2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

Although this young lady is working in a bookstore, her activity isn’t entirely dissimilar from ours when we compile our lists, is it?  Do you love this contemporary painting (“Old Books” by David Carson Taylor) as much as I do?

Janakay loves a bookish challenge, don’t you?  She was incredibly excited to learn (several weeks after the rest of the world, but then, Janakay has always moved at her own pace!) that Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge would be offered again this year.  Undeterred by last year’s results (being just a teensy bit better at reading novels than writing reviews, I, alas, didn’t complete quite all of my challenge books), I immediately began the happy task of compiling a book list for the 2020 Classics Challenge.  I adore lists in general; they’re fun to make and give such a sense of accomplishment, don’t you think?  In fact, Janakay was so satisfied with her list that she had to remind herself to stop basking in the glory of her accomplishment and to begin actually reading all those lovely books!  And this year, they’re all going to be read!  What’s a Challenge for, if not to set one’s expectations sky high?

And of all the lists on all the subjects in the universe, what list could possibly be better than a list of books that one intends to read?  Making the list is a perfect excuse to leave the dishes in the sink (not that I need an excuse for this, exactly, but I’m sure you understand what I mean) to do what I like best, which is to  to “ooh” and “ah” over all my wonderful unread treasures (there was one downside to this, as it did set off my dust allergy!  Despite my “big sort,” some of my treasures haven’t been ooh’ed and ah’ed over in quite some time!).  No matter how many times January rolls around I always find it a time of wonderful possibilities, particularly when it comes to reading.  I think what makes a January book list particularly exciting is that it embodies in a very special way the hope that this year I’ll meet a wonderful new author, or find that rare book I’ll add to my “I’ll read it again” list (told you! I love lists!) or even simply pick up a new idea or new way of looking at a familiar subject, literary or not (Have any of you read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea?  After I finished it, I could never think about Jane Eyre in quite the same way).  For all its fun, however, compiling my Challenge list was also demanding.  A book list bears a dual aspect (so fitting for a month named for a god who has two faces) as it both embodies and limits possibilities.  For each book I placed on my list, I rejected two or three others.  And Janakay just hates rejecting books, even temporarily!  Will I read some of the novels that didn’t make my 2020 list?  Absolutely!  But it’s far less likely that I’ll do so, particularly in 2020.  The list, once made, sets the priorities!

In compiling my own list this month I’ve very  much enjoyed peeking just a bit at the 2020 Challenge lists of some of my bookish friends and admiring many of their oh-so-enticing and ingenious choices.  It’s been particularly fun this year, since many of the Classic Challenge’s categories are in the nature of open-ended and imaginative prompts, which require some effort to satisfy (“Hmmm, what can I read that has nature in the title?  Does a waterfall count?”).  It was quite interesting to discover (as Silvia noted in her own list) that so many titles actually fit multiple categories.  These cases raise the additional question of which category to use?  Oh, such delightful dilemmas!

Without any more blather (please feel free to skip the first two paragraphs of this post; Janakay doesn’t mind!) here are my choices for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.

19th Century Classic:  To my surprise, this was one of my toughest categories to fill this year, due to a combination of a picky, impossible-to-please mood and the desire to read someone other than Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Hardy, Brontes (any and all), James, Gissing, Gaskell and Meredith!  I considered reading Disraeli’s Sybille, which the Guardian lists as one the great novels in English, but these days I just don’t want to read anything associated with a politician!  I finally settled on Emily Eden’s Semi-Detached House (1859); my copy is a Virago Modern Edition that also contains Eden’s other well-known novel, The Semi-Attached Couple (depending on time and interest, I may read this as well).

In all candor, dear readers (and Janakay is usually candid, despite her former profession as an attorney), I was attracted to this novel because of its author, one of those fascinating and influential 19th century women whom we (or at least I) are always surprised to discover.  Born into a politically active family of Whig aristocrats, Eden was a prominent political hostess and in 1835 accompanied her brother to India, where for several years he served as Governor-General.  The diaries she kept during these years inspired Susannah Moore’s One Last Look, a great contemporary novel I read a few years back.  (Side note & utterly irrelevant to the Classics Challenge:  I love Susannah Moore and would really recommend her when you, dear reader, want something “modern”!)  When I discovered my yellowing copy of Eden’s own novels in a box retrieved last week from my basement, I felt (quite irrationally, I’ll admit) like I was encountering an old friend!  My choice was made!


20th Century Classic (originally published between 1900 and 1970):  Something by Ivy Compton-Burnett.  Although I haven’t visited dear Ivy, metaphorically, in quite some time, I love her work.  In fact, I placed her on my 2019 Classics Challenge list, saved her for December as a special little treat and my own personal antidote to the fake cheer of the holiday season (Ms Compton-Burnett is not a writer you turn to for cheer, fake or otherwise) then ran out of time and missed my read!  This year, I will do better!  My current candidates are Manservant and Maidservant (1947); A House & its Head (1935); or Pastors and Masters (probably this one!).



Classic by a Woman Author:  I appear to be the only person in the blogosphere who hasn’t read Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963).  2020 will be the year Janakay joins the crowd!  On the (extremely) off chance that I can’t get into it, I’ll probably substitue Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate for my novel in this category.


Classic in Translation:  My acquaintance with German literature is slight, being mostly limited to a few novels by Thomas Mann.  The Classics Challenge is a perfect opportunity to finally get around to Theodor Fontane’s Effie Briest (pub. 1895), languishing unread on my shelves since 2010.


Classic by a POC:  A couple of years ago, I audited a course on the Harlem Renaissance, that flowering of African-American art, literature and culture that occurred in New York City’s Harlem in the 1920s.  It was a wonderful introduction to a group of artists and intellectuals who were long denied the recognition that should have been theirs.  One of the most interesting of these figures to me was Nella Larsen, the biracial daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a father of mixed African and European ancestry.  Larsen, who trained as a nurse, published two novels and was regarded by her contemporaries as a talented writer.  By the early 1930s, however, she disappeared from the literary scene and her work was out of print until a revival of interest in the late 1990s.  I read and admired her second novel, Passing, as part of my course work, finding it a fascinating study of racial and sexual identity.  Despite my good intentions, however, I never got around to reading Quicksand, her earlier and more autobiographical work.  Thanks to the Classics Challenge, 2020 will be my year! (P.S.  the book cover below is based on a very beautiful painting by Archibald Motley,  a major artist of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary of Larsen’s).


A Genre Classic:  I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, which I lumped in with fairy tales, mythology and novels about life outside my small southern town.  So . . . picking a book from this genre was a natural choice.  But which book?  That’s a bit of a problem.  Although I’m quite fond of much of the early stuff, I’ll be the first to admit that its language, style and character development are less appealing to me than in days of yore.  (I still love the cover art, however, particularly when it involves aliens or space babes! Does that make Janakay sexist?).  I finally settled on Walter M. Miller’s 1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was discussed in an undergraduate “History in Science Fiction” class, which I took many years ago; it was cited as the very embodiment of the cyclical theory of history, i.e., the notion that history is simply  a series of repeating cycles or events.  I can’t even remember whether I actually read Canticle at the time; if so, it certainly didn’t leave much of an impression on me!  Still, it’s considered a foundational work in the field and I’m now curious to see and share my current opinion of it.


Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title:  Despite a plethora of possibilities, I instantly settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (pub. 1968), which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time.  (I’ve had a copy, unread, since 2011.  My bad!)  As I’ve noted before, I have a very ambivalent attitude towards Bowen’s fiction, which at times is a bit too rarefied for me; when I want rarefied, I generally head for Henry James if my energy level is high.  Bowen, however, is a beautiful stylist, can be very funny at times, and convincingly portrays mid-20th century upper class English life, a world I find incredibly exotic.  Besides, at this point I’ve read seven of her ten novels, and I have to complete my list!


Classic with a Place in the Title: Has anyone read the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (1917-2007)?  She was largely unknown in the U.S. until a few years ago, when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) reissued her great novel, The Door.  I read it on a whim and it blew me away; I thought it was easily one of the best things I had read in years.  The Door‘s success (France’s Prix Femina Étrabger; one of the New York Time’s 10 best books of 2015) has led to other NYRB reissues of Katalin Street as well as several other Szabo novels.  The tale of three Budapest families during WWII, Katalin Street was originally published in Hungarian in 1969; it just squeaks in under the Classics Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date.  My alternative selection (which I may read instead) is Glenway Wescott’s 1945 Apartment in Athens, another NYRB reissue.


Classic with Nature in the Title:  This category had me stumped for a day or so; then the titles starting flooding through my mind, so to speak.  I was all set to go with Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest (has anyone read Olivia Manning?  She’s a wonderful novelist who IMO is sadly neglected) until I checked its publication date — 1974, four years over the Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date!  Shucky darn, that one’s out!  I finally settled on The Alien Sky (1953), an early novel by Paul Scott, the author of the Raj Quartet.  I loved the Quartet (its treatment of  the human and political consequences of British colonialism rivals J.G. Farrell’s) and am very curious to see how a stand alone work compares to it.  My alternative, if Alien Sky disappoints, is Stella Gibbon’s Nightingale Wood or Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.


Classic about a Family or with Family Members in the Title:  Although my compulsion to re-read Jane Austen is gaining momentum by the day, I firmly rejected Mansfield Park in favor of Daphne du Mauier’s Parasites, a semi-autobiographical tale of three slacker siblings from a notable theatrical family.  With its lack of gothic and romantic trappings, I don’t think it’s very representative of du Maurier’s better known works, which is fine.  I’m fascinated by tales of dysfunctional families (like Tolstoy said, they’re all different; it’s the happy folks who are boring) and I’ve been intending to read this one for many, many years.


Abandoned Classic:  Janakay was so excited to see this category because it gives her so very much to choose from!  Most of Dickens!  All of Hardy (except for Tess, which wasn’t so bad)!  A Brontë or three (or four) —  Janakay’s last attempt at Shirley didn’t go well!  Should she risk drowning (again) in Ms Woolf’s Waves or getting stomped for the third or fourth time by that nasty moocow thing?  (my apologies to you lovers of Joyce.  I concede his greatness but even his Portrait of the Artist is a mountain I’ve yet to climb.  Don’t even mention Ulysses! Janakay would rather not think about it).  No! No! No!  Janakay just can’t read any of those things this year — she has to pack boxes and move!  Allowances must be made!  Luckily, I finally remembered Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of those erudite and interesting British women novelists who always turn up on my list of favorites.  Many years ago, I attempted The Corner that Held Them (1948), considered by many to be Warner’s greatest novel; I was quite disappointed in it, however, and gave up the slog about halfway through (it’s long).  In retrospect, I think my disappointment was due to timing; I attempted Corner immediately after reading Lolly Willowes and on some level expected the former to be largely the same.  In the years since my initial disappointment, however, I’ve read Warner’s Summer Will Show (a tremendous novel); Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (so delightfully malicious! Janakay loved it) and several of her short stories and no longer expect a Warner novel to be a repetition of anything, including an earlier Warner novel (STW is an original writer).  With my expectations tempered and under control, I’m now ready to re-evaluate The Corner that Held Them.  (P.S.:  I’ve already started reading it!  It’s wonderful!).


Classic Adaptation:  This is a difficult category simply because there are so many great choices!  I opted against several tempting ones (Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier; Forster’s Passage to India) in favor of something by Richard Yates, a writer I’ve been intending to sample for quite some time.  Published in 1962, Revolutionary Road meets the Challenge’s pre-1970 cutoff date, which Easter Parade does not.  Road was also adapted for a 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes that reunited Leonard DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, all of whom starred in the movie “Titanic.”  I missed the film, so it will be fun to compare my initial impressions of it after reading the original source material.

Well, dear readers, that’s it for my post.  As you can see, I have an exciting year of Challenge reading ahead of me!



11 thoughts on “2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

    1. Thanks very much Kaggsy! (I regard your comment as quite a compliment, given how many great recommendations I’ve gotten from your blog) I’ve wanted to read many of these books for some time, so the list actually made itself to some extent. I WAS tempted to list Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad for the geographic category, but Janakay knows her limitations! This is NOT the year. The novel (and its sequel) have gotten such great press, however, I’m most curious. Hopefully, you’ll be reading and reviewing one or both (I noticed you’ve done a Grossman post in the past), so I’ll have a trusted recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Yay! Janakay did Janakay. I read all of this. Why would I want to skip the first paragraphs, ha ha ha?

    10/12 women, powerful.

    Managed to bring the not so well known, -at least to me-, the less obvious classics. I specially love how much you picked from the XXth century up to 1970. I can’t believe it’s 50 years since that year! 🙂

    Though most authors are new to me, you have picked or talked about some great friends. First, let me say how extremely tempted I am to read your Muriel title. Having read just one of her books, her famous Jean Brodie, I was left wanting more. We shall see.

    If you had read A Canticle, I believe you’d remember something. I do, but I read it not that many years ago. It’s one of my favorite books ever. I’m interested in all your reviews, but this one in particular.

    I had no idea that Du Maurier wrote that book, The Parasites. That’s the third one that caught my attention from your list.

    I’m looking forward to all your reviews, and I hope you complete the challenge. That’s the best that can happen. The worst would be that you’ll end up reading awesome books.


    1. Silvia: thanks for stopping by! Although I was aware that my selections were pretty heavily titlted towards the 20th century, I didn’t notice until I had finished how many books by women authors I had selected (for some reason, I seem to gravitate these days towards woman authors). As for my time period, last year I read a lot of 19th century fiction, not only for the Classic Challenge but also for a class I took in the 19th century English novel. So this time around, I kept the Victorians to a minimum.
      Like you, I’m looking forward to reading Ms. Muriel. I very much enjoy her work and always wonder why I haven’t read more of it. It will be fun to compare our reactions to Canticle; I tend to read less cerebral sci-fi so this will be a stretch for me. Parasites has been calling to me for some time. Unfortunately (or, maybe, fortunately as we both know!) the world is full of interesting books that call our names in very loud voices indeed, so Parasites got drowned out, at least until now! It seems quite a change from Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel (the only other du Maurier novels I’ve read) and the biographical aspect makes it particularly intriguing.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the book covers. I love cover art and, I confess, have even selected books (or — gasp — another edition of something I already had) on that basis. There’s a reason I had to sort through and weed my collection!


      1. That’s a good decision, to leave XIX century in favor of more XX century and women.

        I have read Rebecca, Jamaica’s Inn, and The King’s General by Du Maurier, but your pick sounds very interesting.

        Looking forward to each and all of whichever titles you get to read and review.


  2. I forgot to comment on how beautiful the book covers of your selections are, and that I do love the contemporary painting, it reminds me of children books illustrations. Katalin Street cover is mesmerizing.


  3. Hi Janakay,

    Indeed, I don’t believe I have ever met ANY reader who did not like a list of books…to make or to check off or peruse, etc.

    I really need to re-read The Wide Sargasso Sea. I still have my copy somewhere. I really found most of it incomprehensible at the time. I recently listened to Jane Eyre on audio. I’d read it twice before but at least 20 years ago. It is interesting to read about Rochester as an older adult. When I first read it, I was maybe in my 20s and I accepted Rochester as the romantic hero of the book, period. When I read it a second time in my 30s, I thought he was a manipulative bastard. Now on the third go around in my 50s I think while he can be a real jerk at times, his love for Jane is genuine and touching. Of course, we don’t have Bertha’s side of the story in Jane Eyre though, I know.

    Interesting that you wanted to skip all the better known Victorian authors! Good on you in digging a little deeper. This is something I am not very good at. I also put Moore’s One Last Look on my TBR and confirmed my library has a copy. 😀 Now I just need to find the time to read it!

    I want to know what you make of Muriel Spark. I’ve read three of her books so far and my response has been mixed. But I want to read more from her for sure. I’ve not read The Girls of Slender Means (or the Mandelbaum Gate) yet. One of the plusses to her books is that they are all pretty short!

    May I just complain about publishers using the same artwork on different titles? That picture used on Effi Briest is also used on Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart! When I first saw it and read the title, it did not compute. I wish they would not do this.

    Like Silvia, I am a great admirer of A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is depressing but very good, I think. It holds up.

    I’ve not read any Magda Szabo though I have checked out The Door from the library. Sadly it went back unread (due to lack of time on my part, not lack of enthusiasm) .

    I have read Revolutionary Road, though I’ve not seen the film. Like Canticle, but in a totally different way, it is also depressing but very good.

    Good luck in your endeavors. Happy reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ruthiella: after SUCH a long time, my reply must sound like a voice from the Underworld (forgive please — I’ve been reading Ovid and I’m still in a classical frame of mind!). Thanks for your good wishes and your very interesting comment, which I read in January and wanted to think about a bit. While I was “thinking,” life sort of intervened, as it has a habit of doing.
      I was a little surprised at the time that I liked The Wide Sargasso Sea, as I didn’t particularly enjoy several other Rhys’ novels that I read afterwards. It’s been many years since my read and much of the novel has faded (like you, I need to re-read it) but I think I was drawn to that lush tropical setting (I’m a sucker for exotica) and I really love stories that turn the accepted viewpoints on their heads (I’m currently drafting a post on a new retelling of Ovid, so I’m in full revisionist mode, I suppose). It probably helped that I’m also not a big fan of Charlotte Bronte. I really disliked Jane Eyre (both book & named character) when I first read it in my twenties. I did a very thorough re-read last spring, when I audited a class in Victorian fiction, and liked it much better but still . . . I’m afraid I’ve only made it up to your second take on Rochester, which is that he’s a total, unmitigated bastard. Jane’s character also grates on me. She’s so stubborn, so passionate and so very morally upright; I want to say “oh, for heaven’s sakes! Just go live with the guy already!” Seriously, I much prefer a certain irony and cool detachment to that Victorian earnestness; give me Austen any day over all that Bronte swooning and swishing about (yes, I know. My distaste for proper, passionate little Jane says far more about me than her).
      I think I went for the lesser known Victorians as a reaction to my literature class. I do respect (and even like) many of the 19th century greats but I really was looking for a change from the major figures in the canon.
      I’m looking forward to Muriel Spark. I’ve only read a few of her novels but enjoyed them all (particularly Memento Mori). It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of her work, however, and I’m curious to see if my good opinion holds up. I adore black humor, so I’m optimistic.
      So funny — as soon as I read your comment about the cover art on Effie Briest I immediately ran to check my edition of Bowen’s Death of the Heart! Touché! That really gave me a good laugh. Perhaps we should hold a competition for most inappropriate artwork (I’ve noticed that some additions of Jane Eyre feature Ingres’ portrait of 19th century French society beauties. Very amusing, for a novel about a mousey little English governess!)
      Since I still struggle with translated literature, I was surprised that I liked Szabo’s The Door so much. Grim (I must have been in a strong mood) but incredibly good. I’ve noticed that her other novels are getting an equally glowing reception as they’ve been translated, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
      I’m doubtful at this point that I’ll like Yates, but who knows? Resolving doubts like this is what challenges are for!
      Now that life is settling down I plan on catching up with my blog reading; can’t wait to see how you’re doing with the Classics Challenge!


  4. It was fun to peruse your list of books, so many of which I’ve not only not read, but not heard of! 😳☺️ There is nothing quite so satisfying as a classic, though, is there?!


    1. Bellezza: thanks for your comment and I totally agree — classics rock (or is it rule!). Now that things are settling down, I look forward to returning to your blog and discovering some more translated treasures. Thanks again for that Makioka Sisters read along; although I didn’t participate very much, I enjoyed the discussion immensely and, most important, it inspired me to finally finish the book!


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