Challenge wrap-up 2020

As the year comes to a close, here’s a review of how I did on my challenges — which I kept to a minimum this year, not wanting to overdo it. And I’m quite happy with how I did, so that was a success!

I finished six books for Back to the Classics:

Classic with a Name in the Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Classic by a Woman Author: The World I Live In
Adapted Classic: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Classic about a Family: Brideshead Revisited
Translated Classic: Le Petit Prince
Classic with Nature in the Title: The Old Man and the Sea

And kept up with the Book Blog Discussion Challenge with a post (almost) every month:

Should I read more current books?
Do you have a reading plan?
Are there too many books?
Do you like books about fighting?
Do you dislike first-person narratives?
What is your favorite (or first favorite) classic?
Can you resist free books?
Am I addicted to reading?
Am I an e-book convert?
Should memoirs be considered fiction?
What is the best of the Emerald City Book Review?

I also kept going with my Reading All Around the World project. After reading twelve books, I slacked off in the last quarter of the year, but added Danubia to my list (I think it should count, even though it’s not about a single country, but a whole empire that has now been split up into many nations).

Other goals I had this year were to read more nonfiction — I did quite well with that, judging from my Nonfiction November round-up — and to read more books from my own shelves. This was not so successful, but I did polish off a few of those.

How have you done with your challenges this year? Did they help you to discover some great new authors? Or get to some books you’ve been meaning to read for years?

Summer in Other Languages: How did you do?

Back in June, I decided to challenge myself to spend the whole month of July reading books in French to try to boost my language skills. I invited anyone who was interested in reading in another languages to join a challenge I called Summer in Other Languages. Now summer is coming to a close, so I wonder how it went for you?

If you had good intentions but failed to complete them, don’t feel bad. Believe me, I know how hard it is to stay motivated to make progress in a different language, especially if you’re not living in a country where you are forced to use it on a daily basis. It may seem as though your love of reading would easily transfer over into that other form, but actually it’s hard work and can take all the fun out of your beloved hobby.

If you did succeed, I’d love to hear about it! I was very pleased with how my challenge went; I only completed three books in July but I have continued to read almost daily and I can see how I’ve progressed since last year, which is encouraging. I now have an online French book club to help keep me motivated, thanks to Emma of Words and Peace. (She’s inviting others to join, if anyone is interested.)

Even if I’m the only one, I think I’m going to make this a yearly challenge for myself. Next year: German? I’ll give more notice this time, in case anyone else wants to join.

Back to the Classics: Le Petit Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1949)

There are, I would argue, two main kinds of “children’s books.” First of all there are the books that address a child’s perspective, which means the point of view of someone who is growing into the physical world and all its possibilities and challenges. These are stories of outward adventure, learning, and growth, of the playful exploration that is the hallmark of a healthy childhood. Inner development and learning are there, too, as they always accompany our outer efforts, but the focus is not on introspection.

Adults can certainly enjoy these books, and when they are done well they are as worthy of literary status as any so-called “adult” book — but one can say in terms of emphasis that they are really “written for children”; they start from the place on the map where the child is, and aim to help them go further, to find their direction in life.

On the other hand, there are also books that address the childlike part of the adult, the part of us that never does grow up or completely adapt itself to the outer world, no matter how old and experienced we become. This part of us still needs to learn and grow, and is desperately in need of instruction. In fact, if we do not find it, we will die.

Children, for their part, can read and enjoy these books, but such reading gives them something they already possess. For children, they are reassuring and supportive, and help them to remember what they must not lose in the course of their journey into life. But they are actually written for adults, for people wandering and perhaps lost in the “adult” part of that journey. The orientation towards childhood is necessary, so that they can re-point themselves in the right direction again.

Le Petit Prince (which I reread in French during my Summer in Other Languages project this year) is one of the most famous and beloved examples of the latter kind of book. It presents itself as a book written for children — starting with the dedication, which is elaborately made to a friend of the author “when he was a little boy.” But even before the book really begins this highlights the fact that each grown-up was once a child, and that that child is still present in our inmost self, in the place to which we would dedicate ourselves, to which we should give our effort and our love. To the child-in-the-adult (and the child who must not lose himself in adulthood), the book is addressed.

You are probably familiar with the story: a pilot stranded in the desert has an encounter with a strange child-being, the Little Prince, whose origin and adventures are slowly revealed before he vanishes again. But — as you may also remember — the story begins with not with this encounter, but with the author’s childhood drawing of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. Adults look at this picture and see not a fearsome predator, but an innocuous hat.

The Little Prince, on the other hand, recognizes it right away. He also sees the sheep within the box that the author draws for him (having failed miserably to draw a sheep as requested). And so it is clear that outer appearances are not what is important to our child-self, but the inner essence. Thus, it is also very likely that the appearance of the Little Prince to a man lost in the desert, in the harsh conditions of material existence, is not an outer happening, but a revelation of inward reality. He is the inner child that we all must meet, must befriend and comfort and learn from, before he disappears again on our re-entrance into ordinary life.

It was another book that I read in French this month that brought this to awareness for me: Toucher la vie, which is based upon a conference discussing mindfulness meditation. Here the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out that an early stage on the path of trying to advance ourselves must be to turn towards the child within, to soothe its pain and bring it peace, acknowledging the hurts that have damaged us in life, and that we usually prefer to turn away from and ignore. If we do not have this healing encounter, then our efforts to do good in the world will fail, or we will even do harm.

He also uses the images of watering seeds of positive qualities like hope, understanding, compassion, and love, and not watering those seeds that will lead to suffering. This irresistibly reminded me of the Little Prince, the rose he waters faithfully, and the baobabs that would take over his tiny planet if they were allowed. (I suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh may have read The Little Prince, but plant-images are of course common to all forms of esoteric teaching.)

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”* The Little Prince learns this central truth from a fox that he has tamed — or is it he who has been tamed by the fox, by his rose, by that for which he dares to connect himself in ties of responsibility that bring sorrow, but also beauty and joy?

Through the patient acceptance of pain that is transformed through love and relationship, the inner eye may be opened. That is what the pilot/author learns, and passes along to us, in this small book of profound wisdom. It’s definitely worth reading at any age, and in any language.

“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well…”*

*From the English translation by Katherine Woods

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Around the World Update

How’s it going with my Reading All Around the World project? At the beginning of the year, I was really inspired and read more than my goal of one per month. Lately I’ve drifted away from these international reads, but I’d really like to get back to them.

Here’s the list so far — in reverse order of my reading, starting with a new release this month.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (Sweden) — I requested this new book by the bestselling Swedish author from Netgalley because I thought it would be perfect for my project, but it turns out there is not much local color to it other than some jokes about “Stockholmers.” Still, I enjoyed this funny and character-full novel that starts off with a bank robbery gone wrong and romps a screwball comedy sort of path through some serious subjects, like divorce, suicide, depression and mental illness, and manages to be heartwarming rather than flippant or trivial. I’ll be looking for another book by Backman that may give me more of a sense of Swedish life.

Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (Israel/Palestine) — Nye, an accomplished poet who is the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother, drew on her own adolescent experiences for this novel about a girl whose family moves to Israel. Liyana’s adjustment to her new life and culture and her first experiences of friendship-turning-to-love with a Jewish boy are sensitively and poetically portrayed.

Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (Ireland) — A historically inspired drama that moves back and forth between the famine-ridden Ireland and a ship taking emigrants away to America. To learn about the tragic history of that era was fascinating (though horrifying), but I was less impressed by the sometimes contrived and pretentious “literary” trappings. The “document collection” premise did not work so well as in O’Connor’s Shadowplay, which I loved; it was too unbelievable, which distracted and annoyed me rather than being a playful enhancement.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Switzerland) — As I wrote already in my monthly review post, “I’ve no idea what connection British author Rose Tremain may have with Switzerland, or why she chose it as a setting for her novel, but from my foreigner’s point of view I think she did a good job at capturing some of the character of the Swiss, their strength and their vulnerability, and the conflicting realities behind the surface image that they like to present.”

In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey (various countries of West Africa, especially Nigeria and Senegal) — An interesting glimpse behind the scenes of a reporter’s life — the author was the West African bureau chief for the New York Times and was involved in covering the Boko Haram atrocities, among other fascinating but often overlooked stories. I was less taken with the portions about Searcey’s personal life, which I think could either have been given more consideration and thoughfulness, or left out altogether.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sunya Massey (India) — I was not that impressed by this popular historical mystery about a woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay. There were many interesting things to learn about this era, but the characters fell flat for me.

Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming (Bhutan) — A memoir by a woman who fell in love with the tiny mountain country and ended up spending her life there. Interesting as an outsider’s perspective, though it would be good to read more from a native-born writer.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland) — Beautifully written, harrowing, and full of a sad awareness of the fragility of life, this left me with a real sense of what it would be like to live in 19th century Iceland — and extremely glad that I don’t have to.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Korea/Japan) — Usually I try to choose books that primarily represent one country, but this one is about the intersection between countries and cultures, linked by war, cultural dominance, and emigration. I didn’t know about Korean immigrants as an underclass in Japan, and this multigenerational saga brought that history to life.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou (Ghana) — As part of her full and amazing life, Angelou spent some time living in Africa, looking for her roots and a sense of home there. This proved elusive, but her experiences are, as always, told in a marvelously colorful and humanly embracing way.

The House of the Spirits (translated by Magda Bogin) and My Invented Country (could not find the translator) by Isabel Allende (Chile) — Allende’s first novel is the one that put her on the literary map, a semi-autobiographical tale of a Chilean family in turbulent historical times, written in a dreamy, fanicful style known as “magical realism”. I actually enjoyed her memoir more, as it revisits some of the same settings and people as the novel but with a personal (and non-fantastical) perspective.

It’s been quite a trip! Have you read any of these? What other books from  countries I’ve not yet visited would you recommend?

A spontaneous challenge: Summer in Other Languages

As part of my personal language learning goals, I’ve decided to challenge myself to read only French for my pleasure reading in the month of July. I’m pleased the lovely Emma of Words and Peace has agreed to join me for a buddy read of Complètement cramé by the popular contemporary novelist Gilles Legardinier. Paris in July, hosted by Thyme for Tea, is an annual celebration of all things French, so I’m going to join in that for some inspiration and companionship as well.

Some other books I have on hand to choose from:

  • Toucher la vie by Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Ta deuxième vie commence quand tu comprends que tu n’en as qu’une by Raphaëlle Giordano
  • Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • L’étranger by Albert Camus
  • Les plus belles contes de Suisse by Edith Montelle
  • Le chien jaune by Georges Simenon
  • Candide by Voltaire

I’m sure I won’t get to all of these, but to complete even one or two within a month would be an accomplishment for me. I shall also be trying to read more articles, blog posts and such, in an effort to boost my compréhension du français.

It occurred to me that perhaps you’d also like to challenge yourself to something else in a language other than your mother tongue, and reflect on the experience. That could of course be English — I know there are a lot of you amazing multilingual bloggers out there — or it could be a language you’re currently learning or learned in the past. It would be wonderful to hear from a variety of perspectives, and to celebrate many linguistic streams. Vive la différence!

So here is an invitation to read something in another language this summer, and if you wish, challenge yourself to meet one of the following goals:

Level 1: Tourist
Read one book in a language other than your mother tongue.

Level 2: Long-term visitor
Spend an entire month reading books in another language (total of two or more).

Level 3: Immersion
Spend the whole summer reading books in another language.

Does this challenge appeal to you at all? What would you read, and in what language? What level would you aim for? I hope you’ll share your plans with us, and let us know how you did at the end of the summer. I’ll be checking in to see how it’s going and to share my own progress.

Back to the Classics: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

It’s thanks to Sheree of Keeping Up with the Penguins that I picked up this little confection of the Jazz Age — her enthusiasm for it knows no bounds, especially in comparison to the contemporaneous, but far more loudly touted The Great Gatsby. I’ve nothing against Gatsby, but a fun, witty and insightful book by a woman with an eye on power and wealth inequalities between the sexes sounded great.

Well, I’m sorry, Sheree, but I can’t quite share your enthusiasm. Written as the diary of Lorelei Lee, a blonde bombshell originally from Little Rock, Arkansas and now traveling the world in search of males with unequal wealth to share with her, Gentlemen is a one-note farce with some humorous moments to offer, but no plot or character development to speak of.

Lorelei is a satire of the “dumb blonde” icon that frustrated Loos (a petite brunette screenwriter) by hogging all the masculine attention. Her diary is littered with misspellings and malapropisms and written in a breathless, repetitive style in which one can easily hear  the ditzy tones of a cinema platinum blonde. Here’s a sample, pulled at random from the chapter “Paris Is Devine”–

I mean the French gentlemen always seem to be squealing quite a lot, especially taxi drivers when they only get a small size yellow dime called a “fifty santeems” for a tip. But the good thing about French gentlemen is that everytime a French gentleman starts in to squeal, you can always stop him with five francs, no matter who he is. I mean it is so refreshing to listen to a French gentleman stop squealing, that it would really be quite a bargain even for ten francs.

It’s masterfully done, but there is, as I said, absolutely no development from beginning to end; the tone is exactly the same throughout. It’s a short novel, only 90 pages in my e-book edition, and in that Loos made a good call, I think. 90 pages of such deathless prose is plenty to give one a good dose of “Lorelei-speak,” but any more would definitely be excessive.

I concede that Lorelei is in not really as dumb as she appears. In regard to her main goal in life, getting money and jewels out of men, she is extremely clever and successful. But she has no heart and no apparent soul. She’s a highly-tuned exploitation machine. Fair enough, given that males in Lorelei’s world are generally out to exploit her for their own purposes — but the whole scenario is more sad than amusing, really.

As for “witty and insightful,” for wit and insight give me Lorelei’s friend Dorothy, who represents the “smart brunette” stereotype. Although we encounter her only through Lorelei’s clueless reportage, her remarks are always funny and to the point, like all the best one-liners — and spelled correctly, to boot.

Does Dorothy even really exist? One begins to wonder whether this is a case of a split personality, of the buried smarts that are unwanted by Lorelei’s male associates being shunted off to a shadow existence. Though Lorelei consulted “Dr Froyd” in Vienna, he didn’t give an opinion on the topic, so we’ll never know.

My verdict: glad I read it, it did make me smile in spots, and there may be some psychological resonances to ponder — but I don’t think I’ll be proclaiming it the Great American Novel. (Surely Edith Wharton was being ironic when she said that …)

The 1953 film, which I saw years ago, is a loose adaptation that has great performances by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and musical numbers to liven up the action, along with a softening of Loos’s more cynical world view. You might find that a positive or a negative, depending on how you feel about the original Lorelei, but it’s also worth a look as a cinema classic. And so it’s a perfect choice for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you read this, or seen the movie? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adapted Classic
Jazz Age June at Relevant Obscurity and Fanda Classiclit

Reading All Around the World update

After a couple of years of very little activity, I finally got back into the Reading All Around the World project and I’m so glad I did. It reminds me of how powerful reading is as a way to learn and expand our horizons while staying in one place. Here’s what I’ve read since the last time I checked in.

(Two stars** after the author name indicates the author is a native of the country described. One star* indicates the author’s ethnic background is from that country. Other books have a strong and well-researched setting; usually the author has lived in the country for an extended period.)

  • Venezuela – Octavio’s Journey and Black Sugar by Miguel Bonnefoy** – February 2018
  • Egypt – The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson – August 2018
  • Spain – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes** – July 2019
  • Australia – My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin** – October 2019
  • Saudi Arabia – Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif** – December 2019
  • South Africa – Born a Crime by Trevor Noah** – December 2019
  • Ghana – All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou* – January 2020
  • Chile – The House of the Spirits and My Invented Country by Isabel Allende** – January 2020
  • Korea/Japan – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee* – January 2020
  • Bhutan – Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming – February 2020
  • Iceland – Burial Rites by Hannah Kent – February 2020
  • India – The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sunja Massey* – February 2020
  • Nigeria, Senegal, and West Africa – In Search of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey – March 2020


My favorites? I found Daring to Drive and Born a Crime both absolutely stunning in their portrayal of life in a repressive, unjust society, while also celebrating the human spirit that comes to light in these dark surroundings.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes was interesting for its perspective: a Black American woman living in Africa, looking for a sense of coming home that proved elusive.

I enjoyed the novel The House of the Spirits but I think I liked Allende’s memoir My Invented Country even more — an exile’s love letter to her homeland.

Burial Rites was another stunner, one of those historical novels that makes you feel “this must be how it was.” I really felt transported back to 19th century Iceland (and I’m so glad I’m not stuck there permanently).

I’m excited to keep going with this journey. What books have you found to transport you to other parts of the world?


Discussion challenge: 2019 review and 2020 signup

I’ve been doing the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight since it began five years ago. That means I’ve posted more than 50 discussions so far, and I still haven’t run out of ideas! I always enjoy the lively conversation generated by these posts, and so I’m happy that our two fantastic hosts are keeping up the challenge.

Looking back, it seems I forgot to actually sign up for 2019 – oops. I want to make sure I don’t do that again! Here’s my official notice that I intend again to post a discussion per month (more or less) in 2020. And below is a recap of the discussions from this year.

January – How do you organize your TBR?
February – Which books should I keep?
March – Who wants to read Robertson Davies?
May – Do I have to read depressing books?
July – How do you remember what you read?
August – Should books be illustrated?
September – Does reading get better as you age?
October – What counts as reading?
November – Do you find some book titles confusing?
December – How do you know a book is going to be good?

Do you enjoy doing discussion posts on your blog, or participating in others’ discussions? Would you like to join the challenge?

Classics Club Spin #21

It’s time for the Classics Club Spin! Club members pick 20 books from their list and number them. A number is chosen and then the challenge is to read that book by a certain date (October 31, in this case).

Even though I no longer have an official target date for my Classics Club list, I still have books left over that I want to read, so I thought I would participate this time anyway. I only found ten that I wanted to include, so I’m just repeating those ten twice. I really want to make progress on my Reading All Around the World project, so I’m emphasizing titles that would count for that.

Here is my list:

  1. Dubliners – James Joyce
  2. Angel – Elizabeth Taylor
  3. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  4. July’s People – Nadine Gordimer
  5. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  6. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  7. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  8. The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
  9. Faust (Part I) – Goethe
  10. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
  11. Dubliners – James Joyce
  12. Angel – Elizabeth Taylor
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  14. July’s People – Nadine Gordimer
  15. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  16. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  17. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  18. The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
  19. Faust (Part I) – Goethe
  20. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

Are you doing the Spin? What’s on your list?

Five years of the Classics Club

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since I joined the Classics Club, with the goal of reading 50 classics from my self-defined list in that time.

Well, it’s been a wonderful part of my blogging life and I am so grateful for all the books I’ve encountered through this project. I did not quite make it to fifty, and I still have a lot more to go (I ended up naming 100 books to choose from), but I am going to let go of my “official” goal and just keep reading from my list if and as I please.

For those who may be interested, here are all the books I’ve read, in order of their review date:

  1. Smith – Leon Garfield June 2014
  2. Barchester Towers – Anthony Trollope July 2014
  3. A Solitary Blue – Cynthia Voigt August 2014
  4. Le Grand Meaulnes – Alain-Fournier October 2014
  5. Sapphira and the Slave Girl – Willa Cather December 2014
  6. The Brandons – Angela Thirkell December 2014
  7. The Home-Maker – Dorothy Canfield Fisher December, 2014
  8. Bliss and Other Stories – Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand) January 2015
  9. The Towers of Trebizond – Rose Macaulay March 2015
  10. The Aspern Papers – Henry James June 2015
  11. The Mark of the Horse Lord – Rosemary Sutcliff July 2015
  12. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf July 2015
  13. The Matchmaker – Thornton Wilder July 2015
  14. An Old-Fashioned Girl – Louisa May Alcott July 2015
  15. Armadale – Wilkie Collins August 2015
  16. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (Russia) October 2015
  17. The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (Germany) November 2015
  18. Saplings – Noel Streatfeild December 2015
  19. A Separate Peace – John Knowles January 2016
  20. Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House – Eric Hodgins February 2016
  21. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton July 2016
  22. Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis July 2016
  23. Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome August 2016
  24. Three plays – Eugene O’Neill November 2016
  25. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury November 2016
  26. The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki (Japan) December 2016
  27. Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield December 2016
  28. A Fugue in Time – Rumer Godden February 2017
  29. Troy Chimneys – Margaret Kennedy February 2017
  30. Scaramouche – Rafael Sabatini March, 2017
  31. My Cousin Rachel – Daphne DuMaurier April 2017
  32. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl May 2017
  33. The Fledgling – Jane Langton July 2017
  34. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley August 2017
  35. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy August 2017
  36. Excellent Women – Barbara Pym September 2017
  37. Season of Migration to the NorthTayeb Salih December 2017
  38. East of Eden – John Steinbeck December 2017
  39. Don Quixote, Part I – Miguel de Cervantes January 2018
  40. Herland – Frances Perkins Gilman – February 2018
  41. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – Penelope Lively March 2018
  42. The Shuttle – Frances Hodgson Burnett June 2018
  43. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison June, 2018
  44. Uncle Silas – Sheridan Le Fanu July, 2018
  45. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin October 2018
  46. The Story of My Life – Helen Keller March 2019

Among these, there were a few weaker works by authors whose other writing is more worthy of the “classic” designation (The Shuttle, A Fugue in Time). And not all of them were to my personal taste (Lucky Jim, Diary of a Provincial Lady). But every single one was worth reading, and some were outstanding: East of Eden, Invisible Man, The Mark of the Horse Lord, Mrs Dalloway, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, Scaramouche, and My Cousin Rachel being among my personal favorites. I might not have read them without this incentive, and I’m so glad I did.

Have you read any of these, or do you want to? What are you looking forward to on your Classics Club list?