Classics Club Year Four

It’s hard to believe I have only one more year left in my five-year plan! I joined the Classics Club soon after starting this blog, but since then I’ve freely added to my list beyond the original 50 books. I found that having more choices made reading from The List a more enjoyable experience for me. I don’t know that I’ll ever finish the whole thing, but it’s good to have some goals in mind.

So here’s what I read this past year … bringing me to a total of 39 books. I think I can manage 11 more in the next year, but I’m not going to sweat it if I miss that goal by a few months. I’ve had a great time, encountered so many wonderful books, and stretched my reading boundaries. The next year is just going to be icing on the cake.

I can’t pick favorites this year — these books were all so different but all excellent in their own way. From a tender, imaginative children’s book about the bittersweet process of growing up, I progressed to a bizarrely powerful dream-narrative for the modern age, a magnificent Victorian panorama of doom and gloom, an acerbic postwar comedy of manners, a myth-inspired American epic, a dreamlike chronicle of post-colonial Africa, and an early feminist manifesto, ending up with another beautifully written children’s book on the theme of time, memory, and the eternity of the present moment.

Books read in Year Four

The Fledgling
The Return of the Native
Excellent Women
East of Eden
Season of Migration to the North
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

What would you pick to read next from my Classics Club list?

Classics Club: The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

Penelope Lively, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)

When I read Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, I was underwhelmed. Unfortunately, I can’t remember quite why. I think it was because I could not connect emotionally with the main character, and found the novel ultimately empty and dull in spite of the literary skill of the author. This happens to me a lot with acclaimed novels of the last century or so.

However, given that Lively is an anointed Great Writer, I wanted to give her another chance. So I decided to try a very different book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. And this time, I could see Lively’s greatness, not so self-consciously occupied with War and Betrayal and other Deep Adult Subjects, but put at the service that most fundamental, most formative of literary forms: the tale for children.

Thomas Kempe is the ghost of a seventeenth-century apothecary whose resting place has been disturbed by renovations when a new family moves into his home. His violent manifestations and messages become a serious problem for ten-year-old James, who inevitably gets blamed for everything by the annoyingly modern-minded people around him. With the help of a local builder who takes a more sensible view of the issue, and a diary from the boy previously visited by this supernatural nuisance, he must find a way to put Kempe to rest once more.

It’s a simple narrative trajectory, but it’s the way Lively treats it with such lovingly crafted detail that makes this a special book. James perfectly captures the essence of Preadolescent Boy, and has the perfect sidekick in Tim, a Disreputable Dog (the only character in the book, Lively explains in a preface, directly taken from life). The intrusion of a spirit from the distant past, causing havoc and upsetting the usual order of things, allows her to explore the mind of a child on the threshold of adulthood, and the way our past selves both pass away and remain forever in some eternal bubble of time.

Funny, finely observed, and written with an unfailing sense of the music of language, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe demonstrates the power of story as embodied idea. Rather than making some dry, intellectual statement about the nature of time and memory, Lively has crafted her thoughts into living pictures that leave the reader free to draw deeper meaning from them … or simply enjoy an entertaining tale. To me, this is the best kind of fiction, lacking the preachiness and snobbery unfortunately often found in so-called “adult” literature (including, I’m afraid, Lively’s own).

The one weak point in the story, I felt, was Thomas Kempe himself, who didn’t fully come to life for me — and not just because he was a ghost. An abrupt turnabout in his character at the climax of the story lacked sufficient motive, and added to the sense of his being a mere narrative device rather than an actual person. A bit more attention to this aspect would have made an excellent novel even better; I couldn’t help thinking that Diana Wynne Jones would have made a better job of it.

In the preface to the Folio Society edition, Lively appears a bit baffled by the success of her early book, and admits that “writing for children left me long ago.” This seems sad to me, and makes me wonder if some spark of vitality had vanished by the time she got around to Moon Tiger. I’m interested to read more of her fiction, and see if I can again be inspired by the creative energy that impressed me here.

Have you read any of Lively’s other novels? What can you recommend?

Classics Club List #18



Classics Club Spin

It’s time for another Classics Spin!

What is the spin?

It’s easy. At your blog, before next Friday, March 9th, create a post to list your choice of any twenty books that remain “to be read” on your Classics Club list.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books by the end of the year (details to follow). Try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, re-reads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

On Friday, March 9, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by April 30, 2018. We’ll check in here to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

I did the last spin a few months ago, and got Don Quixote. I only finished Part I by the end of the year, so I’m including it again — so if I get it I’ll read Part II. I’ve mixed up the rest of my list and made a few changes, but it’s basically the same as last time. Have fun, clubbers!

And the spin number is: #3! I’ll be reading Invisible Man.

  1. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  2. The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
  3. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  4. One Fine Day – Mollie Panter-Downes
  5. Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
  6. The Mozart Season – Virginia Ewer Wolff
  7. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  8. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  9. My Life and Hard Times – James Thurber
  10. The Seventh Raven – Peter Dickinson
  11. Dubliners – James Joyce
  12. Throwing Shadows – E.L. Konigsburg
  13. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
  14. Wise Children – Angela Carter
  15. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  16. Love – Elizabeth von Arnim
  17. A London Child of the 1870s – Molly Hughes
  18. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
  19. The Spire – William Golding
  20. Portrait of a Lady – Henry James