must reads, and which should be put off until the bitter end?  And who else is signing up for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge?  What's on your list?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim

I was looking for the next book in my Back to the Classics Challenge, and having a hard time deciding -- I really wanted to read something from my own shelves, but nothing was really speaking to me.  Finally, I picked up All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim, author of the beloved Enchanted April and Elizabeth in Her German Garden, both of which I loved.  After reading both of these, I had purchased All the Dogs of My Life, her memoir of the many dogs that she'd owned.  Somehow, though, I kept avoiding it.  I adore dogs, but I'm a very tender-hearted person, and inevitably, memoirs with pets end up with me bawling my eyes out.  They nearly always end up with doggie deathbed scenes that make me cry like a baby.  (This is why I've never read Old Yeller or The Yearling.)

But All the Dogs of My Life is very short, just over 200 pages, and there's lots of white space on the pages.  I'd just finished more than 500 densely-written pages about Communist China, and was deep in the midst of The Duchess by Amanda Foreman, 400 densely-written pages of history about the 18th century British aristocracy.  I love nonfiction but sometimes it's awfully slow.  

And Elizabeth von Arnim is just a delightful writer.  She's wry, witty, and charming.  Most of the book is quite funny, with only a few sad moments.  She recounts all fourteen dogs she's had in her life, and describes how she came to have them and all about her life during those periods, ranging from tiny dachshunds to enormous Great Danes.  Amazingly, I got nearly all the way through the entire book without even getting choked up.  Finally, I was down to the last twenty pages, so I thought I could quickly finish it one morning before I went to work -- and then I was devastated.  I won't go into great detail, but once again, a pet memoir had me crying like it was my own beloved dog.  

I loved this book and I want to read more of von Arnim's books, but seriously, if you're interested in this book, you'll need some tissues for the final chapter, unless you have a heart of stone, or if you aren't a dog lover, in which case you probably want to avoid this book altogether.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Books and Chocolate Cake

I know, this isn't a food blog.  Originally, when I started the blog more than four years ago, I did post a few recipes and the occasional photo of food I'd eaten in restaurants, but 99% of my postings have been book-related.  Today I am making an exception because last week, November 15 it was National Bundt Day.  (Really.  It's a thing.)

Anyway, about a year ago, I became obsessed with bundt cake after finding this amazing blog:  The Food Librarian, created by Mary, an amazing baker and librarian in California.  Like myself, she likes cake and doesn't care much for frosting; hence, the bundts.  And who can resist all those pretty pans?

Almost every year, Mary celebrates November by baking bundts, sometimes, a different one every single day.  This year, she's giving a way a new bundt pan to anyone who posts about a bundt they made -- and how could I resist?  So Monday morning I made this cake and brought it to work:

This is a Malted Milk Chocolate Cake from the Beekman 1802 Heritage Dessert Cookbook by Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge (also known as the Beekman Boys, goat farmers and winners of last year's Amazing Race).  I love chocolate and I love malted milk balls, so I thought this would be a fun recipe to try.  The original recipe called for a 9 x 13 baking pan, but I thought it would make a fun bundt.  (Those lumps on the cake are bits of chopped malted milk balls).

Well, yes and no.  At first I was going to bake it in my largest 12-cup bundt pan, which is stoneware, then I realized it would never be finished in time for me to get to work.  I pulled it out of the oven after just a minute and scraped most of the batter into the smaller 10-inch Heritage bundt pan; the rest I baked into a teeny 3-cup bundt pan.  (I left this for my kids to eat since I was taking the larger bundt to work).  Well, it was nearly a disaster -- the batter puffed up and overflowed from the small bundt and burned all over the bottom of the oven.  The recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of baking soda, which is a LOT -- I was worried that it was a printing error and that the whole thing would be a disaster.  And that I would be late to work.

Well, fifteen minutes before I had to leave, I checked the cakes again, and they were both finished (the small one should have been done much quicker, which was odd).  I pulled them from the oven and they were cooled enough to turn out of the pans with five minutes to spare before I jumped in the car with my beautiful warm cake.  It was delicious, rich and chocolatey with little chunks of malted milk balls.   Now everyone at work thinks I am a hero because I brought warm chocolate cake.  There was barely a scrap left by the end of the day.

So thanks, Mary, for inspiring me to make this cake, and thank you Beekman Boys for your beautiful new cookbook!  I'll be back to blogging about books next time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Duchess by Amanda Foreman

After completing Wild Swans, I was inspired to tackle more nonfiction (specifically, book #11 for the TBR Pile Challenge.)  I'd seen the movie adaptation of The Duchess a couple of years ago, but never got around to reading the book which I'd picked up for a paltry $1 at the library Friends sale.  It was also one of the reading selections from our Jane Austen book group that I never read.

Anyhow, once I finally started reading this, I quite liked it.  Georgiana was a really interesting woman.  I mostly think of 17th century women as standing around in giant dresses with enormous powdered wigs, but she was actually a political powerhouse.  Georgiana Spencer (great-great-I-forgot-how-many-times-great aunt of Lady Diana Spencer, yes, THAT Diana Spencer) was 17 when she married the Duke of Devonshire, uniting two rich and powerful British families in the late 1700s.  Most of what I know about 18th century history is about the American Revolution; this book is about what was happening politically on the other side of the Atlantic around that time.  Her marriage to the Duke was troubled, yet she became involved in politics and was incredibly influential with the Whig party.  She was also a close confidante of famous politicians like James Fox and the Prince Regent (and all you Jane Austen fans know exactly who that is).

Of course this book talks about Georgiana's difficult marriage and home life, and her complicated relationship with the Duke, and her best friend Elizabeth Foster, who lived with them for years and  was also her husband's off and on mistress!  Complicated is putting it mildly.  However, there was much more politics than I was expecting.  I liked it but I did have trouble sometimes keeping all the politicians straight.

And to make matters even worse, Georgiana had a serious gambling problem.  Gambling was to the rich as gin was to the poor, the book notes.  She racked up seriously jaw-dropping debts, literally millions in today's dollars.   Plus she had at least one lover and illegitimate child, and the story there is really heart-breaking.  Not really a role model, but a very complicated and interesting woman. 

So -- I've now completed eleven of the twelve books for my TBR Pile Challenge!  I have three left on my original pile (since I also read my two optional books already).   How's everyone else doing with this challenge?  Have you finished, or are you close to completing it?  Which books have you liked best? 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Classics Spin the Fourth

Another Classics Spin from the Classics Club!  If you haven't seen this before, it's pretty fun -- participants choose 20 books from their Classics Club to-read list in various categories (for example, five books you want to read, five books you're dreading, five you're neutral about, and five free choice).  Books are numbered and listed on a blog posting. Next Monday, a random number from one to twenty will be chosen, and everyone reads the book with that number.

It's getting easier to narrow down the 20 possible books for the Spin selection, because I'm nearly halfway done -- I've already finished 34 of my 75 books.  This time I decided to narrow the list to books only from my owned-and-unread shelves.  This time, I also eliminated books by Anthony Trollope from the list since I just read Orley Farm for the last Classics Spin.

To make it really random this time, I'm going to mix up the list, but I have four categories:

Titles in purple are five books I really want to read;
Titles in red are five books that make me nervous;
Titles in green are five books I'm feeling neutral about;
Titles in blue are French classics in translation.

So, here's my list:
  1. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
  2. Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
  3. Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
  4. Kipps by H. G. Wells
  5. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
  6. Nana by Emile Zola
  7. Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham
  8. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  9. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
  10. The Earth by Emile Zola
  11. New Grub Street by George Gissing
  12. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  13. Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert
  14. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 
  15. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  16. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  17. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
  18. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  19. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
  20. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
My last three spin selections were really enjoyable.  I'm looking forward to seeing what the random number assigns!    Who else is participating in the spin?  And what do you think of my list -- good choices or bad?  Which did you love -- or absolutely hate?  Let me know!

Updated:  The Classics Spin Number was selected, and the lucky number is . . . 10!!!  So, I'll be reading The Earth by Emile Zola.  Great pick, I love Zola so I'm looking forward to it.  I'll be posting about it on January 1. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe

Last year, when I signed up for the Back to the Classics Challenge, I knew there were a couple of categories that would really challenge me -- specifically, pre-19th century fiction and Russians.  I was not surprised, therefore, to discover my last three categories to complete are those two, plus a non-fiction classic.

Looking back at my reading history, I've read very few books published before the 18th century -- some plays by Shakespeare, which I haven't touched since college -- Candide by Voltaire, and Robinson Crusoe.  For this selection, I had it narrowed down to three choices.  I was originally planning to read Gulliver's Travels, since I just received a lovely Penguin clothbound copy from Adam at Roof Beam Reader in a drawing (thank you again, Adam!); however, I was also considering Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos or Moll Flanders.  I really, truly, tried to read all of them, but Moll Flanders finally won out for the simple reason that it was available on audiobook at the library, which was a great incentive. 

I think the hardest thing for me about the early novels is the language.  I had a Modern Library print edition of the book as well, since I rarely listen to an entire audiobook without some print reading mixed in.  I really do find the 18th century writing style it tough to get into.  Here's a selection from the first chapter:

Had this been the Custom in our Country, I had not been left a poor desolate Girl without Friends, without Cloaths, without Help or Helper in the World, as was my Fate; and by which, I was not only expos'd to very great Distresses, even before I was capable, either of Understanding my Case, or how to Amend it, nor brought into a Course of Life, which was not only scandalous in itself, but, which in its ordinary Course, tended to the swift Destruction both of Soul and Body.  

Now, I get that the Modern Library publishers are trying to preserve the original text, with the spelling, capitalization, and grammar as close to the original as possible.  Listening to it is easier -- at least I don't have the jarring random Capitalized Noun that pops up in nearly every Sentence.  And I am now grateful that I was not an English major in college, because I would have been required to read The Canterbury Tales in the original Chaucer.

Oh, and did I also mention that there are no chapter breaks in the entire novel?  That's right, the entire book is One. Long. Chapter.  No breaks!!  (Well, it could be worse -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a book that is all one paragraph.  I've forgotten which one, but I can tell you right now I'll never read it.)

Anyway, as usual, I digress.  Once you get past the style of the language and get into the story, Moll Flanders is a pretty good tale about the fate of women in the 17th century.  Moll is born in pretty much the worst possible circumstances -- while pregnant, her mother is convicted of theft, and while sentenced to the infamous Newgate prison, she "pleads her belly," that is, puts off her sentence due to pregnancy.  After her baby [the future Moll] is born, she's transported to the colonies.  

Young Moll is put in an orphanage, and after a rough start she's placed in the care of a kind but poor woman who takes good care of Moll and some other orphans in a little school, where she's raised to be a future servant.  Moll's clever and good with a needle, and ends up as a companion/servant to the daughters of a well-to-do family.  Things are going well and she picks up a lot of skills like dancing, singing, and French, but she's also growing into a lovely young woman, which does not go unnoticed by the sons of the family.  The younger falls in love with her, but the hapless and naive Moll falls in love with the older, a rake who makes her his secret mistress, thus beginning her downfall.

This pretty much sets the tone for Moll's entire life.  She's acquired a taste for the finer things, and becomes a serial monogamist in her quest for a man to take care of her; I lost count of how many husbands she marries, legally and not-so-legally.  And don't even get me started on the children -- DeFoe hardly bothers to give the various husbands and lovers first names, much less the  offspring, whose fate is barely mentioned.  I though it made Moll come off as rather cold-hearted -- after multiple pregnancies and babies, there's only one instance of Moll really caring about the fate of one of her children.  As a mother, this bothered me, and it made me wonder how this aspect of the story would have been different if the author had been a woman.

Meanwhile, Moll gets older, and eventually she has to rely on her wits more than her feminine charms.  Since her choices are few, she inevitably turns to a life of crime. For a while, she's the luckiest thief in England, making countless narrow escapes as others are transported or sent to the gallows.  It gives DeFoe a chance to let the reader know that Crime Does Not Pay. Apparently such fictional accounts of criminal life were especially popular during the 17th century;  DeFoe himself was imprisoned in Newgate, where he must have met many women with Moll's problems.  I'm not quite sure if DeFoe was trying to comment on the terrible choices women had to make to survive at that time, or if he was just trying to preach.  Moll does admit that she gets greedy and could give up stealing, but time after time, she just can't quit the criminal life.  

It was an interesting read, ultimately.  Moll's pretty sassy and keeps her wits about her, and there's one section in which she's accused of a crime she actually didn't commit, which is my favorite part.  The outcome was pretty entertaining.  Now I'm going to have to go back and watch the BBC miniseries, which starred Alex Kingston as Moll and Daniel Craig as one of her paramours:  

Even Daniel Craig cannot pull off that hairstyle.  Sorry, 007. 

I'm quite pleased to have completed my 18th-century-or-older requirement for the challenge.  Only two more to go -- a Russian classic and a classic nonfiction.  I'm thinking about Crime and Punishment!  Thoughts, bloggers?  Who else is working on this challenge?  Have you finished?  Did anyone else read a pre-19th century book for this challenge?  How about a Russian?  And is Daniel Craig's hairstyle the most embarrassing EVER?  

Friday, November 1, 2013

My New Book Group

As I mentioned, I've started a new job as a librarian, at a different branch.  One of the hardest things was leaving the two book groups I'd been coordinating at my old branch, which was kind of heartbreaking -- I spent almost two years with both of them, and that was probably my favorite thing about that job.  So, naturally, I'm eager to start another book group at this new location. And I have this idea that's so crazy, it just might work. . . .  I'm starting a themed book group and the theme is. . . . nonfiction!!!

Yes, I'm going to attempt to start a new book group that will read nothing but nonfiction!  I've been really inspired these past few years by how much great non-fiction is available nowadays -- some of my very favorite book club selections have been nonfiction choices.  I'm going to call it the Stranger Than Fiction Book Group, and we're going to read a mix of history, biographies, memoirs, true crime, and adventure books, to name a few.

The group is going to start in January (no point in getting something off the ground until after the holidays) and I'm going to start publicizing it now.  Our branch is going to have a Friends of the Library Book Sale soon, so I think that's a great opportunity to publicize it.  I'm also going to try and advertise at some of the local senior centers.  Who knows, I might even get some male patrons to the group.

Anyway, I have some ideas about possible reads for the first couple of months.  They can't be too long, nothing over 500 pages, and we have to have enough copies in the library catalog, probably about ten, preferably with copies in large print and audio available.  And nothing too popular; also, I'd prefer not to choose books that most people (myself included) have read already.   So, I'm not even going to consider uber-popular works like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Eat, Pray, Love because so many people have probably read them.

Here are some of my top choices:

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larsen.  He's written some incredibly popular nonfiction books, plus it's about Texas, so that's a win-win.  Definitely on my list!

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.  This was all over the 2012 best-of-lists.  It might be a little depressing but I've heard it's also uplifting.  I hope so.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.  History and true crime combined, sounds fascinating.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston.  The best-selling mystery writer moves to Italy, discovers a local unsolved crime, and ends up under suspicion by the Italian police.  How could you make this up?

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.  I've never read Krakauer but it's kind of an adventure/biography.  Plus, it was my daughter's assigned reading last summer.  And it's short.

Anyway -- those are just some of my ideas.  There are tons more nonfiction books I want to read -- hopefully I can find enough people to make the group work.  If not, I'll just go back to mixing up the genres like I did in my last group.  So -- good choices or bad?  Any other suggestions?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

Another book off the TBR shelf completed!  Finally, this was one of the books I'd been meaning to read since forever.  When I posted my original list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader) this was the book that by far had the most positive comments.  And yet, I waited  almost a year to start it.

But back to Wild Swans.  I've been on a read nonfiction kick this year; almost 25 percent of the books I've read have been nonfiction, and I hope to read even more in 2014.   This is the story of three generations of Chinese women in the 20th century: Jung Chang's mother, who became the concubine of a warlord; her daughter, who embraced the communist cause after World War II; and finally, Jung Chang herself, a child of communism who survived the Cultural Revolution and became one of the first people to study abroad in the 1970s after Mao's death.

This book was both depressing and uplifting.  It's a somewhat long book, more than 500 pages, but it took me longer than usual because the writing is pretty dense and I was mostly able to read it in small chunks due to work.  However, this was probably for the best, because parts of this book were difficult to take.   I didn't know that much about what life was really like in communist China from the 1950s through the 1970s.  Basically, it sucked.  If you've read 1984 by George Orwell (which I haven't read since high school), it was pretty much like that, but set in China, and affecting nearly a billion people.  Spying, lies, backstabbing, doublespeak, paranoia -- with a backdrop of the cult of Mao.   Seriously, it sounds exactly like a cult.  The author admits it herself.

After WWII, when the Japanese left after invading Manchuria, the Kuomintang and Communists fought over control, and the Communists won out.  Mao took power, anyone remotely associated with the Kuomintang would be under suspicion for life (and often, the entire family was tainted by association); and things go from bad to worse with famine and the Cultural Revolution.  Remember that saying about how you should finish everything on your plate because there are children starving in China?  Well, know I understand why.  This book is really insightful about the history of China in the 20th century, the mentality of the Chinese people and how they wind up with Communism -- and how it's not what they were hoping for at all.

Parts of this book deal with really terrible things, but the story is so fascinating I had to keep reading to find out what happened next.  (Spoiler alert -- Jung leaves and writes a best-selling memoir!).  It sounds so awful, but there are good things too.  Despite all the hardships, Chang's family is very close and ultimately supportive of one another, and there are a lot of random people that end up doing really good and kind things.

Chang's story ends in the late 1970s when she moves to Britain to study English and she still lives there, but I'd really liked to know more details about her life since.  (I think it's in the introduction to the 2003 book, but I may have to take a little break before reading it.)  Chang has just published a biography of The Empress Dowager Cixi and now I really want to read that too.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

When the Classics Spin randomly selected my next classic read, Orley Farm, I was both delighted and (slightly) dismayed.  Delighted, because I'm always looking for an excuse to read Trollope, and this one has been on the to-read shelf for several years, ever since I went on a Trollope-buying binge after falling in love with The Way We Live Now.

However, I was slightly dismayed by the fact that it is 825 pages long.  Now, compared to many Victorian writers (ahem, Dickens!)  Trollope is actually a pretty easy read, though he does sometimes digress and get a little preachy in his asides to the reader.  This book selection was also complicated by the fact that in September I recently read a couple of other doorstoppers, started a new job and attended the 2013 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America.  I have no one to blame but myself for the tardiness of this posting it's been nearly two weeks since I was supposed to have written about my Spin selection.

Nevertheless, Orley Farm awaits!  One of Trollope's best-regarded stand-alone novels (that is, not belonging to the Barchester or Pallisers series), Orley Farm is not so much about a farm as it is about a legal case regarding the possession of said farm.  Here's the setup:

A wealthy man, Sir Joseph Mason, a widower with grown children, remarries a much younger woman in his dotage.  His country estate in Yorkshire is already settled on the oldest son, John Mason, but his new wife gives birth to a boy, Lucius.  While Lucius is still a wee thing, his father dies, and it is revealed that at the last minute, Mason added a codicil to his will, leaving a smaller property near London, the eponymous Orley Farm, to his infant son.  There are questions about the legality of the codicil, the veracity of the signature, and about the witnesses, one of whom is Marian Usbech, daughter of Mason's lawyer, who is also left a legacy of two thousand pounds.  Mr. Mason, the heir, fights his stepmother in court, and loses.

Twenty years later, young Lucius Mason comes of age and now has the rights to his farm.  Part of the farm has been rented out to a Mr. Samuel Dockwrath, a lawyer who married Marian Usbech, with whom he now has a passel of children.  The lease is up and Lucius decides to try his hand at farming, thus denying Dockwrath the renewal of said lease.  Dockwrath decides to get revenge on Lucius by stirring up trouble -- he claims to have new evidence which implicates Lady Mason of forgery.  He trots off to Yorkshire to Lord Mason, who's still holding a grudge, offering his services so both of them can give that upstart what-for.

Mason and Dockwrath are equally unpleasant characters, and they join forces.  I was confused as to how they could charge Lady Mason for the same crime twice, i.e., double jeopardy, but in fact, they decide to charge her with perjuring herself at the previous trial.  So, the case is trotted out again, causing great pain and suffering for the Masons.

However, this wouldn't be a Trollope novel without some star-crossed lovers.  In fact, there are whole bunch of marriage proposals, some between the main characters, and some peripheral.  The Masons are friendly with their neighbors, Sir Peregrine Orme, his widowed daughter-in-law, and grandson Peregrine, Lucius' former schoolmate; also, the young men spend the holidays at the estate of Judge Staveley with a bunch of other young people, and various love triangles ensue.  There are also some proposals and love triangles among the older generation as well, which was rather refreshing -- it's not just those young whippersnappers who fall in love in a Trollope novel.

The intertwining stories of the trial and the love affairs are mostly strung along until the end of the 825 pages, though there are some big reveals relatively early in the book.  I have to admit that some parts of this book dragged for me.  As in The Last Chronicle of Barset, Trollope spends quite a few chapters with people agonizing -- is X guilty or isn't he?  Should X reveal this big secret to Y?  More than once, parts began to feel like filler.  I love Trollope, but there were a couple of chapters that I ended up skimming.

Overall, though, I really did enjoy this book.  The characters are mostly well-developed, the bad guys are deliciously evil, and we have the requisite comic side characters.  Love stories are resolved, some happily and some not so happily, which I find realistic and satisfying.  I also enjoyed most of the legal aspects of the novel, and Trollope gets in some good shots about the class system and people marrying up.

Among Trollope novels, I doubt that Orley Farm will ever be as popular as Barchester Towers or The Way We Live Now, my two favorites.  But it was an excellent read, and I only wish I'd had more time to finish it sooner.  It's definitely on my list of top reads for 2013.