I finished one more book in each of the two reading challenges that I’m doing this year. Both are classics and both left me with a bit of that “What did I just read?” feeling. From The Official TBR Pile Challenge I read this collection of classic short stories:
Title: The Overcoat and Other Stories
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Classic Russian Weirdness
Rating: 2 of 5
I have read a couple other books by Gogol (Dead Souls and Taras Bulba) and enjoyed them well enough (if enjoy is the right word for appreciating the bleakness that is Russian literature)….this collection, not so much.
Gogol’s work is generally oddly satirical, and in these stories he cranked up the odd part to the max. A couple of them crossed the line into completely surreal nonsense territory which just isn’t my samovar of tea.
Add to this the fact that Gogol is a Russian-speaking (albeit Ukrainian-born) author who frequently pokes fun at Ukraine (which he mostly calls “Little Russia”) and it just wasn’t a good time to be reading this. I have friends in Ukraine who are now refugees and others who spent weeks hiding in their house for fear of being robbed and/or shot by the Russian occupiers, so a Russian-speaker poking fun at Ukrainian culture is the last thing that I wanted to read, even if he is doing it with some level of fondness.
The second book that I read was this modern classic for the Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic category at the Back to the Classics 2020 Challenge:
Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
Genre: Classic Australian Weirdness
Rating: 3.5 of 5
I hope that this author thanked her editor for convincing her to drop the final chapter and leave the mystery at the heart of the story open-ended. As it stands, this reads like a bleak Unsolved Mysteries true-crime docudrama.
Three teenage girls and a teacher disappear on a school picnic in the Australian brush, and we get front row seats to the effect it has on their posh boarding school and the surrounding community. Along the way we get a few weird clues about what happened to the missing people with mysterious asides from the author, but the story cuts off with a mass of loose ends. The fact that we don’t get a nice, neat wrap-up puts the focus on well-written characters in heartbreaking situations and makes it the haunting modern classic that it is.
An attached essay gives the gist of the original ending which has since been found. It seems like weirdness just for the sake of weirdness that sucks any reality out of the rest of the book. I would advise against reading it (or a summary of it). Just let the loose ends haunt you…
My TBR enters the year 103 books long (not counting all the half-remembered mental “I should read that!” thoughts). Some of those books have been on there for over a year, so this challenge seems like good motivation to knock a few of those off the list. Thanks to Roof Beam Reader for hosting, and if you are interested in participating click this picture that I lifted from the challenge signup post.
My challenge list of twelve books (plus two alternates) that have been on my TBR for over a year:
- Black Wings of Cthulhu 3 by S. T. Joshi (Ed.)
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
- Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- The Falcon and the Snowman: A True Story of Friendship and Espionage by Robert Lindsey
- Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard
- The Martyr by Liam O’Flaherty
- The Miser and Other Plays by Jean-Baptiste Molière
- Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism by Elijah Hixson & Peter J. Gurry (Eds.)
- The Overcoat and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol
- A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
- The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio de Maria
- William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by William Hague
- The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF by Donald A. Wollheim (Ed.)
- Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis by Matthew D. Hockenos
I’ve been having computer problems for the last week, so it’s been a little longer than usual between posts. I now have a fully functioning laptop again, so here we go. As I was going over my TBR list for next year, I realized that it has a lot of classics on it. So, I decided to see if Karen @ Books and Chocolate was running her excellent Back to the Classics challenge again this year, and she is!
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 actually have two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:
- A 19th century classic –
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Tr. Rosemary Edmonds)
- A 20th century classic
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- A classic by a woman author –
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
- A classic in translation –
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Tr. David McDuff)
The Divine Comedy by Danté Alighieri (Tr. Dorothy L. Sayers)
- A classic by BIPOC author –
Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley & Malcolm X
Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (Tr. Daniel P. Kunene)
- A classic by a new-to-you author –
Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (Tr. Burton Raffel)
Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
- New-to-you classic by a favorite author –
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
- A classic about an animal or with an animal in the title –
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
- A children’s classic –
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- A humorous or satirical classic –
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
A Tale of a Tub & Other Works by Jonathan Swift
- A travel or adventure classic –
The Travels by Marco Polo (Tr. Nigel Cliff)
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
- A Classic Play –
The Miser by Jean-Baptiste Molière (Tr. John Wood)
The Pot of Gold by Plautus (Tr. E. F. Watling)
Thanks to RoofBeamReader for hosting the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge! It gave me a great excuse for finally reading a bunch of books that had been hanging out on my bookshelves unread. I finished 13 of the books on my original list (11 of 12 on the main list plus both alternates), which counts as challenge completed! Here’s the list (click titles for full review):
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – This is the one I didn’t get to.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan – I finished this one a few days ago, but haven’t reviewed it. Short version: very purple prose, flat unlikeable characters, and a sucker punch of an ending
- The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain – a decent short story collection by one of the crime/noir masters that contained some of his early, less grim writing alongside the crime fiction
- The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason: Book 1) by Erle Stanley Gardner – a competent tough guy, lawyer, investigator novel…definitely more hardboiled and unscrupulous than the later, fatter TV version
- Corum: The Coming of Chaos (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7) by Michael Moorcock – One of the better collections in the Eternal Champion cycle
- Ever by Gail Carson Levine – Not as charming as her fairytale-based books, but an interesting take on ancient culture and mythology
- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – Difficult to read about such brutality, but an important work on the exploitation of colonial Africa
- The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – Probably my least favorite LeCarré book to date; basically an anti-Israeli screed
- Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey – Less spy-oriented than the title suggests, but a fascinating, unusual view of the American Civil War (and a blow to the “Lost Cause” narrative)
- The Roads Between the Worlds (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 6) by Michael Moorcock – Typical Moorcock preachiness with minimal connection to the Eternal Champion
- Song of Kali by Dan Simmons – Depressing xenophobic horror
- The Tyranny of the Night (The Instrumentalities of the Night: Book 1) by Glen Cook – An odd alternate history-ish story in which all the names have been changed and all the major events of the Middle Ages happen simultaneously
- Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – An interesting premise (missionaries to faerie) spoiled by a pervasive theme that makes pretty much everyone go Eeeeewww!
- Unusual Uses of Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith – the fourth installment in the Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld series; less entertaining than the first three
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Genre: Youth Fantasy/Mythology
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Gail Carson Levine regularly passes the C. S. Lewis test of “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Even as an adult, I find her stories like Ella Enchanted (the book, NOT the movie!) and A Tale of Two Castles to be charming and entertaining with strong, resourceful heroines. Ever is a little more mature and little less whimsical in tone, but I still enjoyed it overall.
Levine leaves behind her usual fairytale subject matter in favor of more historical and mythological elements. The plot riffs on an interesting combination of the biblical story of Jephthah’s rash vow (Judges 11:29-40) and Sumerian/Akkadian culture and mythology (especially Inanna/Ishtar’s descent to the underworld). Our main first person POV characters are are the Jephthah’s-daughter-equivalent and a young god of the winds.
The plotting veers a little toward the “and then this happened, and then the next thing happened for inscrutable reasons, and then something else happened just because, and then the convenient deus ex machina happened…” manner of ancient mythology. People expecting Levine’s usual style may find it a little off-putting or flat, but I think that it works well with the subject matter and is fairly interesting even if it isn’t quite as charming as usual.
Also, this is another book checked off my 2019 TBR Challenge!
One of my goals for this year is to read some of the books that have been hanging out on my shelves and/or TBR for a while. To make that goal a little more concrete, I’m signing up for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge hosted by RoofBeamReader.com. The challenge is to post a list of 12 books that have been on your shelf and/or TBR for at least a year. Finish all 12 books by the end of the year (2 alternates allowed in case there are a couple you just can’t get through) and you are entered in a $50 Amazon gift card drawing.
To knock even more books off the TBR, I decided not to “double dip” with the books that I’ll be reading for the Back to the Classic Challenge, so none of the books on here are classics (other than some genre fiction old enough to be considered classic). Without further ado, here’s the list:
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
- The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain
- The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason: Book 1) by Erle Stanley Gardner
- Corum: The Coming of Chaos (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 7) by Michael Moorcock
- Ever by Gail Carson Levine
- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
- The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré
- Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey
- The Roads Between the Worlds (Eternal Champion Sequence: Volume 6) by Michael Moorcock
- Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
- The Tyranny of the Night (The Instrumentalities of the Night: Book 1) by Glen Cook
- Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng
- Unusual Uses of Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith