Challenge Update

How did I do with the reading challenges I undertook this year? Here’s a round-up of my progress, or lack thereof, along with my intentions for next year.

I always do well with the Book Blogger Discussion Challenge, perhaps because I set a reasonable goal for myself (one discussion per month), and so far I haven’t run out of ideas! Here are the topics I discussed this year:

 

With the Back to the Classics challenge, I fell short of reading from all twelve of Karen’s categories, but I certainly enjoyed what I did read. I made it to nine (earning two entries in the challenge giveaway) and am currently reading one more book which would count for pre-1800 (Don Quixote). I hope to finish DQ by the end of the year, but don’t think I’ll be able to post a review by then. Here are the categories and what I read:

 

I challenged myself to read the New York Times list of Six Books To Understand Trump’s Win, and am super impressed that I did it! You can find my reviews of these titles, plus Dark Money (which in my opinion belonged on that list), in my Trying to Understand posts.

 

Now, Mount TBR! I started out strong and on target with my goal of 60 books, but floundered in the middle and gave up. Next year I’m going to deal with this goal differently, given that I seem to have the most energy for it in the first months of the year. I did read 34 books from my list and am working my darnedest to finish #35, the aforementioned Don Quixote, which is actually a pretty impressive result.

  1. The Blackthorn Key – Kevin Sands
  2. Bronze and Sunflower – Cao Wenxuan
  3. Carry On, Mister Bowditch – Jean Latham
  4. The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz – John Crowley
  5. The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
  6. Esperanza Rising – Pam Munoz Ryan
  7. Everyone Belongs to God – Christoph Blumhardt
  8. Excellent Women – Barbara Pym
  9. A Fugue in Time – Rumer Godden
  10. The Gilded Chalet – Padraig Rooney
  11. The Goose Girl – Shannon Hale
  12. Hell and High Water – Tanya Landman
  13. I Was a Stranger – John Haskett
  14. It Ends with Revelations – Dodie Smith
  15. The King Must Die – Mary Renault
  16. Life at Blandings – P.G. Wodehouse
  17. The Little Grey Men – B.B.
  18. Mansfield Park Revisited – Joan Aiken
  19. Midnight Is a Place -Joan Aiken
  20. A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr
  21. The Morning Gift – Eva Ibbotson
  22. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
  23. One Half from the East – Nadia Hashimi
  24. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy
  25. Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih
  26. Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death – James Runcie
  27. Smoky-House – Elizabeth Goudge
  28. Sophie Someone – Hayley Long
  29. The Spirit Within Us – Evelyn Capel
  30. Towers in the Mist – Elizabeth Goudge
  31. Troy Chimneys – Margaret Kennedy
  32. The Transcendental Murder – Jane Langton
  33. Why on Earth? – Signe Schaefer
  34. Wild Strawberries – Angela Thirkell

 

With Lark’s Backlist Reader Challenge, I read only one book out of my goal of ten (An Unnecessary Woman). Oh, plus I read The Little Grey Men aloud to my son. I like the idea of this challenge but I just had too many balls in the air at once.

I’ve already summarized my results from the Around the World project. I’m pleased with my progress on this one, perhaps because I had no particular goal for the year to meet or fall short of. A lesson for the future?

With that in mind, a challenge of mine for 2018 is going to be taking on fewer challenges. (Famous last words, right?)

I’m going to carry on with the Classics Club, but not do Back to the Classics. I’m going to continue Reading All Around the World, but not have a particular target for Mount TBR. My Backlist Reading will have to take a back seat for now too.

The Book Blogger Discussion Challenge isn’t really a reading challenge, and I love having discussions on my blog so it’s something I would do anyway. The linkups provided by the challenge hosts are a great help for connecting with other bloggers, and to me that’s the main point of the exercise.

One new challenge I do want to take on is the Chapter-a-day Les Miserables readalong. I just can’t resist the idea of reading a chapter a day of a single book for an entire year. Will it be too slow for me? Will I lose momentum? Or will it make the book feel more like part of my life than reading usually does? I can’t wait to find out!

What challenges have you undertaken this year, and how do you feel about them? What are you excited about for next year?

Can a book change your mind?

All the conflict and struggle going on in the world seems to me to signal that we need to change our thinking. Old, inherited forms do not work any more, but the new has not yet come to pass, and sometimes seems impossibly distant. We look to leaders to save us from this chaos, yet this too is part of the old order that must inevitably pass away. Where there was hierarchy, we need to create community; where there was division and strife, we need to find a dynamic, living harmony; where there was where there was war, we need to forge peace.

This is not accomplished through talk, through catchwords and slogans, but through the hard daily work of living together as human beings. We are distinct individuals, and yet we affect one another in innumerable ways, sometimes consciously, sometimes not; we also are affected by influences beyond our knowledge and control, and this can cause anxiety and fearful reactions. How do we enlarge our thinking to encompass all we are and can become, rather than just mindlessly repeating what has come down from the past? How do we find the courage to jump into something new, without the safety net of knowing exactly what will happen?

And what role does reading play in this journey? As should be clear to anyone who has been following this blog for a while, that’s exactly why books mean so much to me: they have the potential to help us change and grow into the future. In the pages of a book, we can explore different possibilities without the threat of outward conflict; we can encounter new ideas and test them against our judgment and experience; we can, in freedom, choose to change ourselves in order to integrate ourselves into a greater whole. As I reflected in my recent post on the novel East of Eden, this can then give us the strength to return to daily life and the baffling, often painful phenomena that confront us there.

Each person, each event, each situation is in fact a book that we need to learn how to read. For some, this activity is too frightening to bear, because it involves a loss of self; that’s why repressive societies, locked in fear and distrust, restrict and censor books and reading. The free exchange of ideas is a gift that we must not take for granted, and at this time perhaps more than ever, we need to use it to its fullest extent, finding the courage needed for true communication to take place.

Books can comfort, support, and console us, reinforcing what we already know, and that is also an important and necessary function, but applied to life will not help us move forward. We can’t any longer only relate to people who think and act as we do, or we will all die in isolation, as warring states of individual, enclosed selves. How do we break through to a higher reality? How do we learn a language beyond words? In this time of preparation for the coming of the inner light, which enters the world in the time of greatest darkness, these questions are on my mind, and I want to hear from you.

What books have helped to change your thinking? How has reading given you tools to transform the way you relate to the world?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

Classics Club: East of Eden

John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)

East of Eden is one of those books that I’ve seen mentioned by many readers as an all-time favorite (though there are a few haters as well). When the Folio Society did a poll to gather suggestions for publication, it was at the top of the list … and they duly published their beautiful edition this year. Somehow I had never gotten around to reading it earlier in my life, but now seemed to be the perfect time.

And so it proved to be. In this time of chaos and confusion, Steinbeck’s exploration of the mystery of evil and the transforming nature of love is rich, complex, and powerful. It’s also simply a compelling story, which one can enjoy without thinking much about the deeper layers. But even if these do not come fully to consciousness, they will reverberate in the soul and have their own transforming effect.

Steinbeck weaves together many elements into this tapestry: a snapshot of a particular time and place, the Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the century; people and tales from his own family history; images and themes taken from myth and religion; invented characters including a terrifying psychopath; and commentary directly expressing the author’s philosophy. It’s a big, ambitious novel, and though there are weak points and a certain loss of narrative energy toward the end, for me Steinbeck succeeded in his stated goal of making me feel as though I were not reading a book, but living it. The people and places he created will continue to live within me and play their part in the drama of my own life. What greater claim to immortality could an author have?

A fascinating companion book is Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. As he was writing, Steinbeck simultaneously wrote a journal in the form of unsent “letters” to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici, on facing pages of the manuscript. It’s an unusual and perhaps unique glimpse into the writing process, into the usually invisible realm where an artist struggles to grasp and give form to what wants to be expressed through him. In many ways this struggle remains obscure — Steinbeck often tells Covici that he’s trying to do something without saying clearly what it is — and there are also passages that are repetitive and dull, such as recurring musings about pencils and pencil sharpeners. But even this is interesting in what it reveals about how the mundane and the extraordinary combine in a writer’s mind, and how he negotiates that balance in the heat of creation.

A few times, Steinbeck states in the letters that the creation of a novel is everything to him; once it’s finished it’s like a dead thing, and it’s time for him to move on to the next. This seems to me to express so well the sacrificial role of an artist, who gives all his mind and heart and soul to the process of creation, shaping a work that represents both something universal and something of its creator’s unique perspective, and then must leave it free to have its own life — which it does, within us.

And it’s clear to me from certain passages that Steinbeck and I are “kindred spirits,” as Anne Shirley would say. Here for example is his response to the contemporary trend towards pessimistic and misanthropic writing, which many would still consider the only serious kind:

If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth… — Journal of a Novel, p. 107

His credo is amply demonstrated in East of Eden, which unflinchingly portrays the depths of evil and misery to which mankind can descend, without ever losing hope in our ascent. This is the kind of book it always gives me joy to discover, and that indeed gives me strength to carry on living. I truly don’t know what I would do without these beacons on the way.

Classics Club list #30

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Gems of 2017

I always love going back over my year’s reading, and remembering all the wonderful books I’ve discovered. This year seems to be a particularly rich crop … I had a hard time limiting my favorites to ten, or even twenty!

A few of these never got a review on the blog, but definitely belong in this list. The Julian Kestrel mysteries by Kate Ross (Cut to the Quick, Whom the Gods Love, A Broken Vessel, and The Devil in Music) were a delightful set of four Regency-era mysteries with marvelous characters and a great sense of the period. Sadly, the author died before she could pen any more.

And towards the end of the year I got into reading biographies and autobiographies of three amazingly talented women: My Life in France by Julia Child (with Alex Prud’homme); Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin; and Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay, a bio-novel about Daphne du Maurier. Their creative drive and determination in the face of obstacles were impressive, and inspiring to me.

What books stood out for you this year?

2017 Releases:
Fiction: The Bear and the Nightingale
Children’s: Bronze and Sunflower
Nonfiction: May Cause Love

Historical: Troy Chimneys, Scaramouche
Fantasy: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
Spirituality: Old and New Mysteries, The Book of Joy
Mystery: The Julian Kestrel mysteries
Romantic comedy: The Lark
Book everyone should read: Dark Money
Suspense: My Cousin Rachel
Fiction in Translation: Season of Migration to the North
Poetry (also in translation): Seasons of the Soul
Literary: The Gilded Chalet
Contemporary Fiction: Americanah
Classics: Excellent Women, East of Eden
Biography and Memoir: My Life in France; Manderley Forever; Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Around the World project so far

This project is an open-ended one, with the intention to read books from or about at least fifty different countries of the world. Here’s what I read this year so far:

  • War Diaries by Astrid Lindgren (Sweden) – January 2017
  • I Was a Stranger by John Hackett (Netherlands) – January 2017
  • Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (China) – March 2017
  • The Praise Singer by Mary Renault (Greece) – June 2017
  • The Gilded Chalet by Padraig Rooney (Switzerland) – July 2017
  • The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer (Cambodia) – July 2017
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria) – July 2017
  • An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Lebanon) – August 2017
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Mexico) – September 2017
  • One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi (Afghanistan) – September 2017
  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Sahil (Sudan) – November 2017

 

I reviewed Bronze and Sunflower already, and I’m a little unsure whether to count The Praise Singer (a historical novel about ancient Greece) but here are mini-reviews of the other books on my list. It’s been a truly wonderful tour!

I started out with two first-hand accounts of World War II. I Was a Stranger, British Brigadier General Hackett’s memoir (one of the lovely Slightly Foxed series) is a moving and harrowing account of his escape from German hands through the bravery of Dutch resistance workers and their families. Meanwhile, in War Diaries (elsewhere titled A World Gone Mad) we have the journal author Astrid Lindgren kept as a young wife and mother in neutral Sweden. She provides a record of the up-and-down thoughts and feelings of someone on the edge of the action, enjoying the benefits of not being in a country torn by war, while deploring its evils. For anyone interested in the time period, these two books will bring unique insights into the authors’ experiences. (I was a bit disappointed, though, that Lindgren’s diaries contained little reference to the genesis of Pippi Longstocking, which occurred during this period — but she considered other things more important at the time perhaps.)

Another neutral country is covered in The Gilded Chalet. Looking at books that were written about or in Switzerland (including Frankenstein, Ulysses, The Magic Mountain, A Farewell to Arms, and Tender Is the Night, along with a good many spy novels and noir fiction), longtime resident Padraig Rooney gives us a dark-edged view of a land that is more complex than its popular image would suggest. Rooney makes no secret of his prejudices and blind spots (the Chalet school books and Rudolf Steiner are rudely dismissed, while Heidi is barely mentioned) and blithely admits to not bothering to finish books or visit museums when he doesn’t feel like it. His use of outdated pop culture references made me roll my eyes at times as well, and I wouldn’t take his opinions for gospel. Still, I enjoyed this quick slalom through a certain subsection of Swiss literature and history, particularly the seamier side.

Moving on to more unfamiliar territory for me, The Last Gods of Indochine draws on the real and imagined history of Cambodia, focusing on the mysterious temple complex of Angkor Wat and alternating between two streams of time. Ferrer imagines the granddaughter of a real-life Victorian explorer who goes on her own journey of discovery in 1921, becoming strangely intertwined with a boy from centuries earlier who is caught up in religious and political turmoil. There were some especially strong passages about mystical experiences that convincingly got into the mindset of an earlier age, but an unnecessary and non-historically-based love interest, and an abrupt “hooray for science!” ending somewhat marred for me what otherwise was a very interesting trip into the past.

Back to the present with Americanah, a book that was mentioned several times when I asked for contemporary fiction recommendations. This is another journey, away from and back to the heroine’s country of Nigeria and her childhood love, along the way sharing with us her brutal, enlightening, comical, destructive, empowering experiences. An annoyingly didactic tinge crept in at times, but Adichie’s beautiful writing and powerful sense of place pulled me along.

The title character of An Unnecessary Woman, meanwhile, journeys mainly within the walls of her Beirut apartment, obsessed with creating Arabic translations of world literature that no-one will ever read, and circling through memories — of childhood and war; of her detested former husband; of his sister, her best friend; and gradually of long-hidden secrets that break open into a new chapter of her life. This rambling, chapter-less book is more an extended personal essay than a novel, and takes patience to follow, but may reward a patient reader with its insights into this neglected woman’s world.

After these dense and somewhat heavy books Esperanza Rising, a well-received children’s book about migrant workers, was a much quicker and lighter read that also tackled some difficult issues. The title character (based on the author’s grandmother) is a young girl displaced from Mexico to California during the Depression, and having to adjust to the loss of wealth and family. This is a thoughtful, beautifully observed book for young readers that will help them understand some of the difficulties faced by immigrants.

One Half from the East took me into the world of another young girl, this time in Afghanistan, whose family is also rocked by tragedy. When Obayda’s father loses his legs in a bomb explosion, she is transformed into a bacha posh — a temporary boy — to bring luck and hopefully a new male baby to the family. The exploration of gender roles was fascinating and timely, as Obayda at first hates her disguise but then embraces the freedom it brings her and dreads losing it. No easy answers are to be found, but these are questions we must explore with girls (and boys) from a young age if we are to move into a more equitable future.

Finally, Season of Migration to the North was a true classic in translation, a rare book available to us from Sudan — the author worked closely with the translator to produce a work that is as beautifully written in English as in Arabic, the language in which it was originally published in 1966. An unnamed narrator, returned from study in the West, meets another former expatriate who confides in him a mysterious and brutal past life, then disappears. Coming to terms with this strange encounter forces the narrator to wrestle with the challenges and contradictions of post-colonial life, and we as readers are enriched and shaken by his journey.

I’ve absolutely loved this journey so far, and will look forward to visiting more countries next year. Have you traveled around the world in books? What places have drawn you most?

Month in Review: November 2017

November was book-ended for me with Witch Week at the beginning, and hosting the final week of Nonfiction November at the end. It was busy and full and a bit hectic, but as usual I loved all the blogger interactions. What was a highlight for you this month?

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Reviews

  • The Buried Giant, our readalong book for Witch Week, generated some interesting discussion.
  • Moving on to Nonfiction November, with White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy I continued to try to understand our current political and social situation.
  • I took a quick look at some splendidly gift-worthy books from the Folio Society.

Other Books Read

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Review to come
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo
  • Season of Migration to the North by Tayeh Sadih – Mount TBR, Around the world
  • Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip
  • Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
  • My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme

Other Features and Events

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer, the Month in Review linkup at The Book Date, and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Nonfiction November wrap-up: New to My TBR

It’s been a veritable feast of nonfiction books this month! Thank you to everyone who has made this such an amazing event once more.

Here’s a roundup of those who shared their new TBR additions this week. (Sorry about the linky problems everybody — I’m not sure what happened, but most links seemed to come through in the end.)

 

Wow — that’s around 200 books with not much overlap (though a few popular titles appeared more than once). This should definitely keep us busy for the next 11 months! Until next November, enjoy your reading and be sure to come back to share your adventures in nonfiction with us.