Book Review: Hons and Rebels

I chose to read Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels for the “Nonfiction Classic” category in the Back to the Classics 2022 challenge. This wasn’t my first choice for this category, but a combination of not being able to lay my hands immediately on my copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and a work of fiction piquing my interest in the Mitford sisters led me to change my choice.

The Plot

The Mitford sisters, Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah, were controversial figures in the 1920s and 1930s. The daughters of the second Baron Redesdale, scandal followed them wherever they went.

Hons and Rebels is Jessica Mitford’s autobiography. While she talks a little bit about her childhood, and growing up with her six siblings*, it mostly focuses on the period of her life between her society debut in the mid-1930s and the outbreak of WW2.

Three years ago, I had never heard of the Mitford sisters… then I started reading Jessica Fellowes’ series of murder mysteries loosely based on the lives of the Mitford family.** Hons and Rebels is listed as one of the source materials for the series – and I was interested enough to see how the fact and fiction compare.

Jessica (known to all as Decca) writes candidly about her youth, and paints a vivid picture of a family that was torn between the traditional conservativism of their aristocratic upbringing, and the influences of the emerging political movements of socialism, communism, and fascism. She writes with some humor, but also admits that there were times when she made mistakes. I was actually a little disappointed that the book ended with the outbreak of the war, as she was only 22 at the time, and reading up on her I learned that she continued to make interesting choices throughout her lifetime.

I have another Mitford book on my Back to the Classics list for this year – The Pursuit of Love by Decca’s eldest sister, Nancy. I can’t wait to see how the two sisters’ writing styles compare!

*Five sisters, and her brother, Tom.

**So far there are five books in the series, each set during an important period in the life of one of the six Mitford sisters. they’re worth a read if you like an old fashioned historical/cozy/murder mystery.

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Book Review: Dubliners

I chose to read James Joyce’s Dubliners for the “Classic Short Stories” category in the Back to the Classics 2022 challenge. At first I found it quite hard to think of a classic short story collection to pick for this category, but this one turned up on a quick online search, and it sounded pretty interesting.

The Plot

Normally this is the paragraph where I would give a basic outline of the story – but that’s not appropriate for Dubliners, which is a collection of short stories whose only common link is that they are all set in the city of Dublin. Each story is a slice of life, delving into the concerns of common people, from a variety of different backgrounds. The stories are: “The Sisters”, “An Encounter”, “Araby”, “Eveline”, “After the Race”, “Two Gallants”, “The Boarding House”, “A Little Cloud”, “Counterparts”, “Clay”, “A Painful Case”, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room”, “A Mother”, “Grace”, and “The Dead”.

I had never read any James Joyce before, although I certainly knew the author’s name. He is one of the authors whose name often turns up on lists of “100 books to read before you die”. I have found that these lists can be a bit “hit and miss”, as just because something is a “classic” doesn’t mean it will be “enjoyable”. So I wasn’t sure, going in, whether I was going to like it or not.

Having finished it, I’m still not quite sure where I stand. The prose is, well, Joyce’s descriptions are vivid and there is real life in the characters and situations he portrays. But there is something in the stories that left me unsatisfied. It is as though he draws the curtain back for just a short while, and then lets it fall just when the real action is starting to happen.

The themes covered in the stories are heavy, and may be triggering for some, with most of the stories featuring one or more of the following: alcoholism, religion, sex, politics, and death. I guess overall I would say, I didn’t hate it, but for a book that’s only 160 or so pages, it was quite a slog and took me two weeks to get through.

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Back to the Classics 2022!

So I thought I had only finished five books for last years’ Back to the Classics Challenge, which is why I didn’t post a final wrap-up. Turns out I just can’t count. I had read 6 books, and would have been eligible for the draw if I had just figured that out a week ago!

Oh well… I’m going to try again this year.

Karen from over at Books and Chocolate is once again hosting this challenge, and has picked some fabulous new categories, along with some old favourites. Here’s my proposed list for 2022.

1. A 19th century classic: Arthur Conan Doyle – The White Company, 1891.

2. A 20th century classic: Evelyn Waugh – Vile Bodies, 1930.

3. A classic by a woman author: Nancy Mitford – The Pursuit of Love, 1945.

4. A classic in translation: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra – Don Quixote, 1615.

5. A classic by BIPOC author: Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844.

6. Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic: Dorothy L. Sayers – Whose Body? 1923.

7. A classic short story collection: James Joyce – Dubliners, 1914.

8. Pre-1800 classic: Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales, 1400.

9. A nonfiction classic: Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast, 1964.

10. Classic that’s been on your TBR list the longest: Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities, 1859.

11. Classic set in a place you’d like to visit: J. R. R. Tolkien – The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, 1962.

12. Wild card classic: Sir Walter Scott – Waverley, 1814.

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Book Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I chose to read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the “Classic by a Woman Author” category in the Back to the Classics 2021 challenge.

OMG… where did the year go? I still have seven books to read for this challenge, and only three months left to do it! Take into account that those months are going to include my first Stephen West Mystery Knit Along, my eighth NaNoWriMo, and then the downhill run to the end of the year, and this is going to be a tight squeeze.

The Plot

Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for girls in Edinburgh. After losing her fiance to WW1, Miss Brodie has become an independent woman who spends her holidays traveling the world. At the beginning of the 1930s Miss Brodie is in what she considers to be the prime of her life, and she is determined to impress this fact on her young students .

I don’t know what I expected going in to this one. I knew that the book had been made into a movie starring Maggie Smith – long before she was *Dame* Maggie Smith, and I was vaguely aware that the title character was a teacher. I think given that information I expected the story to be about Miss Jean Brodie…

Miss Brodie is central to the narrative, she is ever-present, but the book isn’t really about her. It is about the effect she has on other people. She is not well liked by most of her fellow teachers, partly because of the effect she has on all the males around her, and partly because of her unusual philosophy of teaching. She prefers to give her students lessons about life rather than grammar and history. Miss Brodie openly has a group of favourites among the students, and they clearly worship her. She has very little time for the other students in her class, and keeps in touch with “the Brodie set” even after they move up into the senior school.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is really a novella – only about 130 pages. Still, in such a small space Spark examines some big issues. Politics, religion, and sexual morality are all explored, although not in any real depth. The tone is lighthearted… until it isn’t. Overall I would say I liked it, but I don’t think I’ll be adding it to my list of favourite books.

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Book Review: Les Misérables

I chose to read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for the “Classic in Translation” category in the Back to the Classics 2021 challenge. I listened to the free online audiobook recording through LibriVox, which uses a variety of volunteer readers. The edition I listened to was translated from French into English by Isabel Florence Hapgood.

The Plot

Jean Valjean, a former convict out on parole after 19 years of imprisonment, attempts to turn his life around with the encouragement of a bishop from whom he tried to steal some silverware. He breaks his parole and starts a new life in a new town with a new name.

Some years later, Valjean, now a successful businessman calling himself Monsieur Madeleine, becomes aware that another man has been arrested for his crimes. He appears in court to confirm the man’s innocence, then flees.

He is pursued by Javert, one of the guards from his former imprisonment who is now a Police Inspector. Javert makes it his mission to return Valjean to the prison galleys, refusing to believe that a leopard can change his spots. Meanwhile, Valjean goes into hiding in Paris, so that he might raise Cosette, the daughter of a former worker in one of Valjean’s factories who asked him to care for her before she died.

All of this takes place in a turbulent point in the history of France, beginning just at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and continuing through to the aftermath of the June rebellion of 1932.

Les Misérables is such a well-known story, and there have been a number of adaptions over the years for both stage and screen. There have been big-budget Hollywood movies and BBC mini-series. Probably the best-known version is the Broadway musical. That’s how I first came to the story, through listening to the original cast recording which was played often in our household. The story of Les Misérables is timeless and beautiful… but the novel is not an easy read.

I attempted Les Misérables once before, many years ago. It’s a great big brick of a thing, with most editions sitting at around the 1300-1500 page mark. In fact, I think it is the longest book I’ve ever finished. I don’t remember exactly why my first attempt failed – but I remember that it had a lot to do with the 50 page discourse on the Battle of Waterloo at the beginning of Volume 2. Seriously… Hugo spends 19 chapters on a very detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo, and the only part that is directly relevant to the story of Jean Valjean is a few paragraphs at the end of the 19th chapter! I eventually fought my way through it, but I didn’t get much beyond. (Ironically, I would quite willingly read a detailed account of the battle if I came across it in a history book, but I just wasn’t expecting it in a novel!)

This is the problem I have with Les Misérables: I LOVE the plot, and the characters, but I have always had a tendency to struggle with books in this style. I have made my feelings clear before about 19th Century novels that waste spend a lot of words on subjects that are at best background information, and at worst completely irrelevant. Moby Dick and Anna Karenina are probably the worst offenders I had come across *until now*.

In reading similar novels I have found that knowing how the story eventually turns out has made it easier to plow through some of the more difficult sections, but even my familiarity with the story didn’t help much with Les Misérables. Some of the long, historical and philosophical passages seemingly go on forever. I am pleased that I finally finished Les Misérables – but it was only possible in part because I was having it read to me, in part because I had a better idea of what I was in for, but mostly sheer stubbornness and long breaks in between listening sessions. When I really concentrated, I even found the language beautiful and poetic… but there’s just SO MUCH of it!!

The last two chapters still made me cry…

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Book Review: The Little Prince

I chose to read Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince for the “Children’s Classic” category in the Back to the Classics 2021 challenge. I knew almost nothing about this book before I started reading it, except that it often appears on those lists of classic books “everyone should read”. The novel was originally published in French during the height of WW2, but I read a relatively new translation of the work by Michael Morpurgo (best known as the author of War Horse.)

The Plot

“Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet scarcely bigger than he was, and who was longing to have a friend…”*

He meets a pilot who had spent most of his life alone, having always judged people as worthy of his friendship by how they reacted to a series of drawings he made when he was six years old. Together these two navigate an African desert, where the pilot has crash-landed after a mechanical breakdown, while the little prince tells him the story of how he came to earth.

As a child the unnamed pilot, who is also the narrator, was discouraged by adults who were always busy with “more important things”. They crushed his dreams of becoming a painter, so he learned how to talk to them about “bridge, golf, politics and ties” in an effort to fit in. The little prince (never spelled with capital letters!) is the exact opposite. A being from an asteroid called B-612, he never loses his childlike wonder at the world, and never stops asking a question until he is given a satisfactory answer.

Would I have liked this story as a child? Probably not. The illustrations are naive and sweet, but the story is far more philosophical than in the books I enjoyed when I was young. It is about seeing the beauty of the world, and not losing sight of what’s really important. Both of the main characters make commentary in their own ways about the world around them, but other than that, nothing much happens…

Did I like it now? Well… it was okay. I can’t say that it lived up to the hype, but I didn’t find it quite as disappointing as another “must-read” classic A Wrinkle in Time, which I listened to in audio-book form last year and found it just wasn’t for me.

*Quote from chapter 4 of the novel

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Book Review: The Odyssey

I chose to read this epic poem, attributed to “Homer” for the “classic by a new to you author” category in the Back to the Classics 2021 challenge. Obviously I’d heard of Homer’s works before. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the Trojan Horse, Helen of Troy (the face that launched a thousand ships), or an Achilles’ Heel? What I wasn’t aware of when I chose this book, is that so much is unknown about Homer. Was he one man (or woman), or a collective? How long were the stories passed down orally before someone wrote them down? Were they written down by a literate poet, or dictated to a scribe?

The Plot

Ten years after the Trojan war ended, the victors have still not all returned safely home. The Hellenes angered the gods with some of the violent acts they committed in the sacking of the city, and also by neglecting to make the necessary offerings before they departed for home. For these crimes, the gods ensured that the fleet was scattered. Some of the generals survived perilous journeys home, some did not. Of Odysseus, the cunning general whose invention of the famous wooden horse finally ended the war, there has been no news.

Odysseus has been a captive of the goddess Calypso for seven years. Athena, a goddess who has always favoured Odysseus, asks her father Zeus to order him set free. This angers Poseidon, the god of the sea, who does everything in his power to hinder Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca. Meanwhile Penelope and Telemachus, Odysseus’ wife and son, experience hardships of their own.

I wasn’t all that familiar with Greek mythology until recently. I had seen various “retellings” of Greek myths – books, movies and TV shows that have taken inspiration from the old stories, but I had never really dug deeper than that until I read and enjoyed Stephen Fry’s Great Mythology series, retelling Greek myths from the creation of the world up until the end of the Trojan War. (I have high hopes that he will eventually round out the series with a retelling of The Odyssey!) Having this background really helped my understanding of the poem, as there are a lot of tricky names to keep up with, and references to characters and events that would have been so well known to the original audiences that they would not have needed explanation at the time.

Originally I was intending to listen to an audiobook version of this work, but by chance I was made aware of the existence of a 2017 translation by Emily Wilson – the first English language translation by a female. I was intrigued by the suggestion that Wilson had chosen to avoid the sexist and misogynist language which appears in some older translations*. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she had also chosen to avoid archaic language, making this classic work much easier on modern audiences.

I’ll admit that I put off reading The Odyssey for many years, because I was afraid that it was one of those books that everyone *should* read, but is actually really challenging. It wasn’t… but I suspect that the translation had a lot to do with that. I’m not saying I’d read it again straight away, but I would probably read it again one day down the track.

*So I have heard. I have not read any of the older translations for comparison.

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Book Review: Mr Midshipman Hornblower

I chose to read C. S. Forester’s Mr Midshipman Hornblower for the “Travel or Adventure Classic” category in the Back to the Classics 2021 challenge. It is the 6th book published in C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series, but the first chronologically, covering the period of his first introduction into the navy.

The Plot

It is 1794, and 17-year-old Horatio Hornblower joins the crew of H.M.S. Justininan as a Midshipman. The Justinian is undergoing a long period at anchor in Spithead, and Hornblower makes an inauspicious start to his naval career by suffering from seasickness while still in port. His misery is compounded by the bullying of Midshipman Simpson, who has recently been demoted from Acting-Lieutenant due to his lack of mathematical ability.

Fortunately for our hero he is soon transferred to a frigate, H. M. S. Indefatigable, where his prospects are vastly improved. Action and adventure on the high seas, with the possibility of promotion and a share in the spoils of war will follow…

While this isn’t the kind of book I usually read, I did enjoy it – for the most part. While still at university I read what was the first novel of the series to be published, The Happy Return, which was also published under the title Beat to Quarters. Probably I was inspired to try it out by the series of TV movies starring Ioan Gruffudd, which to be honest, I’ve only seen bits of, but I liked what I saw!

Horatio Hornblower is an intelligent young man who, in spite of a certain lack of self-confidence, is on the fast-track for career success. He has a tendency to overthink things in quiet moments, and sometimes overlooks details that later turn out to be vital. Still, through a combination of dogged determination and dumb luck, he usually comes out on top.

I did find that some of the perils he found himself in were a bit melodramatic, and perhaps made more ridiculous by the knowledge that he was likely to survive (or else why were there still 200 pages left in the book, not to mention the 10 more books in the series). The pacing was also a little stilted, with the separate adventures Hornblower undergoes feeling more like a collection of short stories than a novel.

I’m not going to race out and read the rest of the series immediately, but I have put them down on my list of things I’ll get around to reading eventually…

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Book Review: Planet of the Apes

I chose to read Planet of the Apes (written by Pierre Boulle and translated from the French by Xan Fielding) for the “classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title” category in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.

When choosing books for this year’s challenge, this category was the one I found the most difficult to fill, because there weren’t any books already on my Goodreads “Want to Read” shelf that met the guidelines. I was surprised to see Planet of the Apes come up in a quick Google search for “classics about animals”, and even more surprised to find that it was actually on the shelf in my local library. I borrowed it before leaving town for Christmas with family, and left it burning a hole in the bottom of my suitcase until the new year clicked over so I could start reading it.

The Plot

Two wealthy tourists, Phyllis and Jinn, are on an interplanetary holiday when they retrieve a message in a bottle. This is merely a framing device, for in the bottle, they find the memoirs of Ulysse Mérou, a young journalist who was a member of a three-man expedition travelling from Earth’s solar system to the vicinity of Betelgeuse in the year 2500.

Mérou details the crew’s extraordinary journey, explaining that because of the speeds they travelled at, hundreds of years passed on Earth whilst only two years passed on their ship. On arriving at their destination, they discover an inhabited planet very similar to Earth, but are astonished to learn that on this planet, the dominant life-form are the apes.

I think most people are familiar with the basics of the story – or at least the Hollywood versions. I would probably not have read this novel if I hadn’t been aware of the existence of all the movie versions. (I have seen the Charlton Heston version once, but haven’t actually seen any of the sequels, nor the more recent adaptations – the 2001 version starring Mark Wahlberg or the reboot series featuring Andy Serkis.) Unfortunately my experience of the novel was somewhat spoiled by knowing too much about what was going to happen. Any sense of foreshadowing in the early chapters was lost, because I already knew what it was building up to. (I detailed similar feelings last year in my review of The Island of Dr Moreau.)

One big surprise I had was learning that the same author wrote both Planet of the Apes and Bridge on the River Kwai. Who knew? It was as big a revelation to me as learning that Ian Fleming wrote both the James Bond novels and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I’m forgetting something… oh right. What did I actually think of the novel? Well, I wasn’t sure what to expect, particularly because past experience has taught me not to trust Hollywood adaptations of classic sci-fi novels. I was pleasantly surprised. It has been long enough since I saw the movie that I didn’t remember every little plot point, which was probably a good thing. The novel doesn’t end in exactly the same way as the movie in any case.

While I enjoyed the book for the most part, I will admit that there were a couple of moments that gave me pause. In particular there were moments of – I think the best word is hypocrisy – on the part of Ulysse. He is in a difficult position, being an intellectual equal to the apes, but physically equated with the humans. That said, it was difficult for me to accept his logic when it comes to his feelings about the humans on the planet. In one scene Ulysse subdues an agitated human by slapping her, but justifies it to himself on the grounds that she is a mere animal according to the standards of the apes. Later he is physically repulsed by experiments conducted on the humans by ape scientists because he still feels some kinship with them.

Overall, I’m glad I read Planet of the Apes… but I don’t see myself reading it again any time soon.

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Back to the Classics 2021!!

It’s back again! I love the Back to the Classics challenges, because they challenge me to read a little more out of my comfort zone. Some years I have done better than others (looking at you, 2015) and I have missed a couple of years, but I finished all 12 categories in 2020.

I’m trying really hard to cut down my Goodreads “Want to Read” shelf this year, and with only one exception these books were all already on it.* This year I am going further back than I ever have, with a couple of very old books, and I am also reading the most recent classic I have ever counted for one of these challenges. I am also planning to read a lot more translated fiction this year, simply because that’s what was already waiting on my want to read list.

As usual, I have checked that these books are going to be fairly easily obtained, but after the year we’ve just had I’ve learned not to assume anything. Below are the categories for 2021, with the books I plan to read for each one.

1. A 19th century classic: Arthur Conan Doyle – The White Company, 1891.

2. A 20th century classic: Aldous Huxley – Brave New World, 1932.

3. A classic by a woman author: Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1961.

4. A classic in translation: Victor Hugo – Les Miserables, 1862.

5. A classic by BIPOC author: Alexandre Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844.

6. A classic by a new-to-you author: Homer – The Odyssey, 8th Century BCE.

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author: Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities, 1859.

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title: Pierre Boulle – Planet of the Apes, 1963.

9. A children’s classic: Antoine de Saint-Exupery – The Little Prince, 1943.

10. A humorous or satirical classic: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra – Don Quixote, 1615.

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction): C. S. Forester – Mr Midshipman Hornblower, 1950.

12. A classic play: William Shakespeare – Coriolanus, first performed 1609.

*I didn’t have any animal classics on my Want to Read shelf.

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