2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?

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Here’s the stack of my tentative choices for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. My little soldier figurine perfectly expresses my apprehension as I begin my FOURTH attempt to complete the  Challenge . . . .

I was absolutely delighted that Back to the Classics, one of my very favorite challenges, has returned for another year (thank you very much for hosting, Karen!).  Although my completion rate is beyond dismal (this is my fourth year to participate and I’ve yet to read and review even a fraction of my twelve Challenge books) I always have a lot of fun picking my categories and reading at least some of my selections.  Last year, in fact, I did quite well in the reading portion of the Challenge, finishing ten of my twelve selections.  And what about the reviewing?  Well . . . .  not so good.  My reviews were . . . non existent!  Nada! zilch! zero!  What can I say, except that 2021 was not a good writing year for me?  Circumstances change, however; new houses become not-so-new; boxes get unpacked; dusting tchotckes gets forgotten about (these days I just throw them in the closet and call it a done deal) and a new year appears, bringing with it new opportunities and great new books!  So I’m back to the Challenges, adding the Classics Challenge to my 2022 European Reading Tour.  Never say, dear readers, that I don’t set my goals high.

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Despite my abysmal completion rate, the Back to the Classics Challenge is one of my favorite bookish events.  Undeterred by experience, I’m participating for the fourth year in a row  . . . .

Since Karen has explained her Challenge much better than I’m able to, I won’t repeat the details.  Essentially, participants select classic works that fit into a series of defined categories; for 20th century works the selection must be at least fifty years old (i.e., published before 1972).  Initial selections are thankfully non-binding, an important point for fickle old me, as I’m pretty quick to move along from a book that isn’t right for me at a particular time.  To compete in the Challenge, a participant must read and review his/her selections between the beginning and end of 2022.

In making my selections, I’ve added a few of my own, idiosyncratic requirements.  In the last few years I’ve engaged in massive, massive book acquisition binges, partly from pandemic stress and partly because y’all, fellow bloggers, write such great book reviews that I’m always discovering another novel or novella I simply must read!  Because my TBR is now one of the largest piles of books on earth, I’ve largely limited my selections to what’s already on my shelves.  In addition to selecting books that I already own, I’ve also tilted my selections towards the British end of the scale because I’ve already planned to read so much translated literature this year and I read U.S. works as a matter of course (I don’t need a challenge for them)  Since my neglected mountain of Persephone books has now been joined by  several very interesting publications from the wonderful British Library Women Writers series, I’ve also tried to select books from these publishers as much as possible.  Finally, although I adore re-reading, as much as possible for the most part I’ve avoided selecting books I’ve already read.  Each reader has her own goals in participating in a Challenge; for me, it’s to read new things, or discover new writers whenever I can.

Without more blathering, here are my choice for this year’s categories:

1.  19TH CENTURY CLASSIC (i.e., published from 1800-1899):

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This is a book that I’d buy just for the cover, which features a detail from my favorite painting by Frédéric Bazille, one of the early Impressionists.  The painting (“Family Gathering,” c. 1867) normally lives at the Musée d’Orsay, which I’ve never visited.  I was lucky enough, however, to see it a few years ago at a Bazille exhibition held by Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery

I know, I know, I’m only at the first category and already I’m veering away from my “Read British” year.  Zola just seemed so perfect for this category, however, I couldn’t resist!  I love Trollope and Henry James, but I’ve read a great deal of their works; Edith Wharton (another favorite) published mostly in the early 1900s and, well, I’ve just been intending for years to read something by Zola.  The big uncertainty that has kept me from doing so, however, has been just where do you start with such a prolific novelist?  Luckily for me, this issue was resolved last summer when I stumbled across Bookertalk’s excellent Zola reviews. While I don’t aspire to read the complete Rougon-Macquart Cycle, I do hope at least to become acquainted with the families.

2.  20TH CENTURY CLASSIC (any book first published from 1900 to 1972):

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In the last few years, I’ve became an enormous fan of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Since this is the last one that I haven’t read (I’m afraid I’ve avoided it for fear that it might be just a little too depressing), the selection for this category was a no-brainer!  In the unlikely event that it doesn’t work out, I’ll probably read Jean Rhys’ Quartet or perhaps an early novel by Molly Keane.

3.  CLASSIC BY A WOMAN AUTHOR

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Stella Gibbons seems to be experiencing a bit of a Renaissance these days, so I thought I’d expand my horizon beyond her comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  If this doesn’t work out, I may try Gibbons’ Enbury Heath or finally get around to reading something by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

4.  A CLASSIC IN TRANSLATION

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Last summer I read, but didn’t review, Keun’s Child of All Nations.  Although I liked it very much, I didn’t feel it was a fully representative work of this very interesting writer . . . .  2022 will be the year to find out whether my hunch is accurate!

5. A CLASSIC BY A BIPOC AUTHOR

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I came across Sam Selvon’s work some time ago but never managed to really read any of it.  Although there are some wonderful U.S. writers whose work falls in this category, I’ve picked Selvon’s The Housing Lark as it’s so perfectly in keeping with my 2022 “Read British” theme!  Alternates are Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions and/or Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy.

6.  MYSTERY/DETECTIVE/CRIME CLASSIC (includes True Crime)

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Is anyone familiar with Dorothy Hughes’ crime fiction?  An American writer of noir fiction, three of her novels were made into films and she was given two awards by the Mystery Writers of America.  The Expendable Man, her last novel, has been reissued by Persephone, complete with the trademark bookmark & lovely end papers.

Don’t you love Persephone Editions?  I, alas, am better at collecting than at actually reading them (and I’ve been shamefully neglectful in the last few years) but in 2022 I will mend my ways!  Although Hughes doesn’t quite fit my Reading British theme (a U.S. writer, many of her works are set in New Mexico) I think that a Persephone publication of her work makes her inclusion o.k..

7.  A CLASSIC SHORT STORY COLLECTION (must contain at least six short stories)

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I’m back to Persephone again for the short stories.  I’ve read a few volumes of Diana Athill’s memoirs (particularly loved the first one, Stet.) and have long been curious about her fiction.  Her Midsummer Night In the Workhouse is a perfect opportunity for me to discover what I think.
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Since this is one of my favorite Persephone end papers, I couldn’t resist throwing it in my post, along with another view of that fabulous bookmark!

8. PRE-1800 CLASSIC (Plays and epic poems are acceptable)

This is a very tough category for me, as I’m not in the mood at the moment for an 18th century novel (I know I should give Tristram Shandy a try but — not yet, not yet!) or any works from classical antiquity.  Nor does Shakespeare appeal at this point.  Prompted by a recent movie release, I spent a week last summer reading Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight (Simon Armitage translation) and still feel I’m a bit “epic’ed out.”  But still, aren’t Challenges all about stretching ourselves?  To read things that are good for us?  Although it’s very tentative at this point, for the present my choice is

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The big question here is which translation?  The very beautiful but traditional treatment by the great Seamus Heaney or the newer, scrappier and very well received version by Maria Dahvana Headley (described by The New Yorker as “electrifying”)?  Hint as to my choice:  could you resist a translation that describes a medieval queen as “#hashtag: blessed”?

9.  A NONFICTION CLASSIC (includes travel, memoirs & biographies)

For once, I’m ahead of the curve, having read and — gasp! — actually reviewed a wonderful set of memoirs by the great Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen.  Often brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written, Ditlevson’s account of her life made me want to rush out and immediately read all her novels!

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Ditlevson’s memoirs were published in her native Denmark as three separate volumes, Childhood (1967), Youth (1967) and Dependency (1971).  Penguin has recently reissued all three in a single volume under the title Copenhagen Trilogy.  

10.  CLASSIC THAT’S BEEN ON YOUR TBR LIST THE LONGEST

Oh, there is so very much competition in this category, dear readers, how to choose?  At best, I can only approximate, as many of my books have followed me around for years and years and I have no clear recollection of when they drifted into my orbit.  If this isn’t the most senior dust-catcher, it’s close:

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Folks who are better read than I are no doubt familiar with William Gerhardie, described by Graham Greene no less as a pivotal novelist.  I stumbled across Gerhardie years ago, thought he looked interesting, located this copy of his best known work and — poof!  Forgot about it!  With luck, 2022 will be the year that I strike The Polyglots from my TBR list!

11.  CLASSIC SET IN A PLACE YOU’D LIKE TO VISIT, REAL OR IMAGINARY

This was another tough category for me, believe it or not.  After all, what’s so hard about picking a nice place to visit?  Wouldn’t you want to do a jaunt through Middle Earth?  But then, what if you ran into one of those nasty Orcs and ended up on the menu?  Or instead of Middle Earth, you popped over to Earthsea but stumbled onto a dragon, without the Archmage Ged there to protect you?  After I considered the matter for bit, I thought it safest to visit Durrell’s Alexandria, where intrigue ran high but actual peril rather low.  I realized that I needed to re-think my itinerary, however, after I re-read a few pages; I loved the Alexandria Quartet when I read it years ago, but find that now I’m either not in the mood or, alas, my digestion is no longer up for all that rich descriptive prose.  Then — epiphany occurred during a browse in a great local bookstore, when another book joined the collection (I’m bending my little guideline about no new books for the Challenge but consistency, after all, is the hobgoblin of little minds):

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Wildly popular during his lifetime, I suspect that James Hilton is little read these days.  I first encountered this novel in my teens and was totally captivated by Hilton’s invented paradise of Shangri-La.  I’m waiving my rule against re-reads, as I think it’s time for a re-visit!

12.  WILD CARD CLASSIC (any classic, any period provided it’s at least 50 years old)

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How to choose, how to choose, when you want to read them both?  I may end up doing so, if time allows.  If not, I’m inclined to go with Elizabeth von Arnim, as I’ve not previously read any of her work.  Besides, this is an entry from the British Library Women Writers Series, which I’ve been eager to sample. 

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you deserve a little treat.  After all, what’s content on the internet without a cute cat photo?

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Maxi won’t let all this book stuff interfere with her yoga!

37 thoughts on “2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?

    1. Hi Alison! Glad you dropped by and thanks for the good wishes. I totally agree that Challenges are lots of work, which is why I’ve never finished one. I love to paw through my books (I’ve piles and piles of wonderful, unread books) and the Challenges allow me to think I’ll actually read some of them! My typical pattern is to read a few, then get distracted by a sci-fi/fantasy novel or some trendy contemporary read! But still, such fun to make my selections . . .

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    1. Hi Christine! If you like memoirs, I think you’ll definitely enjoy this; as I said in my post, I generally avoid them and even I thought the trilogy was fantastic. One nice thing about the format is that, since the sections were independently published, you have natural breaks in the story in case you don’t feel like reading the whole thing at once. I found the mood of the three sections quite different; the last (Dependency) is quite horrifying while Childhood, for all its brutalities (Ditlevsen’s family were POOR), the most lyrical.
      If you haven’t caught it already, I’d highly recommend Kaggsy’s excellent review of Childhood (I focused on the entire trilogy; Kaggsy gave a extended look at Childhood). Good luck with that library list — may your name come up soon! https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2022/01/24/long-mysterious-words-began-to-crawl-across-my-soul-toveditlevsen-coperhagentrilogy-nordicfinds/

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  1. I’ve heard good things about Dorothy Hughes, but haven’t read any–I’ll be curious. It may be traditional, but I do think the Heaney translation is a pretty good read.

    And Shangri-la would a pretty nice place to visit. (Looks like Maxi may already have found it…)

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  2. Oh, thank you, Reese, for your comment. I’m still laughing about Maxi. She is a very, very bad cat who needs discipline. Lots. Of course, she’s far more apt to deal it out than to receive it; I have been house broken (along with lots of china) for quite some time now.
    Ideally I’d like to read both Beowulf translations to compare. But then, ideally, I’d like to do lots of things. I have poked around a little bit in the Headley translation, which I was ready to dismiss as a gimmick. I was wrong. It’s really, really good albeit somewhat jarring at times. The New Yorker piece on it is great BTW. But then, I enjoy new takes on the classics (although I’m getting a bit jaded with the current “let’s take a myth and turn it into a novel” trend). I suspect Headley’s “translation” is really more of an interpretation, if that makes sense. Ideally (note that word) it would be fun to take a look at some of the modern takes on Beowulf, such as Gardiner’s Grendal and the one by Headley herself (think it’s called The Mere Wife).
    I haven’t read any Dorothy Hughes either, so I’ll be interested to see how I react to this one. I understand that it’s the least “crime like” of her works, which is one reason I picked it (I’m reading a couple of noir novels for the European Reading Challenge).
    Back to Shangri-la — well, a life time after my first read, I’ll be more than interested to re-evaluate . . .

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    1. I did see the New Yorker piece & the Headley does sound interesting–I love adaptations of ‘classic’ texts. It would be fun to read both side by side. (Though yes…so many books!) But I did like the Heaney.

      Anyway, enjoy!

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  3. Julé — thanks for the good wishes! It’s nice to know that you liked Hughes, as I was a bit doubtful about this choice, knowing virtually nothing about her work. As for Keun, I’m really looking forward to After Midnight, as I’ve read some glowing reviews and, as I said, I thought her Child of All Nations was very good.

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  4. Oh good heavens I’m exhausted just reading this. Does it take the whole year? I’m having a non-prescriptive year this year. China Mieville wopper Perdido Street Station coming up next.

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    1. Hello Gerts! So glad you popped by, as I always enjoy your take on things. In answer to your question, it takes as long as it takes, with a one year cutoff (sort of like Gandalf’s wizard time in Fellowship of the Rings; a wizard is never late, etc). It IS exhausting to read the whole list, which is why I never finish. I do have a lot of fun sifting through the pile, however, and I do usually manage to read a few things I wouldn’t have otherwise read (last year it was Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives Tale, which I thought was great). I seriously considering skipping the Challenge thing this year (your non-prescriptive year sounds great) but couldn’t quite resist.
      I will eagerly await your reaction to Perdido Station. I loved The City & The City, which I probably wouldn’t have read had I not seen the discussion/mention on your blog; many thanks for that BTW!

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  5. Woo hoo! Go, Janakay! 🎉🎉🎉 You have some great reads ahead of you. The Fortune of the Rougons is very good; Zola is an amazing author but you won’t feel uplifted after reading his works. I LOVED Nightingale Wood but it was a little bit bizarre. 🤪 Beowulf is one of my top favourites; I’ve read it about 5 times and Heaney’s translation is just excellent. And of course, you can’t go wrong with von Arnim. Lost Horizon is pretty good as well. What a great list! I hope you have great success! Bon reading voyage!! 🛳

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    1. Hi Cleo! Many thanks for the good wishes and your take on my list. I’ve only read little snatches of Beowulf, mostly what was required in various classes and must admit that the prospect of reading the whole thing is a little daunting. It’s good to know that you liked the Heaney translation, as a good translation really makes all the difference.
      For ages and ages, Zola has been a “I will definitely read this guy” kind of author. If I read nothing other than Fortune from my list, I will count it a success (last year’s was The Old Wives Tale).
      In picking my non-Cold Comfort Farm (fantastic book BTW) Stella Gibbons, I read a few pages of Nightingale Wood and it really hooked me in. I had the impression from the blurb that it was supposed to be a little fantastical; your very interesting comment reinforces this.
      Isn’t it interesting how trendy author popularity can be? James Hilton seems to have been a very big deal into the 50s, with Lost Horizon, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest being widely read. Now? well . . . I was really, really young when I read Lost Horizon & not very critical of anything I read; the idea of a lost paradise in the Tibetan mountains totally captured my imagination (I doubt if I knew where Tibet was at the time; probably thought it was next door to King Soloman’s mines and/or the kingdom of She Who Must Be Obeyed). Now, alas, that dewy & innocent enthusiasm has long since faded and I’m just a jaded old grouch. We’ll see how the re-read goes.
      As for the cat — well, the Force, particularly its dark side, is strong with Maxine. She totally rules the roost!

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  6. Some wonderful choices, and good luck! I though After Midnight was superb and it’s definitely my favourite Keun! As for the Zolas I hope to eventually start reading this series but other books keep getting in the way. Lots of lovely Persephones there too. As for Mrs. Palfrey, well yes – it *is* sad, and because of that I love it less than other Taylors – will be interested in your thoughts!!

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    1. Hi Kaggsy! Thanks for the kind wishes. I think I recall some of your remarks about Keun’s After Midnight; I know many rate it very highly and I’m eager to see what I think of it. As for Mrs. Palfrey, well, many of Taylor’s novels and short stories do have that melancholy twinge, don’t they? That’s probably one reason she didn’t appeal to me as much when I was younger.
      I really, really hope I get to Zola this year; I know exactly what you mean when you say that other books keep getting in the way!

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  7. This was lots of fun and lots of recommendations, I still have to start Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth von Armin, but Sam Selvon is completely new to me and with a quick look I see there’s lots to choose from, thank you! Has Simon Armitage translated Beowulf as well, that could be an inbetween style? Good luck for now!

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  8. Hi Jane — glad you stopped by and enjoyed the list. In a really bad year, doing the Challenge list can be my major accomplishment as far as a particular Challenge is concerned (LOL). I really do enjoy going through the books to see what I have that matches a category, I must say.
    The more I read her fiction, the more enthused I get about Elizabeth Taylor. It’s amazing that she hasn’t been universally acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s greats! She just has such subtle, psychological insight into her characters and her skill as a writer is really amazing. I’m not a hugh short story fan, but last summer I became quite absorbed in reading several of hers. As for von Armin, I don’t quite understand why I haven’t gotten around to her yet.
    I don’t think Armitage has translated Beowulf but could be wrong. I must admit that this particular epic was an ambitious choice (maybe I can squeeze it in between the fun Persephones!) so we’ll see how it goes!

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  9. To begin with, I absolutely adore your photo selection including the beautiful back cover paper and the cat! Secondly I admire you diligence in participating in not so easy challenges and then thinking through on how to bring variety in the readings! You have some awesome choices here. I was so scared of reading Zola but the fortunes is so great and the best place to start reading this author! Cleo and I read Beowulf together a few years ago and though it was tough in some parts, we both thoroughly enjoyed it! I quite understand how you feel about starting Tristram Shandy. It stands right in front of me as I type it, begging me to read it……SOMEDAY I will! I will be very interested in getting your views on Lost Horizon; look forward to it! All the best for your challenges and may all your reading adventures be successful!

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    1. Hi Cirtnecce! So glad you liked the photos, which are fun to do, and also the endpapers (as I said, the design is one of my favorites among the Persephones). I will pass along your compliment to Maxi, who will graciously accept it as her due.
      I am very heartened that you like Zola’s Fortunes. I’ve been reading outside my 19th century comfort zone for several books now and I’m ready to return to my roots, although it may be early March before I do so (I want to read som indy press and Japanese literature first). It’s also nice to know that I’ve picked a good starting point. Zola was so prolific that just picking a place to begin can be overwhelming.
      It’s very encouraging to know that you got on with Beowulf, as all that medieval Danish names can be a little intimidating. Do you remember which translation you read? There are so very many.
      It seems your reaction to Tristram Shandy is much like my own, LOL! Shandy seems so interesting and so much in advance of its time, I do want to read it but . . not just yet! I’m afraid I have a real barrier with novels from that period.
      I, too, am interested to see what I now think of Lost Horizon and whether it will hold up so many years later. I was really fascinated when I read it as a kid (I also liked Hilton’s Random Harvest, which I really doubt anyone reads now) but I’m afraid my childlike sense of wonder has been jaded for a few years now . . .
      Thanks so much for the good wishes and the same to you!

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      1. I read the Penguin edition, Translated by Michael Alexander. It was quite ok but I think the edition recommended by Cleo by Seamus Heaney is better. Atleast I felt so when we both read it together an reviewed it!

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  10. ‘Father’ is in my Kindle TBR 🙂 I love The Enchanted April and hope this will be as good. I have read a lot of Stella Gibbons’ work, Nightingale Wood is not a favourite with me, I prefer her war-time/post-war books.

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    1. Elizabeth von Arnim’s Father floated into my orbit about a year ago, when I read several bloggers’ reviews after Father was first published as part of the British Library Women Writers series. It really sounded interested so — pop! Onto Mount TBR it went. Since Enchanted April is so much better known, and universally loved, I suppose I should start with it but . . . I chose to be illogical and to begin with a lesser known work.
      I’m looking forward to the Stella Gibbons. I did read a few pages of Nightingale and liked them, but we all know how that can go, don’t we? I popped over to your blog and took a quick look at some of your reviews; what would you recommend if Nightingale doesn’t work out? The Matchmaker?

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      1. I hope to read all of the BL Women Writers series 🙂 Interestingly, I enjoyed Nightingale Wood the first time, but re-reading it I felt a bit colder towards it! The Matchmaker is definitely one for your list, or The Bachelor. Westwood is very good although a long one! None of her other work is quite the same tone as CCF so it depends if you like her ‘normal’ writing style. Only one way to find out! Thanks for checking my blog out 🙂

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      2. de nada, dear N — your blog was a pleasure to check out (I’m always looking for interesting reviews). Thanks so much for the rundown on Gibbons. I was surprised to find that she was such a prolific writer and that her books seem quite different from each other (and definitely different from CCF). It makes knowing where to go next quite difficult, so your little road map is much appreciated!

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  11. So many great books on your list! I loved Father, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, and Nightingale Wood. Zola is one of my favorite writers so I’m happy to see him on your list. You may find yourself reading the whole series eventually, though you don’t have to read them in order. And Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is just wonderful! Thanks for signing up for the Back to the Classics challenge!

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  12. I’m glad you liked my list, as I’m very excited by the books you mention (I’m actually reading Nightingale Wood now and enjoying it very much). I love Elizabeth Taylor, so Mrs. Palfrey is another treat that I’m looking forward to. Zola, well, it’s about time I gave him a try, particularly as I like 19th century lit.
    As for the Challenge, it’s absolutely one of my favorites; I’m so glad it’s running again this year. Hopefully I’ll be better at actually reviewing some of my reads.

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  13. What a great book selection and what an adorable cat! Zola can be exquisite and I also plan to read a couple of his books this year, though “plan” may be too big a word (so many books so little time!). It’s a pity that I didn’t get along with Lost Horizon. Perhaps I should try it again. I am not sure if it is the writing or a slightly contrived story, but I soon lost interest. I regret it a bit and will probably try again!

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    1. Hi Diana — glad you liked the list, which was lots of fun to put together. I’m a little intimidated by Zola but am excited to finally be giving him a try; I’ll keep my eye open for your Zola posts as well if you get to them (I know exactly what you mean by “plan”!)
      I’m not terribly surprised by your reaction to Lost Horizon; I suspect that at this point it’s something of a period piece and may not be wearing it’s age well. I have fond memories but then — I was really, really young when I read it, which I’m sure made a difference. It’s odd how we react to those thrillers/adventure stories from an earlier age. I also read H. Rider Haggard’s She during that same period and loved it; tried re-reading seven or eight years ago and couldn’t get past page 10!
      I notice you’ve posted some fascinating art work on your blog by Remedios Varo, previously unknown to me. I want to return when I have time to savor. I love your visuals BTW (I really miss my art history classes). Have you looked at Leonora Carrington’s work? Or read her fascinating novel, The Hearing Trumpet?

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    1. Hi Simon! Glad you liked the photos (they’re fun to take). I am determined to make 2022 a von Arnim year! I probably should start with Enchanted April, but all the reviews I read made Father sound so intriguing . . . (and I liked the first few pages!).

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    1. Thanks for the laugh, R.E.! I’d love to visit Middle Earth but I I WOULD hate to end up being the meat on some nasty Orc menu!(I’m borrowing from the movie here) Shangri-La is much, much safter, at least once I get there.
      Thanks for the good wishes about the Challenge; I was actually doing fairly well with the reading part until a few weeks ago but, with me, it’s always the reviewing that’s the weak spot!

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