Challenge Wrap-up

As the new year approaches, it’s time to review how I did with the challenges I took on this year.


Top on my list was the Back to the Classics challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, and I’m pleased that I did manage to read one book from each of the twelve categories.



Then there was the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight. My goal was to do one post per month, putting me at the “Discussion Dabbler” level. I really enjoyed this opportunity to mix up the content on my blog, and the discussion posts garnered many interesting and thoughtful comments. My personal favorites: Does reading matter? and Are there too many book blogs?

Here are links to all the monthly topics:



I wasn’t supposed to do any more challenges, but I couldn’t resist the Once Upon a Time Challenge at Stainless Steel Droppings, which features some of my favorite genres. I read one book from each of the four categories:

I had a wonderful time time with all these challenges this year, but next year I’m hosting one of my own, Reading New England, and I’ll need to focus on that. I’ll also be continuing with the 2016 Book Blog Discussion Challenge. I know I’ll keep reading classics but I’m not sure which ones at this point.

What challenges did you participate in this year? What are your plans for next year?

Once Upon a Time: The Valley of Song

Elizabeth Goudge, The Valley of Song (1951)

Many classic children’s fantasies involve finding a hidden country through a secret door, a theme that is connected with the mysterious land we enter during sleep, before birth and after death. From Wonderland to the country at the back of the North Wind to Oz to Narnia, these realms have captured readers’ hearts and imaginations in our modern, secularized age. They provide a method of transcending the barriers of formalized religion by exploring archetypal and mythic experiences in a fresh and individual way.

In The Valley of Song, the discovery and exploration of such a country is almost the sole subject of the book. Ten-year-old Tabitha, one of Goudge’s characteristically naughty but loveable child characters, has found the way into a wonderful land she calls the Valley of Song. When she brings some of her favorite adults in as well, she learns more about its nature and purpose, as the “Workshop” of the earthly kingdom and the gateway to the heavenly kingdom beyond.

Although there’s a thin thread of plot to carry the narrative — a quest to build “the most beautiful ship ever made,” using materials from the magical Valley — there’s little tension or conflict, and certainly no tremendous battles against the externalized forces of evil. Tabitha experiences some mild discomfort and one struggle to conquer her own self-interest, but mainly she journeys from wonder to wonder, rejoicing along with the creatures of the Valley at the beauty and goodness that flow from their Creator, and feeling the blessing of the Great Ones who watch over human lives.

The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks

If this makes it sound like a religious book, it is — but without being the least bit narrow or dogmatic. It bears a strong resemblance to the works of George MacDonald, which come out of a similar impulse to express the inexpressible through numinous images. Goudge’s writing in this particular book is not strong enough to reach the poetic quality of her great predecessor; too many things are merely labeled as “beautiful” or “lovely” or “wonderful,” weak adjectives that take away from our sense of actually beholding what she’s trying to describe. As an adult reader I also found some passages almost too whimsical, though Goudge is guiltless of the twee insincerity that makes such writing truly unbearable.

Instead, her gift of touching fictional people and places with reality serves to make us care about the little shipbuilding town from a bygone day, and the myriad characters, young and old, human and animal, who inhabit it. There are also passages of grandeur and true beauty, and suffusing the whole book is the power of love, love for the earth and for all that dwell therein, and for the Lord of Life, whose work we participate in when we ourselves are creative.

In her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, Goudge herself identified this as one of the three of her own books that she truly loved, and having read it I now understand why. Into it she poured all the longings of her heart — for redemption, harmony, and participation in that joyful song that underlies all being. Readers of any age who share this longing will find delight in visiting the Valley of Song.

I’m counting The Valley of Song for the Fantasy category of the Once Upon a Time Challenge, Quest the Second.


Once Upon a Time: The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni (2013)


The Golem and the Jinni has an interesting origin story: author Helene Wecker was trying to write fiction dealing with her own Jewish heritage and that of her husband, who is of Arab descent, and finding it dead in the water. A friend said, “Helene, why are you writing like this?” She realized that she wasn’t activating her “geek” side that loved science fiction and fantasy. When she made her main characters a golem (in Jewish legend, inanimate matter mystically brought to life in the semblance of a human being) and a jinni (a fiery spirit from Arab folklore), the story took off.

And to our benefit, for this is a delightfully entertaining and thought-provoking book, embracing the cultural ferment of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century from a wholly original point of view. The golem and the jinni are immigrants: one arrives on a boat bereft of the master who has just awakened her and then suddenly died, while the other is accidentally set free from centuries of imprisonment by a tinsmith who tries to repair a flask from the old country. They must negotiate unexpected lives in this new, bewildering place, trying to find a way to survive and be themselves in a world that doesn’t even admit that they can exist. Meanwhile, the forces that would rob them again of their newfound self-determination are closing in.

Though the two characters are very different — from the very elements of their being, earth and fire, to their moral outlook on the world — how they draw near to one another and form a kind of sympathetic alliance in their strange quest is a story both touching and thrilling. This is not a lead-footed allegory of the immigrant experience, but an imaginative leap into the questions that make fiction both fun and meaningful. Can free will be manufactured, or earned? Is love a phenomenon of feeling, or of action? What does one do if one literally cannot sleep? Through a wide array of characters and incidents, brought into play with impressive skill for a first-time novelist, Wecker gives the ring of truth to her fantastic story.

I’m counting The Golem and the Jinni for the “Folklore” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.


Once Upon a Time: The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad


Today’s Armchair BEA topic is Character Chatter. Here are my thoughts on a book that reimagines some of the most famous characters in literature.

The Penelopiad is a decidedly odd little book. It’s a riff on the story of faithful Penelope from the Odyssey, who waited twenty years for her husband to return from his travels (and his amours) while fending off a pack of rapacious suitors. It takes an aspect of the story usually considered a minor detail — the hanging of twelve of Penelope’s maids for sleeping with said suitors — and makes it the subject of a sort of literary theme and variations, incorporating poetry, music-hall style comic songs, feminist criticism, and even a court transcript, which interrupt Penelope’s own first-person narrative (delivered from Hades).

The maids never get individual voices, speaking rather as a chorus that echoes the use of such satirical relief as a counterpoise to Greek tragedy. As they contrast with and comment on Penelope’s version of the tale, they cast doubt on her motives and leave us with unresolved questions about what really happened. As Penelope says herself, along with her husband she is one of the great liars of all time, after all.

This is a book by Margaret Atwood, so it’s sly and witty and gracefully written. It didn’t quite satisfy me as a reading experience, though, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because the interposed chorus sections sometimes felt too contrived, their stylistic changes showing off Atwood’s virtuosity for its own sake. The highlighting of issues of gender and class was somewhat heavy-handed, and the mixture of ancient and modern idioms sometimes jarring rather than amusing.

Still, Atwood is nothing if not a compelling storyteller, and the questions she raises are worth asking. Her attempt to give voice to the voiceless women of one of our foundational Western myths is admirable, and worth any reader’s time. I’d love to go back to the sources (particularly The Odyssey and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths), and then read it again and see what I think.

I’m counting The Penelopiad for the “Myth” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.


Once Upon a Time: Bitter Greens

Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens (2012)


We tend to think of the tellers of fairy tales as anonymous, their personalities smoothed out and obscured by time, details of their lives irrelevant to the archetypal stories that have come down to us. But in fact the tellers and writers of these familiar tales were often real, individual women, who were known by name to the male collectors and anthologizers who took over their work and put their own stamp on it. The erasure of this female literary history is an injustice that has yet to be corrected.

In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth brings to light — in decidedly fictional, quasi-fantasy form — the story of one of these creators, the French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who set down the tale we now know as “Rapunzel.” She wasn’t the first or the last to do so, but she introduced important elements that we now take as essential to the story, including the healing of the blinded prince. In layers of tales within tales, Forsyth brings us into Charlotte-Rose’s glittering and precarious world, the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, then moves into stories of a century and more earlier, of a Venetian girl captured against her will, and of the witch whose revelation of her own dark history gives us insight into the origins of this tragedy and the elements of its redemption.

It’s a complex narrative to construct, and Forsyth does it well. She builds up her historical settings in rich and convincing detail, making us see and feel with the three women at their center. Only at the end does she falter a bit, in a rather hasty resolution that had less ambiguity than I personally would have preferred. But this didn’t diminish my pleasure in the book as a whole, or my interest in the fascinating, forgotten character of Charlotte-Rose herself. She illuminates much about the plight of women denied a way to express themselves other than through sexual means, and amazes us with the strength of her drive toward freedom. For all girls and women who are still locked in the tower of their own fears and uncertainties, she can be an inspiration.

I’m counting Bitter Greens for the “Fairy Tale” category of the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.

Paperback release date: May 19 from St. Martin’s Griffin