The Classics Club

"Read the best books first, 
or you may not have a chance to read them at all."

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 ( 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 began on January 14, 2018 on The Classics Club: Fifty Classic (ish) Books I Will Read in the Next Five Years. Here is my first list:

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 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 edited by Benedicta Ward

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.


“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.”


“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."


“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."


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


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


"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."


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

"The Poet"

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


"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 Homer

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.

I completed my first list on May 2, 2019.

My Second Classics Club announces my second list. I began it on May 9, 2019. Here is my second list.
All Passion SpentSackville-West, Vita1931Fiction174 pages
Agnes GrayBronte, Emily1847Fiction256 pages
Around the World in 80 DaysVerne, Jules1873Science fiction256 pages
Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-BurglarLeblanc, Maurice1905Children's304 pages
Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, TheStein, Gertrude1933Biography238 pages
Bell Jar, ThePlath, Sylvia1963Fiction190 pages
Cloven Viscount, TheCalvino, Italo1959Fiction128 pages
Collected Stories of Katherine Anne PorterPorter, Katherine Anne1965Fiction512 pages
CranfordGaskell, Elizabeth1853Fiction192 pages
Decameron, TheBoccaccio, Giovanni1353Short stories554 pages
Diary of Anne Frank, TheFrank, Anne1947Diary352 pages
Elizabeth and Her German Gardenvon Arnim, Elizabeth1898Memoir139 pages
Emperor of Ice Cream and Other PoemsStevens, Wallace1954Poetry96 pages
End of the AffairGreene, Graham1951Fiction237 pages
Essential Rumi, TheRumi1240Poetry340 pages
Family from One End Street, TheGarnett, Eve1937Children's212 pages
Four Loves, TheLewis, C. S.1958Spirituality180 pages
French Fairy Talesd'Aulnoy, Marie-Catherine (Madame)1697Children's896 pages
Friday's TunnelVerney, John1959Children's263 pages
FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American PoetryStavans, Ilan, ed.2011Poetry726 pages
Girl of the Limberlost, TheStratton-Porter, Gene1909Children's233 pages
Glimpses of the Moon, TheWharton, Edith1922Fiction336 pages
Good Man is Hard to Find, AO'Connor, Flannery1955Short stories256 pages
Heat of the Day, TheBowen, Elizabeth1948Fiction372 pages
Howards EndForster, E. M.1910Classic368 pages
In Search of Lost Time: Swann's WayProust, Marcel1927Fiction285 pages
Introduction to French PoetryAppelbaum, Stanley1991Poetry208 pages
Jungle Book, TheKipling, Rudyard1894Children's433 pages
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round TableGreen, Roger1953Classic330 pages
L'AssommoirZola, Emile1876Classic528 pages
Little Women (Annotated)Alcott, Louisa May1868Children's736 pages
Les Malheurs de SophieSégur, Comtesse de1857Children's228 pages
MaigretSimenon, Georges1934Mystery144 pages
Main StreetLewis, Sinclair1920Fiction368 pages
Man and SupermanShaw, George Bernard1903Play208 pages
Mary BartonGaskell, Elizabeth1848Novel464 pages
Moby DickMelville1852Fiction463 pages
My Friend Mr. LeakeyHaldane, J.B.S.1937Children's149 pages
My Sweet Orange TreeMauro de Vasconcelos, Jose1968Children's262 pages
Mystery of the Yellow RoomLeroux, Gaston1907Mystery236 pages
No ExitSartre, Jean-Paul1944Play60 pages
Of Human BondageMaugham, W. Somerset1915Novel658 pages
Pursuit of Love, TheMitford, Nancy1945Fiction247 pages
Razor's Edge, TheMaugham, W. Somerset1944Fiction314 pages
Right Ho, JeevesWodehouse, P. G.1934Fiction248 pages
Selected Stories of O. HenryHenry, O.1922Short stories544 pages
Seven Little AustraliansTurner, Ethel1894Children's240 pages
Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, ANewby, Eric1958Travel306 pages
StoriesChekhov, Anton1903Short stories384 pages
Tale of Two Cities, ADickens, Charles1859Fiction307 pages
Tales of Snugglepot and CuddlepieGibbs, May1940Children's224 pages
Tin Drum, TheGrass, Gunter1959Novel576 pages
Tom Brown's SchooldaysHughes, Thomas1857Children's420 pages
Travels in Asia and AfricaBattuta, Ibn1340Travel270 pages
Vicar of WakefieldGoldsmith, Oliver1766Fiction170 pages
War and PeaceTolstoy, Leo1869Fiction1229 pages
Washington SquareJames, Henry1881Classic248 pages
WeZamyatin, Yevgeni1924Science fiction224 pages
Where Angels Fear to TreadForster, E. M.1905Fiction128 pages
Wilderness EssaysMuir, John1920Nature296 pages
Winter’s Tale, TheShakespeare, William1611Play160 pages
Wives and DaughtersGaskell, Elizabeth1864Fiction583 pages
Update: 37/50 (August 2020)

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Lord Slane is dead---what will become of his 88-year-old widow? The six children discuss this, and Lady Slane listens to all the plans and says, "I am going to live by myself."

She goes on to say, "...I have considered the eyes of the world for so long that I think it's time I had a holiday from them. If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!"

"I am going to become completely self-indulgent. I am going to wallow in old age."

And so Lady Slane rents a favorite house and makes new friends and reflects back upon her life and encourages her young granddaughter to make the choices she did not make, picking the choices of one's heart.

On old age: "The mind was as alert as ever, perhaps more alert, sharpened by the sense of imminent final interruption, spurred by the necessity of making the most of remaining time; only the body was a little shaky, not very certain of its reliability, not quite certain even of its sense of direction, afraid of stumbling over a step, of spilling a cup of tea, nervous, tremulous; aware that it must not be jostled or hurried, for fear of betraying its frail inadequacy."

A little more on old age: "Those days were gone when feeling burst its bounds and poured hot from the foundry, when the heart seemed likely to split with complex and contradictory desires; now there was nothing left but a landscape in monochrome, the features identical but the colours gone from them and nothing but a gesture left in place of speech."

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in Eighty Days was my Classics Club spin pick this time. I had never read it before. I had never seen the movie. I actually knew nothing about the story.

The story takes place in the 1870s. Phileas Fogg bets his friends a boatload of money that he can travel all around the world in eighty days. Accompanying him on his trip are his valet Passapartout, a princess from India, and a detective, Mr. Fix. As they travel around the world, they are delayed by troubles on the railroad; a storm; the need to rescue the princess and the later legal difficulties this ensues; an attack by Native Americans; and other problems. But Passapartout is always instructed to reach deep into the money bag and this generally solves most of the problems. Most of the episodes along the way are not intended to be taken as realistic, I think; most of the adventures are simply that, adventures. The ending is quite satisfying, too, if you don't know what's coming.

I also watched the 1956 movie version with David Niven and acclaimed Mexican comic Cantinflas, and that was extraordinarily big, with a huge cast of characters (it's fun just trying to see who is in the movie) and sets and costumes. It won Best Picture and I think it holds up fairly well.

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar by Maurice Leblanc

Who is this mysterious Arsène Lupin? He keeps announcing his upcoming appearance in the homes of very rich people to steal their possessions, and he is seemingly able to do the thievery without any trace of his entering or leaving. He steals only from the very, very rich. How is he able to do it?

Arsène Lupin is a classic mystery novel in France. It's on the list of the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Tedious and tedious and tedious. Sometimes reading this book felt like reading random pages of a (very popular) teen girl's diary. "I saw so-and-so and he is working on a new painting and Gertrude Stein was amused by him." "I saw so-and-so and he is writing a new novel and he bored Gertrude Stein." Yes, on and on and on. Every celebrity of her age visited Stein, I think. The book felt a like an thinly-disguised attempt to pump up the renown of Gertrude Stein herself. And the writing was unbearably tedious.

But, at the same time, some of the little stories were fun to read about. After all, Stein and Toklas hosted Hemingway. And Fitzgerald. And Picasso. Talked to them. Laughed with them. Ate with them. Argued with them.

Tedious. But oddly mesmerizing.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

First reading:

I should not have read this book when I was sixteen.

I'm not sure anyone should read this book when she is sixteen.

It was dark and despairing and bleak and reading it left me feeling dark and despairing and bleak.

Nevertheless, The Bell Jar was the truest picture of teen depression I've ever read.

If only someone could write a book that good that would help teens find their way out of depression.

Second reading:

Did reading The Bell Jar at sixteen drop a bell jar on my head? Or was it already descending?

I was Esther as a teen, in many ways. I was competitive about academic achievement to the exclusion of everything else, and when all the prizes I'd worked for didn't come my way, I found myself lost and depressed and alone. Esther's experience provided no solace at sixteen; it only increased my pain.

Reading The Bell Jar as an adult who has scrambled to find ways to fight depression all her life was a different experience than reading the book as a teen. I saw how Esther isolated herself rather than finding people who could offer help. I saw how Esther plummeted rather than responded with resilience when her plans did not work out. I saw how the psychiatrists of Esther's time did not have the knowledge or the treatments to effectively help her.

The Bell Jar should be a book that is read and reread, with much to offer readers of all ages.

The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino

Is this the strangest story I have ever read? Truly I think it is. Here's a plot summary from Wikipedia. Decide for yourself.

"The Viscount Medardo of Terralba and his squire Kurt ride across the plague-ravaged plain of Bohemia en route to join the Christian army in the Turkish wars of the seventeenth century. On the first day of fighting, a Turkish swordsman unhorses the inexperienced Viscount. Fearless, he scrambles over the battlefield with sword bared, and is split in two by a cannonball hitting him square in the chest.

As a result of the injury, Viscount Medardo becomes two people: Gramo (the Bad) and Buono (the Good). The army field doctors save Gramo through a stitching miracle; the Viscount is "alive and cloven".[1] With one eye and a dilated single nostril, he returns to Terralba, twisting the half mouth of his half face into a scissors-like half smile. Meanwhile, a group of hermits find Buono in the midst of a pile of dead bodies. They tend to him and he recovers. After a long pilgrimage, Buono returns home.

There are now two Viscounts in Terralba. Gramo lives in the castle, Buono lives in the forest. Gramo causes damage and pain, Buono does good deeds. Pietrochiodo, the carpenter, is more adept at building guillotines for Gramo than the machines requested by Buono. Eventually, the villagers dislike both viscounts, as Gramo's malevolence provokes hostility and Buono's altruism provokes uneasiness.

Pamela, the peasant, prefers Buono to Gramo, but her parents want her to marry Gramo. She is ordered to consent to Gramo's marriage proposal. On the day of the wedding, Pamela marries Buono, because Gramo arrives late. Gramo challenges Buono to a duel to decide who shall be Pamela's husband. As a result, they are both severely wounded.

Dr. Trelawney takes the two bodies and sews the two sides together. Medardo finally is whole. He and his wife Pamela (now the Viscountess) live happily together until the end of their days."

What in the world is the wise Italo Calvino trying to tell me?

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

“It was, I think, the fact that I had participated in death and I knew what death was and had almost experienced it,” she continued. “Now, if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.”

Katherine Anne Porter spoke in a 1963 interview about the time she contracted influenza during the 1919 resurgence of the pandemic. Subsequently, she wrote the novella for which she is most famous, Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

I came to this collection intrigued by the pandemic theme of this story and by the fact that Porter is a Texan, but I left with a deep appreciation for Porter's writing. Porter sees the world and she writes just what she sees. She doesn't stick to writing from within her own narrow culture of her time, either; somehow she is able to sneak little glimpses of other cultures, too.

V. S. Pritchett wrote of Porter in the New Statesman: "Miss Porter's singularity as a writer is in her truthful explorations of a complete consciousness of life. Her prose is severe and exact; her ironies are subtle but hard...." Yes.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

A modern soap opera aint’ got nothing on Crawford. A wayward son who leaves home abruptly, and his mother dies in her grief at his departure. A bank scandal and a rich woman loses everything. A high-and-mighty woman arrives, townspeople are kept from her because they are not good enough, and it is learned that the woman wasn’t even rich enough to ever see the queen.

A fabulous picture of small-town England in the mid-1800s.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

How is it that I have never read Anne Frank's diary? I've read parts, little pieces, snippets, and, of course, I know the story of her life. But what was she like as a person? How did the confinement affect her and her family? What was it like while she was in hiding?

Anne is feisty, speaking up to her teachers, her parents, her friends, and yet this did not have the effect of putting others off her. No, her honesty and forthright manner seemed to draw others to her. It also led to lots of conflicts with the adults in her life. Her entire time in hiding seemed to be spent in conflict with one or more of the others with her.

As Anne gets older, she learns to moderate her anger and she eventually finds ways to get along with others, though she always wishes she had a different sort of mother and she still finds fault with all the people she shares the hiding space with. Anne's sharply critical nature surprised me, yet it seemed to serve her well during her short life.

It's the deep sadnesses of the if-only and how-it-could-have-been of Anne's life that reminded me all through the book that this is all Anne Frank would ever have to share with the world. And yet we do have this, a completely honest picture of a desperate time from a girl who made the most of her life while she had it and who dared to share every detail of her thoughts.

The Emperor of Ice Cream and Other Poems by Wallace Stevens

I took a long time to read this little 96-page collection of early poetry from master poet Wallace Stevens, and I'm glad I did. A couple of the poems in this book, including Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, are among my old favorites. Some of the poems are likely to become new favorites. As I read, I felt like I was trying to read art; I mostly felt like I was reading along, admiring the beauty of the words, and the set of the phrases, and occasionally getting a flash of what that beauty was all about.

The Essential Rumi by Rumi

I've finished Rumi. In a way. I've come to the last page. I've closed the book. But I'm pretty sure I will never really finish Rumi. I will come back to Rumi again and again.

Rumi is a mixed bag. Brilliant, so much is brilliant. And then there are a few pieces that I thought, Huh? Really? But mostly brilliant. And wise.

Read Rumi. You know you want to. See what you think. For yourself.

The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett

The Family from One-End Street is a three hundred page children's chapter book originally published in 1937. It's the story of a poor family. Mom is a washerwoman and Dad is a dustman (I had to look that up...he is what we in the US refer to as a garbage collector). The family has seven very different children. Lily Rose is the oldest and finds her name to be embarrassing. Kate is bright and does extremely well in school. The twin boys, Jim and John, like adventure. Jo, short for Josiah, tries to find ways to get enough money to go to the cinema often. Peg is the youngest daughter, and William is the baby.

The family has struggles and little adventures and great joys, and it's all set in a small town in England in difficult economic times. There are beautiful little black-and-white drawings throughout the book. It's just the sort of story I would have loved when I was a child, with something for everyone.

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis takes on love. Lewis defines four loves: affection (storge), friendship (philia), romantic love (eros), and charity (agape). Lewis is wise and yet somehow accessible.

The book is stuffed full of brilliance. I enjoyed it by reading it, and then listening to the delightful YouTube C.S. Lewis Doodle.

French Fairy Tales by Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy 

Fairy Tales is a classic collection of French stories. It is on the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read list. 

French Fairy Tales include stories that have found their way into English via Andrew Lang's fairy books. But the stories are much, much longer than those I typically read in English, some stretching on for almost one hundred pages, with elaborate descriptions of setting and long conversations between characters. 

The entire book, with thirteen stories, consists of almost nine hundred pages. The stories were originally part of the oral traditions of France. It was popular to write down the stories in French salons in the 1600's and that is when this collection was first set down in written form.

Friday's Tunnel by John Verney

There are 1001 Books you almost give up hope of ever reading; some books are long out of print and completely unavailable in your country. But then, suddenly, unexpectedly, you see one of these impossible-to-find books has been picked up by a new publisher and reissued, and your heart is filled with happiness.

This is the story of one of those wonderful, zany families you always wished you could be a part of, with a plethora of kids, an adventurous father, a clever mother, and oodles of fascinating family friends who are scientists and madcap race car drivers and world leaders and journalists and even, possibly, spies. Friday Callendar (yes, the children all have quirky names, too, as suits the members of such a tribe) is digging a tunnel, their father is off (or is he?) to a remote island where trouble is stirring, and his sister February is trying to help solve the mysteries that surround her: Where is February's father? What is happening on the strange island of Capria? Who are the odd people she encounters in the nearby village? Is there such a thing as caprium? And, if there is, what does caprium do, and why do America and Russia want it?

You will love all the characters in this book so much that you will wish John Verney had written a long series with all these folks. Happily, it does seem that there is a second book, and I think I must look for it. You mustn't miss this Friday's Tunnel.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor

I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't this.

The characters in a Flannery O'Connor story are about as far from politically correct as you can get. The characters in her stories point out the perceived flaws and failings of every person they meet or know. And every person they meet or know has numerous flaws and failings - handicaps, limitations, problems with race or gender or ethnicity. And to make it even more uncomfortable, the characters rest in the certainty of the validity of their cruel judgments, and often openly note their adherence to Christianity.

Oh, but it's an uncomfortable read. You know that these people were real and common in their time (the book was published in 1955) and you suspect they are probably real and common today.

Howards End by E. M. Forster

It felt like the perfect time to read this book after watching the PBS Masterpiece mini-series. And it was.

Howards End is the story of rich and poor, of the difficulties of befriending others, of the price paid when a relationship is broken, and of the sacrifices made in marriage. There are three families in the story. The Schlegels are a brother and two sisters who live together in affluence and read and listen to music and discuss important ideas with their friends. The Wilcoxes are a wealthy family with three adult children. The Basts are a poor man and wife. The various members of the families have their lives intertwined with the various members of the other families in ways that hurt and challenge and destroy.

Howards End will be one of my favorite reads of the year.

In Search of Lost Time: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

I listened to an audiobook of Swann's Way. It was over seventeen hours. Like my writing teacher said yesterday when I told her I was listening to an audiobook of Swann's Way, it's the perfect classic to listen to (unless, she added, you are going to be tested on it), as it goes on and on with details that are superfluous to the story.

There are really two parts to the book. The first part is the story of the narrator as a child, and I have to say that I much preferred this part of the book. The narrator tells stories of his childhood, his deep fears, his need for his mother, his peculiar aunt, and each story is filled with rich and sensual details. The second part is the story of Swann, a friend of the child's parents, and Swann's obsession with Odette. Swann only grew to be intrigued with Odette after he realized she did not care for him, and that seemed oddly true. Nevertheless, I quickly grew tired of both Swann and Odette; I kept hoping the story would return to the child, but it never did.

Will I read on? After all, there are apparently six more volumes. I don't know. Maybe. There is an allure to this writing.

Introduction to French Poetry edited by Stanley Appelbaum

A nice overview of French poetry, from the earliest poets to modern-day poets, with a little biographical information about each, along with a sample poem in French and English.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle Book is a collection of seven stories, three of which (my favorites) center on Mowgli. Mowgli is a human child raised by wolves in the jungle. Mowgli learns how to survive in the jungle from his animal teachers.

The laws of the jungle are clear and the consequences of not obeying them are stark: generally death or death-like exclusion from the group.

I've never seen the movies and I knew little about the book until I began to listen to the audiobook this week. I wasn't as captivated by the other stories (the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi; an elephant-handler; the animals of the English army in India; and, oddly, the story of a seal in the Bering Sea), but I was so intrigued by Mowgli that I listened to those stories twice.

One of the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read.

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green

Merlin created a sword in a stone, and it was the young Arthur who pulled the sword out, he alone who could do this task, and because of accomplishing the task, he was crowned king. Arthur began a reign of knights who went out into the world to drive back the barbaric Saxons and who fought for goodness. Many knights came to sit at Arthur's Round Table including Launcelot, Gareth, Gawain, Percivale, Bors, Tristam, and Galahad, and this book collects many of their most famous stories. But it also ends with the destruction of the beautiful kingdom Arthur built, with the evil by his wicked cousin, Sir Mordred, and the betrayal of his Arthur's queen, Guinevere, with his friend, Launcelot.

Many, many battles, like this one:

"But presently they staggered to their feet, drew their swords, and rushed together like two fierce lions, lashing at one another until pieces of armour flew from them on every side, and the blood ran down, dyeing the lawn a darker, rustier red."

Some of the most famous stories are that of Sir Tristam and the Fair Iseult; Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady; The Knight of the Kitchen; and The Quest for the Holy Grail.

L'Assommoir by Emile Zola

I am now officially a Zola fan.

I finished my first Emile Zola book while I was in Paris, and it went straight to my list of Favorite Books Ever and Must-Reads. L'Assommoir is the story of a poor washerwoman, Gervaise, and her decline into deeper and deeper poverty and decadence and despair. It's a brilliant portrait of a woman's life during the mid-to-late 1800's.

Les Malheurs de Sophie by Comtesse de Ségur 

Sophie's Misfortunes is a French children's classic. Sophie is four and is always disobeying her mother. With terrible results. Especially for animals.

This was an awful translation. Especially awful were the incorrect pronouns. I only know a little French, but I think I could have done better than this.

Nevertheless, it's the first time I've found an English translation. I suppose it's better than nothing.

Of course it's on the 1001 Children's Book list.

Little Women (Annotated) by Louisa May Alcott

The recent release of a new movie version of Little Women inspired our book club to choose this for our February read. At the heart of the story are the wonderful and vivid characters of Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth, and their fascinating mother as well as their next-door neighbor, Laurie. There are adventure and travel, romance and illness, redemption and's a rich and thoughtful story.

This edition is ideal for anyone who would like to look carefully at the story and at Louisa May Alcott's life that inspired the story.

Maigret by Georges Simenon

Maigret works a side of Paris the tourists don't see; it's dark Paris, seedy Paris, the Paris of solicited liaisons and Underworld figures and greed and lust and wickedness. Maigret is at home here. He is retired in this volume of Inspector Maigret, but his nephew, now working on the force, is accused of a murder, and Maigret is asked by his sister-in-law to intervene. Maigret is quickly able to sort things out and send the bad guys where they belong and return his out-of-his-depth nephew back home. It's the nuance in this book that is remarkable. Simenon tells a complete story in about a hundred pages, but at the edge of every scene are feelings and stories that are barely viewed, and yet add color and resonance to the story.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I've been a little obsessed this month. I read Moby Dick.

I'm not an expert. I'm just a regular, ordinary person who loves to read, a person who felt like I should read Moby Dick., and so I did.

It took me all month. I read the book while listening to narration, either from the Moby Dick podcast or the Moby Dick Big Read.

I found myself thinking about Moby Dick. A lot.

Of what did my Moby Dick experience consist?

I read a lot of books about Moby Dick. Kid books. Comic books. Whale nonfiction. Historical fiction about a (possible) relationship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. A whole book on why people should read Moby Dick.

I wrote reviews for ten Moby-Dick-related books:
Moby Dick: 10 Minute Classics retold by Philip Edwards and illustrated by Adam Horsepool
Moby Dick (Classics Illustrated, No. 5) Comics - 1943 by Herman Melville
The Whaleship Essex: The True Story of Moby Dick by Jil Fine
Moby Dick retold by Lew Sayre Schwartz, illustrated by Dick Giordano
Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard
Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson
In the Heart of the Sea The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare
The Sea Mammal Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta

I loved the vocabulary in Moby Dick. I wrote a lot about the wonderful words in the book:

Moby Dick: Great Words to Note and Save and Use
Moby Dick: Odd Words We Should Add to Our Vocabularies Today
Moby Dick: Whale Words and Boat Words

I wrote four other posts about Moby Dick and talked about Moby Dick covers, Moby Dick characters, Moby Dick art, and Moby Dick themes:

But What is Moby Dick About? Why Everyone Should Read Moby Dick
Classic Book Characters from Moby Dick: Who is Your Favorite?
A Sea of Moby Dicks: Who Knew There Were So Many Covers?
Moby Dick: Art

I watched a Moby Dick movie.

I listened to Moby Dick music.

I made a Moby Dick poll: The Moby Dick Character I Like Best.

What are my take-aways from reading Moby Dick?

1. Many people have told me they have tried to read Moby Dick and came away thinking it was a daunting book or a boring book. Another huge group of people told me they never want to read Moby Dick. It is possible that Moby Dick is the classic that the least number of people ever plan or want to read.

2. A very small group of people have told me they read Moby and loved this book. Moby Dick has a tiny, but devoted group who are obsessed with this book.

3. Reading Moby Dick is daunting. The Great Gatsby is 7.3 on Accelerated Reader's ATOS readability scale. Tom Sawyer is 8.1. Anna Karenina is 9.6. War and Peace is 10.1. Moby Dick is 10.3.

4. I thought Moby Dick was the story of a captain who hunted a whale. It is. But Moby Dick is so much more than just the story of a man seeking a whale. It is the story of a man seeking a new life by going to sea. It's the story of man vs. nature. It's the story of whales. It's a story of adventure, drama, and even comedy.

5. I expected Moby Dick to be structured like a typical adventure novel. It is not. Moby Dick reads like a contemporary novel, with chapters written as plays, with chapters written as soliloquies, with chapters written like nonfiction text, and with paragraphs full of action but intermingled with deeply philosophical thoughts.

6. I thought if I read far enough into the novel I would grow to love it, and that happened. I did. I loved Moby Dick, but it took me 655 pages to decide that. In the process of reading it, I also disliked huge portions of it. I can't imagine that I will reread it, but I'm terribly glad I read it.

Have you read Moby Dick?

My Friend Mr. Leakey by J. B. S. Haldane

"I hope Abdu'l Makkar won't be late with the strawberries," he said.

"Strawberries?" I asked in amazement, for it was the middle of January.

"Oh yes, I've sent Abdu'l Makkar, who is a jinn, to New Zealand for some. Of course it's summer there. He oughtn't to be long now, if he has been good, but you know what jinns are, they have their faults, like the rest of us; curiosity, especially. When one sends them on long errands they will fly too high. They like to get up quite close to Heaven to overhear what the angels are saying, and then the angels throw shooting stars at them. Then they drop their parcels, or come home half scorched. He ought to be back soon, he's been away over an hour. Meanwhile we'll have some other fruit, in case he's late."

And on and on and on the story goes, as if J. B. S. Haldane is writing down a weaving, winding tale of the life of a magician just as it comes to him, full of zany details like an octopus servant and flying carpets and visits with penguins that are oddly scientific.

A 1001 Children's Book.

My Sweet Orange Tree by José Mauro de Vasconcelos

Zeze is a precocious five-year-old who lives in a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. He enjoys playing tricks on others which upsets his family and results in many severe beatings. When Zeze finds a good friend, his life begins to change.

I am not sure if I ever read a children's book that made me feel such strong empathy for a character. Zeze is only five, and yet his life is full of pain and misery. He is only five, and yet he knows how to work, to make money, to make deals, to get along in life. He is only five, but he seems much older, and perhaps that is because he has had to become much more worldly.

My Sweet Orange Tree shares a life completely different from my own, though Zeze and I were both born at similar times. It is said to have been based on the author's own life, and the stories told sound very real.

A 1001 Children's Book.

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre

Three people are escorted into a room, a room where they are to stay for all eternity. All three are dead. We come to know each character and are not surprised to learn that each has lead a life of great wickedness. "Hell is---" one of the three tells us, "other people!"

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Need a good, hearty laugh during these strange, dark days? I encourage you to seek out Jeeves.

Jeeves is the valet to rich and idle Bertie Wooster. Jeeves is extremely clever, described by author P. G. Wodehouse as "a walking Encyclopedia Britannica." Wooster, as Jeeves' boss, is both pompous and unaware of Jeeves' true worth. It's the wonderful, deferential relationship between the servant and his master that sparks the comedy in the story.

Completely delightful.

Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

“But in Australia a model child is - I say it not without thankfulness - an unknown quantity. It may be that the miasmas of naughtiness develop best in the sunny brilliancy of our atmosphere. It may be that the land and the people are so young-hearted together, and the children's spirits are not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years' sorrowful history. There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children.”

This is a classic children's book, the story of a family in Australia with seven rather difficult children.

You can't help but like this family, with real children who disobey their parents, act willfully, and speak back to their elder; with a real stepmom who tires easily from the work that goes along with trying to keep the children in line; with a real dad who is constantly forced to discipline the children. The children are willful, yes, but charming, too, and the dad is strict, but loving. 

All isn't joy and happiness in this world; I don't want to say too much, but there are several very sad parts of the story. 

One of the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

Eric Newby left a decade-long career in the fashion industry and embarked on a new life as a travel writer in 1956 when he took off with a friend on an ill-considered, almost-unprepared-for trip to Afghanistan. It’s a delight of a story, full of danger and humor and success and failure. Bill Bryson ain't got nothing on Eric Newby. A classic travel book.

Stories by Anton Chekhov

We never read Chekhov in high school. Or college. Why? Why did no teacher share the wonder that is Chekhov with me?

This is a short collection of stories, seven of them, read by Stephen Fry, and it includes An Avenger, A Blunder, Boys, The Huntsman, The Lady with the Dog, Misery, and Oysters. Chekhov starts right in with the action, with characters in trouble; all the extraneous material has been sliced away, leaving only the important. The stories are as mesmerizing as any I've ever heard before, with boys threatening to run away and doing so, with an estranged couple, with a starving man and his son nearing a restaurant, and more...I already want to read these again.

Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie are foster gum-nut brothers who live in the Australian bush. Together they set off on an adventure to find humans. Mr. Lizard accompanies them, and along the way they meet Ragged Blossom, who also join them. They meet many new friends, but find they must fight the wicked Mrs. Snake and the Bad Banksia Men.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is one of Australia's best-loved children's books. It was first published in 1941.

One of the 1001 Children's Books You Must Read.

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Not every classic story is going to be a five-star read, I guess. I had such high hopes for this book, and for the first half of the book, my hopes were realized. But then I hit the last half, and the story sagged and dragged, and the humor got lost, and it felt like melodrama.

The Vicar of Wakefield is the story of a vicar, his wife, and his children, who live quite comfortably on a sizable inheritance. Things go along quite well until the inheritance is poorly invested and the vicar ends up bankrupt.

Nevertheless, the vicar adjusts to his new circumstances, and the family learns to handle the new ways of life.

But about midway through the story, Goldsmith pulls out all the stops and throws everything disastrous for the family into the plot. It just didn't hold together for me, and the ending seemed exceptionally unlikely.

Overall, a disappointment, one of the few I've had on my Classics Club path.

We by Yevgeni Zamyatin

D-503 lives in One State, a nation created to invoke perfect harmony and happiness, a nation that runs on laws of logic and by requiring all the citizens of the state to subsume their own wants to that of the state. D-503, like all the other members of his society, sees One State as a paradise...until he meets I-330, and she challenges all he has thought of as ideal.

The stilted language, probably a result of the translation, and what I saw as the triteness of the storyline together combined to create a meh-experience for me in reading this book.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir

I may have finished reading this collection of essays, but, now that I have found him, I will never stop reading John Muir. Muir takes you deep into nature, deep into glaciers, deep into the wonders of Yosemite, deep into the glories of Yellowstone, and you don't want to return to 2019. His essays, unexpectedly, are not dated at all; the essays could have been written today, as the lands he writes about are still (many, thanks to his efforts) kept as holy ground. Muir writes like no other nature writer I've ever read, with the factual detail of a scientist and the eloquence of a poet.

Everyone should read these essays.

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