Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Last Day to Post for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2014

Today is the last day to post any links to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2014!!!  Only 20 people have posted their links, so the chances are still good if you add a link to your final wrap-up post!

A winner will be selected and announced within the week!!  Good luck, and happy reading!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

TBR Pile Challenge 2014: Finished!

I didn't think I would complete it in time, but I finally finished!  I had to cram in three books in December, but I've officially completed Adam's 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Here's my original post, and here's what I read, with links to all of my reviews, in chronological order:

1.  The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Loved this!  First in a sprawling saga of an English family, before WWII and the years following.  I liked it so much I read three more volumes in the series. . . and of course I had to purchase the final volume which was recently published, thus adding another book to the TBR pile!  Completed 1/5/14.

2.  Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant.  A delightful Victorian tale about a young single woman who likes arranging the lives of everyone around her, but not herself.  She was a nicer, less self-absorbed version of Jane Austen's Emma.  A winner!  Completed 2/1/14. 

3.  Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann.  A coming-of-age story set between the wars about a girl in love with various cousins in the same family.  Good, but a bit slow.  Completed 2/16/14.

4.  Kim by Rudyard Kipling.  Not nearly as much action as I was expecting -- I thought it was an adventure classic, but I think it's more of a coming-of-age story.  Not bad, though. Completed 5/9/14.

5.  The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  Not the best book I've ever read, but I understand the historical significance.  Parts of it were interesting, parts were just gross, and the ending befuddled me.  Also, the ugliest cover on a book I've read this year. Completed 6/7/14. 

6.  The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell.  This book really was stranger than fiction -- a family of eccentric aristocratic sisters.  One was a Marxist; one became the Duchess of Devonshire; one married first the heir to the Guinness fortune, then left him for a Fascist who was the most hated man in England during WWII; and one was a Hitler groupie who shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany.  You can't make this stuff up!  It was one of my favorite reads of the year.  Completed 6/15/14.

7.  Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge.  A bit of a disappointment -- a bunch of rich expats in China go on a country excursion even though the locals are on the verge of an uprising.  Slower and less interesting than I expected. Completed 7/3/14.

8.   Singled Out by Victoria Nicholson.  A really interesting book about the millions of women who had no chance of marriage after WWI.  I'm always interested in social history and this one tied in nicely with the anniversary of WWI.  Completed 7/19/14. 

9.   The Edwardians by Vita-Sackville West.  Set just before WWI, this was a slow-moving story about  a young aristocrat during the end of an era.  Completed 8/31/14.

10.   Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.  I loved reading about Japan but didn't much like how the female characters were depicted. Completed 12/5/14.

11.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  An interesting read, but a little slow -- very heavy on the historical details.  And those ancient Romans were CRAZY.  I'm looking forward to the classic PBS miniseries.  Completed 12/17/14.

12.  Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.  Meh.  Not nearly as good as Madame Bovary, or most everything I've read by Zola.  Completed 12/29/14.

I also had two alternate reads lined up, which were reading failures.  I had great hopes for Appetite for Life:  The Biography of Julia Child, but I found the writing pretty dry.  Julia's story should have been fascinating -- she did undercover work during WWII, moved to France with her husband and became an amazing cook, then wrote a ground-breaking French cookbook for Americans -- why didn't I love this book?  I couldn't get past the first couple of chapters.  Maybe I should try again later, or just try a different biography -- I found a copy of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz on the sale table at Barnes and Noble, so I'm hoping that one will be better.

I never much got into my other alternate read The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan.  I didn't get much farther than one chapter, but I think 2015 will be a year of many nonfiction reads, so I'll give it another shot.

Overall, my favorites were The Light Years, Miss Marjoribanks, and The Sisters.  Now I'm looking forward to starting my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge!   Bloggers, how did you do with your 2014 challenges?  And who's signing up for the TBR Pile Challenge for next year?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert

This is the final book for my TBR Pile Challenge 2014, huzzah!!  I had three books to finish for this challenge in the month of December, more than 1000 pages.  I didn't know if I'd be able to manage it, but I did.

So.  Many readers are familiar with Flaubert's most famous novel, Madame Bovary.  I read it several years ago and just loved it.  However, I don't know a single person who's read any of his other novels.    I found Sentimental Education during the Borders clearance a few years ago, but never got around to reading it.  Compared to Madame Bovary, which has more than 125,000 ratings on Goodreads, there are less than 10,000 for Sentimental Education.  Was this a hidden gem, or just not nearly as good?

Well, 460 pages later, I had my answer:  meh, not nearly as good.  Inspired by events from Flaubert's own life, Sentimental Education is set in 1840s Paris and suburbs, and is the story of Frederic Moreau, a young law student who falls madly in love with a married woman he sees on a ferryboat.

Madame Arnoux is about 30, married to a boorish, philandering man with a tendency towards shady business practices.  Frederic strikes up a conversation with Monsieur Arnoux, then slowly cultivates a friendship, simply so he can get closer to his wife.  Along the way, Frederic gets caught up in the upheaval of French politics, and the 1848 revolution as he climbs up the social ladder and has multiple love affairs while never giving up on Madame Arnoux.

Overall, I found the story moved a lot more slowly than Madam Bovary.  It actually seemed like there were two stories going on -- the story of Frederic and his obsession with Madame Arnoux, and then the story of Frederic and his friends and how they reacted to the political changes, and ultimately, the revolution.  They almost seemed like two different books to me (possibly why it's 460 pages, compared to 329 pages for Madam Bovary which seemed like a more focused novel).  Everyone one of the characters was unpleasant, with the possible exception of Madame Arnoux, who I found to be really undeveloped.  She's Frederic's ideal woman, so her personality is essentially flawless.  She's really a minor character in most of the story.

I think I would have gotten more out of this book if I understood the history of 19th century France better.  My knowledge of French history after the 1789 revolution is shaky at best -- I know a bit about the Napoleonic wars from War and Peace, and I vaguely remembered that there was more than one Napoleon, but that's about it.  There's a lot of politics and cultural references in this book that are not really explained within the context of the novel -- I suppose that Flaubert assumed that readers would know what he was talking about.  

So, overall, this book was a disappointment, compared to most of the French novels I've read in the few years.  A few months ago I read Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant, another story of a young man climbing his way up the social ladder in Paris (set during the French colonial period a few years later).  The main character was also pretty awful, but I found that book much more engaging and interesting.  Unfortunately, I was in a bit of a blogging slump at the time, so I never got around to reviewing it.

At any rate,  I've finally completed my TBR Pile Challenge and knocked another book off my Classics Club List, and I have another book to donate to the Friends of the Library sale.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 -- My List

Here are the books I'm planning to read for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.  As usual, I'm going to try and choose books from my own TBR shelves, whenever possible. I have a lot of books on the TBR shelves that will fit multiple categories, and I'm having a hard time narrowing my choices. I'd like to choose as many books as possible from my Classics Club list -- I only have 22 left!   These are my ideas so far:

1.  19th Century Classic:  New Grub Street by George Gissing, which is both owned-and-unread AND on my Classics Club list.  Or maybe something by Thomas Hardy, maybe The Return of the Native

2.  20th Century Classic:   A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. 

3.  Classic by a Woman:  Something by Willa Cather -- Shadows on the Rock or Alexander's Bridge.

4.  Classic in Translation:  I've been putting off The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo for a very long time, so I should really give it another try.  I also have four books by Zola unread on my shelves:  The Debacle, The Dream, Money, and The Conquest of Plassans.  

5.  Very Long Classic:  No Name by Wilkie Collins.  Also, I still have most of the Trollope's Pallisers series, and they're all at least 500 pages.  

6.  Novella:  Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham, or Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton. 

7.  Proper Name in the Title:  I have a LOT of these on my TBR shelves!  Mary Barton and Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell have been on my shelves for a long time.   Or maybe Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

8.  Classic Comedy or Satire:  Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, or maybe The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens -- I don't own it but the library has it on audiobook. 

9.  Forgotten Classic:  Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton would qualify as a forgotten classic, since it's one of her least popular works (according to Goodreads standards).  Or I could pick something really obscure, such as Red Pottage by Mary Chomondely, or The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

10.  Non-fiction Classic:  Probably Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens.  Also, my non-fiction book group at the library is reading Kon-Tiki this summer, so that would fit nicely as well.

11.  Children's Classic:  Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers.  

12.  Classic Play:  Something by Oscar Wilde.  I loved The Importance of Being Earnest so I'd like to read another of his plays.  Or maybe more than one, since they're really short. 

So that's my list.  Bloggers, what do you think? I'm having a hard time picking a final list.  Are any of your favorites included?  Any hidden gems?  Or should I put them directly into the donation box at the library?  Help me choose!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Back to the Classics Challenge 2014: My Final Wrap-Up Post

Well, I've finally completed the Back to the Classics Challenge 2014!!  Here's what I read:

19th Century Classic:  Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope.  Completed 8/7/14.
20th Century Classic:  The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West.  Completed 2/6/14.
Classic By a Woman Author:  The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton.  Completed 1/18/14.
Classic in Translation: Nana by Emile Zola.  Completed 8/10/14.
Classic About War:  The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck.  Completed 5/19/14.
Classic by an Author That's New to Me: The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig.  Completed 3/31/14.

Optional Categories:

American Classic: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Completed 7/27/14.
Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller Novel: The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green.  Completed 12/6/14.
Classic Historical Fiction:  Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather.  Completed 1/22/14.
Classic Adapted into a Movie/TV Series:  He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope.  Completed 3/3/14.
Movie/TV Series Adaptation Review: He Knew He Was Right.  Completed 5/24/14.

This was a fun challenge.  I'm really pleased that I read ten classics, most of which were from my own TBR shelves or from my Classics Club list.  I think my favorites were the two Trollopes, Rachel Ray and He Knew He Was Right; The Glimpses of the Moon, and The Post Office Girl.

My least favorite was probably Moby-Dick.  I'm glad I finished it, but I don't think I would have gotten through it if I hadn't listened to it on audio.  I don't have any plans to read any more books by Melville in the near future!  Nana was also a disappointment, compared to the other books I've read by Zola.  Other than those two, I really enjoyed all my choices.  I still have lots more Trollopes on the TBR shelves, plus some Wharton, and I also have a big fat edition of the Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, so I'm looking forward to that.

And now I'm ready to start my Back to the Classics Challenge 2015!  Who's with me?

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 Colosseum 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 Colosseum, 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, regular-sized print.  This does not include omnibus editions combined into one book, or short story collections.  Updated:  The 500 pages MUST be the actual text of the novel, not including endnotes, appendices, etc.  When in doubt, check more than one edition, and use an average page count.

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.  Plays are only eligible for this specific category.

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 publicly 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.  One winner will be randomly drawn from qualifying entries.  The winner 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!

Updated:  Sign-ups for this challenge are officially closed.  Please check back at the end of the year for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge!

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 shouldn't 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.  

I don't think Norwegian Wood 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):

1.  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.  Completed 1/30/15.
2.  The Girls from Winnetka by Marcia Chellis.  A gift from BookSnob back in 2010.  Completed 1/19/15.

3.  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. Completed 5/18/15.

4.  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. Completed 4/8/15.

5.  Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer.  I just hope it doesn't make me cry.  Stories with animals nearly always have sad endings.  Completed 2/5/15. 

6.  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. Completed 3/24/15. 

8.  The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston.  I'll probably read this in May for Asian-Pacific Heritage Month. Completed 5/2/15.

9.  Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packer.  Because I'm fascinated by the Victorian period.  Completed 2/12/15.

9.  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.  I just couldn't resist the cover.

10.  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. Completed 9/21/15. 

11.  Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire 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. 

12.  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: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Kent: Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

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 named, Sebastian, who is 19.  It ends six years later, on Coronation Day, June 22, 1911, 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, as 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!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Austen in August: Mansfield Park

I know that many, many people in the blogosphere are writing about Mansfield Park this year, mostly because it's the bicentenary of its publication.  This is my second reading of the book, though technically, it's a listen, since I have the wonderful Naxos audiobook version narrated by the brilliant Juliet Stevenson (who played Mrs. Elton in the 1996 version of Emma).

If you don't know the set up, here's the short version:  Fanny Price is the poor cousin of the wealthy Bertrams who live in Mansfield Park.  She's the daughter of one of the three Ward sisters -- the one who made a crap marriage and is living in Portsmouth with a drunkard and a passel of kids.  One of her aunts married a wealthy landowner, Sir Thomas Bertram, and the other married a clergyman who got the living at the local parish.  This sister, known as Aunt Norris, gets the bright idea to take one of her sister's kids off her parents hands, though she actually pawns her off to her sister and wealthy brother in law -- brilliant!

So young Fanny comes to live in a strange house at the age of ten, and every one pretty much treats her like crap, except the second brother, Edmund, who's actually nice to her.  Things get interesting when Fanny turns 18 and Aunt Norris' husband dies.  The living is assigned to another clergyman, Dr. Grant, who brings his wife and is shortly followed by Mrs. Grant's half-sister and half-brother, Mary and Henry Crawford, who proceed to stir up all kinds of trouble with the Bertrams.  Henry flirts with both the daughters, Julia and Maria (who is engaged to a wealthy but boring guy), and Mary sets her sights on Edmund, to the chagrin of Fanny, who's secretly in love with him.  So, lots of love triangles in sight.

I hadn't actually read this in several years -- I actually tried listening to the audio last year, but I got so disgusted by the dishrag personality of Fanny Price I got bored and gave up halfway through.  I only gave it another go because I'm gearing up for the upcoming Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), which I'm attending in October.  This year the theme is Mansfield Park, so I though I'd better give Fanny and company another chance.  And I was very glad I did, because I liked it so much better this time around.

Frances O'Connor as Fanny and Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford.  

I was really inspired to try it again after reading this wonderful essay by Paula Byrne, author of Jane Austen:  A Life in Small Things.  Byrne points out that instead of an innocent girl going from the country to the big city and being corrupted, the Crawfords come to the country and corrupt everyone around them.  It's also Austen's sexiest novel.  Mary Crawford makes her infamous quip about "rears and vices;" also, there's a lot of symbolism when Henry is trying to corrupt cousin Maria.  So, I gave it another try, and was very glad that I did.  Yes, Fanny's a little wimpy, but she's really a product of her environment.  Nobody except Edmund has paid much attention to her, other than to treat her as a de facto servant, like Aunt Bertram or Aunt Norris, or to constantly put her in her place, like Julia and Maria -- and Aunt Norris, who spends the entire book trying to beat her down.

The lovely Penguin clothbound classic.  Those are the gold chains that Fanny wears to her first ball -- will she choose the one given to her by her cousin Edmund, or by Mary Crawford?

This time, I really enjoyed Austen's dry wit as she describes Aunt Norris' hypocrisy, the self-absorption of Aunt Bertram, and Edmund's starry-eyed adoration of Mary Crawford.  All the faults and foibles of the Bertram clan are filtered through the eyes of Fanny, the novel's moral center. Sure, sometimes she's a bit too wimpy for my taste, but all the other characters are so well developed I can give her a pass.  Lord Bertram is a lot nicer than I remembered, and Aunt Norris is by far one of the most delicious villains in English literature.  Henry Crawford is kind of charming yet sleazy, and I kept wanting to shake some sense into both Fanny and Edmund.  If I liked Fanny's character better, it would be one of my top novels by Austen.

And now I'm going to have to watch one or both of the Mansfield Park adaptations available on DVD.  Years ago, I fell in love with the story after watching Patricia Rozema's 1999 film adaptation (before I'd actually read the book).  After becoming a devout Janeite, I discovered that many people pooh-pooh this version though I can't see that the more recent 2007 version is any better.  I still think the casting in the 1999 version is spot-on, though Frances O'Connor plays Fanny as a little spunkier than she is in the book.  The casting of Billie Piper as Fanny in the 2007 BBC miniseries is just wrong, though Blake Ritson is pretty dishy as Edmund.   There's also a 1983 version which I've heard is just awful, though it stars Anna Massey, which intrigues me.  I actually own an entire box set of 1980s BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels, but I've never gotten around to watching it.

So -- how does everyone else feel about Mansfield Park?  Like me, can you put up with Fanny because the rest of the novel is just great?  Do you love Mary Crawford and wish she was the heroine?    And has anyone seen the 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park?