Back to the Classics Signup 2022

It’s another challenge signup post! Thank you to Karen K over at Books and Chocolate for once again hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The challenge involves completing classic books (50+ years old) in as many of the 12 sub-categories as possible for entries in a prize drawing (Click the picture I lifted from her page to go there, see full details, and sign up). For me, it’s mostly a fun incentive to include some “serious literature” in my reading and an opportunity to see what classics others have enjoyed.

You don’t have to choose which books you will be reading at the start of the year, but I like to start with a list of possibilities. This year I’m starting with two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic:
    The Black Robe by Wilkie Collins
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
  2. A 20th century classic:
    The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Oil! by Upton Sinclair
  3. A classic by a woman author
    The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
    Julius by Daphne DuMaurier
  4. A classic in translation
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
    Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  5. A classic by BIPOC author
    Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cuba by Machado de Assis
    The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  6. Mystery/detective/crime classic
    Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
    Nightfall by David Goodis
  7. A classic short story collection
    The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne DuMaurier
    An Obsession with Death and Dying by Cornell Woolrich
  8. Pre 1800’s classic
    Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
    Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  9. A nonfiction classic
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
    The Travels by Marco Polo
  10. Classic that’s been on your TBR list the longest (Pretty close between these two)
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  11. Classic set in a place you’d like to visit
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (Middle Earth)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (Oxford)
  12. Wild card classic
    Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham
    Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year:

  • The Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

Back to the Classics Wrap Up

It’s been nearly a month since my last post here, but I’m still alive…just very busy and a bit burned out (holidays plus three funerals plus trying to find people to serve on church boards…). I’m not sure if postings will get any more frequent in the new year, but I want to at least post my final wrap up for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I managed to finish books in all 12 categories this year. My reads for this challenge were (titles linked to full review):

19th Century Classic: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – an excellent ghost story…or do we just have an unreliable narrator?

20th Century Classic: On the Road by Jack Kerouac – completely hated this drug and sex fueled ramble to nowhere.

Classic by a Woman: Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier – I loved her Rebecca, liked My Cousin Rachel, but this just felt like a melodramatic Harlequin romance without the sex.

Classic in Translation: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux – This was melodramatic too but in a much more enjoyable way.

A Classic by BIPOC Author: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo – I expected this to be hero-worshippy, but it ended up feeling like a Shakespearian tragedy on the order of Titus Andronicus.

Classic by a New-to-you Author: Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac – The cynicism and greed of this book was just depressing.

New Classic by a Favorite Author: Bleak House by Charles Dickens – Charles Dickens rips on lawyers…excellent as always, but probably better for people who are already Dickens fans.

Classic about an Animal: Moby Dick – An excellent novella on revenge and obsession bloated into an unwieldy novel by the author’s need to infodump every “fact” he knows about whales and whaling.

Children’s Classic: Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – delightful punny nonsense. I much preferred it to Alice in Wonderland.

Classic Humor or Satire: The Way We Live Now – a look at high society manipulation for money, matrimony, or both…the kind of satire that is caustic rather than humorous.

A Travel or Adventure Classic: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – a quirky epistolary novel with minimal plot and rude humor.

A Classic Play: Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose – the strengths and weaknesses of trial by jury on display

And that’s it! Thanks to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting this again!

All About Whales! (oh, and Ahab…)

Moby-Dick

Title: Moby Dick
Author: Herman Melville
Genre: American Classic
Pages: 464
Rating: 3.5 of 5

To me, Moby Dick feels like an excellent novella that bloated into an unfocused novel. Melville lards on every “fact” and opinion about whales, whaling, and whalers that he can think of, moralizing as he goes. Some of it is relevant, some of it is interesting, some of it is disturbing, but the cumulative effect is to submerge the compelling main story in a sea of tangential boringness.

That said, I can’t think of a better portrayal of the destructive and contagious nature of bitterness, obsession, and vengeance than Captain Ahab and his crew. I won’t even try to analyze what (if anything or many things) the white whale stands for (ask Ron Swanson) since I think that Ahab’s prideful self-obsession and clearly expressed rage against God and nature are the main point.

Overall, this richly deserves its place as an American Classic, even if I wish Melville had saved 80% of his whales and whaling info for a separate non-fiction book.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic About an Animal category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021)

Right & Justice vs. Law & Lawyers

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Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 830
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Everyone loves to rip on lawyers, and Charles Dickens was no exception. Much of this book revolves around a lawsuit in the courts of chancery that has dragged on for generations, destroying lives through false hope in a system of law and lawyers that has little to do with right and justice. Dickens’ views on the English legal system are best summed up in this quote:

“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”

Dickens is in top form throughout the book: devastating social critique, politely sarcastic turn of phrase, absurd yet somehow familiar characters, heart wrenching tragedies, amazingly convenient coincidences, and all. In spite of the name, this isn’t Dickens’ bleakest book. He achieves a nice balance between sweet selfless heroes, well-meaning but foolish people, and loathsome villains. For the most part, this is the kind of book where (as Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism would say): “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” Some romantic situations may be a bit off-putting to modern sensibilities (e.g. guardian-ward & cousin-cousin), but they should be understood as a product of its era (and ended up playing out better than I hoped).

I highly recommend this book for fans of Charles Dickens. If you’re new to his work you might want to start with A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and/or A Tale of Two Cities, but I’d say that this one comes in close behind those. (Also, I will be using this for my Classic by a Favorite Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge)

A Ghost Story?

This is a lightly edited re-post of a review from four years ago. Last week, my oldest daughter and I listened to the Audible version of this on our way to “Halloweekends” at Cedar Point, and it was every bit as good on second reading/hearing. (Also, I’ll be using it for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.)

The Turn of the Screw

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classic/Ghost Story?
Pages: 96
Rating: 5 of 5

I love an unreliable narrator, especially in a creepy story, and this classic novella hit the spot! The introduction (which seems like it is meant to be a framing story but the frame is never completed) is a bit long-winded but the first person account by a governess of her ghost-haunted employment is satisfyingly creepy. It’s a bit melodramatic, but that plays right into the ambiguity of the story.

The big question is: are the ghosts real or is the governess mad or is she a manipulative liar, or some combination of the above? I can’t decide whether the ghosts are meant to be real or not, but I’m pretty sure there’s something very wrong with the governess (who is the only person to ever acknowledge seeing the ghosts). Her paranoia, the way she jumps quickly to dramatic conclusions, the way she dotes on people she has just met and deliberately says things to get them “on her side,” and the way she is quick to cast the same people as villains if they cross her all remind me very much of a couple narcissistic pathological liars I have known. Whatever the case, if you like unreliable narrators in creepy stories (or just good creepy ghost stories for that matter) this is a must read!

If you’ve read this, what did you think? (My brother-in-law informs me that it’s just ghosts…but his only reasoning is that he doesn’t like stories where the ghosts aren’t real so he doesn’t want it to be anything else.)

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me, my oldest daughter, and our new photobombing friend at Cedar Point:

May be an image of one or more people, people standing, monument and outdoors

Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.

The OG

The Phantom of the Opera Audiobook By Gastón Leroux cover art

Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston LeRoux
Translator: Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 260
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Early on in my first ever dating relationship I read this book aloud to my girlfriend. Last week we listened to it together as an audiobook as we drove up north to celebrate our 19-year wedding anniversary. Given that history, I’m a bit biased in favor of this book and have probably rated it a bit higher than I otherwise would have.

That said, The Phantom of the Opera deserves its iconic status. Leroux created a monstrous antagonist who is nonetheless truly pitiable. The Opera Ghost is a master manipulator with a sadistic streak, a pathetic backstory, and physical deformity far beyond something that could be hidden under the wimpy half-mask that makes its way into every portrayal since Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The plot and narration are almost laughably melodramatic at times, but if you roll with it and embrace the Gothic-ness, it’s a lot of fun (and even moving). Leroux throws in very occasional dry humorous comments that show he isn’t taking this completely seriously himself, while at the same time presenting it as a personally researched true story.

Translation-wise, I have only read the very Victorian, public domain version. I suspect (corroborated by a little online research) that this is probably the least accurate version, so one of these days I will have to try a different translation. Speaking of which, I will be using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

If you enjoy Gothic fiction, this is a must-read. If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, you should give this original source material a shot as well. You get more complexity of plot and depth of characters with all the melodrama. And if you’re looking for something to do with your SO, reading this aloud worked out pretty well for us…

Two More Classics

I’ve completed two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021, and it’s time to review them!

Jamaica Inn by [Daphne du Maurier]

Title: Jamaica Inn
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Potboiler
Pages: 352
Rating: 2 of 5

For me, Daphne du Maurier is very hit-or-miss. I greatly enjoyed the morally ambiguous psychological gothic-ness of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but thought The Scapegoat was improbable to the point of eyerolling. Jamaica Inn was another miss for me. On the Gothic spectrum it is much closer to Ann Radcliffe than the Brontë Sisters.

The bones of the story aren’t terrible (orphaned young woman sent to live with her aunt and uncle [by marriage] discovers that Uncle Joss Merlyn and his Inn have a deservedly sinister reputation), but it was all so melodramatic. If there had been some sex scenes thrown into the instalove-with-a-rogue storyline I would have thought I was reading some hack Harlequin Romance, not a modern classic. Nevertheless, I will be using this for my Classic by a Woman Author category.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Title: Chaka
Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translator: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 192 (including translator’s introduction)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This ended up being a very different book than what I expected. I thought that it was going to be a hero-worshippy fanboy account of King Chaka/Shaka’s greatness and glory like you usually get in historical fiction centered around a military hero or empire builder.

While there is some admiration for Chaka’s fighting prowess and the power of the Zulu nation, the overall story arc is of boundless ambition leading to insatiable brutality and tragic downfall. By the end, Chaka comes out looking more like Josef Stalin (or any other sadistic, paranoid, egomaniacal autocrat) than anyone admirable.

The narration of this tragedy feels as if you are listening to a folksy master storyteller who throws in occasional asides, explanations, rabbit trails, and editorial comments. I don’t know much about the real Chaka, so I couldn’t say how much liberty the author has taken with the story. However, I suspect that it has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. There are many mythical elements (the translator interprets them as personifications of character traits), and the level of bloodthirstiness and brutality seem highly exaggerated. Overall, this was not unlike an over-the-top Shakespearian tragedy in the form of a folktale rather than a play.

I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category.

Epistolary Meandering

Title: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
Author: Tobias Smollet
Genre: Classic Epistolary/Picaresque Novel
Pages: 392
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This reminded me of a slightly less silly The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. In both of them, the titular character is not the protagonist for the majority of the book (in this book, he isn’t even the narrator!), in both of them the plot is pretty minimal (though this book has a bit more), and in both of them the humor is a bit rude (Tristram Shandy more bawdy & Humphry Clinker more gross).

The plot (such as it is) follows the curmudgeonly (but good-hearted) Welshman, Matthew Bramble, and his household as they play the tourist from Bath up through parts of Scotland and home again. The story is told through letters from various members of the party, each with their own voice. Plot threads include acquiring a new servant (the eponymous Humphry Clinker), a secret romance, and a straight-laced old aunt’s desperate attempts to catch a man. The eccentric characters and ridiculous situations along the way are fairly entertaining, but there were places where it really dragged. I have the feeling that a more thorough understanding of the era and knowledge of the places they visit would make this an even more enjoyable book. Overall, not a bad read, but I can’t see ever bothering to read it again.

Also, I am using this for the Travel or Adventure Classic category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.