Classics Spin #20

Question Mark - cover place holder

So there’s another Classics Spin? And I still haven’t finished my book from the last spin? And there’s a pile of library books still waiting to be finished?

Well, sign me up, of course!

It’s a mark of my consistent bookish optimism that I keep signing up for the spins, but there’s just something so irresistible about letting a “roll of the dice” decide my next read – at least, when dozens of other readers are playing along! And so, I present my semi-randomized list of twenty:

  1. Carson, Anne, translator – An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan – Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  3. Radcliffe, Ann – The Italian (England, 1797)
  4. Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de – Three Exemplary Novels (Spain, 1613)
  5. Gaskell, Elizabeth – Cranford (England, 1853)
  6. Brontë, Anne – Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  7. Anonymous – The Epic of Gilgaesh (Sumerian, c. 2150-1000 BCE)
  8. Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World (England, 1932)
  9. Wright, Richard – Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  10. Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain (U.S., 1953)
  11. Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  12. Anonymous – Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  13. Camões, Luís Vaz de – The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  14. Bolaño, Roberto – 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  15. Bromfield, Louis – The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  16. Woolf, Virginia – Mrs. Dalloway (England, 1925)
  17. Lawrence, D.H. – Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  18. Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  19. Anonymous – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, 14th century)
  20. Anonymous – Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)

I’m most hoping for The Farm (#15) as I’d like to read it this spring. Or there’s Gilgamesh (#7) which is one of those library books that I should be reading anyways… But really, I won’t complain (I don’t think…) if I get any of these.

Any favorites you hope I get?

Happy spinning!

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Cover: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin cloth bound edition)Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
England, 1891

I can’t believe tomorrow’s the first of April already. I really don’t know where the first three months of this year have gone (although I can tell you that they were cold, gloomy, but fortunately with not too much snow). But I’ve barely read anything–judging by the number of books finished so far. Hopefully the arrival of spring (err…off-and-on–it snowed last night, just a dusting) will prompt more reading?

Some of it could be what I’m reading, too. I’ve been attempting to read the first Harry Potter novel in Spanish, which is, of course, much slower going for me than it’s English counterpart. (But I’ve been learning, too: I didn’t know there were two words in Spanish for where we would say ‘owl’ – and they apparently mean different owls!) And I’ve been oh-so-slowly making my way through The Iliad–it’s simply proving a slow read for me, much the way Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Tess of the D’Urbervilles were for me last year.

I’ve seen a number of articles/listened to a number of stories about how the Internet has changed the way we read—that people don’t sit and read for long periods of time, that our eyes and minds wander, that we don’t think as deeply. I’m beginning to wonder if that mightn’t be true for me—it certainly took long enough for me to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles: nearly five months, and it’s only 398 pages in my copy. Nor do I remember such difficulties finishing classics when I was in high school (including reading Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge), before I had ready access to the Internet and its distracting influences. Of course there’s also option b, which came to me the other night as I was shifting in my reading chair yet again: in high school I could sit for hours on end in one position before I noticed a crick in the neck or a stiffness of the back. No such luck today!

But to Tess itself.

I believe it to be one of Hardy’s better known novels; it is the story of an initially naïve young woman (barely more than a girl at the start) and the trials of her life, starting from the time an amateur historian misguidedly informs her father that he believes the family of descended from the ancient D’Urberville line. It spans a number of years, and both highs and lows, but all following along a trajectory that is seemingly determined for Tess–though the narration makes clear several “if-only” moments–from the moment her father learns of his grand ancestry.

There is so much to unpack in the novel, and the more I think on it, the more I am convinced that it needs, if not more than one reading, at least a closer reading than I gave it. There is the analysis of character: of how Tess differs from her family and companions and so suffers in ways they might not, of how Angel Clare succumbs to a morality that seems at odds with his stated religious views and which Hardy apparently condemns, and so causes further suffering to Tess and pain to himself. It is a pastoral novel, and setting and scene undoubtedly play an important part in the atmosphere and the experience of reading the novel, but reading superficially as I did, I miss any significance, any connection to plot or revelation of character.

And most interestingly to me on this first read (I feel as if I will someday be pulled back), there is Hardy’s social criticism. I recently read Wilkie Collins’ suspense-thriller The Woman in White, and am fascinated that these two well-remembered Victorian male writers seemed to have the same criticisms for the institution of marriage and the suffering of women at the hands of men. They were not of a time that the 21st reader might think of as progressive, and yet it is clear that they were observers and critiquers of the social ills that British Victorian ease and prosperity did not alleviate or prevent. (And now my brain seeks to go down a rabbit hole – thinking of Dickens and Gaskell as well – and these are only the authors I’ve read; I imagine there are others.) This illustrates the attraction of literature for the acute observer of society, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that these books, critical of their times as they were, are the ones that survive. Is it the condition of great literature that it illumines our greatest flaws, individually and socially?

I found it hard to enjoy Tess–even for a reader who is better equipped to enjoy the prose and the pacing of the story than I am, it is perhaps difficult to say “enjoy” of an ultimately tragic novel–but as I think over it more, I find myself drawn back, in a way. There will certainly be more Thomas Hardy in my reading future. I only hope I can do him more justice going forward.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.

Completed: Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: Many Waters by Madeleine L'EngleMany Waters
Madeleine L’Engle
(1986, US)

Dennys raised his face to the stars, and their light fell against his cheeks like dew. They chimed at him softly. Do not seek to comprehend. All shall be well. Wait. Patience. Wait. You do not always have to do something. Wait. Chapter 12

There were over two decades between the publication of A Wrinkle in Time and Many Waters, the fourth book in the loose “Time Quintet.” And in a way, it feels it. The magic that I felt with Wrinkle and its second sequel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, seems to be gone.

The ties between Many Waters and the earlier books are by way of the Murry twins, Dennys and Sandy, who compared to the rest of the Murry family, are “normal” and more skeptical than their siblings: Meg and Charles Wallace may believe in unicorns, but they don’t. And yet it is these two who, whether through accident or divine intervention, find themselves in a pre-flood world, sharing a tent with (Biblical) Noah’s father, Lamech, and befriend Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, and his daughter, Yalith. The Genesis story doesn’t give names to the women, nor does it tell us if Noah had daughters–or any other living family, for that matter–and so this becomes an interesting exploration of a familiar story: what is the story of the unnamed women? What would it have been like for Noah and his sons and their wives to know that others they loved and cared for would die in a devastating flood? What if Noah had a daughter?

It is a strange book, in a way. One part Bible story retelling, one part fantasy, one part sci-fi time-travel – I’m not sure what to make of it. There seems a disconnect between fleshing out the story of Noah and his family, pre-flood, while also introducing unicorns and manticore of later European story-telling and adding in time-traveling boys from centuries later.

Additionally, while the earlier novels seem to focus on the emotional growth of the main characters–learning to defeat darkness by overcoming their own flaws or learning to love and share love–here, it seems that the twins’ story is more about their sexual awakening rather than any emotional growth. Indeed, the sexuality seems so frank, that I would be inclined to classify this as YA, while still thinking of the earlier novels as mid-grade books. Though, to be fair, I first read this in elementary school and anything that might have been more “grown up” went straight over my head!

I was a bit disappointed in this novel compared to the earlier books–I was hoping for more of the magical world I found in A Wrinkle in Time. I still have one book left in the series, but knowing that it was written after this last one, I admit, I’m approaching it with a bit of trepidation – will it be a return to form, or will the magic be gone?

Classics to Read, A Shorter List

January and February turned out to be even busier than I had anticipated (and I knew they might be a bit), as I found myself dumped into an unexpected (but surprisingly educational) work deadline that of course led to a domino effect of other difficult deadlines, and so forth. All that to say that I’m not even close to having my “chunkster” Classics Spin read finished. Just not enough reading time (sad face)…or maybe too much Netflix and knitting. Oops. (On the other hand, my sweater is finally coming along swimmingly…only been working on that for a year!)

I realized late last year, though, that I don’t actually have a proper, registered with the club, list. I have A List: 125 titles long, I’ve been reading from it, using it for Spin title selections. But after my first list expired and I posted a second list, I never actually informed the Club. So. Looking at my list—and at reality—I decided it was time for Classics Club v2b. I’m finally ready to acknowledge the truth of my reading habits, so it’s been pared down to just 50 titles. Although it’s now March (where does the time go?!), since I started reading in January, I’ll say my reading dates are January 1, 2019-January 1, 2024.

My priorities in selecting my 50 titles (all of which came from the previous list) were:

A) Books I was already planning to read this year / next year
B) Books already on my shelves
C) Books I feel every other classics lover has read but me
D) Books that bring diversity of authorship or thought

The bonus, of course, was where any of these priorities overlapped! A couple rereads sneaked in because they were already on my read-soon pile, but otherwise, I avoided those as well.

  1. Anonymous: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumerian, c. 2150-1000 BCE)*
  2. Homer: The Iliad (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)
  3. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)*
  4. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  5. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  6. Boethius: The Theological Tractates and Consolation of Philosophy (Rome, 523)
  7. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)*
  8. Anonymous: Njal’s Saga (Iceland, 13th century)
  9. Anonymous: Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)
  10. Anonymous: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, 14th century)
  11. Chaucer, Geoffrey: The Canterbury Tales (England, 1380s)
  12. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  13. Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de: Don Quixote (Spain, 1605, 1615)
  14. Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de: Three Exemplary Novels (Spain, 1613)†
  15. Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver’s Travels (England, 1726)
  16. Radcliffe, Ann: The Italian (England, 1797)
  17. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  18. Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma (France, 1839)
  19. Brontë, Anne: Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  20. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
  21. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Cranford (England, 1853)
  22. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
  23. Hugo, Victor: Les Misérables (France, 1862)
  24. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
  25. Eliot, George: Middlemarch (England, 1871-72)
  26. Hardy, Thomas: Far From the Madding Crowd (England, 1874)
  27. Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina (Russia, 1877)
  28. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)‡
  29. James, Henry: The Portrait of a Lady (U.S., 1881)
  30. Zola, Émile: Germinal (France, 1885)
  31. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)§
  32. Wharton, Edith: The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  33. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  34. Woolf, Virginia: Mrs. Dalloway (England, 1925)
  35. Kafka, Franz: “Metamorphosis” and The Trial (Bohemia, 1915, 1925)
  36. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  37. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  38. Faulkner, William: Light in August (U.S., 1932)
  39. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  40. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  41. Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls (U.S., 1940)
  42. Wright, Richard: Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  43. Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man (U.S., 1952)
  44. Steinbeck, John: East of Eden (U.S., 1952)
  45. Baldwin, James: Go Tell It on the Mountain (U.S., 1953)
  46. Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe: The Leopard [Il Gattopardo] (Italy, 1958)
  47. Borges, Jorge Luis: Ficciones (Argentina, 1962)
  48. Cortázar, Julio: Hopscotch [Rayuela] (Argentina, 1963)
  49. Morrison, Toni: Beloved (U.S., 1987)
  50. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)

Now, just to get reading!

* Indicates a reread.
† Vicente Llorens, ed., 1964. Includes El Licenciado Vidriera, El Casamiento Enganoso, and El Coloquio de los Perros
‡ Includes The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller*, Washington Square, The Beast in the Jungle, and The Jolly Corner
§ Includes The Prisoner of the Caucasus, The Diary of a Madman, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Devil, Master and Man, Father Sergius, After the Ball, The Forged Coupon, Alyosha the Pot, and Hadji Murat

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Completed: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Madeleine L’Engle
1978, US

They moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and he realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy. (Chapter Four)

Unfortunately, it’s been many months since I reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and I simply don’t remember it as well as I would wish–not merely to write about, but because, going back through passages I marked, it is a beautiful book.

A beautiful book for a dark time, a book of hope and joy, A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978, and so written in a time, in the US at least, of great cultural upheaval, political turmoil, economic fears and environmental concerns. And it reflects these concerns. Opening as the Murray family is preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, the catalyst for the plot is a phone call from the US President to Mr. Murry: the leader of a small (fictional) South American country, “Mad Dog Branzillo” is threatening nuclear war. What follows is an interesting mix of Celtic and American myth and L’Engle fantasy as fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and the unicorn Gaudior travel back in time, seeking out the “Might-Have-Been” that they can change and so avert disaster. Meg, married to Calvin by now and expecting their first child, joins in remotely, “kything” (a sort of mind-reading) with Charles Wallace so that she knows what is going on, and providing a connection for the reader between his story and the present day. All the while, the enemy, the true Enemy, is not Branzillo, but the Echthroi, who seek to destroy the world’s harmony and will attempt anything–including killing Charles Wallace–to have their way.

“Has the world lost its joy? Is that why we’re in such a mess?” (Meg, Chapter Three)

It struck me last summer when reading the novel, and again today rereading the passages I’d marked, how timely the story felt, how applicable to the world now. And while perhaps that is an indictment on the world we humans have created, and our failures to create an environment in which we interact with love and joy and peace, it is also a reflection of the timelessness of L’Engle’s work and her ability to illuminate the types of concerns that have been present throughout human history. It is the beauty of the novel that it doesn’t create a limited world in which the evil element is defeated and all is well, but that it acknowledges a continual battle while giving hope for victories ever to come.

Her father said, “You know, my dears, the world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” (Chapter One)

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness
(Chapter one and throughout)

And So It’s a New Year

Image of pathway lined with brick pillars and lattice overhead

Happy New Year! In some ways it really sneaked up on me this year – where has the time gone this past week?!

I always find it a good time to look back before I look ahead, and this year is no different.

My goals for the year were few:

Non-reading Goals, 2018

This year is one I want to make more about being deliberate: with how I spend my time, in what I acquire (or get rid of), in what I create, in what I read.

Ouch. I didn’t do this as well as I would like – except in one area: I made a conscious decision in the spring to really emphasize my reading, and it definitely paid off.

And it is a year when I want to focus on finishing: all those many projects and lists I feel are constantly hanging over my head.

Mixed. I finished some projects (mostly knitting!), but there are still many on the TBR list. I’ve decided, for now, to just consolidate lists and get to them as I can, without making it a dreaded obligation.

Reading Goals, 2018

The 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

I read and posted about (5) books for the challenge [A Wrinkle in Time , A Wind in the Door, Lady Susan, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, The Warden]. One title was abandoned and permanently removed from my shelves. I also finished (3) additional books that I haven’t yet written anything for [A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Woman in White]. Considering that I wandered away from focusing on this challenge about halfway through the year, I’m actually pretty happy with what I accomplished.

Back to the Classics Challenge

In addition to the (6) books I read and posted about [The Warden, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, Lady Susan, A Wrinkle in Time, Crooked House, Cold Comfort Farm], I read another two qualifying titles that I haven’t (yet) written about [The Woman in White, Tess of the D’Urbervilles]. Which is actually better than I’d hoped for at the start of the year.

Read great books. Not just books I love or enjoy or comfort reads, but GREAT BOOKS.

I read books I enjoyed, books I love(d), books that made me work for it (and that may perhaps be great books – but they beat me up too much to appreciate at the time) – but no one book really stands out to me as a GREAT BOOK. I feel like perhaps Tess of the D’Urbervilles or The Warden or perhaps Cold Comfort Farm belongs here…but none of them is really sticking with me the way I was hoping for.

Overall, I DID read more in 2018 than I’ve read in a long time–31 started and finished in the calendar year, matching my best year since I started blogging. Not one of these was a translation, however. (This should be remedied in 2019, however – see my TBR Challenge list!)

  • 21 by women (or roughly 2/3) – this was chance, not planned!
  • 8 rereads
  • 8 non-fiction books – this was the big surprise of 2018. I hadn’t expected to read more than one or two non-fiction books, especially since they tend to take me longer than fiction, but instead they made up a good chunk of my reading time

My favorite reads for the year, in order I read them (* = reread):

  • A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle (1962, US)*
  • Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie (1934, England)*
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (1932, England)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling (1999, Britain)*
  • Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs With Any Camera – Bryan Peterson (4th Ed., 2016, US)
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling (2000, Britain)*
  • Off the Clock – Laura Vanderkam (2018, US)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke (2004, Britain)
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith [J.K. Rowling](2013, Britain)
  • Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (1886, Scotland)
  • Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan (2013, US)
  • The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins (1859, England)

2019

So now I turn my eyes to the new year. New plans. My goals, again, are slight:

  • 2019 TBR Challenge
  • 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge
  • Building on my successful reading year, I’m hoping for 36 books in 2019, or an average of 3 a month. If I stay away from non-fiction, this might be doable! And hopefully, one of those, at least, will be a GREAT BOOK!

Non-reading:

  • Finish the (4) knitting projects I currently have started + (1) yet-to-be determined project
  • Continue taking ceramics classes, aiming for greater consistency
  • And to echo 2018, being more deliberate in my use of time

All very doable, I think.

Happy Reading!