Classics Club Spin #20 (my #1)

Hello friends! I emerge from my school-induced blog hibernation to post my Classics Club spin list. If you’re not in the Classics Club (why not? It’s open to all!), the spin list is the 20 books below, selected from my larger Classics Club list. In a few days, the Classics Club moderators will post a number, and I will read the book which is that number on my list and post a review of it by May 31st.

There’s not a huge amount of rationale in this list. I essentially chose ones that I felt like I could read in two weeks, which is about how much time I’ll realistically have. I also only added books I already own or think I can easily find at my local used bookstore.

I don’t know if I’ll participate in every spin, but this one is timed well. My summer TBR is huge, and this will make choosing which classic to read first so much easier. I can’t wait to start digging into my personal reading/reading challenges again. Just a few more weeks!

4/22 Update: #19 has been spun! Looks like I’ll be reading The Woman in White!

The spin list:

  1. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  3. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  4. Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare
  5. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  6. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  7. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  8. Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  10. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  11. Light in August by William Faulkner
  12. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (technically a re-read)
  13. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  14. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
  15. The Mabinogion
  16. The Bostonians by Henry James
  17. Histories by Heroditus
  18. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  19. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  20. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

 

 

Adam Bede: Review

Adam Bede by George Eliot
4 stars

It is our habit to say that while the lower nature can never understand the higher, the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience, often with bruises and gashes incurred in taking things up by the wrong end, and fancying our space wider than it is.

AdamBede1-420x620.pngThis story follows Adam Bede, a young carpenter who lives in rural northern England, and the people who form his community in this village where he lives. Adam is a diligent worker and a good friend, who often judges too harshly and responds to the faults in others with anger instead of mercy. As the story opens, he is working for a local business owner and is admired and respected by his community, but several circumstances in his life are preventing him from doing all he wishes to do. One of the things he wants to do is marry a girl named Hetty Sorrel, but he doesn’t feel like he has enough financial stability to do so. While Adam is working through his own life circumstances, Hetty meets and falls for Arthur Donnethorne, the young squire who is a friend of Adam’s. Conflict ensues.

This is not a story about a love triangle; Eliot is too complex for that, even in this, her first novel. Instead, this is ultimately a story about sin and sorrow. While a weaker work than Middlemarch, the things that I love about Eliot are still evident in Adam Bede. Her focus is always on character. What makes people tick? What are their flaws? How do those flaws impact their actions?

In Adam Bede Eliot is exploring the impact other people have on our lives. While in stories the main character tends to have to address problems that are due to their actions, Adam must work through problems that are caused by the actions of Arthur and Hetty. This is a less common kind of story, but a common human experience. If the people around you deeply wound you, how do you respond? And more importantly, how ought you respond? Adam’s initial responses are unhealthy (ahem, literal fistfight, actual hatred), but eventually, with the help of some friends, he shapes his heart towards forgiveness, and in doing so, helps Hetty and Arthur find repentance and forgiveness, too.

19426099176.jpgI continue to be amazed how well Eliot draws characters, how vivid and life-like they are. Even the minor characters, like Mr. Irwine or Bartle Massey, are so real. I do think the characters, generally, and Hetty, especially, aren’t as multi-dimensional as, for example, Rosamond Vincy or other figures later in Eliot’s career, but still excellently done. In addition, the plot was a little unevenly paced, and the action got rather dramatic at times. But as I want to emphasize, these are really only flaws in comparison to Middlemarch, which I think is one of the best English novels full stop, so they are minor flaws. As a first novel, especially, it’s marvelous. Eliot is a mature writer who rewards mature and attentive readers with an enormous feast of richness and truth.

As is happening more and more with classics, at first it took me a little bit to get into this book, and I read it casually around other things for a couple of weeks. I enjoyed it, but was okay with putting it down for a few days. And then I read the last 150 or 200 pages in one sitting. I kept telling myself “one more chapter” until I realized I was just going to finish the book. I think classics in general invite a longer settling in, they spend more time introducing and developing characters before diving into the plot. And the result, at least here, is that afore-mentioned richness.

Related to that reaction of mine, another aspect of the book I loved is that although we neither see or are told about some of the central actions in the book, Eliot manages to make us aware that they’re happening anyway, through small details that I think make those actions feel weightier (the little pink handkerchief — !!). Her choice to withhold details creates tension and a sense of dread in a very subtle and sophisticated way. There was a moment near the end where I actually gasped out loud, and then realized I’d been holding my breath, because the tension in that moment was so acute and so subtle. I thought I knew what was going to happen and had accepted it; turns out I hadn’t.

I identified a lot with Adam, being similarly good at doing the right thing, but sometimes struggling to be merciful when people don’t meet my own standards. The next time I read the book, I’ll be paying more careful attention to his development, because I know I’ll be able to learn a great deal from him. However, of all the major characters, it’s Hetty that I think about the most. I do think Eliot was right to name the book after Adam, because the book is ultimately about him, but Hetty plays a large role. Poor girl.

51UfiU57zXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg(The next paragraphs flirt with some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know more, look away!). Eliot shows us that Hetty is a vain, selfish, and empty-headed young woman. She wants nothing more than to be admired and liked, but doesn’t actually like or care about other people very much. She literally spends hours in her bedroom looking at herself in the mirror and daydreaming about getting pretty dresses and basking in the attention she gets from men.

This shallowness of character means she can’t really imagine how others think or feel, or see the world in a perspective outside of her own very limited one. And she can’t think complexly enough to anticipate potential consequences of her actions, or to recognize social realities that might deflate her daydreams. She really doesn’t see why Arthur will never consider her seriously as a potential wife. I compared her to Rosamond Vincy earlier because I think she is an early version of the kind of character Rosamond is, too. But while Rosamond has some redeeming moments, Hetty really doesn’t, although she does have a moment of repentance. Her poor character leads her to make bad decisions (it’s true her experience is not only her fault, but she’s certainly not a victim, and definitely makes things worse than they could have been), and then to not know how to deal with the consequences, leading to even worse decisions. While there were plenty of people from whom she could have sought help, and indeed who invite her to come to them if she needs help, her desire to be liked is stronger than anything, and so she is too proud and not imaginative enough to see these avenues that are open to her. And this leads to some pretty tragic consequences.

One of the reasons I wanted to think about Hetty more in this space is because I think her plot and character arc are one of those circumstances where it is all too easy to read with modern eyes and miss what the author is trying to say. Would things have been different for Hetty now? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that she would have had a better story; she would simply have made different kinds of mistakes, because it’s her character that Eliot is concerned with.

What Hetty has to learn is that her actions have consequences, not only for her, but for those around her who care about her: her cousin, Dinah, her aunt and uncle, and Adam, who loves her. This ripple effect also offers Adam the opportunity to grow; he realizes he didn’t know Hetty like he thought, and must work through his anger towards forgiveness. I think the fact that Adam has enough depth to recognize his flaws and choose to do the difficult personal work required to become a better person (and it is genuinely difficult – he suffers) is what makes him the protagonist of the story.

I definitely recommend reading Adam Bede, although I think it wouldn’t be the best introduction to Eliot — start with Middlemarch or Silas Marner. In addition to being a little weak (for Eliot), the country folks speak in a dialect that takes a little getting used to.

But as a discussion of sin, sorrow, anger and forgiveness, I think it’s a marvelous book and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

As a side note, while searching for the images I’ve included here, I stumbled on a very excellent analysis and discussion of Adam Bede. I recommend reading it.

Favorite Books of 2018

I read SO many wonderful books in 2018, it was hard to narrow this list down! But after a lot of thought, here are my 10 favorite books of 2018.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

IMG_2075.jpegDorthea Brooke longs to do something great in her life that will allow her to make the world better. She imagines herself marrying a man who will do something famous, a man like Pascal or Milton. Or Edward Casaubon, a neighbor who is working on the Key to All Mythologies. Dorthea marries him, full of idealistic dreams, and quickly is disappointed. She then must grapple with her ideas and ideals, trying to understand how she can fill her new role as Mrs. Casaubon.

Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor just arrived in Middlemarch with dreams of making some kind of medical advance. He is a good doctor, but not the best judge of character. He marries Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful, and ultimately vain and selfish woman, and finds that to keep her happy, he might have to change his own plans for his future.

Middlemarch is about much more than these characters; the cast is large and the story really is about the town of Middlemarch. Eliot’s themes focus on questions of religion and vocation, and of the importance of doing our best to know the other souls who live around us. Dorthea, for example, must learn how she can pour her religious idealism and passion into making her own time a better place. Eliot suggests that had Dorthea been born in a different time or place, she might have joined a convent and done great religious work, becoming another Saint Theresa of Avila. But that path is not open to her in early Victorian England, so Dorthea must discover what path is available. The tragedy of Rosamond is that she does not wish to try to understand other people; they should know what she wants, and deliver it. But in the few moments where she does put herself in someone else’s shoes, she effects great good.

Eliot’s brilliance is in her characters. They are real, vivid, and wonderfully rounded. The characters you like have serious flaws, the characters you dislike have good qualitites. Her descriptions and meditations and comments are brilliant, vivid, and often humorous. Middlemarch really is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

IMG_0631.jpegJoe Kavalier moves to New York, fleeing Prague from the encroaching Nazi threat at the last possible second. He there meets his cousin, Sam Clay, who is about his age. Sam is an ideas guy, and when he realizes Joe can draw, he spots their opportunity: With his stories and Joe’s drawing, they can start writing a comic book together. In 1930s New York, the Golden Age of comic books is just getting underway, and Joe and Sammy are on the ground floor of the phenomenon.

While the story does follow their business and creative successes (and failures, and setbacks), Kavalier and Clay is really about the two boys. Quiet and intense, Joe falls in love with Rosa, and also struggles with anxiety over his family’s situation back in Europe, and eventually develops survivor’s guilt. Sam is enthusiastic, outgoing, and friendly with everyone, but begins to realize that he’s not attracted to women.

The novel follows these two cousins over roughly twenty years, as their experiences in the first few years of their partnership have long waves. I really loved the characters, and loved watching them grow from their late teens to middle age. Chabon did a marvelous job of allowing his characters to grow and age without becoming something different from themselves. It was a marvelous story, and well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

IMG_1610.jpegGilbert Markham is a young English gentleman farmer. His little community is set to gossiping when the beautiful and secretive Helen Graham and her son move into Wildfell Hall, the old home of the area’s squire. Gilbert and Helen become friends, but when rumors begin to spread about her, Gilbert asks Helen for the truth. She gives him her journal to read, and what follows is the account of a young woman who believes she can change her husband, but learns how wrong she is. Helen’s husband is verbally abusive, an alcoholic, and an adulterer. The story is really Helen’s; the bulk of the book is about her experience coming to terms with her horrible marriage and working out how she can deal with her marriage while still holding true to her own personal principles. I didn’t always agree with Helen’s perspective, but I could always admire her. It is a marvelous story. I read it quickly, staying up until the wee hours to finish it, something I rarely do with classic fiction. I believe this is one of, if not the first English novel to address topics like alcoholism and terrible marriages, and even though so many things have (thankfully) changed, I think its treatment of these topics is very timely.

(Also, fun fact: Anne had heavily researched the medical and psychological impact of alcoholism and the book is very accurate based on the latest research of her time)

The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

41xPxQ0Qr-L._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis is a long poem divided into – you guessed it – four quartets, each named after a place: “Burnt Norton,” “East Corker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” I had studied “Burnt Norton” in an Eliot class, but hadn’t read the rest of the quartet, and this really isn’t a work that should be read in pieces. In October, I picked it up and slowly worked my way through it over a weekend, reading and re-reading each section as I went along.

This is also not a poem for beginner poetry readers. I love Eliot, and have read a lot of his works. All of them are challenging, and this one is a doozy. That said, it was absolutely worth working through, and is a poem that I’ll understand better each time I read it. I’m not quite sure I can really describe the poem; it has a narrative I can’t repeat, themes I only vaguely grasp. It’s elusive and slippery on purpose, and makes more sense on reflection, at a distance, than while you’re actually reading it. I think that Eliot is mainly trying to make sense of incarnational time. How can an event in time also be out-of-time and for all time? Really, such a complicated topic deserves a complicated poem.

So why did it make my top 10 list? Because I’m so proud of myself for wrestling through it and beginning to understand. And because it is a stunning poem. Even if you’re not quite sure what he means, exactly, Eliot’s use of language is beautiful, evocative, and so, so skilled.

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

IMG_2256.jpegThis is one of the oldest works of Western literature, and Wilson’s translation gives it a freshening that I think it really needed.

The poem follows Odysseus, trying to get home from the Trojan war. He is blown off course, and then angers Poseidon, making it a really hard task, one that ultimately takes ten years. On the journey, he meets all kinds of mythical characters and challenges, many of which are still part of our cultural vocabulary (Circe, the Sirens, the Cyclops…). The story also follows his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, who are waiting for Odysseus to come home. A host of suitors, sure Odysseus is dead, want to marry Penelope, and they are rudely eating them out of house and home.

I’ve read this story before, but never imagined it would make my top 10 list. Wilson’s translation is just fantastic. She has dispensed with the traditionally highfalutin’ language and padded descriptions in favor of a lean, fast-paced, but still beautiful translation. I was amazed by how quickly I read this, and how much I enjoyed it; even sections I had previously found tedious were now entertaining. Furthermore, Wilson chose to let her translation reveal the “problematic” elements of the Odyssey; for example, instead of quietly translating various words as “servant” or “maiden” or so on, she uses the more accurate term: “slave.” Several translators had also chosen adjectives with negative connotations to make certain characters seem worse than the original portrayed to make the protagonists look better; Wilson refrains, instead pointing out the moral ambiguities of the poem in her introduction.

Speaking of the introduction, that section, and the translator’s note, were very informative and worth reading. I also appreciated that her notes in the back contained a summary of each book (chapter); very helpful for first (or second or third) time readers.

Circe by Madeline Miller

IMG_0643.jpegThis novel is difficult to summarize without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it follows the life of Circe, from before her birth to — the end of the book (she’s immortal, you know, and #spoilers). Circe grows up in the palace of her father, Hyperion, generally ignored until she discovers she has a different kind of power from the other immortals. Her ability to control the qualities of plants and manipulate the natural world earns her the title witch and banishment to a solitary island. The turning point of the novel, although not the climax or the end, comes when Odysseus and his crew visit her.

This is really a story about identity. Circe doesn’t really fit anywere, and, forced to be alone, she slowly, over a long time, comes to understand and accept herself. Miller’s knowledge of mythology and the ancient world is scholarly and extensive, and as a result although this is essentially a mythology re-imagining, it feels very real and very grounded. And Miller’s prose is just gorgeous.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

IMG_0502.jpegMerrick Tremayne has been invalided out of the British East India Company, where he was a botanist and basically a smuggler. But he is asked to join one last expedition to Peru to recover Cinocha cuttings. The Company is having problems with malaria in India, and wants to begin a plantaion there so that they have easy access to quinine, the only cure for the disease. Merrick is asked to go not only because of his prior experience, but also because his family has connections to a Peruvian town called New Bethlehem. When Merrick arrives in New Bethlehem, he begins to learn what those connections are, and discovers the world is a little more magical than he thought.

This is another book where the characters are the biggest draw. While there is plenty of action in The Bedlam Stacks, it is Merrick and Raphael who kept me reading. I love this genre, historical fiction with just a touch of magical realism, and this one was the best of the three or four I read last year. It was, overall, a lovely story with lovely writing, and I can’t wait to see what Pulley does next.

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

911ER8Bm6NL.jpgThis fantasy novel is the beginning of a series. Maniye is the daughter of a Wolf chieftan and the Tiger queen he had killed after Maniye was born. In this fantasy world, the Iron Wolves control the Crown of the World, and Maniye’s father, a secondary chief, has his eye on the head chief role. When Maniye learns that he plans to marry her to the man who killed her mother as part of his plan for personal advancement, she runs away. In her running, Maniye meets many people, both from the Crown of the World and from the Sun River Nation to the south. As it turns out, there may be something much bigger brewing…

The aspect of this book that sold me was the world building. It is so incredibly nuanced and unique; I’m constantly blown away. Tchaikovsky has considered his world down to the metals used in weapons and the different cultural habits of each tribe. In this world, each person is born with a human and an animal soul, which is determined by their birth. So, the members of the Wolf can shapeshift into wolves, the Deer into deer, the Bear into bear, and so on. But Maniye has two souls, Tiger and Wolf, a fact she works hard to keep secret, and one which might tear her apart.

I will say that the plot and the characterization in this book was weaker than many of the others listed here, although still very good. Also, the story took a while to get going. In the end, the worldbuilding more than made up for any flaws. At the moment, I’m reading the sequel, and so far enjoying it even more.

Strange the Dreamer/Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Strange-the-Dreamer-Series-Covers.jpgI’m cheating a little and counting these two books as one, since they are essentially two halves of the same story.

Lazlo Strange is an orphan who works in his country’s national library and learns all he can about the maybe-mythical city of Weep. Hundreds of years ago, this city was an important one in the world, but then suddenly all contact with and from it vanished. When Lazlo was a child, the name of the city also disappeared, and people took to calling it Weep.

One day, a delegation from Weep arrive at the library, looking for help to a particular problem. Lazlo is thrilled, and although he isn’t picked to be one of those who are brought to Weep to work on the problem, his knowledge of the language and the friendship he develops with the leader, Eril-fane, leads to his inclusion.

Lazlo’s history and all that I’ve described takes about the first third of Strange the Dreamer, and to talk about any more would be too spoilery. Suffice it to say that what had caused Weep’s problems, and what causes problems still, is not what anyone expected, and Lazlo is more helpful than he imagined. Muse of Nightmares picks up exactly where Strange left off, and finishes the story.

Weep’s history is marked by violence and subjugation, from which they were only recently freed, and memories are long. The fear, hatred, and sorrow caused by their past is still fresh, and while the delegates are brought to solve a practical problem, it is this emotional problem that the book is more concerned with. Can a cycle of hatred and vengeance be broken after so much suffering? And how?

Taylor’s writing is beautiful, and these were definitely my favorite YA books from this year (and the only ones to make my top 10). While not perfect, I liked that she tackled themes that are important and relevant, and did it in a way that was nuanced and compassionate. Lazlo is the hero, but his heroism is that of a kind man, a loving human, not a warrior. Love and communication, understanding and kindness are what win the day, and we desperately need more of those things.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

IMG_2246.jpegI kind of picked this book up on a whim at the used bookstore, and then immediately kicked myself for not grabbing the rest of the trilogy. This is another fantasy, of the old-fashioned kind.

Although from the Old Kingdom, Sabriel has grown up at a bording school in Ancelstierre, which is a (mostly) non-magical realm that feels like Edwardian or early 1920s England. At school, she has learned a little magic, and her father, the Abhorsen, has taught her more. When he fails to visit on her eighteenth birthday, Sabriel realizes something is wrong, and travels to the Old Kingdom for the first time to find him. She quickly discovers that even with her training, the Old Kingdom is very different from the world she knows, and that her father’s disappearance is even more serious than she had imagined. Joined by a talking cat named Mogget and a man named Touchstone, she journeys through the kingdom-without-a-king to find her father.

This is such a wonderful fantasy. It doesn’t try to do anything too wild, but is itself very well. The Charter Magic and the Old Kingdom are well drawn and still, months later, the world is very vivid to me. I love Mogget so much, and Sabriel is admirable for her determination, her kindness, her willingness to grow.

The story’s themes include friendship and life and death, and it does get a little dark at times. But because it is a good-and-evil story, I was okay with that darkness, which is never glorified. It was just so satisfying and enjoyable to read, and is one of those books I wish I had discovered ten years ago. I have since bought the rest of the trilogy, and am excited to dive back into this world.


I am interested by the fact that, although the largest percentage of my reading last year was YA, there are only two YA books on this list (Strange and Muse). The rest are from the adult age category, and consist of an old favorite genre (fantasy) (2), classics (4), and a surprising number of more literary works (3). I’m looking forward to seeing how my reading develops in 2019.


Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite reads in 2018? Let me know in the comments!

Most of the pictures here (except the cover-only images) are from my Instagram account WiththeClassics. If you haven’t already, go check it out!

19 Books I’m Excited to Read in 2019

There are SO many books I want to read, as usual. Since my focus this year is to slow down, savor what I read, I’ve put together a list of 19 books I’d particularly like to get to. It may be that these books, plus my 2019 Classics Challenge, make up the bulk of my 2019 reading; it may be that I only read a few of these; it may be that I read all of these and more. But at the moment, these are the books I’d like to make a priority in this new year.

  1. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
  2. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
  3. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger (11 Jan)
  4. Lirael by Garth Nix
  5. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (3 Jan)
  6. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  7. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
  8. The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
  10. These Truths by Jill Lepore
  11. Paul in Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright (11 Jan)
  12. The Temple by George Herbert (10 April)
  13. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (an April 2019 release)
  14. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (a November 2019 release)
  15. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  16. The Bear and the Serpent by Adrian Tchaikovsky (7 Jan)
  17. The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
  18. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater (A November 2019 release)
  19. North! Or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson

If you’d like to hear more about these books, and why they’re on this list, check out my video.

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Update: April 2019 – Maggie Stiefvater’s new book now has a name and a release date!

I am also going to mark when I’ve finished each of these books, and will link to a review if I write one.

2019 Reading Goals

But I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my reading goals for 2019, and after looking back at 2017 and 2018, and considering my school reading load, I’ve determined to set a couple of rather loose goals for next year.

  1. Aim for Slow Reading. I have a tendency to read quickly, bolting books and piling up the numbers. I’d like to work away from that for a couple of reasons.
    • I want to read some long books that I’ve been putting off because they’ll take a while.
    • I often grab whatever sounds interesting in the moment, which leads to my reading a lot of okay books that are, frankly, forgettable.
    • Speaking of forgetting, I also forget (or miss) the finer points of the good books I do read.
    • have to read quickly and at high volume for school. This past semester I ended up, out of a sheer lack of time, having a for-fun book simmering along in the background and I rather enjoyed reading a chapter or even a few pages before bed. While the quantity of my reading tanked Sept-Nov, the quality was much better, because I didn’t want to waste time with books I knew I’d only sort of enjoy.
  2. Genre/Category focuses (yes, I know technically it’s foci): In 2019, I’d like to read more classics and am participating in the Back to the Classics challenge to that end. I would also like to read more adult books, especially fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction. After long avoiding the previous three genres for a number of reasons, I feel like my deeper immersion into the bookish world this year has better equipped me to find the kinds of books I want to read.
  3. More Nonfiction I always say this, and then I never do. But I think part of that is because it takes me much longer to read nonfiction. By reading slower, I hope I can do better here.
  4. Goodreads Goal: 75 books
    • Since I count any whole books I read for school as well as my personal reading, I think this will be achievable (it sounds like in just one of my classes next semester, we might be reading 20 or more plays!) but also encourage me to slow down.
    • My personal reading goal is 2-3 books/month or about 1/3 of the total

And that’s it! An intense Spring semester and some over-ambitious goals in the previous years has led me to be a bit more broad and vague than before. My overall goal is to be more deliberate with my book selections and more attentive when I do read for fun.

In my next post, I’m going to list out more specifically some of the authors and books I’d like to read.

 

Classics Club: The List

IMG_1677.jpg
I found out about the Classics Club recently, and I think it is such a fabulous idea. You can find out all the information in the link above, but basically you commit to reading at least fifty classics over a five-year span, reviewing the books along the way. There are other fun community things you can participate in (or not), to give you a reading boost and to connect with other readers.

One of the things that happens when you pursue a lit PhD is that your reading gets more and more narrow, first to a specific time and place (early modern England, for me – that’s roughly 1530-1775), then to the works specifically related to your dissertation.

Although that narrowing hasn’t quite happened yet as I’m still taking classes, I’d like to forestall a future in which the only classics I read are early modern; this seemed like a great opportunity. I have a year or two to settle into the project before classes end and the serious specialization begins.

Anyway, that is a long introduction to my list of 50 classics. You’ll notice that part of this list is my Back to the Classics 2019 list, because you better believe I’m hardcore doubling up.

I will add read dates and links to reviews as they happen.

Start date: 26 December 2018

End date: 26 December 2023

Ancient/Medieval

  1. The Orestia Aeschylus (1/23/19)
  2. Histories by Heroditus
  3. The Republic Plato (if anything changes, it’ll be this one)
  4. The Aeneid Virgil
  5. Confessions St. Augustine
  6. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
  7. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  8. The Mabinogion
  9. The Romance of the Rose
  10. L’Morte d’Arthur Thomas Malory

The 17th and 18th Centuries

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  2. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  3. Evelina by Frances Burney
  4. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (8/16/19)
  5. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
  6. Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown
  7. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  8. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

The 19th Century

  1. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  2.  Romola by George Eliot
  3. Felix Holt, the Radical, by George Eliot
  4.  Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
  5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6.  Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  7. Tess of the D’Ubervilles Thomas Hardy
  8. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  9. The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
  10. David Copperfield Charles Dickens
  11. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  12. The American by Henry James
  13. The Bostonians by Henry James
  14. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  15. Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  16. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  17. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
  18. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (5/29/19)
  19. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
  20. Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac

The 20th Century (to 1969)

  1. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
  2. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset.
  3. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  4.  Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Read, review coming)
  5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  7. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  8. Light in August by William Faulkner
  9. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (technically a re-read)
  10. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsinay
  11. The Worm Orobouros by Eddison
  12. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  13. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  14. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge (Read, review coming)
  15. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

My Rationale:

I’ve avoided early modern English books (like Shakespeare) because I know I’ll be reading them for school and I want this to be my non-school reading.

I have a whole Classics TBR shelf that got automatically added to this (about 30 books).

I’ve restricted the list to 50 books because I think 10 books/year to read and review is manageable. If I find my pace is faster, I may add to the list (or finish early and start a new one!).

I may swap works as time passes. I’d rather read a classic I’m excited about than slog through one I’m not.

[12/19 update: I’m adding new books I’d like to get to, and will probably add more as I go. I’ll cut the list back to 50 when I get closer to the end of the challenge and have a better idea of what I’m really just not interested in reading anymore.]

Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge

Books and Chocolate is hosting an awesome read-the-classics challenge for 2019, and as one of my reading goals is to continue to read more classics, I thought this would be a fun way to encourage myself to continue to read broadly.

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There are twelve challenges, so one book/month, roughly. I’m going to aim for all of them, but if I can get to half, that would be great!

Here are my (tentative) books:

  1. A 19th century classicThe Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860).
  2. 20th century classicThe Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961). I’ve been meaning to read this for ages.
  3. A classic by a female authorRomola by George Eliot
  4. A classic in translation: Either The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I’d like to read both next year, but they are Very Large, so we’ll see which one I’m in the mood for. Or maybe I’ll unearth something shorter.
  5. Classic comic novelCold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  6. Classic tragic novelJude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  7. A Very Long classicDaniel Deronda by George Eliot (around 750 pages). You’ve noticed there’s a lot of George Eliot on this list? It’s because of another 2019 goal of mine.
  8. Classic novella: A Dickens Christmas story. I’ve been reading one each year, so my 2019 story will count for this challenge.
  9. Classic from the AmericasWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I keep intending to read this novel and never getting around to it.
  10. Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceana: The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata.
  11. Classic from a place you’ve lived: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (Georgia!)
  12. Classic PlayTamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe

And that’s it! Since I know my selections will change, I’ll come back and update as I go, and will write a review of each book here. I’ll also review and discuss these on my YouTube channel, so go and check that out (*shameless plug*).

In fact, if you are interested in my thoughts on classics and all sorts of books, definitely check out my YouTube channel. School has kept me very busy, so I’ve not been as active as I’d like to be in either place, but I’m more active there than here.

That said, stay tuned for some 2018 wrap-up and 2019 reading goals posts!

 

** updated 19 April — changed #10 from The Tale of Genji, 11 from ??, and 12 from “something by Shakespeare idk.” Still not sure about the “classic in translation” choices.

May 2018 Favorites

Hello friends!

I haven’t been writing much lately, because I’ve been busy with school, and also because I started a BookTube channel (that’s YouTube about books)! Right now I’m mostly posting random content while I discover the shape of the thing I want it to be, but I’d love if you checked it out: WithTheClassics

I read 14 books in May, and loved many of them, so I thought I’d share my favorites with you here. I did a full wrap-up that will be on my channel in a few days, and I talk about all of these books in various May videos, so if you’d like more of my thoughts, check them out.

In the order I read them:

The Bedlam Stacks | Natasha Pulley

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Merrick Tremayne is an ex-East India Co smuggler, trapped at home in England by an injury. He’s recruited to travel to Peru to help steal cuttings of the tree that produces quinine, the only treatment for malaria. He is asked because of his smuggling experience, his hobby as an amateur botanist, and his family’s history in that particular part of Peru. But once he arrives in New Bethlehem, he realizes that things are not what they seem.

This book is historical fiction with *just* a touch of magical realism, and it’s a lovely mix. It is a lyrical, beautiful book, the kind that burrows into your heart and then declares its staying forever. Although action-packed, the focus is on Merrick and the choices he makes as he learns more about the unique place his grandfather and father had come to love, and that action-packed plot is quite character-driven. It left me with warm, fuzzy feelings and everyone should go read it.

Circe | Madeline Miller 

35959740.jpgI feel like people have been slow to pick this new release up, and they need to get a move on! Circe is about the titan goddess by that name, the one whose best known for being a witch and turning men into pigs in the Odyssey. Beginning with the circumstances of her birth, Circe narrates her life for us, telling both a fascinating tale and contemplating her choices and actions. It’s a wonderful, unique retelling.

This book was so refreshing to read after all the YA retellings I’ve experienced lately. Not that I’m knocking them, but this one, being literary fiction in addition to a myth retelling, had a lyricism and depth the YA ones don’t. Circe is a fascinating, complex woman, and Miller doesn’t hesitate to show the heroic and problematic aspects of other mythological characters; Circe lives a long life and meets a lot of people and gods along the way. But aside from the tour through mythology, it is Circe herself, and her struggle to understand her long life and to find meaning in it that makes this such a wonderful read.

City of Brass | S.A. Chakraborty 

32718027.jpgAn adult fantasy that (nearly) avoided any kind of romance (*insert clapping hands emoji*). City of Brass then gets even better by being rooted in Middle Eastern mythology. Here be Genies, although they’re called, more accurately, Djinn or Daeva. Nahri is a thief living on the streets of Cairo in the early 1800s when she accidentally summons one of those Djinn. He realizes that she’s more than just a street thief, and takes her to Daevabad, the titular City of Brass. The only thing is, Daevabad is in the middle of its own political problems, and the arrival of the last surviving member of one of their most powerful families, accompanied by one of the most feared and hated Djinn in thousands of years, does not improve things.

City of Brass is an essentially political novel, which I liked. It was a nice change from the sweeping epics I’ve read lately. The magic system is well-done, and not dumbed down. The characters who are magic do magic; they don’t run around and explain everything. My favorite aspect of this novel is the characterization. Every major character has his or her own desires, and the conflict arises from the clash of those desires. It works brilliantly, especially because everybody’s actions make sense. There are no villains here, just people trying to do their best. My only issue with the book is that it IS a trilogy, and definitely reads like a part I. There’s no awful cliffhanger, but the plot and character arcs feel unfinished.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay | Michael Chabon

12679626.jpgJoe Kavalier escapes Prague in 1939 by the skin of his teeth and comes to live with his cousin, Sam Clay, in Brooklyn. When Sam realizes Joe can draw, he pitches a comic book to his boss, and the rest is history. Told over 15 years, and against the backdrop of the early days of WWII, mostly, and of the Golden Age of comic books, this thick novel is nevertheless surprisingly intimate. It remains focused on Joe and Sam, who both have strong, well-drawn and dynamic characters.

Basically, I loved everything about this book, and it is one of my favorites now. Funny in a lot of places, sad in a few, really sad in another few, poignant, thoughtful, and all-around entertaining, it feels like an heir to the great Victorian novelists. It’s the kind of story I think modern literary fiction is lacking sorely. To try to say more would force me to be spoilery, and coherent, so just pick it up while you’re grabbing The Bedlam Stacks.

Now excuse me, I’m going to go read everything Chabon has ever written, and throw Natasha Pulley’s other book in the pile while I’m at it.

On Stress-Reading and Some Recommendations

IMG_0367.jpgI don’t know about you, but I definitely stress-read.

I mean, I read all the time, and when I’m REALLY stressed, I do tend to watch Netflix instead of reading, but a step below that is stress-reading.

This is what I do when I’m at the end of a semester, usually. Books that fit this category are usually re-reads, or familiar authors. It’s like eating comfort food, but with books.

I noticed this semester that I actually turn to a particular genre, as well: detective fiction. In particular, I binge- read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, although I’m non-discriminatory in my author choices–new, old, I’ll take anyone. As long as it’s not thrillers or horror. Those are NOT relaxing.

For example, at the moment I’m listening to a full cast adaptation of seven of the Hercule Poirot stories. I’m also reading Still Waters by Vivica Stein, a contemporary Swedish novel featured in Amazon’s translated books series.

It seemed odd to me that I turn to detective fiction at the end of the year (I find murder relaxing? Is that a problem?), at least, until I thought about it for a little while.

Although Dorothy Sayers is a little bit of an exception, generally detective stories are focused entirely on the plot, and aside from wondering “whodunnit?” there’s not much else. That is, these books don’t really have highly rounded characters (though they certainly may be enjoyable ones), or even the most perfect prose. Thus, they offer the perfect solution to the words-weary English-grad mind: compelling stories that take little mental effort to read. You can try to figure out the mystery, of course, but you don’t have to expend a lot of energy on it. Also, you know how the story will end, in that you are very sure that the murderer will be caught and everything will be explained. When I’m frantically writing analytic essays and am worried about grades and due dates, this easy, assured reading is, indeed, relaxing.

So I thought, in light of this discovery, here are a few recommendations of classic murder mysteries, ones I love enough to re-read because they’re just so much fun.

Agatha Christie:

Unknown.jpegMurder on the Orient Express. I mean, if you haven’t read this yet, what have you been doing? The Orient Express gets stuck in a snowdrift and one of the passengers is murdered. Only one of the twelve other passengers in the first-class cars could have done it, but who? The twists and turns of this novel keep me going even after I know the murderer; it’s marvelous. THE classic.

And then There Were None. Ten people are invited to a remote house on an otherwise deserted island. Their hosts never show. Then people start dying.

Apparently Christie set out to create the most perfect, watertight crime in this novel, and it is so good she had to reveal the murderer in a (kind of hokey) epilogue. The slightly horror vibe here is great, and again, the reveal is stunning.

The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd. What’s brilliant about this novel is you’re really sure it’s one of Christie’s typical “murder in the English Countryside” novels until it’s absolutely different from all the others. I’m not even going to say anything else. This was so genius.

Dorothy Sayers:

isbn9781444797435.jpgWhose Body? The first of her Lord Peter mysteries. A middle-class man finds a dead body in his bathtub, and at first it’s thought he’s the missing Levy. Except he’s not. So who is the dead body, and where’s Levy?

Introducing Lord Peter, this is, in my opinion, the most typical of Sayers’ mysteries, but start with this one because they only get better from here.

Murder Must Advertise. An ad man is killed, and Lord Peter is invited by the owner of the agency to go undercover and solve the mystery. I love this one because Sayers had previously worked in advertising, and aside from a compelling mystery, she gently satirizes advertising, a satire which is surprisingly relevant today. Apparently the ethos of ads hasn’t changed much from the 1920s. Also, the agency employees are delightful characters.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I’m enjoying Still Waters. I was a little annoyed with the prose until the mystery got going, and now I don’t mind it as much. It is very much a typical Swedish detective story; the main detective is ruggedly handsome with a sad past and all the ladies want him but he doesn’t notice them…. you know. That kind of book.

How about you? Do you turn to a particular genre or particular authors when you’re stressed? What’s your book comfort food?

On the Content of Bookstores

I’ve been in a lot of different bookstores lately (nobody is surprised). For some reason, this particular string of bookstores in this particular order led me to notice something I hadn’t really considered before.

The story:

I went to the flagship Half Price Books and wandered around, noting titles that might fit my 2018 Reading Goals. There were a lot of them. A joy-inducing, oh-my-goodness lot of them. I recalled a number of books I’d wanted to read but had forgotten about. I found copies of classics you can otherwise only order online. You know, the B-list of popular classics authors. Part of this is because the store is humongous, and part of it is that it’s near a major university or three, I suspect. I didn’t actually buy any books that day, because grad student, but I made a mental note to shop here more.

I was out of town and visited a local bookstore, and noticed how obviously and carefully curated their selections were. Even in sections like YA I could see that each book included on the shelf had been meaningfully selected. They were not only the popular ones, although there were plenty of new and new-ish releases, but also those considered generally considered good by the book community. I felt like anything I pulled off of any shelf would be a good book.

I visited briefly a Barnes and Noble in the city, near that Half Price Books and thus that university. It’s also near a very affluent part of town, and near the business part of the city, so therefore an area full of wealthy people, young professionals, professors, and college / graduate students. I say this to compare it to

My local Barnes and Noble, which I visit frequently but most recently yesterday, when I had this observation I haven’t actually made yet (I’m getting to it, hang with me). This store is also located in a pretty affluent area, but a suburb filled with middle-aged families with young kids or teens.

When I observed the selection of books at the first two places, I based their existence on the kind of bookstore – independent and used. So when I briefly browsed through the fiction section of the city Barnes and Noble, I was surprised by their selections. There was more diversity, both in authors, in sub-genres, and in the number of books by each author. I found a number of different classics (that weren’t the B&N Classics editions!), including less popular (less assigned) ones, and I spotted books by authors I’m intending to read for my challenge that I can’t find at my local store. Some of this may have to do with store size, but on the other hand, my bookstore devoted an entire case to the Outlander books. An. Entire. Case.

I mean, there are a lot of Outlander books, but all I could imagine was that if that was halved, maybe they would have had space for Middlemarch, which wasn’t in stock.

And this is when I realized: bookstores stock for their demographic. And this area of the world, apparently, wants Outlander and James Patterson. Which is fine, I guess.*

I mean, it makes sense. If you had told me that different stores of the same chain carry different books, I wouldn’t have expressed surprise.

If you’re hanging in still, and wondering why I just spent 500 words building up to that obvious conclusion, here’s my takeaways from those thoughts:

  1. What an interesting ethnographic experiment. Walk into Barnes and Nobles in different regions. Characterize that region’s reading tastes. You totally could do that.
  2. This is why I buy most of my books from Amazon and Half Price Books. (well, also the discount). I usually can’t find ones I’m interested in and also haven’t read at my local store.
  3. How important independent bookstores are! That careful curation of stock is invaluable. This has motivated me to visit a new independent bookstore that’s not near where I live now, but will be closer when I move this summer. I want to make friends with the staff.
  4. How limiting the end result is. How many people, how many young readers, are missing out on encounters with some really great books, classic and contemporary, because their local bookstore only carries trendy books? How many people have given up on reading because they want a steak-book, and the only thing the bookstore sells is candy-floss?

A lot of places, including my general region (if I’m willing to make a little effort) have independent bookstores to help with this problem, but a lot of places don’t. One of the things I missed most about moving back to the Atlanta suburbs from Boston was the lack of indy bookstores. Now that I’m paying attention, and realize I have access to those resources, I’m going to do something about it.

This discovery made me more determined to put in the effort to dig up those little-known gems and promote them as much as I can. It contributed to this post in a psychological way. The internet is great for buying books you can’t find in your bookstore, but it’s also a bewildering warren of misses and meh reads. I want to help all you lovely readers know what to order, what to request, what to dig out from between the Pattersons and Clancys.

Are there little-known or un-popular books you love? Let me know about them!

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*Full disclosure: I was interested in the premise of Outlander (time travel!), but DNF’d it halfway through. I’m not interested in smut that masquerades as storytelling. Sorry if you’re fond of the books, but there’s no faster way to get me to DNF a book and find it generally distasteful than to include a lot of smut or graphically depicted sex. It’s why I DNF’d Game of Thrones, too.