Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Classics Club: Fifty Classic (ish) Books I Will Read in the Next Five Years

Many thanks to Kay of Kay's Reading Life who nudged me toward The Classics Club this year.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love reading. But another, less obvious truth about me is that I love to plan, to make lists, to research my reading almost as much as I love to actually read.

How could I resist joining in this challenge? I'm in my final twenty years of reading on earth, I think, and it's time to devote myself to reading some of the best writing in these last years.

What is the Classics Club? From the blog:


  • choose 50+ classics
  • list them at your blog
  • choose a reading completion goal date up to five years in the future and note that date on your classics list of 50+ titles
  • e-mail the moderators of this blog (theclassicsclubblog@gmail.com) with your list link and information and it will be posted on the Members Page!
  • write about each title on your list as you finish reading it, and link it to your main list
  • when you’ve written about every single title, let us know.
I devoted a complete day to preparing the list. Because I am very much an overlapper (a self-created designation for a person who loves to do activities that check off as many lists at once as possible) I created most of this list from books I had already challenged myself to read, from the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read list and the 1001 Books You Must Read list, as well as from the various award-winning book lists I'm perpetually trying to read. Books marked in bold print are read and have links to reviews. I will try to read all of these by December 31, 2023. 


Update May 2, 2019: Completed!


Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne



Newland Archer has it all---he's a gentleman lawyer, occasionally popping into the office to do little bits of work, but generally occupying himself dining and socializing with his fellow affluent friends---and now, to cap off a wonderful life, his beloved May has agreed to marry him. What more could he want? Until he meets May's bohemian cousin, Ellen, and falls under her spell....

I am enchanted with this story, set in 1870's Gilded Age New York City, when the values and morals adhered to by society were beginning to come undone. It will definitely be on my Best Reads of the Year list.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I heard it called the world's best known soap opera. I heard it called the world's greatest novel.

It's the world's greatest novel.

It's a brilliant intertwining of characters, characters who are as fully human as you can ever get on the page. There is Dolly Oblonsky, a matronly wife who has lost her husband's affections and doesn't know why and doesn't know what to do. There's her husband, Stiva Oblonsky, the womanizing yet charming fellow who can't stop flirting with women and can't manage money. There is Kitty Alexandrovna, the woman at the height of her beauty who is intrigued with the easily-bored Count Alexei Vronsky. There is Konstantin Levin, a country farmer, confused about life, estranged from religion, and deeply taken with the young Kitty. There is Alexei Karenin, the dutiful husband who seeks guidance about what is right. And there is Anna Karenina herself, the title character, who is swept up in a mad romance with Count Vronsky, and has to deal with the consequences, a situation where no move is a happy one for herself or for anyone else.

I was especially taken with Konstantin Levin and his anguished search for truth and happiness, in his work relations with others, in the choosing of his wife, in his philosophy of life. I will never forget the final paragraph of this book, a paragraph that deeply resonates with me, lines from Levin as he finally is able to put together everything he has learned into a wonderful personal philosophy of life:

"I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own fright and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."

I can see that I am going to be pushing everyone I meet to read this book. I apologize in advance. It's, after all, over eight hundred pages. But it's worth it. It's definitely worth it.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Julian English has everything a man could want in 1934 America---affluent background, beautiful wife, lovely home, rich friends, successful business---and yet, somehow, almost inexplicably, comes to destroy everything he has in the short space of 72 hours. It's the American dream turned nightmare, and it's horrific to watch, even from the pages of a book. A life overturned---and why? And for what? It's not clear and no one---not his friends, not his wife, not his parents, not even Julian himself---seem to understand what is going on. But it is very clear that this is no isolated incident, that this story is very real, that this story could happen to anyone.

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

Diamond is a young boy, living in deep poverty with his family in 1860's Great Britain. One night, while trying to stuff rags into holes in the wall, he meets the North Wind, and together they go on a series of adventures. The North Wind does things to help others, but she also does things that seem bad, including sinking a ship.

George MacDonald, I learned, is a respected theologian, and this book is considered his masterpiece. He uses the story to share his thoughts on theodicy, as well as other philosophical and spiritual concepts.

I think we forget that life for children did not always have the social safety nets that we had today. Diamond's family struggles with poverty and hunger, and when Diamond's father falls ill, it is up to this young child to work and bring home enough money to feed the family. Diamond befriends a young girl who begs on the streets for her alcoholic grandmother, a child who has even more difficulties than Diamond.

I wasn't expecting to learn so much about deep theological ideas and social injustice in a children's book.
La Boheme: An Opera by Giacomo Puccini

I simultaneously read, in Italian and English, and listened to the Puccini opera, La Boheme. It's the story in four acts of young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840's. It centers on the romances of two couples, Mimi and Rodolfo, and Marcello and Musetta, who come together and go apart and come together.

This was a beautiful way to read an opera.

Candide by Voltaire

Candide is a brilliant masterpiece, a scathingly brutal satire of overly optimistic philosophies of life.

Candide lives a secluded life with a wealthy family in a castle, and his life is so affluent that Candide has his own philosophy teacher, Pangloss.

All is well, and Pangloss’ philosophies remain intact until Candide falls in love with the family’s daughter and he is expelled into real life.

Real life brings an endless series of horrible events for Candide and all the people he meets, horrible events that are so inexplicably horrible that they make the life of Job appear to be quite Edenic.

Candide at last makes his way back to his homeland and, after all the horrible experiences, he is able to revise his philosophy of life to the practical: Cultivate your garden, he extols, cautiously.

Brilliant. Masterpiece. A must read.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

Can a reader say I liked The Castle? Loved it? If one does, what does that say about the reader?

I think all would agree that The Castle has one of the oddest plots ever written. A man comes to a castle, wants to work there, and has to find ways to get the attention of the people in the castle. He never does much of anything in the story except try to gain entry to the castle and he never successfully does that.

It's the feeling of the book that is so close to the bone; it's a story of the feelings of modern life. Kafka captures the anxiety and the dread and the confusion and the anomie of day-to-day life in the world, and he does it in a way that makes the reader feel all the anxiety and the dread and the confusion and the anomie.

It's brilliant and terrifying. I'm glad I read it. I'm glad I'm done with it.

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

Russia is changing. The time of the titled rich is coming to an end. On the Ranevsky estate, there is much worry that the money to keep the property going is gone. And the worries are justified. The estate has been put up for auction and it has been purchased by a man with parents who were serfs.

This play has brilliant characterizations of a diverse set of people, all with endearing qualities and deep human failings. The setting, on the estate of a huge old cherry orchard, keeps the play grounded, with frequent referrals to beauty of the sight and smell of the orchard, and the tragic ending in which the estate is sold and the cherry trees cut down.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Here’s another Great American Read book I probably would never have read if it hadn’t been shared there.

Deservedly so.

It’s a wowser of a book. I will never forget Ignatius or his mother or Miss Trixie or the owners of the pants factory or Myrna...honestly, there isn’t a character in the entire book that is forgettable. It’s a book I’m glad I listened to; I loved hearing these New Orleans folks. And the little twists and turns of the plot...so funny.

I see why this book is so loved.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Willy Loman is barely hanging on. His life has fallen apart, but he can't bear to face the truth and he can't live with his illusions.

This is a devastating portrait of a man who has surrounded himself in lies his whole life but now must finally accept the truth of who he is and what he has done with his life.

I remember reading this play long ago, when I was a teen. I remember feeling the pain of Willy and his wife and his two sons. I remember thinking that this was the truest picture of a human being I'd ever seen. I agree with my former self, and I go further to say that if anyone wants to understand America, this is the play that should be read. 

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks

Who knew there were Christian mystics way-back-when? I don't think this is widely shared today, and that is sad. I recently went on a silent Christian retreat and I couldn't think of a better book to take along than this one. The book is composed of hundreds of tiny little stories about the sayings and actions of the very early Christian monks who lived off-life, often in mostly silent retreat, in caves or small huts, mostly in the desert. Here they confront demons and heretics and nay-sayers and followers with odd reactions and Zen-like wisdom. The stories are organized by category, and just the categories are revealing: quiet, compunction, possessing nothing, fortitude, nothing done for show, non-judgment, discretion, sober living, unceasing prayer, hospitality, obedience, humility, patience, charity. It's the kind of book that one could spend her entire life reading and rereading, although don't expect contradiction between the sayings, but it is there, of course, as all true wisdom is paradoxical, and don't be surprised to read some wackiness here and there.

The Doll's House by Rumer Godden

For Tottie and her doll family, life is wonderful, though the family longs for a dollhouse home of their own. When the doll family does receive a dollhouse, it arrives with trouble in the form of the wicked doll Marchpane, and the difficulties begin.

This is a charming story of dolls with a delightfully wide range of human-like behaviors, with their children who also exhibit a markedly wide range of behaviors. A charming story.

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

Don Quixote sets off to right the world of wrongs as a knight-errant, along with his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza. They face off against irate innkeepers, angry windmills, and hostile priests, and come out of each confrontation beaten and crushed. But on they go, stumbling to their feet again, and prepare to face another battle.

I remember reading this book in high school and I remember loving it, laughing aloud, rereading parts of it as I went. I liked it this time, but it seemed to go on and on, almost like an old Three Stooges movie set on a perpetual loop.

I identify with Don Quixote. I, too, have spent so much time in books that I don't always understand the real life that is hitting me in the face. I, too, am a dreamer and an idealist, who sets out to try to make the world a better place, but who doesn't really have the proper equipment and knowledge to do so. I, too, am a person who sometimes comes across as a bit offbeat in my approach to life.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it, and the less the annoying parts---the repetition of the appearance of beautiful women in distress, the pratfalls of Sancho Panza, the delusions of Don Quixote---annoy. I may read this one more time in my life before I exit, and maybe I'll bravely try to read it in Spanish.

Emma by Jane Austen

It's official: I'm a Jane Austen fan.

I didn't plan it. I tried to avoid it, honestly. I read P&P and S&S long ago, in a whirl of trying to knock off a couple of must-reads, without knowing what all the JA fuss was about. This month, I was simply going to read Persuasion with my book club. It would accomplish two goals at once by also crossing it off my Classics Club list.

But somehow I ended up requesting a huge stack of Jane Austen reference materials from the library along with an annotated Persuasion, and I was off. Reading Jane. Watching Jane movies. Browsing through Jane reference books. Writing about Jane.

Before I knew it, I was hooked. I joined our library branch manager in oozing the wonderfulness of Jane to the book club. I read Persuasion and moved to Northanger Abbey and then Emma and, before I even finished Emma, I'm reading Mansfield Park.

Emma is an absolute delight of a character. Interfering, but with the best of intentions. A bit full of herself, but also easily humbled by a friend's sharp words. Certain that she had no desire to marry, but then abruptly and completely certain of her love for an unexpected person.

I've loved all these Jane Austen characters so much that I feel like I've been these places in England and befriended them at various parties and dinners and walks and balls.

I'm loving Austen in August.

Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson

I listened to Emerson's Essays on audio. Most of Emerson's essays were first presented in a lecture, so I thought it might be a good way to read Emerson. I found myself having to stop the audio, rewind a bit, and listen again. It seemed to help when I got a physical copy of the essays and read them as I listened to them.

When I got to the end the first time, I started over and listened again.

I think I will listen for a third time this month.

The collection I listened to contained eleven of his most famous essays: "Self-Reliance", "Nature", "Circles", "Friendship", "Heroism", "Prudence", "Compensation", "Gifts", "Manners", "Shakespeare; Or, the Poet", and "The American Scholar".

Here are some quotes I liked from these essays.

"Self-Reliance"

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day."

“The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

“There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried."

“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”


"Nature"

“Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler's trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar's garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world.”

"Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”

“Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."


"Circles"

“I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker.”

"Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."


"The American Scholar"

"What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; — show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the ledger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench."


"Heroism"

'It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, — "Always do what you are afraid to do."'


"Prudence"

"Tomorrow will be like today. Life wastes itself whilst we are preparing to live."


"Compensation"

"Our strength grows out of our weakness. The indignation which arms itself with secret forces does not awaken until we are pricked and stung and sorely assailed. A great man is always willing to be little. Whilst he sits on the cushion of advantages, he goes to sleep. When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill. The wise man throws himself on the side of his assailants. It is more his interest than it is theirs to find his weak point. The wound cicatrizes and falls off from him like a dead skin, and when they would triumph, lo! he has passed on invulnerable. Blame is safer than praise. I hate to be defended in a newspaper. As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain assurance of success. But as soon as honeyed words of praise are spoken for me, I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies. In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor."


"Friendship"

"The only way to have a friend is to be one."


"The Poet"

"Language is the archives of history … Language is fossil poetry."


"Gifts"

"The only gift is a portion of thyself."


Various other quotes attributed to Emerson:

“A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.”

"It's the not the Destination; it's the journey.”

"Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams."

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

"If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads."

Essential Haiku edited by Robert Haas

The Essential Haiku is a distillation of a distillation, the best of the best, a delight of simplicity, beauty, and truth. This book has reminded me of the brilliance of poetry, and the wonder that a tiny haiku holds. I will read more poetry. I will read more haiku.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Mildred Lathbury is a 30-something, never-married, active-in-her-church, helpful-to-her-many-friends woman; in short, Mildred is an excellent woman. Mildred's friend, the vicar's sister, Winifred Malory, works hard in the church and does housekeeping for her brother; Winifred is also an excellent woman. Mildred has new neighbors who she comes to enjoy, Rockingham and Helena Napier. The Napiers live turbulent lives, but Mildred is always there to lend a helpful ear. The Malorys get a new tenant, the widow Allegra Gray, and Winifred and Mildred come to know her and help her as well. Are Helena Napier and Allegra Gray excellent women? Alas. They are not.

This will be on my list of favorite reads for the year. It may be on my favorite reads ever.

I certainly would like to read this book again, and think about it, and discuss it.

Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton

"That doesn't look like a new book," my husband said to me last night when he saw me reading Five on a Treasure Island.

"It was first published in 1942," I told him.

"Maybe it was a book we read when we were kids?" he asked.

"No, I don't think so. Enid Blyton was never big here in America."

Why, I wonder. I can't think of a single reason. Julian, Dick, Anne, and George (as well as the dog, Timmy) are worthy characters. George (really, Georgina) is a girl who doesn't want to be a girl (what girl really wanted to be a girl back then, anyway); George is wildly ahead of her time. The story is full of adventure and mystery, with the kids rowing out to an island sans grownups and exploring an old wreck. What parent now would allow children to do such a thing? But how much fun it would be for kids today to read about it.

I would have read every book, had these stories been available in my school library, and my husband would have, too. Let's hope kids everywhere now have access to this great series.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

There is so much to admire about this book...the dynamic vocabulary...the structure of a story within a story within a story...the sadness of the disappointment and eventual horror of creating a disappointed and eventually desperately sad being...the resonating depth of the implications of creation...a brilliant work.

The story is of a man on boat, Walton, in the cold regions of the world who comes upon a man by the name of Frankenstein who is almost frozen; Walton rescues Frankenstein, and the two develop a friendship based on their common interest in the powers of science. Frankenstein begins to tell Walton his story as a cautionary tale, and the full horrors that are potentially in creation are revealed in Frankenstein's story of how he made a human and how his creation went awry.

The final takeaway from this book is that of all good stories: this story keeps you thinking about the implications of the story for many days after you have finished reading the book.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I am a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson's book, Gilead, so Housekeeping has always been a book that I have wanted to read.

Now I have. I am sad to say that it isn't a new favorite.

Housekeeping is the story of two sisters who grow up with a succession of poor mother figures. One of the sisters, Lucille, adjusts to the lack of structure in her life by assimilating to the larger culture. The other sister, Ruth, adjusts by taking on a nomadic life.

I was struck by the loneliness of the characters, and to their inability to form deep relationships with others.

It was not a read that I enjoyed or would share with others.

The Iliad by Gareth Hinds

The Iliad is a cautionary tale for our time.

It's an old story, from around the twelfth century B.C. and the reader can't help but feel glad we don't live in times such as these. Men grow angry with each other. They steal others' possessions. They seek vengeance for wrongs done to them. They attack each other, and they are vicious in their attacks, slashing with spears, brutally killing and maiming. They go to war against each other, and their wars last for years. They relish the cruelty they do to others. They seek the help of the gods, who are just as petty and vindictive as the humans themselves.

Yes, it's an old story, and the reader can't help but feel glad we don't live in times such as these, times we slash out at our opponents, times we delight in the cruelty we inflict on others, times we seek to build walls to protect ourselves, walls that oh-so-easily tumble and fall when the violence breaks out between conflicting tribes.

This book is a cautionary tale.

Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

When you read a book every day for two months, you develop a relationship with the book. That’s what happened with Italian Folktales. I felt like I grew to know Italy through both space and time through the hundreds of stories in this book, stories from every part of Italy, over seven hundred pages of stories. Many had familiar elements; I read stories that reminded me of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, among others. Most had at least some of the classic characteristics of fairy tales, including royalty, magic, the number three, talking animals, and happily ever after endings. I didn’t want this book to come to an end.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

I thought The Bell Jar was the most depressing book ever written, but I'm scratching that for Jude the Obscure.

Jude the Obscure is the story of Jude Fawley. He is a poor boy, living with his elderly aunt, who longs to go to the university and study the classic works. He apprentices to a stonemason in order to save up money to go to school, but he meets Arabella Donn, the scheming daughter of a pig-farmer, and she tricks him into marriage. The marriage soon collapses, and Jude heads off to Christminster, still hoping to be admitted to the college, but he meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead, and she, like Arabella, short-circuits his dreams.

It's a horrible picture of horrible lives in a horrible time. I have very mixed feelings about rating this novel. Many things were negative about this book. Nothing---not determination, not hard work, not love---is redeeming for any of these characters. I can't imagine a man sticking with a woman like Sue. The unremitting pain the characters suffered is difficult to read. On the other hand, the novel perfectly captures the struggles of poor women of the time, and much of the writing was brilliant. Both Jude and Sue were well-educated people, and their discussions with each other about the conflicts of the day are thoughtful and eloquent.

I must read something light now, and get the awful taste of this novel out of my mouth.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Sara Crewe is beautiful and clever and rich and has everything she could possibly want when she arrives at Miss Minchin's Boarding School in England. She has one thing that sets her apart from the other girls, though, and that is that Sara uses her imagination to enhance her life. Despite her riches and beauty and cleverness, she is kind to everyone, even those who are cruel to her and even those who are poor.

And then she learns that her father has died and that all her riches are gone. Miss Minchin banishes Sara to the attic and makes Sara a servant in the house.

But it changes nothing in Sara. She continues to be kind to others and to take refuge in her imagination.

A Little Princess is an inspiring story of a girl with deep reserves of character and imagination, who manages to do the right thing even when her entire life falls apart. I'm so glad I finally read this book and I hope you will read it, too.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

I can't quite believe it, but I have now read all six of Jane Austen's novels. I feel quite proud of myself.

Mansfield Park is my final Austen read. It's the story of a poor girl, Fanny, who is sent to live with her affluent relatives. She grows into a refined and beautiful young woman, despite her treatment as a second-class person by the rich members of her family. Fanny is captivated by her resolute cousin, Edmund, while in true Austen-ish fashion, Edmund is drawn to a beautiful neighbor, Mary Crawford, and Mary's brother, Henry, becomes infatuated with Fanny.

It's a wild ride of a romantic triangle, with all sorts of triangles within triangles. At the same time, Austen takes us out of the drawing room, into the corners of lives lived in poverty, into the lives of those who are involved in slave trade, into lives of the idle and morally uncertain rich, and leaves her readers with lots to think about.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

This is a reread for me, though my first reading was over forty years ago. It still had the same impact though: powerful...sad...tragic...strange...isolated....A man wakes up and finds he has changed into a dung beetle. His family, his employer, the servants—-all find the man repulsive. It’s never clear what has happened, and it’s never clear what is going on, and it’s never clear how everything is resolved. A very strange story.

My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara

Ken is a kid who can't do anything right. He daydreams during the school year and isn't promoted. He is the object of his older brother's scorn. He makes a mess of everything he is asked to do on his father's ranch; his father is fed up with him.

Just when you think Ken is doomed to a life of failure, his mother has an imaginative idea: give Ken what he wants most, a horse of his own, a horse to break and teach and love. And because he loves his wife and because he can't think of anything else, Ken's father agrees and allows Ken to choose a colt to raise.

Ken chooses Flicka, a colt with a wild and unmanageable mother. Ken's father tries to change his son's mind, but Ken stubbornly clings to his desire for Flicka. And once again, it feels like Ken is heading for doom, that he has once again made the wrong choice.

But, though Flicka and Ken have many setbacks, Ken's decision to choose Flicka is a good one, and both Ken and Flicka become stronger for their trials and troubles.

This is a great story of courage and redemption and love and struggle.

Mythology by Edith Hamilton

I've been reading on this collection of myths for almost a month, and I really didn't want to come up for air. A one sentence summary: these stories are the best stories of all time. There are stories about every possible theme---death, work, struggle, sadness, love, hate, war, revenge, retribution. Because these stories are deeply embedded in our culture they reverberate through the modern stories we hear.

This is a must-read for everyone.

Cautionary note: Edith Hamilton isn't afraid to share her thoughts about all the sources she draws upon to write these tales; she is wildly opinionated. And several times I was taken aback when she writes statements (the original copyright date is 1942) aimed at her audience of the time which now feel off-putting.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

There’s no doubt this book will be on my Best Books of the Year list. It will also go on my Best Books Ever Read list. But I don’t think I will ever reread it; it was a deeply emotional read.

What is the story? The plot has a huge timeframe, with the book spanning the childhood to old age of a man who served in World War II as an officer in the Australian military, and the story centers on the time the officer spent in a Japanese POW camp while his fellow soldiers were forced to build a railroad through the jungle in horrific conditions. The author is amazingly able to assume the point-of-view of not only the main character, Dorrigo, but also Dorrigo’s fellow soldiers, his on-the-sly girlfriend, his girlfriend’s husband, his wife, and even his tormentors in the Japanese POW camp. The author did this so well that I was able to empathize with an Australian soldier while he is being beaten to death, as well as the Japanese officer allowing the Australian to be beaten, and that is astonishing.

The experiences of all of the people in the story were appalling because of the impossibility of the situations; no one could take action without having both bad and good results.

Isn’t that real life, pushed to the extreme, of course?

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Margaret Hale and her family are forced to move to the industrial north of England when her pastor father has doubts about his profession and must seek work as a tutor. Life in the north, Margaret soon learns, is difficult for the people there, especially so after workers begin to strike against the mills. Margaret and her family have found friends on both sides of the strike, and their affections lie with both. There are also side stories about Margaret's brother who helped lead a mutiny on board a ship and had to flee England and Margaret's cousin, leading a very different life in affluent London.

I was fascinated with this story from 1850's England. I was especially intrigued with the conflict between rich and poor that is brought to a head in the strike. I'm still thinking about Mr. Hale's comments to one of the striking workers:

"Oh!" said Mr. Hale, sighing, "your Union in itself would be beautiful, glorious---it would be Christianity itself---if it were but for an end which affected the good of all, instead of that of merely one class as opposed to another."

I've always gravitated to the point of view of the poor, but I've never looked at it from the other side. This book allowed me to do that.

And there's a lovely romance, which is always nice.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

The more I read of Jane Austen, the more I like her.

That is the mark of a good writer, I think.

This is the fourth book of Austen's that I have read and the second this summer. In the process of reading it and Persuasion, I've spent a lot of time reading books about Austen and about Austen's work, and that can't help but enrich the entire reading experience.

The plot is simple: Catherine Morland goes with some rich patrons to Bath. She meets a group of young people who she befriends. Some of the young people turn out to be more worthy of friendship and affection than others.

This story has elements of the gothic tale that my mother loved so much, so Catherine's time at the abbey filled me with nostalgia for the books my mother shared with me as a young adult.

The book has everything I'm coming to love about Austen: complex characters, clever conversations, and witty asides.

Oh dear. I think I am becoming a Jane Austen fan.

Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne

A tiny, tiny book of tiny, tiny poems, filled with lots of rhyme and repetition and delightful silliness.

I was happy to see this little poem that I've used for ages during Poem-in-Your Pocket:

When I was one, I just begun.
When I was two, I was nearly new.
When I was three, I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five, I was just alive.
But now I’m six,
I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six now, forever and ever!

The Nonexistent Knight by Italo Calvino

Agilulf is the ideal knight, characterized by his deep loyalty, reverence, and chivalry. He serves with Charlemagne's army, roaming through the world, setting things to rights. And yet the truth is that Aguilulf does not exist; Aguilulf is merely a suit of armor with nothing inside.

The Nonexistent Knight is the most grownup of the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read that I have read so far. There are thoughtful ideas of what it means to be a person of virtue, as well as clever satire, in this story.

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights

The old stories are the best stories.

I find this is more and more true. There is a reason books are considered classics, and that's because people have told them and read them, over and over, millions and millions of times, for many, many years.

The stories in the Arabian Nights are electric and mesmerizing. The stories in the Arabian Nights are horrifying and vivifying. The stories in the Arabian Nights are charged with deep meaning and truth.

You know many of these. Scheherazade. Aladdin and his magic lamp. Sinbad the sailor. Ali Baba and the forty thieves.

Some are less familiar but also resonate with deep truth. The fisherman and the genie. The king and the physician. Abou Hassan. Codadad.

This is a wonderful collection of old stories, beautifully illustrated. Be warned that these stories are a product of their time, when parents felt less need to protect their children from the darknesses of life, and there are lots of scenes of murder and slavery and vengeance and cruelty.
Persuasion by Jane Austen

I thought it would be love at first sight. It wasn't it.

Jane Austen is everything contemporary America is not. Jane Austen has no real plot points; no buildings explode, and no diabolical schemes to control the world appear in her stories. But Jane Austen isn't wispy either, no light read, no little summer story, not just a bit of romantic fluff.

Jane Austen is completely unexpected. A Jane Austen book is a solid two hundred pages of people in beautiful but uncomfortable clothing, standing around in lovely but uncomfortable homes, talking together, beautifully but uncomfortably.

I thought about turning my copy of Persuasion back into the library. I resisted.

I stuck with Jane.

Jane grew on me.

Jane Austen is clever and intricate; it helps to have an annotated edition of your Austen and to watch the four hour BBC movie of the book and a Jane Austen reference book or two. Jane Austen is subtle; I've missed subtle. Jane Austen builds, rewarding patience and persistence and all those wonderful old-fashioned virtues of the past, as it culminates in a just and genuine ending.

I've been reading Jane Austen for ten days now. I'm reading Carol Shields' bio of Jane as well. And, just for fun, I'm browsing through Jane Austen for Dummies.

I finished Persuasion. I will go on to read all six of Jane's novels. I am completely surprised to discover that I have grown to respect her and admire Jane Austen. So I urge you to persist. Have patience. Read Jane Austen. We need Jane Austen in our world today, I think.

Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

I've never seen the famous play and I know almost nothing about the story, so reading The Phantom of the Opera was a wonderful surprise for me. You probably know the plot, but in case you are like me and didn't, I'll tell you a little about it. The opera house, Palais Garnier, is haunted by an Opera Ghost. One of the opera singers, Christine, reveals to her friend, Raoul, that she has been tutored by someone she refers to as the Angel of Music. It doesn't take Raoul long to discover that the Angel of Music and the Opera Ghost are the same person, a horribly disfigured man named Erik. Erik has fallen in love with Christine, and wishes for her to marry him.

It's a dramatic story of love and acceptance and redemption and it's all told in that most amazing setting, an opera house in Paris.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Thomas Fowler, a British journalist, has been covering the French War in Indochina for several years. He has a live-in lover, a young Vietnamese woman named Phuong. Fowler meets Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent. Pyle falls in love with Phuong when he meets her, so part of The Quiet American is a story about relationships.

But a larger part of The Quiet American is the story of good intentions and poor decisions as they relate to war. Both Fowler and Pyle are visitors to Vietnam and both have thoughts about the ongoing war and how it should be resolved. Others in the story are native to Vietnam and they have other ideas about the war and how it should be resolved.

The Quiet American is a brilliant picture of morality and intelligence and how the two combine to determine actions. It's eerily prophetic of the acceleration of the Vietnam War and the inevitability of the inability of intruders to resolve the conflict.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

You will not find a character who feels more real, a character who is not likely to resemble anyone who will ever meet in modern life than the main character of this novel. He is a classic English butler, deeply flawed, completely devoted to his job to the exclusion of family or friends, and he is unable to feel for others and he has trouble interpreting others’ emotions. Nevertheless, the reader falls in love with him, and can’t help feeling strongly compassionate for his lost opportunities.

It’s the novel that comes closest for me of hitting that five star ranking, a story with wonderful, rich characters amid the confusing time before and after World War II in England, set among those who work as servants in the most affluent of estates.

Selected Essays by Michel de Montaigne

What went wrong? I read two books about Montaigne's Essays before I actually read the essays themselves. Wouldn't you think I'd love the essays even more than the books I read about the essays?

I didn't.

I found the essays tedious, honestly. Maybe it was just the translations? I don't know, but I couldn't get to the end of this book quickly enough.

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Shimamura, a wealthy dilettante from Tokyo, travels to the snowiest region on earth and meets up with Komako, a poor provincial geisha. Snow Country tells the story of their relationship.

It's a poem of a story, complex, brimming with both the care and indifference that characterize a deep connection between two people. Like a haiku, the details of the season, of the place, fill the margins of the story, and color the emotional resonance of the relationship. The story is mysterious, with much left unsaid or unclear, as Shimamura and Komako come together and separate and come together and separate.

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is a 1001 Children's Book. I've had a copy of it for a long time, and I'd originally planned to read the chapter from this book at the same time I read the play. I did this for two chapters before I realized it might take me an eternity to get through this book if I continued to read at that pace. I decided, instead, to read it during Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon; children's books are usually perfect for a readathon.

Let me say, before I go any further, that this book is easier to read than Shakespeare's plays, but just barely. Here is a sample paragraph, taken from a chapter about a play I not only haven't read, but that I hadn't even heard of before I read this book, Timon of Athens:

"Now was Timon as much avoided in his poverty as he had been courted and resorted to in his riches. Now the same tongues which had been loudest in his praises, extolling him as bountiful, liberal, and open handed, were not ashamed to censure that very bounty as folly, that liberality as profuseness, though it had shown itself folly in nothing so truly as in the selection of such unworthy creatures as themselves for its objects. Now was Timon's princely mansion forsaken, and become a shunned and hated place, a place for men to pass by, not a place, as formerly, where every passenger must stop and taste of his wine and good cheer; now, instead of being thronged with feasting and tumultuous guests, it was beset with impatient and clamorous creditors, usurers, extortioners, fierce and intolerable in their demands, pleading bonds, interest, mortgages; iron-hearted men that would take no denial nor putting off, that Timon's house was now his jail, which he could not pass, nor go in nor out for them; one demanding his due of fifty talents, another bringing in a bill of five thousands crowns, which if he would tell out his blood by drops, and pay them so, he had not enough in his body to discharge, drop by drop."

That's a pretty good sample of this text. It's considered a children's book, remember, and I found the sentences to be lengthy and the vocabulary a bit daunting for modern children.

If you are curious, this book covers The Tempest; A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Winter's Tale; Much Ado About Nothing; As You Like It; The Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Merchant of Venice; Cymbeline; King Lear; Macbeth; All's Well That Ends Well; The Taming of the Shrew; The Comedy of Errors; Measure for Measure; Twelfth Night; Timon of Athens; Hamlet; Othello; Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

I loved this collection of summaries of the plays, and I may see if I can find More Tales of Shakespeare to read at some future date.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

This is the story of a group of people in San Francisco in the 70's and 80's, of course, but it's also the story of a city. Mary Ann moves to San Francisco and soon takes up with a wide group of diverse characters, including her landlady who grows marijuana, her fellow tenants, her wealthy boss and his socialite daughter, the owner of a brothel, and all the various spouses and friends and lovers of her friends and neighbors. It makes for a Peyton Place of a novel, with lively conversations and wild actions of all these characters.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

It was the inclusion of this book on PBS' The Great American Read list to finally talk me into reading this book. Now I see why people love it.

This is the story of a young black woman who grows and develops as a person through her three marriages to three very different men.

The language is beautiful and evocative, and the characters are vivid. The world Hurston creates in her story is the world of black culture, the 1930's South.

It's a magnificent story, with elements that will surprise you and shock you and energize you.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

An opportunity to see a Houston Alley Theater pre-production of Twelfth Night appeared. Why not read the play before I go? Shakespeare Made Easy: Twelfth Night is exactly what it purports to be...Twelfth Night made easy, and that was exactly what I needed. Twelfth Night is short, but delightfully complex, with a cast of quirky characters perfect for an odd series of meet-cutes in this sparkly romance. It's everything you dream of in a play: clever dialogue, a wild plot, and a whole crew of crazy characters, all brought together in a completely satisfying ending.

So I read the book and then spent an evening with Twelfth Night in rehearsal and it was perfect. Thank you, Shakespeare Made Easy, and thank you, cast of the Alley Theater's production of Twelfth Night. A wonderful experience.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

I'm afraid this is one of those terrible, wonderful books. It's terrible because it's the story of two people who are lost and unhappy and confused. It's wonderful because something about the story feels deeply true.

There isn't much plot. It's a play, with a simple setting, and simple dialogue. Two men are standing around, talking "to pass the time," and waiting for the arrival of the mysterious Godot. They don't seem to know why they are waiting for him; the implication is that Godot will hurt them if they don't continue to wait. Yet he never arrives, and there is little for them to do while they wait.

A few other people arrive and depart, and they, too, seem to have little understanding of their own intentions and actions.

I disliked and liked this play very much. I don't know what to make of it myself.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I’ve been listening to this book for a month, and I’ve wavered widely between loving it and hating it. Parts of it, the parts about simplicity and ecology, are deep and profound. Parts of it, the parts where Thoreau explores nature, are lyrical. Parts of it, the parts where the author throws out cultural stereotypes of his time, are disappointing. Parts of it, the parts where the author goes on and on and in which one wishes Thoreau had followed his own advice about brevity and simplicity, are exasperating. Overall, I liked it very much. My original plan, my plan to read several books about Walden, including an annotated version and a children’s book and a graphic novel—-well, let’s just say I think I’m a little Walden-ed out, but maybe I’ll read those after I’ve had a chance to detox a bit from Thoreau.

The Water-Babies by Charles L. Kingsley

Tom is a wretchedly poor chimney sweep, just a boy, and yet without any education or religion or family and completely subject to the cruel whims of his master. He happens upon a beautiful rich girl in the process of cleaning the chimneys of a large home, and a misunderstanding occurs, and Tom runs away and (seemingly) drowns. He doesn't drown, however; he is changed into a water-baby, and he is sent off on adventures and trials by fairies to improve his moral character.

I was of two minds about this book: I loved the clever writing, the wild twists and turns that come from the mind of every young child, but I didn't care for Victorian moralizing. In the end, I loved the zaniness of the story enough to forgive the didactic bits.

I have no idea what children of today would make of this story, but I think they'd be shocked to be presented with Tom's life and they'd enjoy his wild adventures in the water.

White Fang by Jack London

White Fang is the story of a wolf from the northland as he endures terrible master after terrible master until he finally finds a master who treats him with love and kindness. It’s a story about a wolf, but it is also the story of how caring or lack of caring shapes others. It’s a story of a wolf, but it’s also the story of how it can never be too late for caring to change things. I read this book, rapt to the last page.
The Wonderful "O" by James Thurber

I'm not sure what it means when you read three books in one day and you understand none of them.

At least I liked this one.

It's the story of two pirates who come across a treasure map and set sail on a boat named Aeiu and arrive on an island called Ooroo and set about searching for jewels and in the process decide to get rid of all words with an O in them.

Yes, it's quirky. It's strange. But it's also filled with silly word play and clever asides and it's just plain fun.

Do I understand it? No, not really. Is there a point to it? I'd say again, no, not really. Is it worth reading? Yes, in an odd way, yes.


Are you a member of the Classics Club? What books do you want to read first? Are there any on this list that I should read soon? 



What are you reading today?



What is the Sunday SalonImagine some university library's vast reading room. It's filled with people--students and faculty and strangers who've wandered in. They're seated at great oaken desks, books piled all around them,and they're all feverishly reading and jotting notes in their leather-bound journals as they go. Later they'll mill around the open dictionaries and compare their thoughts on the afternoon's literary intake....That's what happens at the Sunday Salon, except it's all virtual. Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week's Salon get together--at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones--and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another's blogs. Think of it as an informal, weekly, mini read-a-thon, an excuse to put aside one's earthly responsibilities and fall into a good book. Click here to join the Salon.

The Sunday Post is a meme hosted by Kimba at Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It's a chance to share news and recap the past week.


Mailbox Monday was created by Marcia at The Printed Page. We share books that we found in our mailboxes last week. 
 It is now being hosted here.

Stacking the Shelves is a meme hosted by Tynga's Reviews in which you can share the books you've acquired.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is where we share what we read this past week, what we hope to read this week…. and anything in between!  This is a great way to plan out your reading week and see what others are currently reading as well… you never know where that next “must read” book will come from! I love being a part of this and I hope you do too! It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is now being hosted at The Book Date.




26 comments:

  1. Yay! And I do understand the appeal of making the lists. That's me all over. I've read 9 of your list. I can recommend PERSUASION and ALAS BABYLON and A THOUSAND ACRES (very sad book). Hope you enjoy the fun of trying the classics here and I love the fact that we can adjust the list to suit our own preferences. Like I did. LOL

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    1. I second Kay's recommendation for Alas, Babylon. It's a little dated, but I thought it was a great read.

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  2. I adore this idea! I, too, am in the final two decades of reading... and I want to be more purposeful in all I do. I own both "must read" books and love the idea of making a life long reading list from those suggestions.

    I'm not sure I'm brave enough to officially join the club... but you have inspired me to up my reading game.

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  3. I haven't read a lot of classics, so I should check some out aswell. Emma by Jane Austen is one of my favourite books, so I hope you will get to that one very soon.

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  4. Bryan G. Robinson: Tried to comment on your blog, but it doesn't like me, so commenting here :) ...The ones that I think you should read sooner than later are A Thousand Acres and To The Lighthouse, two of my personal favorite classics.

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  5. While I have read a few of these, many of them long ago, my more recent (in the last ten years) include A Thousand Acres (loved the book and the movie) and Housekeeping. I loved Anna Karenina and The Bell Jar in college.

    Enjoy working your way through these! Thanks for sharing, and for visiting my blog.

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  6. I would love to be able to read some of the classics. I do wish my library carried more of them though. Hope you enjoy the books you've picked to read for the challenge. Happy reading.

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  7. What a great, interesting list! I gave up on doing reaching challenges a few years ago, not least because my job requires me to read in a certain way, but I always enjoy seeing what challenges others set for themselves. And I especially like that you're able to work both modern and "contemporary classics" onto your list, like A Little Life.

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  8. Yes. I am a member of the Classics Club, too. My problem is that I keep ADDING books to the list that I forgot to add when I made my initial list so it isn't getting shorter as I finish books.

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  9. Wow! I keep looking at the Classics Club too, but that's not how I read right now. I've actually read 18 of the ones on your list, but almost all of them were in my teens and twenties. I loved Song of Solomon and Passage to India at that age, and I am always a Dickens and Austen proponent.

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  10. Wow! 50 classics! I need to try this challenge since I need to read some classics myself!

    Here’s my Sunday Post!

    Ronyell @ Rabbit Ears Book Blog and join in this week’s Book Photo Sundays!

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  11. This is a great list, Deb! I am going on my second year in the club, but am not making the fastest of progress. I need to work harder on it this year. Several of the books on my list are children's books or YA type books. I like that they allow such a wide variety. I wish you the best with this challenge!

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  12. This is a wonderful list of books and I like that you are giving yourself five years to get through them.

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  13. welcome to the club, with a great list. I have read ony 20 of those. we have some in common, I'm starting my 3rd year of my first round: https://wordsandpeace.com/2016/01/01/the-classics-club-2016-2020/
    Enjoy the experience!

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  14. I swear I'm always discovering new blogging community activities from your blog. ALWAYS. This is why I love looking at your weekly post XD.

    Thank you so much for the Classics Club introduction. Have a great week!

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  15. I used to read tons of classics, but I don’t anymore. I need to get back to them. I’ve read 16 of the books on your list. Good luck with the challenge! Have a great week!

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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  16. Yes, i've read many of these. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is one of my all time favorites, i go see it performed, as well, whenever i can.

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  17. I almost never stick to reading lists, so I'v given up challenges. But I wish you much luck!

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  18. What an undertaking!

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  19. I'm not a member of The Classics Club but I have read 9 that are on your list - mostly in high school and college English classes. Good luck! Come see my week here. Happy reading!

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  20. Great idea. I love making lists too. Oh wow, your list is AWESOME. I hope you enjoy all of the books once you read them. Have a awonderful reading week and happy reading. 😁❤️

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  21. I am so tempted to try this Classics Club. I'm just not sure if there is enough time. I will stop by and look at the blog. I hope you reach your goal for this year and have fun.

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  22. I look forward to seeing how your challenge goes to read the last six on your list for the current #CCspin. You've got me thinking about maybe reading the ten on my current spin list this summer. I loved the Age of Innocence and Emerson.

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  23. I do like the idea of the classics list:). I've read 14 on your list - Now We Are Six and Emma are both delightful and would provide some enjoyable light relief after some of the heftier reads... Though the plays such as Waiting for Godot really ought to be seen in performance, rather than read, I think as it is an odd read and a complete joy to watch. Have a wonderful week, Deb.

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I love to hear what you think.