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Archive for December, 2013

back to the classics2014

As described in the preceding post, I will be participating in the Back to the Classics challenge, this year hosted by Karen at Karensbooksandchocolate. In addition to the six mandatory categories, there are five optional reads:

magnificent ambersons An American Classic. Written by Booth Tarkington, and published to great acclaim in 1918, The Magnificent Ambersons won a Pulitzer Prize.

From Goodreads:

Set in the Midwest in the early twentieth century—the dawn of the automobile age—the novel begins by introducing the richest family in town, the Ambersons. Exemplifying aristocratic excess, the Ambersons have everything money can buy—and more. But George Amberson Minafer—the spoiled grandson of the family patriarch—is unable to see that great societal changes are taking place, and that business tycoons, industrialists, and real estate developers will soon surpass him in wealth and prestige. Rather than join the new mechanical age, George prefers to remain a gentleman, believing that being things” is superior to doing things.” But as his town becomes a city, and the family palace is enveloped in a cloud of soot, George’s protectors disappear one by one, and the elegant, cloistered lifestyle of the Ambersons fades from view, and finally vanishes altogether.

A brilliant portrayal of the changing landscape of the American dream, The Magnificent Ambersons is a timeless classic that deserves a wider modern audience.

mistress of mellyn A Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller. The Mistress of Mellyn was published in 1960 by Eleanor Hibbert writing as Victoria Holt. Victoria Holt was a pleasure of my youth, and it’ll be fun to reread on of her classics.

From Goodreads:

Mount Mellyn stood as proud and magnificent as she had envisioned…But what bout its master–Connan TreMellyn? Was Martha Leigh’s new employer as romantic as his name sounded? As she approached the sprawling mansion towering above the cliffs of Cornwall, an odd chill of apprehension overcame her.

TreMellyn’s young daugher, Alvean, proved as spoiled and difficult as the three governesses before Martha had discovered. But it was the girl’s father whose cool, arrogant demeanor unleashed unfimiliar sensations and turmoil–even as whispers of past tragedy and present danger begin to insinuate themselves into Martha’s life.

Powerless against her growing desire for the enigmatic Connan, she is drawn deeper into family secrets–as passion overpowers reason, sending her head and heart spinning. But though evil lurks in the shadows, so does love–and the freedom to find a golden promise forever…

game of kings A Historical Fiction Classic. Published in 1961, The Game of Kings is the first of Dorothy Dunnet’s Lymond Chronicles. This has been on my TBR list for years, and I’m glad to be able to finally get it moved up into the soon to read pile!

From Wikipedia:

Living mostly by his wits and his sword-arm in 16th-century Scotland, Francis Crawford of Lymond is a charismatic figure: polyglot scholar, soldier, musician, master of disguises, nobleman—and accused outlaw. After five years exile, Lymond has recently returned to Scotland, in defiance of Scottish charges against him for treason on behalf of the English and murder. He has assembled a private band of mercenaries and ruffians who follow his ruthless, despotic leadership. The reader only gradually learns that Lymond has returned with a single goal: to prove his innocence and restore his name, he must find the man who framed him and condemned him to two years as a French galley slave before he managed to escape.

The novel is constructed as a clockwork mystery: an intricate web of many moving parts, punctuated by set pieces of adventure, high comedy, or intense drama. The suspense is as to whether Lymond will prove himself innocent, die in the attempt, or be captured and hanged. The mystery is “who is Lymond?” Dunnett reveals only gradually, with tantalizing hints and small details, Lymond’s motives and his true relationships with the other characters. Lymond leaves no one indifferent to him: some of the key characters—such as Richard Crawford, third Baron Culter and Lymond’s older brother, and Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox—are one-time friends or intimates who become his mortal enemies. Betrayals and double-crosses, both potential and actual, abound. The pieces of the mystery only fit together late in the story as revelations at a trial.

As an established part of the minor landed aristocracy, the Crawfords cannot avoid becoming entangled in the complex politics between England and Scotland, the Anglo-Scottish wars and Scotland’s alliance with France, or in the conflicts among the residents of the Borders region between the two kingdoms.

A number of historical persons appear in the novel, many as important and well-developed characters. They include members of the Scott clan — Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch, his wife, Janet Beaton, and his son William Scott of Kincurd, who becomes Lymond’s second-in-command in his band of outlaws; Mary of Guise, the Queen Dowager of Scotland and her young daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots; and members of the Douglas family—including Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, his brother Sir George Douglas, his daughter Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox (niece of Henry VIII who was the brother of Margaret’s mother Margaret Tudor, widow of James IV, and mother of James V), and Margaret’s husband Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, a potential claimant to the Scottish throne in case of the death of the young Mary, Queen of Scots. The English military leaders responsible for prosecuting the war of The Rough Wooing, Sir William Grey and Lord Thomas Wharton, also have prominent, and often comedic, roles.

the enchanted april A Classic That’s Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series. The Enchanted April was made into a movie starring Joan Plowright, Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent and a number of other fine British actors in 1991. It was originally published in 1922.

From Goodreads:

A discrete advertisement in The Times, addressed to “those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine,” is the prelude to a revelatory month for four very different women. High above a bay on the Italian Riviera stands the medieval castle San Salvatore. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Mrs. Fisher, and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the gentle spirit of the Mediterranean, they gradually shed their public skins, discovering a harmony each of them has longed for but none has ever known. First published in 1922, this captivating novel is imbued with the descriptive power and lighthearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnim is renowned.

Extra Fun Category: Write a Review of the Movie or TV Series adapted from Optional Category #4.

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back to the classics2014

I will be participating in the Back to the Classics challenge, this year hosted by Karen at Karensbooksandchocolate. It has 6 mandatory categories:

an american tragedy A 20th Century Classic (must be published before 1964). An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser was published in 1925.

From Goodreads:

A tremendous bestseller when it was published in 1925, “An American Tragedy” is the culmination of Theodore Dreiser’s elementally powerful fictional art. Taking as his point of departure a notorious murder case of 1910, Dreiser immersed himself in the social background of the crime to produce a book that is both a remarkable work of reportage and a monumental study of character. Few novels have undertaken to track so relentlessly the process by which an ordinary young man becomes capable of committing a ruthless murder, and the further process by which social and political forces come into play after his arrest.
In Clyde Griffiths, the impoverished, restless offspring of a family of street preachers, Dreiser created an unforgettable portrait of a man whose circumstances and dreams of self-betterment conspire to pull him toward an act of unforgivable violence. Around Clyde, Dreiser builds an extraordinarily detailed fictional portrait of early twentieth-century America, its religious and sexual hypocrisies, its economic pressures, its political corruption. The sheer prophetic amplitude of his bitter truth-telling, in idiosyncratic prose of uncanny expressive power, continues to mark Dreiser as a crucially important American writer. “An American Tragedy,” the great achievement of his later years, is a work of mythic force, at once brutal and heartbreaking.

Bleak House A 19th Century Classic. Written by Charles Dickens and published in 1852, Bleak House is considered one of his masterworks.

From Goodreads:

Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens. A ‘great Victorian novel’, it is so inventive in its competing plots and styles that it eludes interpretation.

From Wikipedia:

Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, published in 20 monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853. It is held to be one of Dickens’s finest novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon. The story is told partly by the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by a mostly omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly but depressive John Jarndyce, and the childish and disingenuous Harold Skimpole, as well as the likeable but imprudent Richard Carstone.

At the novel’s core is long-running litigation in England’s Court of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills. The litigation, which already has taken many years and consumed between £60,000 and £70,000 in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery. Dickens’s assault on the flaws of the British judicial system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his earlier books. His harsh characterisation of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave memorable form to pre-existing widespread frustration with the system. Though Chancery lawyers and judges criticised Dickens’s portrait of Chancery as exaggerated and unmerited, his novel helped to spur an ongoing movement that culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s.

agnes grey A Classic by a Woman Author. I will be reading all of the novels written by the three Bronte sisters next year. To satisfy this challenge, I will rely on Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte.

From Wikipedia:

Agnes Grey is the debut novel of English author Anne Brontë, first published in December 1847, and republished in a second edition in 1850.[1] The novel follows Agnes Grey, a governess, as she works in several bourgeois families. Scholarship and comments by Anne’s sister Charlotte Brontë suggest the novel is largely based on Anne Brontë’s own experiences as a governess for five years. Like her sister Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre, it addresses what the precarious position of governess entailed and how it affected a young woman.

The choice of central character allows Anne to deal with issues of oppression and abuse of women and governesses, isolation and ideas of empathy. An additional theme is the fair treatment of animals. Agnes Grey also mimics some of the stylistic approaches of bildungsromans, employing ideas of personal growth and coming to age, but representing a character who in fact does not gain in virtue.

The Irish novelist George Moore praised Agnes Grey as “the most perfect prose narrative in English letters,”and went so far as to compare Anne’s prose to that of Jane Austen. Modern critics have made more subdued claims admiring Agnes Grey with a less overt praise of Brontë’s work than Moore.

a hero of our time A Classic in Translation

From Goodreads

The first major Russian novel, A Hero of Our Time was both lauded and reviled upon publication. Its hero, twenty-five-year-old Pechorin, is a beautiful and magnetic but nihilistic young army officer, bored by life and indifferent to his many sexual conquests. Chronicling his unforgettable adventures in the Caucasus involving brigands, smugglers, soldiers, rivals, and lovers, this classic tale of alienation influenced Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, and holds up a mirror not only to Lermontov’s time but also to our own.

From Wikipedia

The book is divided into five short stories or novellas, plus (in the second edition) an authorial preface. There are three major narrators: an unnamed young travel writer who has received Pechorin’s diaries after he bequeaths them to captain Maxim Maximych and who is implied to be Lermontov himself; Maxim Maximych, an old staff-captain who served with Pechorin for some time during the Caucasian War; and Pechorin himself via his diaries. The stories depict Pechorin as impulsive, emotionally distant and manipulative, capable of extreme bravery but generally bored by his life.

In the longest novella, Princess Mary, Pechorin flirts with the Princess of the title, while conducting an affair with his ex-lover Vera, and kills his friend Grushnitsky (of whom he is secretly contemptuous) in a duel in which the participants stand in turn on the edge of a cliff so that the loser’s death can be explained as an accidental fall. Eventually he rejects one woman only to be abandoned by the other.

The preface explains the author’s idea of his character: “A Hero of Our Time, my dear readers, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man. It is a portrait built up of all our generation’s vices in full bloom. You will again tell me that a human being cannot be so wicked, and I will reply that if you can believe in the existence of all the villains of tragedy and romance, why wouldn’t believe that there was a Pechorin? If you could admire far more terrifying and repulsive types, why aren’t you more merciful to this character, even if it is fictitious? Isn’t it because there’s more truth in it than you might wish?”

guns of august A Classic About War. Sneaking under the rule that a classic must be at least 50 years old, Tuchman’s The Guns of August won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963.

From Goodreads

Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Barbara Tuchman has brought to life again the people and events that led up to World War I. With attention to fascinating detail, and an intense knowledge of her subject and its characters, Ms. Tuchman reveals, for the first time, just how the war started, why, and why it could have been stopped but wasn’t. A classic historical survey of a time and a people we all need to know more about, THE GUNS OF AUGUST will not be forgotten.

From Wikipedia

The book was an immediate bestseller and was on the New York Times best-seller list for 42 consecutive weeks. The Pulitzer Prize nomination committee was unable to award it the prize for outstanding history because Joseph Pulitzer’s will specifically stated that the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for history must be a book on American history. Instead, Tuchman was given the prize for general non-fiction.

According to the cover notes of an audio version of The Guns of August, “[President John F. Kennedy] was so impressed by the book, he gave copies to his cabinet and principal military advisers, and commanded them to read it.” In One Minute to Midnight on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Michael Dobbs notes the deep impression Guns had on Kennedy. He often quoted from it and wanted “every officer in the Army” to read it as well. Subsequently, “[t]he secretary of the Army sent copies to every U.S. military base in the world. Kennedy drew from The Guns of August to help in dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, including the profound and unpredictable implications a rapid escalation of the situation could have.”

lucky jim A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You.

From Goodreads

Kingsley Amis has written a marvelously funny novel describing the attempts of England’s postwar generation to break from that country’s traditional class structure. When it appeared in England, Lucky Jim provoked a heated controversy in which everyone took sides. Even W. Somerset Maugham reviewed the book, happily with great favor: “Mr. Kingsley Amis is so talented, his observations so keen, that you cannot fail to be convinced that the young men he so brilliantly describes truly represent the classes with which his novel is concerned.”

Lucky Jim was published in 1954.

The list is, as always, subject to change. But these are my plans for the mandatory six categories. I’ll decide later if I’m going to participate in the optional categories.

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eight cousins

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom make up the duology of books about the main character Rose Campbell. These are two of my favorite Alcott books, which I recently re-read for the Alcott event and also for my ongoing series on children’s classics.

Of the two, I prefer Eight Cousins, which is the story of young Rose, who is orphaned and sent to live at the Aunt Hill, with her two great-aunts. Both Aunt Plenty and Aunt Peace are rather elderly spinsters. Rose has lived with her father, George, apart from the rest of the Campbell clan, which consists of five other Campbell brothers and their wives and offspring.

When Eight Cousins begins, Rose is 13 years old. This part of the story takes us through Rose’s 16th-ish birthday. Rose is the only girl of her generation, with 7 male cousins from age 16 (Archie) through 6 (Jamie).

Rose is sweet-natured, and ends up being raised by her bachelor Uncle Alec, a seafaring doctor who has “ideas” about child-rearing that most relate to girls being treated more like boys, and encouraged to read good books, take lots of exercise, and not wear corsets. Rose is a rather sickly child when she arrives at the Aunt Hill and is rapidly restored to health by dint of a large waistband, fresh milk, fresh air, and lots less sighing over girly stuff. This could be annoying, but it really isn’t, since the treatment of girl-children during this era was mostly ridiculous and Rose’s raising is much more consistent with how I personally think girls should be raised (with lovely things like access to books and education) versus how they were actually raised.

Alcott’s father, Bronson, was a well-known educational reformer, and Alcott’s stories are full of themes about equality of education for women. Rose is not eligible to attend actual school (being a girl and all), but Uncle Alec makes sure that she has access to resources to allow for some self-education.

There is some of Alcott’s trademark moralizing, but it isn’t as heavy-handed in the first volume of the Rose Campbell story as it becomes in the next. Rose is raised to be, and is generally, thoughtful, modest, honest and generous. She spends a lot of time caring for her sick cousin, Mac, who is the studious one of the lot, and is two years older than Rose.

The boys are a boisterous, rowdy crew. The Campbells are obviously quite affluent, and Alcott’s theories, as well, about the obligation of the rich to care for the poor are mostly shown through Rose’s charitable activities. Rose is quite an heiress, and decides early that she wishes to be a philanthropist and to help others with her fortune. She is a bit of a Mary Sue, but she’s so darned charming about it that it works.

This is a classic for a reason. It is probably much too quiet and modest a story to appeal to modern girls. Which is too bad, really.

The sequel to Eight Cousins is Rose in Bloom. Review forthcoming.

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