Saturday, December 31, 2016

Last Chance for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016

It's not too late! Today is the very last day to post any links if you'd still like to participate in the Back to the Classics Challenge. You can still post your links for the twelve categories, plus the Final Wrap-Up Post.

Approximately 35 people have posted links (including myself, but don't worry, I'm not included in the prize drawing!) out of more than 150 people who signed up originally. Odds are still pretty good -- you only have to link posts to six different book reviews to qualify for the $30 (U.S) gift certificate to OR The Book Depository!

Complete rules are here, and don't forget, you MUST link to a wrap-up post WITH LINKS to your reviews to qualify for the drawing. Post your link to your final wrap-up HERE to be included by midnight today, December 31, 2016

I'll announce the winner early next week! Good luck to all the participants and thanks again for signing up!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016: My Final Wrap-Up

I'm finished! One day left and I finished my own challenge (thank goodness!). Here's what I read, with links to my reviews:

19th Century Classic: Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope. Completed 3/11/16.

20th Century Classic: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Completed 1/29/16.

Classic by a Woman Author: The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Completed 5/17/16.

Classic in Translation: The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola. Completed 11/01/16.

Classic by a Non-White Author: The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. Completed 12/26/16.

Adventure Classic: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. Completed 2/20/16.

Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or Dystopian Classic: The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit. Completed 2/23/16.

Classic Detective Novel: Armadale by Wilkie Collins. Completed 2/15/16.

Classic with a Place in the Title: New Grub Street by George Gissing. Completed 3/20/16

Banned or Censored Classic: Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum. Completed 10/5/16.

Reread a Classic From School: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Completed 9/10/16.

Classic Short Stories: Plum Pie by P. G. Wodehouse. Completed 12/11/16.

Favorite reads of the year: The Phoenix and the Carpet; The Shuttle; and Phineas Redux, though I also really enjoyed Lucky Jim and The Black Tulip. 

Least favorite: The Conquest of Plassans was okay, but not my favorite Zola. It did have some good moments though. And New Grub Street was pretty depressing, though well written.

I'm happy to be finished with the challenge and looking forward to my 2017 reads. Don't forget, tomorrow is the last day to post your challenge-wrap up and qualify for the Back to the Classics Challenge prize!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Written in 1850, The Black Tulip is one of Alexandre Dumas shorter historical novels, just the thing for a quick read at the end of the year. If you're in the mood for a classic but don't want to commit to something lengthy, or if you've never read Dumas and are intimidated by his longer works, this is a good choice.

Set in 1672, this book is not set in France but in Holland, during the height of the tulip mania, and also of political unrest. It begins with the lynching of two politicians, Johan and Cornelis de Witt, who are actual historical figures. I found the background somewhat confusing but the upshot is that one of the victims is the godfather of the main character, Cornelius van Baerle, a young doctor and tulip fancier. 

About the time of the lynching, a challenge has been issued: the first person to successfully breed a pure black tulip will be awarded one hundred thousand florins. Cornelius has been working on such a tulip and has a jealous neighbor and rival tulip fancier, Isaac Boxtel, who will stop at nothing to steal the prize for himself. He gets Cornelius imprisoned on trumped-up charges, much like Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. But the noble Cornelius has an ally -- Rosa, the beautiful daughter of the nasty jailer Gryphus, who naturally falls in love with him.

If it all sounds over-the-top and overly dramatic, well, it is. There's not a lot of character development and the plot is fairly predictable, but it's interesting and has a satisfying ending. I think was just intrigued by this book because I'm interested in the time period, and, quite frankly, because I love tulips. I'm really hoping to visit Holland next spring during the tulip festival. 

I'm also looking forward to the upcoming Tulip Fever movie adaptation scheduled for release next year. It has lots of big stars in it, including Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz and Alicia Vikander, so I hope I can see it in English in a movie theater close by (we do have a movie theater on the Air Force Base nearby but smaller films don't always have showings and the German theater has limited movies in English; I may end up having to wait and watch it on DVD).

Anyway, this was a quick an enjoyable read and it's on my Classics Club list and I'm also counting it for my final Back to the Classics Challenge category, Classic by a Non-White Author. I'm finally finished!

And don't forget there are only a few days left to link your posts for the challenge! Remember, you only need six classics to qualify and they can be from any of the categories.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

"It's all so complicated that I don't know if I can ever make it clear," the old lady began with a droll smile. "My poor head begins to ache when I start to think about it. I believe I understand it until I start to ponder on it and then the explanation goes flying off in a thousand different in a a shower of words: codicils and judgments and instruments and orders and all those other ugly terms associated with the law and Chancery that have cursed our family for more than half a century. . . ."

Basicallly, this quote explains Charles Palliser's The Quincunx in a nutshell. It is a big, fat (781 pages!) historical novel that is the closest thing that I have ever read to a Dickens novel without actually being Dickens; it's kind of like a cross between Bleak House and Oliver Twist with a little Downton Abbey thrown in. In other words, it is EXACTLY my kind of book and I absolutely loved it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Set in the early 19th century (I'm guessing 1820s or maybe very early 1830s -- there's no mention of railroads or Queen Victoria so it must be a bit earlier), this is the story of John Huffam, a young boy who is ostensibly the heir to a vast estate, but when the story begins he and his mother, a young widow, are living modestly in a rural village called Melthorpe. The book begins when he's a small boy, and he begins to learn the mysterious history of his family, who are connected to other families fighting over an estate called Hougham (the original spelling of his name). Altogether there are five families involved, which relates to the title; a quincunx is a heraldic figure with four points at the corners and one in the middle, like the five side on a die.

It's somewhat confusing, but years ago, John's great-grandfather secretly entailed the estate in a codicil to his will; meanwhile, his spendthrift son had already sold the estate to another family, the money-grubbing Clothiers. Currently, a family called the Mompessons are in possession, but if young John and his mother die without heirs, the entire estate will be transferred to the Clothiers. John and his mother are living under an assumed name and his mother has the original of the codicil which is her most treasured possession. Everyone involved wants to get hold of it so they can establish their rights to the estate.

Over a period of about ten years, John and his mother are subjected to burglaries, threats, escapes, and schemes to bilk them out of the small income they have, forcing them into worse and worse circumstances in order to force them to give up the codicil. They don't know whom to trust, and things get about as bad as they can be until John finally learns the truth about his family and needs to protect his own life.

This novel is a huge, epic roller coaster of a ride, with lots of 19th century characters: sleazy lawyers, thieves, bankers, servants, and even subterranean scavengers. I loved all the history and atmosphere. It's very like a Dickens novel or a Victorian sensation novel, much like Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Charles Palliser really nails the writing style as well (there are also what I will call alternate spellings of words to keep it in the 19th century style.)

My only quibble with the novel was that it is so focused on the will and the codicil. Even the epic Bleak House had a multitude of side characters that gave the reader a break with some comic relief, but The Quincunx never lets up on John's story with the exception of the history of the families entangled; also, there are so many characters that sometimes I got them confused. There is a family tree in the back at the end of each section, plus a list of characters, but eventually I decided not to worry about which ancestor was feuding with whom, or which marriage they were trying to prevent. I didn't realize until I was nearly at the end there were multiple family trees that filled in as the book progressed (to prevent spoilers, for which I'm grateful) -- another advantage to reading the print book instead of the electronic version, which doesn't include them.

I'm sure if I had taken notes it would all make sense, or if I decide to read it again. (Even Bleak House didn't go into too much detail about the disputed wills; it's just assumed that years ago Jarndyce made a bunch of conflicting wills and it's up to the Chancery courts to decide. Enough). Nevertheless, this is really worth reading if you love a big, fat, Victorian sensation novel. I was recently on a long journey and had time to read in airports, planes, and trains; luckily I was also able to download the e-book on both my phone and a tablet, so I was able to read it in bits and pieces, which was easy since it's 125 short chapters, just like a real Victorian novel. I haven't read anything else by Palliser but I loved this --it's one of my favorite reads of the year and will definitely look for more of his works.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Plum Pie by P. G. Wodehouse

For my Back to the Classics Challenge, I needed a volume of short stories, so I turned to my own TBR shelves. Lately, I've been in dire need of fun, escapist reads, and P. G. Wodehouse has never let me down. I chose Plum Pie, a collection of nine stories. First published in 1966, it just made the cutoff for the challenge.

Wodehouse had an amazingly long publishing career -- his first novel The Pothunters was published in 1902; his last complete novel, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen was published an astonishing 72 years later, in 1974. Though Plum Pie is late in the Wodehouse oeuvre, it still has some stellar moments, and include some of his classic bits, including Jeeves and Wooster, a golf story, a Blandings story, and an Ukridge story.

By far my favorites from the collection were the first story, "Jeeves and the Greasy Bird," in which Jeeves and Aunt Agatha manage to disentangle Bertie from an unwanted engagement once again (seriously, how many times has Bertie inadvertently been betrothed?) and the final story, "Life with Freddie," which is really a 70-plus page novella about Freddie Threepwood of the Drones club. That one involves three different romantic entanglements on a cruise ship; smuggling an expensive diamond necklace to avoid paying stiff import taxes; and Freddie's attempts to land a dog biscuit account with a large department store executive. It's all very slapstick and silly and naturally it ends well for the majority of the characters (well, at least the ones I was rooting for).

Hugh Laurie as the hapless Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves in the brilliant ITV adaptation from the early 1990s.
I love Wodehouse but some of these stories seemed a bit tired and not very memorable, and I'm quite sure at least one of the stories had a recycled plot about a dog that was given away and had to be stolen back (I swear I've seen that story with Bertie Wooster and a Scottish terrier on the TV adaptation. Is it technically considered plagiarizing if a writer copies his own work?) And when will the members of the Drones club ever learn that it's a very bad idea to bet money on horse races -- especially money that they don't actually have?  However, even if the plots and themes are the same, Wodehouse nearly always manages to amuse me.

Most of the stories in this volume were previously published in magazines; also, there are some bits and pieces between the stories which I believe are excerpts from newspaper columns Wodehouse published in the U.S. They really didn't add much to the collection. However, lesser Wodehouse works are still funnier than most books and stories, so it wasn't a waste of time.

Overall, I'd say this is worth reading if you are a die-hard Wodehouse fan. If you're a Wodehouse beginner, I'd stick with some of the earlier Jeeves collections, like Very Good, Jeeves or The Code of the Woosters, both of which is are just brilliant. I've only read about a dozen of Wodehouse's works so I have plenty of books left before I run out, in which case I will start over from the beginning.

Bloggers, are any of you Wodehouse fans? Which are your favorites?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Back to the Classics 2017: My List

As I read more and more classics, inevitably I end up reading a majority of books written by men. But there are lots of classics written by women, many of which are ignored or forgotten. For 2017,  I've decided to try and complete the entire Back to the Classics Challenge by reading only books by women, preferably books from my own shelves. Here's a tentative list of what I want to read:

19th Century Classic: Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondely or The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden.

20th Century Classic: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain OR London War Notes OR One Fine Day, both written by Mollie Panter-Downes.

Classic by a Woman Author: This is basically a free choice, but I want to read either a Virago or Persephone imprint, since I have quite a few unread on my shelves. Possibly Jenny Wren by E. H. Young.

Classic in Translation: Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar is a recent Persephone reprint that I bought at the shop in London last summer. First published in 1957, it's a diary kept by a Jewish Frenchwoman during the WWII Occupation of Paris. I could also read the The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky.

Pre-1800 Classic: This is a little tricker if I want to read a female author, but I do have Love and Freindship by Jane Austen in a beautiful hardcover Penguin edition, and it includes all her juvenilia so it counts.

Romance Classic: Something by Georgette Heyer -- she's written so many, and they're really fun, light reads. I have a copy of The Masqueraders but my library has several of her other books including Arabella and Friday's Child. 

Gothic Classic: Something by Daphne du Maurier, though I don't know if all her books are considered Gothic. I haven't read Frenchman's Creek and I think that one would qualify.

Classic With a Number in the Title: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. I just bought this and it looks really interesting. 

Classic About an Animal (or Animal in the Title): Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau. It's a big fat Victorian that's been on the TBR shelf for several years.

Classic Set in a Place I'd Like to Visit: The Flame Trees of Thika (Kenya) or something by Pearl S. Buck (China), or The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien (Ireland). 

Award-Winning Classic:  Miss Mole by E. H. Young or Kristin Lavransdattar by Sigrid Undset.

Russian Classic: This is a tough one because I don't know of any classic Russian authors that are women. However, Persephone has a book translated from Russian called Into the Whirlwild by Eugenia Ginzburg, a memoir of Stalin's terror published in 1967 which would just make the cutoff. I could also read something by Irene Nemirovsky. She wrote in French but was born in Ukraine and her family left after the Revolution, so I think that qualifies her as a Russian writer.

And of course, some or maybe all of these will probably change -- I don't think I've ever completed this challenge with the original list! Bloggers, have you read any of these, or do you have any other suggestions to fit these categories? And do any of you choose a theme when deciding on books for a challenge? 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Back to the Classics 2017

It's back! Once again, I'm hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I hope to encourage bloggers to discover and enjoy classic books they might not have tried, or just never got around to reading. And at the end, one lucky winner will receive a $30 (US) prize from or The Book Depository!

Here's how it works:

The challenge will be exactly the same as last year, 12 classic books, but with slightly different categories. You do not have to read all 12 books to participate in this challenge!

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing

And here are the categories for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th century classic - any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th century classic - any book published between 1900 and 1967. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later, such as posthumous publications.

3.  A classic by a woman author

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language. (You can also read books in translation for any of the other categories). Modern translations are acceptable as long as the original work fits the guidelines for publications as explained in the challenge rules.

5.  A classic originally published before 1800. Plays and epic poems are acceptable in this category. Translations can be modern in this category also.

A romance classic. I'm pretty flexible here about the definition of romance. It can have a happy ending or a sad ending, as long as there is a strong romantic element to the plot.

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. For a good definition of what makes a book Gothic, and an excellent list of possible reads, please see this list on Goodreads

8.  A classic with a number in the title. Examples include A Tale of Two Cities, Three Men in a Boat, The Nine Tailors, Henry V, Fahrenheit 451, etc. An actual number is required -- for example, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None would not qualify, but The Seven Dials Mystery would. 

9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.  It can be an actual animal or a metaphor, or just the name in the title. Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Metamorphosis, White Fang, etc. If the animal is not obvious, please clarify it in your post.

10. A classic set in a place you'd like to visit. It can be real or imaginary: The Wizard of Oz, Down and Out in Paris and London, Death on the Nile, etc.

11. An award-winning classic. It could be the Newbery award, the Prix Goncourt, the Pulitzer Prize, the James Tait Award, etc. Any award, just mention in your blog post what award your choice received. It must be an actual award-winner; runners-up and nominees do not count.

12. A Russian classic. 2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so read a classic by any Russian author. 

And now, the rest of the rules:

  • All books must be read in 2017. Books started before January 1, 2017 do not qualify. All reviews must be linked to this challenge by December 31, 2017. I'll post links each category the first week of January which will be featured on a sidebar on this blog for the entire year. 
  • You must also post a wrap-up review and link it to the challenge no later than December 31, 2017. Please include links within your final wrap-up to that I can easily confirm all your categories. Also, it is OK to rearrange books to fit different categories in your wrap-up post -- for example, last year I originally planned to use Journey to the Center of the the Earth in the Fantasy/SciFi/Dystopian category, but then I decided to count it as an Adventure Classic. Most books count count toward several categories, so it's fine if you change them, as long as they are identified in your wrap-up post.
  • All books must have been written at least 50 years ago; therefore, books must have been written by 1967 to qualify for this challenge. The ONLY exceptions are books published posthumously. Recent translations of classics are acceptable.
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible! You may also count books that you read for other challenges.
  • Books may NOT cross over within this challenge. You must read a different book for EACH category, or it doesn't count.
  • Children's classics are acceptable, but please, no more than 3 total for the challenge. Single short stories and short poems do not count, but you may use epic poems like The Odyssey and short story collections like The Canterbury Tales, as long as it is the entire book.
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link to reviews on Goodreads or any other publicly accessible online format. For example, if you have a Goodreads account, you could create a dedicated list to the challenge, and link to that with a tentative list (the list can change throughout the challenge).
  • The deadline to sign up for the challenge is March 1, 2017. After that, I will close the link and you'll have to wait until the next year! Please include a link to your original sign-up post, not your blog URL. Also, make sure you add your link to the Linky below, NOT IN THE COMMENTS SECTION. If I don't see your name in the original Linky, YOU WILL BE INELIGIBLE. If you've made a mistake with your link, just add a second one. 
  • You do NOT have to list all the books you're going to read for the challenge in your sign-up post, but it's more fun if you do! Of course, you can change your list any time. Books may also be read in any order. 
  • The winner will be announced on this blog the first week of January, 2018. All qualifying participants will receive one or more entries, depending on the number of categories completed. One winner will be selected at random for all qualifying entries. The winner will receive a gift certificate in the amount of $30 (US currency) from either OR $30 worth of books from The Book Depository. The winner MUST live in a country that will receive shipments from one or the other. For a list of countries that receive shipments from The Book Depository, click here
So what are you waiting for? Sign up at the linky below! I'll be posting my list of possible reads for 2017 in the next couple of days. Happy reading!

Updated: The sign-ups are now closed. Check back at the end of the year to sign up for next year's Back to the Classics Challenge! 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement by Anthony Powell

So, a couple of months ago I signed up for the most recent Classics Club Spin, in which a random number is assigned to choose your next Classics Club read. I only had seven books on the list, so I thought it was a win-win. My selection was A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell. I was really looking forward to it, but sadly, it did not end up being the book I hoped.

First, I should point out that this is an omnibus, the first three volumes of a 12-volume cycle of short novels originally published in the early 1950s. Each volume is about 250 pages long. As it's such a long work, I started it in October, and I still haven't gotten much more than halfway through this book. However, I did write down some thoughts as I was reading, so I'll try to at least comment on my progress. 

The first volume, A Question of Upbringing, is the story of four young men at prep school. The narrator, Jenkins, tells us all about his two friends, Stringham and Templer (apparently in prep school no one is ever referred to by his first name; I only figured out Jenkins' first name was Nicholas because it's on the back of the book) and another slightly less privileged boy named Widmerpool, who appears to be somewhat tormented because he is of a slightly lower class -- his father works for the railways, ye gads! 

Basically, it's the mildly interesting antics of some incredibly privileged and entitled rich white boys. Jenkins doesn't seem too bad, but his friends are pretty much jerks. There's one episode in particular when they're cutting class and decide to divert attention by playing a nasty trick on a headmaster called La Bas. All the women in this novel are merely there to serve the men as mothers, sisters, or potential girlfriends. 

It was mildly interesting, though I didn't care much for any of the characters. Is this meant to be a satire about the future leaders of England? The (slightly) less-privileged Widmerpool seemed the best of the bunch so far, but I was somewhat underwhelmed. It was a pretty easy read and I finished it in less than a week, so I thought I would zoom through it. Alas, I hit a snag at the second volume. 

Volume II, A Buyer's Market takes place after the boys have left prep school, and quite frankly, it was a struggle. Much the action takes place over one night at a series of large parties, where Jenkins runs into a lot of his old school friends. I just found the whole thing tiresome, all these privileged young men who all seemed so entitled. None of the women in this part are well-developed characters, as they're just love interests or for the amusement of the men. There's also a reference to an African-American that is really offensive. I realize this book was written in the 1950s and is set in the 1930s, but based on the current political climate, I found it really distasteful.

I thought the second book sort of stalled near the middle. I generally avoid reading large omnibus editions as I find them very unwieldy (plus this one was numbered with the original page numbers, so it was difficult to see how far I'd got. It also didn't help that I didn't read it for long stretches and I lost track of the narrative thread and began to get some of the names mixed up, and there are a lot of minor characters introduced at large parties. I just really wasn't that interested in the characters any more, they seemed so spoiled. Maybe this is just the wrong book at the wrong time and I should give it another chance. Many people have commented how they loved this book but it's just leaving me cold and I may abandon it altogether.

Bloggers, have any of you actually finished this book, much less the entire series? Is it worth trying again later or should I just add it to the donation pile? Do you think there's such a thing as the wrong book for the wrong time?

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Visit to Antwerp, Belgium

Last weekend the whole family had an extra day off. We decided to take advantage of it (and my international driver's license) and take a little road trip to Antwerp. We chose Belgium because we wanted to visit a new country and it was only a four-hour drive away. It would be too far for a day trip, but it's a fairly small city so there was just enough to see in two nights without being overwhelmed by choices. 

The photo above is the Grote Markt Square at night. You can see the beautiful baroque architecture of the guildhalls and the statue of Brabo on the left. It's really beautiful and it was only a short walk from our hotel.

Our hotel was in the center of the oldest part of town, on the Grote Plaats. That's the Cathedral of Our Lady, which dates from the 1300s. 

There are beautiful sculptural details on the buildings everywhere in the old town. 

A lot of the old buildings have these little stair-step facades. I don't know what they're called but they have them in Germany and the Netherlands also. Some of the buildings also had gilded statues on top as well. 

Some of the buildings are incredibly narrow, like the white one in the middle here, also in Grote Platz. There are also lots of tiny narrow alleys and winding side streets which reminded me a little bit of Venice, but without the canals. 

This building is much newer and it has a really beautiful art deco facade. 

I loved this door knocker that looks like a little dragon. This was right on the main square. 

The Het Steen, the old city fortress on the waterfront and the oldest building in Antwerp. That's a statue of the giant Lange Wapper in the foreground, lower left. 

There are lots of statues all over Antwerp. Here's one of the city's most famous resident, the artist Pieter Paul Rubens who lived and worked in there in the early 1600s and was a very successful artist  His house is beautifully preserved, right in the middle of the city. I'm not a huge fan of that art period but it was very interesting to see the historical context. The house also has art by Rubens and his contemporaries, including his student Jan Van Eyck who also became very famous.

You can visit Ruben's house though I didn't take any photos inside (too much artwork, I was afraid to ask). There's a beautiful garden courtyard in back which is probably stunning in the spring. I took this photo of the back of the house from the courtyard. If you enlarge the photo you can see the amazing detail. 

We found a nice bookstore right next to the Rubenshuis Museum. They had a nice selection of used books in English and I picked up a few bargains (more on that in another post!) I loved this sculpture just inside the front door. 

There are lots of bars and restaurants in the old town, but my favorite was this combination bar and bookshop! I passed by in the morning before it was open and didn't have time to go back, but I think it's great. I peeked inside and it looks like there were some shelves of used books for sale and a very laid-back place to hang out, read, and have a drink. 

Of course I had to have an authentic Belgian waffle! This one was covered in Nutella. 

Even the McDonald's was in a beautiful old Baroque building (no, I didn't eat there). And that's a chocolate shop right next door -- there were at least four chocolate shops in the mile-long walk from the old town center to the train station. (Also plenty of beer if you prefer it). 

The interior of the beautiful train station -- it reminded me a little of NewYork's Grand Central, but much smaller. And there's a park with a zoo on the other side! 

I loved Antwerp -- the people were lovely, nice shops and restaurants, and plenty to do and see if you're only there for a few days. I would definitely go back and I want to see more of Belgium including Bruges and Brussels. 

And I still haven't written my post about all the books I've bought so far in Europe! But that's another post. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Conquest of Plassans by Emile Zola

I'm getting near the end of the Back to the Classics Challenge and I'm much farther behind than I planned. The other day I was looking for a good short book and I decided it was time to read something in translation. It had been more than two years since I read anything by Emile Zola so I chose The Conquest of Plassans -- partly because it was short; partly because it was French; and partly because I loved the cover (and I've actually seen the original painting from that edition, The Orange Trees by Gustave Caillebotte. It's at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston).

So. Set in the provincial town of Plassans in Provence, this is the story of Abbe Faujus, a mysterious clergyman who arrives in town with his mother and rents rooms from the Mouret family. Monsieur Francois Mouret is related to the Maquarts, and his wife, Marthe, was a Rougon. There are a lot of gossipy characters with nothing much to do other than speculate about the lives of their neighbors. Somehow Abbe Faujus manages to say very little about himself and yet others start talking to him and spill all kinds of secrets.

Eventually Faujus is able to gain the trust of the townspeople and local church hierarchy. He begins to claw his way to the top politically and socially and gain power over many of the locals, some of whom don't appreciate his influence. In particular, Francois Mouret becomes jealous and suspicious regarding the influence Faujus has over his wife Marthe, who becomes incredibly pious and obsessed with religion. 

Meanwhile, Faujus shady sister Olympe and her ne'er-do-well husband also arrive in town and threaten to expose all kinds of family secrets. They ingratiate themselves in the Mouret household which doesn't bode well. This being a Zola novel, a lot of these characters are basically train wrecks. 

The Conquest of Plassans is the fourth in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, and the eleventh of the series I've read so far. Normally I tend to read series books in order, but when I started reading Zola about five years ago, some of the earliest books in the series weren't available in good English translations. (Luckily, Oxford World's Classics has been publishing excellent translations, like the one  I read). I'd heard that most of the books are really stand-alone novels that are loosely linked.

I'd already read the second and third novels, which are set in Paris, but this novel is set in Plassans, which is also the setting of the very first novel in the series. There are a lot of references to events from the first book especially in the endnotes. If you don't want any spoilers for the first novel, I would definitely recommend reading it before you read this one -- I was really regretting not having read The Fortunes of the Rougons first, especially since my library in Texas owned a copy. But buying a copy of the first book from Amazon didn't seem practical since the mail takes longer now that I'm overseas.

This book was OK but it won't rank with my favorites in the Rougon-Macquart series. I think some of his later books are really better. This one felt like it was kind of all over the place plot-wise. There's a whole sub-plot about political intrigues that basically went over my head, and I don't know if I just wasn't paying close enough attention, or if I should have done more research about the Second Empire, but either way I found it confusing. In general, I thought the drama centered around the families was the strongest part of the book, but I tend to enjoy stories about domestic life.  I also didn't like the way most of the female characters were portrayed. To be fair, the male characters were also awful, and Zola is a product of his time, but a couple of the women's portrayals were pretty sexist and made me really uncomfortable. 

I think in a way I put off reading this book because my last experience with Zola was not great -- a lot of people love Nana, but I really disliked it and it kind of put me off Zola for a while. I'd read ten of his books and I think I was worried that I'd read all the good ones already and the rest would be disappointing. Maybe there's a reason that some of Zola's novels don't have many good English translations. And in general, is it better to read an author's best work first, or should you save it for last? Bloggers, what do you think? 

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Top Ten Books To Read If Your Book Group Likes Classics

I don't write that many Top Ten Tuesday posts but I couldn't resist this one -- some of my happiest reading experiences have been with book groups and I've always found book groups to be the best ways to find kindred spirits. I've been in many book groups and it's always fun to throw in a classic every once in awhile. I've been pleasantly surprised by classics that I thought I would absolutely hate.

I actually couldn't narrow it down to ten, so there are two bonus choices. In no particular order:

1. Germinal by Emile Zola. By far, one of the classics that has had the greatest impact upon me as a reader. I'd read a couple of books by Zola but Amanda from The Zen Leaf suggested our real-life  classics book group read Germinal and I understood what all the fuss was about. It's amazing.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Even though true crime really creeps me out, the writing is just masterful.

3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. This is short, but powerful, and it speaks to so many women. Some of it is in dialect but it's a really easy (and short) read.

4. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I think I've read this with three different book groups, and it's been a hit every time. Set in China between the wars, the themes about family dynamics are universal.

5. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham. Another book set in China, but very different from The Good Earth.  Kitty Fane is the spoiled, self-centered wife of a doctor working in 1920s Hong Kong, and after her husband realizes she's been unfaithful, he takes her to the Chinese countryside so he can treat a cholera outbreak. It's tragic and beautiful, and one of Maugham's beat (also a great movie adaptation).

6. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. I finally finished this a couple of months ago and I so wish I could discuss it with a book group! Young and idealistic Carol Kennicott moves from Minneapolis to a small Minnesota town and thinks she can uplift and elevate the locals.

7. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain. Not so much crime noir as you'd think, this is the story of a really twisted relationship between a working-class mother trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps to impress her ungrateful daughter. They put the fun in dysfunction! I chose it for a book group simply because the library had enough copies and it one of the group's top reads of the year, I can't stop recommending it.

8 & 9. Ethan Frome or House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Ethan Frome is shorter but House of Mirth has Lily Bart, one of literature's most tragic heroine. They have totally different settings but both of them are about the futility of loving the wrong person.

10. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I'd never had any desire to read this but it was for a book group. I was blown away by the beautiful writing and themes of this book about a group of misfits living in a boarding house in a small Southern town. This would be a great choice for a book group that's already discussed To Kill a Mockingbird.

11. West with the Night by Beryl Markham. An amazing memoir by an aviatrix raised in Africa, she was a contemporary of Isak Denisen, Denys Finch-Hatton, and Ernest Hemingway. The writing is just beautiful. There's also a beautiful illustrated edition with lovely photos.

12. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I was nearly done with the list and I realized how tragic most of them are! A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has sad elements, but it's a beautiful and uplifting book. I didn't read it until I was grown up and I am so sorry I waited!

And I can't believed I left out Steinbeck, Dickens, and Hardy! If I don't stop now the list will be twice as long. Bloggers, which classics would you recommend for book groups? Please let me know in the comments.