Back to the Classics 2018 – Wrap Up

Will you look at that…I not only read six titles for the 2018 edition of Back to the Classics, I posted about them too! Actually, correct that, I finished books 7 and 8 in the past week, but I’m not sure when I’ll get anything written up.

However, six books is all it takes to be considered successful for this challenge (a number I really appreciate), equivalent to one entry in the drawing.

Books finished and their categories/post links:

  1. A 19th century classic: The Warden (Anthony Trollope)
  2. A 20th century classic: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
  3. A classic by a woman author: Lady Susan (Jane Austen)
  4. A children’s classic: A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
  5. A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction: Crooked House (Agatha Christie)
  6. A classic by an author that’s new to you: Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

(Master list is HERE.)

Karen asks that we include a contact email: simplerpastimes at gmail dot com.

Completed: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

When I was poking around my drafts the other day, I realized that I has never hit “publish” on this post from back in June. Better late than never, I suppose!

Cover: A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'EngleA Wind in the Door
Madeleine L’Engle
(1973, US)

“My children,” Blajeny said gravely, “my school building is the entire cosmos. Before your time with me is over, I may have to take you great distances, and to very strange places.” (68)

Unlike its immediate predecessor The Arm of the Starfish, A Wind in the Door is of a kind with the style and tone of A Wrinkle in Time. Here, we return to the world of Meg and Charles Wallace Murray and Calvin O’Keefe, to cosmic battles and fantastic beings, to playing with time and space—and, now size. For while in A Wrinkle in Time the three children traveled the cosmos in search of Mr. Murray and to defeat the IT, in A Wind in the Door, it is Meg and Calvin who must travel into Charles Wallace–or more precisely, into his mitochondria. As the book opens, Meg is just starting to realize that not only is her little brother being bullied at school, he is deathly ill, a mitochondrial illness. The only hope is for Meg and Calvin, the cherubim Proginoskes, and, quite unexpectedly, Meg’s past nemesis, principal Mr. Jenkins, to journey into Charles Wallace in a desperate attempt to save his farandolae from being “x-ed” or “unnamed.” (While mitochondria are real, farandolae are an invention of L’Engle’s.)

“It isn’t just in distant galaxies that strange, unreasonable things are happening. Unreason has crept up on us so insidiously that we’ve hardly been aware of it. But think of the the things going on in our own country which you wouldn’t have believed possible only a few years ago.” (96)

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming—making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.” (111-12)

As with Wrinkle it is a cosmic battle, but one that plays out on a microscopic scale. Good vs. evil. This illness is not of germs or viruses, but the deliberate creation of evil beings, the Echtroi, the unnamers. Naming, being named, given the full sense of self and not falling prey to the nothingness of being unnamed–this is the theme of A Wind in the Door. It is a theme I have seen elsewhere in L’Engle’s work, most notably (that I recall) in her nonfiction meditation on creativity, Walking on Water. And so it must be important to her. But it is not necessarily easy to fully understand. Indeed, A Wind in the Door is quite a conceptual novel. Farandole is to mitochondria as human is to galaxy. Kything and communing vs communicating. And so many scenes where no one actually sees or talks (kything only). Truly, this novel seems that it would be unfilmable!

But there is great wisdom here. It is not enough that we talk at or even merely to each other; we must commune together. It is not enough to know someone on the surface, we must know them well enough to name them and we ourselves must be open to being named. And just as love played a central role in A Wrinkle in Time, none of this is possible, neither Naming nor defeating Evil, without Love, either in L’Engle’s fictional world, or in ours.

“Yes. The Echthroi are those who hate, those who would keep you from being Named, who would un-Name you. It is the nature of love to create. It is the nature of hate to destroy.” (149)

Read as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge and my Classics of Children’s Literature project list.

A Little Catch Up

It is December 26th. I’d say that I’m not sure how it is December 26th already except I happen to know how very busy–or perhaps “full” is the better word–2018 has been. There’s been so much going on–bookish and otherwise–that I thought I’d play a little catch-up before my end-of-year and challenge sign-up posts start going up.

I could blame work of course, but other than a couple evening meetings (public meetings – Board of Zoning Appeals, interesting things those…if only they didn’t start so late!), work hours have been reasonable. Nope, it’s everything else keeping me busy–but fun busy.

Allen Art Museum Courtyard

There was the day trip to Oberlin to see the Allen Art Museum and the Weltzheimer/Johnson House (latter by Frank Lloyd Wright). The art museum is a true gem of a museum–part of Oberlin College, it’s completely free and has a little bit of everything–sculpture, painting, ceramics; Americas, Europe, Asia; ancient to contemporary. When I was there, the current exhibits included a digital media piece (projected on 4k TVs) and a series of hand-painted scrolls, both by Asian artists, that I found fascinating meditations on the human impact on our environment.

Fall Decor at Stan Hwyet

Another day trip, much later in the fall, to the Hocking Hills region. I’d never been there before, and although dismayed by the cavalier attitude of too many towards nature (let’s tromp all over the place in the name of the “perfect” picture for social media), it was a lovely day. And a lovely chance to continue to play with my camera’s manual settings. I keep looking over my photos and finding faults, but if you can’t find areas to improve in your own work, you never will get better. Of course, learning the manual settings on the camera leads to learning more about (and therefore spending time on) post-processing. Always something new to learn!

Hocking Hills Falls

And then there’s reading. I’ve been reading too much to write about anything, I’m afraid (although I did find one write-up in my drafts that needs posted). I’d still like to do proper write-ups for a couple, but some brief thoughts on some of the others:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling (1999, Britain) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling (2000, Britain)

I’ve been making my way through a reread of the Harry Potter series. (Currently in the middle of Order of the Phoenix, optimistically hoping to finish by year’s end.) I haven’t quite put my finger on why, but I do find much of the series comfort reads (well, not Order of the Phoenix–I despise Dolores Umbridge too much).

Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs With Any Camera – Bryan Peterson (4th Ed., 2016, US)

I’ve only been brave enough to dare to play with aperture/shutter speed because of this book. A coworker highly recommended it, and if you have a fancy camera and want to move past the “automatic” settings, I highly recommend it as well. (However, “any” is a bit of a misnomer – you do have to have manual mode!)

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think – Laura Vanderkam (2011, US), Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More – Morten Hansen (2018, US), and Off the Clock – Laura Vanderkam (2018, US)

I spent a lot of time reading about time management and related issues this summer. I’ve spent a lot of time overwhelmed by the “to do” list this year, and hoped these would help. I would say…the Vanderkam books did. Mostly because her books are really about adjusting your outlook rather than trying to squeeze more time out of life. Really, when I stop and consider how much time I really have, and where it goes, I have LOTS of free time, I just need to use it well. Nothing wrong with the Hansen book, it just wasn’t that revealing to me. However, reading it in combination with Vanderkam was fascinating. Hansen organized very careful studies to discover what makes a great performer in the work environment. So the focus was on work (rather than all aspects of life) and, specifically, performance. And while he started from the observation that top performers don’t necessarily work tons of hours, he wasn’t focused on time management. Yet, his studies often came to the same or nearly same conclusions as Vanderkam does via her analysis of existing time-use surveys. Completely different approaches–and focuses–leading to some of the same thoughts.

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan (2013, US)

Saw the film, enjoyed the film, so I had to read the book. I was a bit surprised to discover how faithful to the book the film actually was (necessary simplification of characters and plot to keep it manageable aside.) So enjoyable, and frankly, it was a delight to read something lighter than so many of the other books I read this year. I was also delighted by the inclusion of so many words/phrases from other languages – apparently a representation of the “Singlish” spoken by many Singaporeans. I’m tentatively planning to read the other books in the series in the coming year.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith [J.K. Rowling](2013, Britain)

I’ve been wanting to try out the Cormoran Strike books for a while and finally decided to stop waiting. I forget, sometimes, how much I enjoy a good mystery, and I did really enjoy this (err…as much as one should enjoy a murder mystery). I managed to fail to stop myself reading the end before I was halfway through, so I didn’t have the opportunity to guess the solution, but instead got to enjoy seeing how the groundwork was laid for Strike to arrive at the solution. My only complaint was that I would have liked to see more of the character of Robin–maybe in the later novels?

My Plain Jane – Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows (2018, US) and Shiver – Maggie Stiefvater (2009, US)

It’s funny, I never read any YA when I was that age…though I suppose there’s a lot more now than then. But I’m an equal-opportunity reader, so… My Plain Jane is a fluffy retelling of Jane Eyre – a retelling where Victorian England is plagued by ghosts and Jane Eyre happens to be one of the few who can see them. And a retelling where Charlotte Brontë is a character, not the author. Delightful and clearly written by a trio of women who love the original. (Now I kinda want to reread Jane Eyre myself, but I’m trying to focus on new-to-me books for the moment.) Shiver, on the other hand, was less delightful. It is definitely one of Stiefvater’s early novels, and not nearly as enjoyable for me as her more recent efforts. I think a case, in part, of not being the target audience for this one.

Hey, just like that, I’m feeling a bit more caught up! Always a good feeling.

Happy reading!

Completed: The Warden

Cover: The Warden by Anthony TrollopeThe Warden
Anthony Trollope
1855, England

So, The Warden is my first Anthony Trollope. It won’t be my last Trollope, I hasten to add (if nothing else, Barchester Towers is sitting on my shelves, waiting patiently), though there were times when The Warden itself, slim as it is, felt a bit of a slog to get through. (Though other chapters just flew by.) It has certainly been one of several books recently instructing me in how to read – that necessity of letting the novel lead the dance, not the reader.

The party went off as such parties do: there were fat old ladies in fine silk dresses, and slim young ladies in gauzy muslin frocks; old gentlemen stood up with their backs to the empty fireplace, looking by no means so comfortable as they would have done in their own armchairs at home; and young gentlemen, rather stiff about the neck, clustered near the door, not as yet sufficiently in courage to attach the muslin frocks, who awaited the battle, drawn up in a semicircular array. The warden endeavoured to induce a charge, but failed signally, not having the tact of a general: his daughter did what she could to comfort the forces under her command, who took in refreshing rations of cake a tea, and patiently looked for the coming engagement: but she herself, Eleanor, had no spirit for the work; the only enemy whose lance she cared to encounter was not there, and she and others were somewhat dull. (Chapter 6, “The Warden’s Tea Party”)

The plot of The Warden is simple enough: Dr. John Bold, suitor to the daughter of Warden Rev. Septimus Harding, questions publicly the legality of the current division of the revenues of the estate of John Hiram, whose will, many years since, set up an almshouse for up to twelve poor elderly men of Barchester and also funding for the position of Warden to oversee the almshouse. The question at hand–does the warden have the right to a full 800 pounds a year currently received while the men only have one shilling and fourpence a day, plus lodging? This is the question that instigates the action, and how the various involved parties react is the substance of the novel.

And there are a number of parties involved. In addition to John Bold and Septimus Harding, there are his daughter Eleanor; his friend, the elderly Bishop Grantly; his elder daughter Susan and her husband, the imperious Archdeacon Grantly. The current bedesmen, recipients of the charity, are of course deeply concerned in the matter, with some, visions of riches dancing in their heads, dreaming of the success of Bold’s inquiry, while others, acknowledging the friendship and generosity of Harding, support him to the end. While the stakes most directly concern the bedesmen and Rev. Harding, Archdeacon Grantly can see only how such inquiries might damage the Church, in direct contrast to Rev. Harding’s concern with being in the right, a concern the Archdeacon cannot seem to grasp.

The Warden thus becomes an interesting character study and an investigation of human nature. The motivations and perspectives of those involved are examined and explained; there is no guesswork as to why anyone acts or doesn’t act in a certain manner. And given the feelings of these parties, the conclusion comes as no surprise–it seems that the resolution to the problem at hand could be none other than what is presented, for any person involved could not behave in any other manner.

Although this novel proved a bit of work on my part, it was a rewarding sort of work, and I look forward to further Trollope. Though, perhaps after a dose of something less concerned with 19th century church politics!

I read The Warden for both Back to the Classics 2018 and the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Completed: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

Cover: The Case Book of Sherlock HolmesThe Case Book of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Scotland, 1927

Earlier this year, several years after beginning my journey through the complete Sherlock Holmes, I finally finished reading the last collection of stories, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. (Thank you, 2018 TBR Challenge!) Although an earlier story, “His Last Bow,” is chronologically the last Holmes story (by Doyle at least), the twelve stories in The Case Book are the last of the Holmes stories actually written by Doyle, and were all originally published in The Strand Magazine between October 1921 and April 1927.

It was my impression while reading–and a quick Internet search seems to bear this up–that these stories are not among Doyle’s best work. (Indeed, there are those who think some of the stories weren’t written by Doyle at all!*) To me it almost felt like Doyle was “phoning it in,” that his heart was no longer into the writing of Holmes stories, that he was wanting to let Holmes retire to his beekeeping in peace. [Aside…if BBC/WGBH ever resume the Sherlock series, I wonder if they might choose to eventually retire Sherlock to beekeeping–or what they might decide the 21st century equivalent is?] And as I write these notes up a few weeks after finishing the stories, I realize that I don’t really remember them. (Fortunately I have a copy on hand to flip through.) They just didn’t really strike a deep impression, not even a story with such a sensational title as “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” which of course, being a true Holmes story ended sensibly enough with a perfectly logical explanation. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” on the other hand, which begins to come back to me now, bordered on science-fiction–perhaps we see here the influence of Doyle’s own Professor Challenger stories?

Although some seemed typical Holmes stories–after a while, you begin to develop a feel for the rhythm of the tales–there was also some divergence from the pattern. One story, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Man,” is written in the third person. Holmes himself narrates “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” which gives the reader an entirely different feel that Watson’s narration. This variation is not necessarily bad, but it certainly strikes a different feel from the “typical” story.

All in all, the collection proved a brief entertainment, but unremarkable. I am sure I will revisit Holmes at some point, though I feel it more likely to be among the earlier stories and novels.

This collection was read as part of my 2018 TBR Challenge list, part of my Mysteries and Detective Fiction project list and for the 20th Century Title for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. I call that multi-tasking!

* For example, the Wikipedia Article quotes Kyle Freeman from his Introduction to The Complete Sherlock Holmes as doubting the authorship of “The Mazarin Stone” and “The Three Gables.”