I love books and reading in all their manifestations — book reviews, book discussions, book recommendations and, of course, the actual books themselves. As part of the bookish process, I’ve spent an increasing amount of time, and gotten a great deal of pleasure and useful information, from all those wonderful book blogs available on the internet (thank you so much, Danielle, for your A Work in Progress). For several years now I’ve considered joining the bookish discussion, but taking a lesson from the Ents have been slow to rush into things (I believe my New Year’s Resolution for 2010 was to have my own blog up and running by the end of the year!). Now, finally, I’m taking the plunge and I already feel a rush of adrenaline from the decision. Let’s face it — even the most devoted reader experiences a bit of a lag at times; becomes paralyzed and anxious at the multiplicity of choices out there (so many, many new books and so many, many growing piles of unread volumes on the floor); commences one novel after another without finishing anything; and greets even the most exciting work of new fiction with a yawn. In the last year, I’ve done an increasing amount of required reading for my art history courses; while I’ve enjoyed this reading immensely it’s inevitably affected the time and energy I have available for non-art history topics. So, while (with apologies to Mr. Melville) a “dark and drizzling” November isn’t exactly permeating my reading, my book life could definitely use some jazzing up. Hence, my infant blog.
Along with my first blog post comes my first acceptance of a bookish challenge! The spark that got this book blog project up and going came last Friday, when I stumbled on the 2019 Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate (here’s where to get more information and sign up). After reading the challenge, I spent a wonderful, exciting day thinking of books for the various categories and then realized — “hey! I need somewhere to post my reviews! Why not finally complete that 2010 New Year’s Resolution and set up a blog?” I already had my blog name picked out (I told you — I’ve been thinking about this for a long time), so, aside from a technical glitch or two, I’m up and running even if the website is a bit unadorned.
Now, back to that challenge. As I understand the rules, my selections have to be works published and/or written before 1969 that I must commence and complete reading between January 1 and December 31, 2019. With no more ado, here are my tentative selections:
19th century classic (between 1800-1899): Henry James, The Tragic Muse( published 1890). Many years ago, thanks to a small but steady income and an undemanding job, I went through a major Henry James phase. Most of the novels I read during that time, including this one, are now far distant blurs in my overflowing memory bin. I’ve been thinking of revisiting James for some time, however, and this novel seems a good place to start, as it meets the challenge’s time parameters and, as I recall, is quite a bit more straightforward than, say, James’ The Golden Bowl. Review: https://youmightaswellread.com/2019/01/24/the-tragic-muse-and-how-i-came-to-love-henry-james/
- 20th century classic (1900 to 1969): The choice here is a toughie, as I have a real weakness for mid-century female writers, many of whom receive far less than their due in readership & critical acclaim. After a lot of delightful soul searching, I’ve decided to go with Elizabeth Bowen’s debut novel, Friends & Relations (published in 1931). I’ve read several Bowen novels and, while she’s not my ultimate favorite, I find her work interesting. Besides, I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages and already have a copy. Close runner up was Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding (1962); hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze it in anyway, either on its own or as a backup to several other categories.
- Classic by a woman author: I’ve selected an early work by Isabel Colegate, either The Blackmailer (1958), A Man of Power (1960) or The Great Occasion (1962). I’ve loved Colegate since I read Winter Journey and always meant to explore her work a little more. Although The Shooting Party is far and away Colegate’s best known novel (I believe it was even made into a movie) I’ve never been able to get past the descriptions of all those slaughtered animals (and, yes, I know there’s a parallel to the coming Great War, but still ….)
- Classic in Translation: an easy one. I’ve never read a novel by Guy de Maupassant despite having several on my shelf. My choice? Maupassant’s Like Death (published 1889).
- Classic comic novel: She’s not one of your comforting laughs, but if you have a taste for elegant, elliptical, sometimes difficult dialogue and black humor, it’s hard to beat Ivy Compton-Burnett. I haven’t read her in years (and never made it through all the novels) so here’s hoping 2019 is my “return to Ivy year.” I’ll most probably re-read A Father and his Fate (1957) or read Manservant and Maidservant (1947) for the first time.
- Classic tragic novel: This category really made me start thinking about what is a tragic novel, really? A narrative that just has a sad ending? Or must it, like classical drama, also have grand and noble characters, brought low by some internal flaw? Well, whatever the definition — my choice in this category is Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949). The characters are pretty shallow according to various reviews but the end should be dismal enough to satisfy anyone. The Classics Challenge is a good prompt to read Bowles, who is one of those writers I’ve never quite gotten around to. If he’s just too, too not my thing, I’ll probably read The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene, a second writer that I’ve never really gotten around to.
- Very long classic: If you eliminate the Russians, which I do right now (I’ve waded through a few of the obvious Russian classics and just can’t do re-reads of them at this point in my life), I’m somewhat at a loss. I’ve decided to attempt a book I purchased several years back in a fit of overwhelming intellectual ambition: Miklòs Bánfly’s They Were Counted, volume I of his Transylvanian Trilogy. Published originally in the 1930s and weighing in at 620 odd pages, it meets the Challenge’s criteria (the fact that I’ll be reading a modern translation is, as I understand them, allowable under the rules).
- Classic novella (less than 250 pages): I had hoped to satisfy this category by reading J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, a work that’s been on my TBR list for a long, long time. Alas, its 1980 publication date makes it ineligible for the Challenge. Not to worry, however, as the world and my shelves overflow with unread possibilities, many of them in those adorable, brightly colored covers used by the Melville House publishing company (as one critic said, those covers make “you just want to own them all”!). I’m torn between Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach at Falesa (1892), Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone (1900) and Heinrich von Kleist’s The Duel (1810, this being one of five novellas on the theme of dueling, re-printed and conveniently sold as a package by Melville House). I’ll probably go with The Beach at Falesa but I really love Wharton and The Duel has a great opening …….. and there’s always Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey (1928), which I’ve been meaning to read for ages …..
- Classic from the Americas (includes the Caribbean): I’ve done a fair amount of eco-tourist travel in Central and South America and have long been ashamed of how little I know of the culture and literature of those regions (on the other hand, I have seen lots of birds and animals!). Because one of my long held goals has been to remedy that defect, I want to read something by a non-English author, set in a non-English speaking country. This should be an easy category to make a selection from (there are so many great novelists writing in Spanish, French and Portuguese) but for me it isn’t — I don’t want to just read (or, more accurately, attempt) a standard classic by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and most of the other works I know about (I’ve long wanted to try Roberto Bolaño, for example) are too recent to meet the Challenge’s criteria. Right now, I’m leaving this category blank until I do more research.
Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (including Australia):I just happen to have the NYRB edition of Maria Dermôut’s The Ten Thousand Things (1955) sitting unread on my shelf and taking up space on my TBR list! The author is a Dutch woman born on Java, which is the setting of this semi-autobiographical novel. Since I’ve just finished a course on the 17th century art of the Dutch empire, the time period when the Dutch established their hegemony over the Spice Islands of the East Indies, this selection was a no-brainer. (see my review at https://youmightaswellread.com/2019/02/01/maria-dermouts-the-ten-thousand-things/ )
- Classic from a place you’ve lived or by a local author: Although I’ve now been stationary for a good many years, in my younger days I lived in quite a few different locales, albeit all within the U.S. One of the more interesting was New Orleans, in its pre-Katrina days in the mid-1980s. There’s a lot of literature to choose from involving New Orleans. My first pick would be Sheila Bosworth, a New Orleans writer with a strong sense of place and a lyrical style; she wrote only two novels back in the 1980s, both set in New Orleans and both of which I read sandwiched between novels during my Henry James binge. Alas, her work is too recent for the Challenge, being published in the early 1980s. Of the works I’m interested in, this leaves Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Walker Percy’s The Movie Goer (1961). Since I’ve always been curious about Percy’s work (he seems to have dropped somewhat out of the spotlight in recent decades) and I’ve read the other two (albeit long ago), The Moviegoer it is. I remember Capote’s Other Voices very fondly, however; I was very young when I read it and it was so haunted, so decadent, so beautifully written ….. it would be interesting to measure my reaction to it now. Depending on my reaction to Percy, I may switch my selection.
- Classic play: I didn’t hesitate on this one — my choice is John Webster’s bloody revenge tradegy of 1612, The Duchess of Malfi. Without actually reading any or seeing it performed, I’ve been fascinated by Jacobean drama since oh so many years ago when I skipped classes for a couple of days to read P.D. Jame’s Skull Beneath the Skin (P.D.’s title is also from Webster). In that wonderful detective novel, the actress-murder victim is done away with while preparing for her starring role in Webster’s Duchess. Besides, who can resist lines like “Cover her face. Mine Eyes dazzle. She died young”?
Well, that’s pretty much it, both for my Challenge selections and for my first post. If you happen across my blog, tune in!