Monday, December 24, 2012

Favorite Reads of 2012

A Suitable Boy
Vikram Seth brings post-partition India to life in all its many layers in this journey through two years in the lives of four families.  Seth made me care about every one of the dozens of characters and story lines.  Possibly my favorite of 2012. 

In the First Circle
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  Two privileged groups of people--the Soviet upper class of diplomats and generals, and the "upper class" of gulag prisoners (those with scientific or technical skills)--are trapped in the first circle of the Soviet hell. 

Casting the Runes
M. R. James is my new favorite writer of ghost stories.  These have so much to love:  cozy nineteenth-century British settings, scholarly main characters, and ghosts from antiquity.  

The Life of Irene Nemirovsky
By Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt.  A very, very engrossing look at the tragic life of one of my favorite authors.

Julius Caesar
The first of Shakespeare's histories that I've read since high school.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it moving and suspenseful.

An Artist of the Floating World
By Kazuo Ishiguro.  A subtly and delicately fascinating novel of memory, propaganda, and self-justification in postwar Japan.  I've got more by this extremely interesting author on my TBR list. 

Die Verwandlung
Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.  This was the most difficult book I've attempted to read in German--it makes this list because I got through it! 

Bloodlands--Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
Timothy Snyder's history of the the area of eastern Europe in which the Nazis and the Soviets between them deliberately murdered fourteen million people between 1933 and 1945. 

Twilight and Moonbeam Alley
By Stefan Zweig.  Loved these stories by an author I've just discovered.  Moody and old-European in a style that's reminiscent of Isak Dinesen.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
By Anne Bronte.  Shocking-for-its-time depiction of an intolerable marriage from the woman's point of view.  Harrowing to read, the book is a passionate plea for women's right to self-determination.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
By David Mitchell.  Page-turning and thought-provoking historical fiction.  

Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy's incredibly moving tragedy.  I had to stop reading this one halfway through and catch my breath before going on.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mount TBR Challenge

As I have a TBR list of 78 books at the moment (click on TBR List at the top of the blog to see it), and as I expect 2013 to be quite a bit busier than 2012 was, I'd resolved not to join any new challenges, and just continue with the Classics Club.  But... here's a challenge that fits in with that resolution.  Bev at My Reader's Block proposes that we read mainly from our own TBR piles, and choose from the following levels:

Pike's Peak:  Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc:  Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver:  Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat:  Read 48 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro:  Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro:  Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest:  Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Olympus(Mars):  Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

I'm not committing to more than Pike's Peak (12 books) at this point, although I hope I'll read more from my TBR list than that.  I'm also not deciding in advance which ones I will read, keeping this as easy as possible. 

Quick Look: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Set on the artificial island of Dejima, a Dutch trading post just off the coast of Japan around 1800, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is hard to categorize.  While it has elements of historical fiction, adventure, romance, mystery, and fantasy, it is none of those exclusively.  What it is is a page-turner with an appealing main character, and prose that is thoughtful and often haunting. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Just Finished: Tess of the D'Urbervilles

During a 2011 trip to England, I visited Stonehenge.  From the headphones they give to tourists, I learned two things I did not previously know:  that it's now believed to be an ancient calendar, and that Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles contains a scene describing a sunrise there.  The recorded voice quoted part of the scene:
The band of silver paleness along the eastern horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near;  and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day.  The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun-stone beyond them;  and the Stone of Sacrifice midway.  Presently the night wind died out, and the quivering little pools in the cup-like hollows of the stones lay still.  

So of course I bought the book, and of course I didn't read it.  Until now, as it's on my Classics Club list.

Tess is one of the more affecting books I've ever read--I actually stopped reading it for a couple of weeks, because I  was getting so emotionally involved, and I didn't want to face the next disaster looming on Tess' horizon.  Why was I more moved by her than by, say, Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, who was equally blameless and equally unfortunate?

Maybe it's because Helen was more of a device than a woman--Anne Bronte made her almost impossibly saintly, clearsighted, and resolute, probably to further her feminist message.  Tess, on the other hand, while both intelligent and good, comes off as rather hapless, and at key points in her life, makes tragically bad decisions.  Her character is more complex, and felt more affectingly human to me.

Another reason is probably that Hardy, like Dickens, found England's lowest classes of people as interesting as the highest.  He has an upper-class character spend time among farm laborers, and discover 
...beings of many minds, beings infinite in difference, some happy, many serene, a few depressed, one here and there bright even to genius, some stupid, others wanton, others austere;  some mutely Miltonic, some potentially Cromwellian;  into men who had private views of each other, as he had of his friends;  who could applaud or condemn each other, amuse or sadden themselves by the contemplation of each other's foibles or vices;  men every one of whom walked in his own individual way the road to dusty death.  
 A feminist message can be found in Tess as well as in Wildfell Hall.  Most of Tess' misfortunes are caused by men's selfishness, and Hardy even titles one section of Tess "The Woman Pays."  Both books illustrate the plight of women in Victorian England--creatures with virtually no rights, held by men to standards that the men themselves did not meet.  This line, near the end of the book, in which Tess and her estranged husband are reunited, devastated me:
They stood fixed, their baffled hearts looking out of their eyes with a joylessness pitiful to see.  
 As great a novel as Wildfell Hall is, Tess is the one that caused me genuine grief.

Classics Club

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Just Finished: Two Short Story Collections

I like to read short stories, possibly because I do a lot of my reading over meals, and a story is about the right length for, say, lunch.  If I pick up something longer, sometimes I don't want to put it down, and will keep reading long after lunch is over and the kids and I need to get back to work.

So I recently read two collections back to back:  first The Lady With the Dog and Other Stories, by Chekhov, and then Selected Short Stories by Maupassant.  These two authors turned out to be interesting to read together, because they are superficially alike, but very different in mood. 

Both Chekhov and Maupassant lived, and set their stories, in 19th-century Europe.  Both create characters with family, romantic, and professional concerns.  Sometimes there is a war going on in the background (this is Europe after all).  Both view their characters unsentimentally, and both do some skewering of hypocrisy.

The difference that struck me, as I said, was in the mood--Chekhov feels more dramatic, sometimes pushing the envelopes of plot and character toward mysticism or madness (which is always enjoyable!).  Maupassant is, by comparison, deadpan, although no less effective.  He simply puts forth some characters and some actions, and lets events follow their course, and at the end of the story I'm amused, or shocked, or impressed at what his Normans (he sometimes mentions "the Norman mind") have done.

To take Chekhov at his most extreme, in "The Black Monk" a man is haunted by a legendary specter who drives him into megalomania.  Whether this specter exists outside the man's mind or not isn't clear, but the man enjoys its visits:
Hardly had he recalled the legend and pictured in his imagination the dark apparition he had seen in the rye field, when, from behind a pine tree exactly opposite, there came out noiselessly, without the slightest rustle, a man of medium height with uncovered grey head, all in black, and barefooted like a beggar, and his black eyebrows stood out conspicuously on his pale, death-like face.  Nodding his head graciously, this beggar or pilgrim came noiselessly to the seat and sat down, and Kovrin recognized him as the black monk.  
The story is of a man losing his family through his growing egoism, but it's not ordinary egoism--it's mad, phantom-fed egoism.  

Maupassant, on the other hand, is down to earth.  In "Boule de Suif," a group of people traveling in France are detained by an occupying German officer, who will not let them proceed unless one of their number, a prostitute, agrees to sleep with him.  She refuses, and they support her, but as they are kept longer and longer from their journey, they begin to resent her refusal.  They finally decide that she is holding them up out of selfishness.  With many self-serving rationalizations, they discuss ways of convincing her to sacrifice herself for them:
Loiseau was raging, and wanted to hand over the hussy to the enemy bound hand and foot.  But the Comte, scion of three generations of ambassadors and himself looking every inch a diplomat, favoured the use of tact.  "We have got to convince her," he said.  
These characters are ordinary human monsters.

In their different ways, Chekhov and Maupassant have given me several weeks of great lunchtime reading. 

Classics Club

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tess, Interrupted...

Am interrupting my reading of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  Sigh.  Poor Tess' life is just such a series of train wrecks, and I know there's still worse to come, and I'm almost afraid to continue reading.  Hardy tells her story beautifully, but I'm having a hard time facing it, which I suppose says volumes about his skill.  I'm indulging my love of short stories with Chekhov and Maupassant for a little while, then I'll face Tess' fate. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Verse: Alcestis

 I heard an NPR interview this morning that was interesting on several levels.  A woman named Joanna Macy, philosopher, German translator, environmental activist, talked about many things, including the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.  This interview helped me see some of Rilke's poems in a new light, with regard to his feelings about nature and God.  Both Ms. Macy and Rilke are well worth reading.  Anyway, I had to get out my Selected Poetry of Rilke and follow along with the interview, and came across the poem "Alcestis."  I don't remember reading this before, but now that I have read Euripedes' play of the same name, this poem of Rilke's jumped out at me.  I found it very subtle and heartbreaking. 

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Then all at once the messenger was there,
amid the simmer of wedding guests:  dropped in
like the last ingredient in a bubbling pot.
They kept on drinking and did not feel the stealthy
entrance of the god, who held his aura
as tight against his body as a wet cloak,
and seemed to be like any one of them
as he walked on.  But abruptly, halfway through
a sentence, one guest saw how the young master
was startled from his couch at the table's head,
as though he had been snatched up into the air
and mirroring, all over, with all his being,
a strangeness that addressed him, horribly.
And then, as though the mixture cleared, there was
silence;  on the bottom, just the dregs
of muddy noise and a precipitate
of falling babble, already giving off
the rancid smell of laughter that has turned.
For now they recognized the slender god,
and, as he stood before them, filled with his message
and unentreatable,--they almost knew.
And yet, when it was uttered, it was beyond
all understanding;  none of them could grasp it.
Admetus must die.  When?  Within the hour.

But by this time he had broken through the shell
of his terror;  and he thrust out both his hands
from the jagged holes, to bargain with the god.
For years, for only one more year of youth,
for months, for weeks, for just a few more days,
oh not for days:  for nights, for just a night,
for one more night, for just this one:  for this.
The god refused;  and then he stared screaming,
and screamed it out, held nothing back, screamed
as his own mother had once screamed in childbirth.
And she came up beside him, an old woman,
and his father came up also, his old father,
and both stood waiting--old, decrepit, helpless--
beside the screaming man, who, as never before
so closely, saw them, stopped, swallowed, said:
do you care about the wretched scrap of life
still left you, that will just stick in your throat?
Go spit it out.  And you, old woman, old
why should you stay here?  you have given birth.
And grabbed them both, like sacrificial beasts,
in his harsh grip.  Then suddenly let them go,
pushed the old couple off, inspired, beaming,
breathing hard and calling:  Creon!  Creon!
And nothing else, and nothing but that name.
Yet in his features stood the other name
he could not utter, namelessly expectant
as, glowing, he held it out to the young guest,
his dearest friend, across the bewildered table.
These two old people (it stood there) are no ransom,
they are used up, exhausted, nearly worthless,
but you, Creon, you in all your beauty--

But now he could no longer see his friend,
who stayed behind;  and what came forth was she,
almost a little smaller than as he knew her,
slight and sad in her pale wedding dress.
All the others are just her narrow path,
down which she comes and comes--:  (soon she will be
there, in his arms, which painfully have opened).

But while he waits, she speaks;  though not to him.
She is speaking to the god, and the god listens,
and all can hear, as though within the god:

No one can be his ransom:  only I can.
I am his ransom.  For no one else has finished
with life as I have.  What is left for me
of everything I once was?  Just my dying.
Didn't she tell you when she sent you down here
that the bed waiting inside belongs to death?
For I have taken leave.  No one dying
takes more than that.  I left so that all this,
buried beneath the man who is now my husband,
might fade and vanish--.  Come, lead me away,
already I have begun to die, for him.

And veering like a wind on the high seas,
the god approached as though she were already
dead, and instantly was there beside her,
far from her husband, to whom, with an abrupt
nod, he tossed the hundred lives of earth.
The young man hurried, staggering, toward the two
and grasped at them as in a dream.  But now
they had nearly reached the entrance, which was crowded
with sobbing women.  One more time he saw
the girl's face, for just a moment, turning toward him
with a smile that was as radiant as a hope
and almost a promise:  to return
from out of the abyss of death, grown fully,
to him, who was still alive--

At that, he flung
his hands before his own face, as he knelt there,
in order to see nothing but that smile.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Verse: Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

This collection of poems is the pouring out of Rabindranath Tagore's moving and passionate hunger for God.   Of Tagore's poetry W. B. Yeats wrote in 1912:  "I have carried the manuscripts of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me."


The rain has held back for days and days, my God, in my arid heart.  The horizon is fiercely naked--not the thinnest cover of a soft cloud, not the vaguest hint of a distant cool shower. 

Send thy angry storm, dark with death, if it is thy wish, and with lashes of lightning startle the sky from end to end. 

But call back, my lord, call back this pervading silent heat, still and keen and cruel, burning the heart with dire despair.

Let the cloud of grace bend low from above like the tearful look of the mother on the day of the father's wrath.


I know that the day will come when my sight of this earth shall be lost, and life will take its leave in silence, drawing the last curtain over my eyes.

Yet stars will watch at night, and morning rise as before, and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains. 

When I think of this end of my moments, the barrier of the moments breaks and I see by the light of death thy world with its careless treasures.  Rare is its lowliest seat, rare is its meanest of lives.

Things that I longed for in vain and things that I got--let them pass.  Let me but truly possess the things that I ever spurned and overlooked.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Quick Looks: Stefan Zweig

This little book contains two stories by Stefan Zweig, a 20th-century German author I'm very pleased to have discovered.  The first story, "Twilight," is an imagining of the real-life downfall of Madame de Prie, a lady-in-waiting at  Versailles, after the king banishes her from court.  In the second, "Moonbeam Alley,"  a traveler is drawn into the tragic lives of a couple he meets in a tavern in the waterfront district of a foreign city. 

The stories are strongly reminiscent of Isak Dinesen's stories--moody, old-Europe settings and tales-within-tales wherein the main character meets someone who ends up revealing his life story.  Loved these.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Just Finished: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The fifth anniversary of my wedding day, and, I trust, the last I shall spend under this roof.  My resolution is formed, my plan concocted, and already partly put in execution.  My conscience does not blame me...

I read Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a plea for women's right to self-determination.  I didn't quite expect to read it that way;  I hadn't realized before that the novel had such a strong feminist message.  It also contains an utterly realistic portrait of a man on the downward spiral of alcoholism.

The novel is comprised of three parts.  In the first, Helen, a widow with a young son, appears in a rural village and rents an isolated mansion.  She refuses to satisfy the curiosity of her neighbors about her origins, and soon becomes the object of malicious gossip.  The second part consists of her diary, which details her marriage to an emotionally abusive alcoholic and her eventual flight from him.  In the third, the story lines are resolved and all characters get their various desserts, good and bad.

In a time and place in which everything a woman possessed became the legal property of her husband, and in which she was expected to obey him in all matters, and in which there were no socially acceptable grounds for leaving him, this book must have seemed incendiary.  Certainly her behavior is tame by today's standards--the husband's moral degeneration and hatred of his wife are chilling, and her forbearance is saintly and lasts far longer than he deserves.  She finally removes herself and her child from the toxic atmosphere, but does not seek divorce, and returns to nurse him through his final illness. She refuses to speak ill of him or allow anyone else to do so.

...two years hence you will be as calm as I am now, --and far, far happier, I trust, for you are a man, and free to act as you please...

This is the crux of the book, I think--that in Helen's society, women did not have the legal right to make even the simplest decisions regarding their own persons, once they were married.

Classics Club

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Verse: Two Romanian Poems

I just love these.

Sentimental Story
by Nichita Stanescu

Then we met more often.
I stood at one side of the hour,
you at the other,
like two handles of an amphora.
Only the words flew between us,
back and forth.
You could almost see their swirling,
and suddenly,
I would lower a knee,
and touch my elbow to the ground
to look at the grass, bent
by the falling of some word,
as though by the paw of a lion in flight.
The words spun between us,
back and forth,
and the more I love you, the more
they continued, this whirl almost seen,
the structure of matter, the beginnings of things. 

A Poem
by Nichita Stanescu

Tell me, if I caught you one day
And kissed the sole of your foot—
Wouldn’t you limp a little afterwards
Afraid you’re going to crush my kiss?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Just Finished: The Social Contract

Full disclosure:  I did not enjoy reading The Social Contract  by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  I found the writing dry, dry, dry, and so very abstract that I frequently had to try to imagine what real-world situation was being described.  There are many passages like this: 

It follows from this dual relationship that the geometric progression between sovereign, prince and people is by no means an arbitrary idea, but a necessary consequence of the nature of the body politic.  It follows further that one of the terms, namely the people as subject, is represented by unity, every time the square of the ratio is increased or diminished, the simple ratio increases or diminishes in the same way, and the middle term, the government, is in consequence changed.  

That said, I am glad to have read it.  Rousseau argues against any natural rights to power, and for the concept of a "social contract."  The social contract is the free agreement of all the citizens of a state to cooperate in securing everyone's rights and interests.  He lays out the components of governments that truly represent everyone's interests.  He discusses potential pitfalls, and examines the successes and flaws of the Roman style of government.  It's a foundational text, and it's one of the sources of modern ideas of representative government.

And it's not completely devoid of linguistic pleasure.  The opening is wonderful: 

Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains. 

Some other memorable lines:

If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself.  A government so perfect is not suited to men.

(Referring to hereditary monarchy):  When someone is brought up to command others, everything conspires to rob him of justice and reason.

Where rights and freedom are everything, inconveniences are nothing. 

Classics Club
Mixing It Up

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thursday Verse

The Century's Decline
by Wislawa Szymborska

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.

Too many things have happened
that weren't supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Happiness and spring, among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer.

Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.

A couple of problems weren't going
to come up anymore:
hunger, for example,
and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect
for helpless people's helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn't funny.
Wisdom isn't gay.
isn't that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong
but good and strong
are still two different men.

"How should we live?"  someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.

Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naive ones.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Quick Looks

Strange Tales by Rudyard Kipling
Eerily atmospheric tales, set in British India and other places.  Told in graceful prose, with a strong sense of place.  Just what I like, although I did get a bit tired of the natives-as-cowardly-simpleminded-liars subtext.

We were alone in the house, but none the less it was much too fully occupied by a tenant with whom I did not wish to interfere.  I never saw him, but I could see the curtains between the rooms quivering where he had just passed through;  I could hear the chairs creaking as the bamboos sprung under a weight that had just quitted them;  and I could feel when I went to get a book from the dining-room that somebody was waiting in the shadows of the front veranda till I should have gone away.

 To Build A Fire by Jack London
My oldest is taking an American lit class, and I'm enjoying reading some of what she is assigned.  This story's theme is typical London--man's hubris contrasted with animals' instincts in the Arctic north.  Rather sober and chilling (!) account of a man whose fate hinges on his success or failure in building a fire.

His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the surface of his body and to all the extremities.  But the instant he stopped, the action of the pump eased down.  The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow.

 Alcestis by Euripedes
A short play about a man who allows his wife to sacrifice her life for him, and immediately regrets it.  Various types of loyalty are explored, sometimes with great eloquence.

Oh, my return to home is return to lament
Oh, the emptiness left in unwelcoming rooms!
Go where?  Be where?  What say?  What not?
I wish I were dead.
What doom-laden womb, what mother produced me?
I yearn for the shade.  I lust after phantoms.
Theirs are the homes I crave to indwell.
The joy in my eyes is a light gone dim.
The joy in the tread of my feet is gone.
Death has cleft from me half my life:
Traded to Hades.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Just Finished: In the First Circle

In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had a long road to publication.  An indictment of the totalitarian Soviet system set in 1949, the novel traces the chain of events set in motion by a junior Soviet diplomat's impulsive, dangerous phone call on Christmas eve to the American embassy.  Solzhenitsyn wrote the book between 1955 and 1958, but couldn't get it published in English until 1968, after cutting out nine chapters and many individual scenes to get it past the censors.  The version I read is the first uncensored edition, with all cut material restored, published in 2009. 

The "first circle" refers to Dante's circles of Hell, with the first being the best (or least terrible), in which the luckiest (or least unfortunate) find themselves.  The sharakshas, for example, were the best of the gulag prisons, in which prisoners with scientific or technical skills worked on technological projects for the Soviet government and lived in better conditions than those in the labor camps.  The novel isn't merely a description of the gulag system, though.  A larger "first circle" is that of the Soviet elite--diplomats,  high-ranking Party members, military officers.  Although they occupy the highest social levels, they're in the first circle of the hell that is Soviet society.  At its highest and lowest levels, it is a society that is built on lies and blind glorification of Stalin.  Everything works to crush individual achievement and independent thought. 

Two men's stories comprise the main threads of this complex (but never boring) book.  In the first circle of Soviet society is Innokenty Volodin, who makes the phone call that starts the action.  Volodin is a young diplomat who has become disenchanted with the Soviet system and yearns for truth and a life with meaning and integrity.  His phone call, from a public booth, is an attempt to warn the Americans that one of their number is a spy who is about to give the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviets.  The call is listened to and recorded, but his identity is not known.

The search for the man who made the phone call leads to the introduction of the other main character, Gleb Nerzhin.  Nerzhin is a zek, or political prisoner.  His crime:  having been a prisoner of the Germans during the war.  (Many Soviet prisoners of the Germans were put into gulags upon returning home after the war, on the assumption that they must have picked up some anti-Soviet attitudes after spending so much time with Germans.)  Nerzhin is a mathematician who works in an acoustics lab in a sharashka.  His group is assigned the task of using electronic voice analysis to identify the man who made the phone call to the American embassy. 

Many other characters and story lines give glimpses of what life is like for all kinds of people under a totalitarian system that seeks to control not only the movements and behavior but also the thoughts of its citizens, by force and intimidation.  This book's wide-angle, multi-storied picture of a society at a particular point in its history kept reminding me of A Suitable Boy.  But this is a much more chilling story.  It's not the smooth page-turner created by Vikram Seth;  rather, it's Solzhenitsyn's tribute to the people who struggle to maintain their integrity of mind in a crushing system.  Although there is some humor and many appealing characters, it's a much more harrowing read.  No one is free in In The First Circle;  they're just occupying different levels of Hell.

Classics Club

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Used Book Happiness

I've always wanted to do one of those "here's what I bought today" posts with a picture of a pile of books, that I love seeing on other blogs.  So, since I did really well on my most recent trip to Half Price Books, today is the day.  Even more happily, most of these purchases were inspired by fellow bloggers.

On top is Gitanjali, a collection of poems by the Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.  What made it catch my eye was the introduction by W. B. Yeats, in whom I am newly interested thanks to James at Following Pulitzer, who blogged about Yeats recently.

The second book in the pile is a collection of stories by Katherine Mansfield.  Her name has been floating around in my brain since reading Irene Nemirovsky's biography.  Mansfield was a favorite of Irene's.

The third one down is Three Plays of Euripedes, one of which is Alcestis.  I've been wanting to read Alcestis since Jean at Howling Frog Books posted her response to that play

On the bottom is View with a Grain of Sand, a collection of poems by Wislawa Szymborska.  Szymborska is a 20th-century Polish poet who was once mentioned as a favorite by Nancy at ipsofactodotme.  Quite an unexpected pleasure to find this one.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Quick Looks: Recently Enjoyed

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
"I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus, which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? ...I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself."  (From Margaret Atwood’s Foreword to The Penelopiad)

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
"Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym’s richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman’s daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted.  ...The novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires."  (From Amazon)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Kids' Picks: August

Five Minutes For Books is inviting bloggers to share what their children are reading.  Here are some of their summer reading choices: 

Elder daughter (17):  On her break between summer classes, she read a book for pleasure!  And she picked one of my personal favorites:  Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin.  She liked it as much as I do, and asked me to recommend similar stuff.  (Not easy--I've come up with The Penelopiad  by Margaret Atwood so far;  other suggestions are welcome.)

Younger daughter (14):  Is currently interested in 1920s and 1940s settings.  She's reading The Girl is Murder, one of a series of detective stories with a teenage protagonist set in the 1940s, and Vixen, one of the Flappers series, set (yes) in the 1920s.  She says she likes the period settings, but has asked me to recommend something of better quality set in those eras with young protagonists.  She's recently read The Great Gatsby, and I've suggested Alice Adams, (which I love) but nothing else comes to mind.  Suggestions?

Elder son (11):  He's in the middle of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.  I slipped this into his pile,  and he's liking it so far.  Hugely into ghost stories right now, he's also making his way through The Random House Book of Ghost Stories.

Younger son (8):  Recently finished Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.  My fiction hater, he decided to read this only because the Puffin Classics edition we have contains a lot of illustrations!  His recent nonfiction choices include Stealth Fighters and Bombers, U-2 Planes, and UH-60 Black Hawks... you get the idea.  Oh, and I pulled these off the library shelf to make him laugh, and he took them home and read them:  Junk Food by Vicki Cobb, and The Story Behind Toilets by Elizabeth Raum.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Just Finished: The Life Of Irene Nemirovsky

I'm often frustrated, when reading biographies, by how little a biographer can really know about his or her subject.  If everyone who knew them is dead, the evidence is reduced to letters and diaries.  Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, the authors of The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, have, not diaries, but her working notebooks for many of her novels and stories.  These notebooks are both enlightening and frustrating, because they give a detailed look at the process by which she conceived and developed her stories.   But it then becomes too easy, I think, to leap to conclusions about her own character, beliefs, and choices.

Some conclusions, to be sure, beg to be made.  There can be no doubt that Nemirovsky wrote about what she knew best, her own people--nouveau riche Russian Jewish emigres in France in the early 20th century, and, later, the French people in general.  And it does seem obvious that she poured her feelings about her cold, spiteful, and pathologically vain mother into her fiction.  No fewer than three of her novels feature such mothers. 

What is known about Irene Nemirovsky is plentiful, and this biography gives an extremely interesting picture of her life, both before and after her family's emigration to France.  She was born in 1903 in Kiev, a rather beautiful old Ukrainian city with a large Jewish community.  Her father rose from poverty to great wealth as a banker and stock trader.  Her mother apparently married him as a "good prospect."  Both wanted to forget their humble beginnings in the Kiev ghetto, and lived an affluent lifestyle, spending part of every year in the south of France, speaking French rather than Russian or Yiddish at home.

If not for her French governess, Irene would have grown up virtually without love.  Her father, Leon Nemirovsky, seems simply to have been remote, and her mother, Fanny, who had an unending succession of lovers, wanted nothing to do with a daughter who was living proof of her age. 

At the time of the Russian Revolution, after a series of shocking pogroms, Leon moved his family out of Kiev, first to Finland, then Sweden, and finally settled them in France.  During her lonely adolescence, Irene discovered the pleasures of literature, particularly modern French writers, devouring Proust, Stendhal, Maupassant.  She took a degree in literature and for a few years lived independently from her parents, studying and enjoying the lifestyle of a flapper. 

Irene began selling comic stories about young flappers to magazines, and eventually met and married Michel Epstein, also the child of Russian Jewish emigres.  Her literary career took off in 1929 with the publication of David Golder, whose characters seem to be modeled on her family.  For the next ten years or so, she wrote prolifically, her stories and novels serialized in magazines.  She bore two daughters who remember her as a loving mother.  And finally, the tense months under German occupation, her arrest and deportation, and her death in Auschwitz.

This is an amazing and heartbreaking story, but, as with most biographies I read, I'm tantalized by what can't be known about a person from documentary history.  What were Irene's real feelings about Jews and her own Jewishness?  Her depiction of the Jewish characters in David Golder is brutally unflattering, even stereotypical.  But authors write (hopefully) honestly about what they experience, and Irene's family milieu was not a happy one.  How much of David Golder was accurate observation, and how much was exaggeration born of hurt?  She is quoted in an interview saying that she would have toned the book down had she known what was ahead in the way of Nazi persecution.  Would that toning down have represented a more, or less, realistic picture of the Jews of her family?

And why, really, did she embrace Catholicism in 1939?   No evidence of spiritual feelings is given up to that point in her life.  But she knew that in the eyes of the French as much as the Germans, converting would not make her "not a Jew."  Was she craving the comfort of religious faith, which she had never known, at an increasingly insecure and frightening time?  Was she grasping at straws, hoping to seem less offensive in the eyes of the increasingly anti-Semitic French right-wing press, which she relied on to publish her work?

What was the last month of her life like?  Obviously we know what she would have gone through at Auschwitz.  The camp records show that she was there for about a month before she died of typhus.  But I wanted to know what this writer would have produced from that experience, as she produced stories from the other experiences in her life.  She left behind no story to tell us about that.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What Is Your Favorite Classic Book?

The Classics Club's August meme asks this question:  what is your favorite classic book, and why?  I had to think a bit, because, ultimately, that question is unanswerable.  I have current favorites (witness my Suitable Boy lovefest), but "favorite classic" means something more, I think, something that withstands the test of time. 

So I'm going to settle on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as my favorite classic, not because I think it's the greatest book ever written, but because it looms large in my consciousness.  I first read it in high school, and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  The wit, the irony, and the frequent priceless lines, of which here is a sampling:
An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth.  From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.--Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.
Elizabeth's courage did not fail her.  She had heard nothing of Lady Catherine that spoke her awful from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtue, and the mere stateliness of money and rank, she thought she could witness without trepidation.
Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters.
This is one of the few classics I've re-read multiple times over the past thirty years, and I am not much of a re-reader in general.  It opened up the possibility of having genuine fun with a classic, leading me to try others on my own, on top of what was assigned at school.  It comes to mind first when I think "favorite."  I guess that makes it a good choice for favorite classic,  right?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Just Finished: Geheimnis Am Holunderweg

Children's books are about the right level for me when it comes to reading in German.  Even with no familiarity with the story, I read Geheimnis Am Holunderweg without using the dictionary once, and it seems to be aimed at preteens or young teens.  For purposes of improving my German, reading this book was light years more helpful than my recent slog through Kafka, in which I had to look up every other word, which caused me to frequently lose the author's train of thought.  There were plenty of words in this book that I didn't know, but the simple sentence structure and story line made it easy to figure out meanings from context, without slowing down.

The edition I read was printed in 1970, and set in a small German town.  (Holunderweg is the name of a street, and the title translates  as The Secret of Holunderweg.)  I initially assumed that this was a translation of a work by the famous English children's author Enid Blyton, but the German setting made me wonder, and so I did some googling.  Although I couldn't find any reference to this title in particular, apparently there were many books, and series of books, written by French and German authors in Blyton's style and using her name, either with or without permission.  This would seem to be one of those.

In the course of my googling I also learned that many of Blyton's books were full of racial and gender stereotyping and later editions were usually edited to remove insulting references to blacks.  And apparently in many of her books in which groups of children had adventures and solved mysteries, girl characters were excluded from the more dangerous events, and always did the cooking/cleaning up for the boys.  This issue did come up in Geheimnis Am Holunderweg.  At one point the oldest boy tells the two girls that they may not come along on a midnight search for some stolen goods because it would be too dangerous for them, and the girls willingly comply.  I don't know which seemed more anachronistic to me--girls happily taking orders from boys, or twelve-year-olds running all over town unsupervised day and night rather than being driven to activities and play dates by their parents!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Ten Most Vivid Book Worlds/Settings

Julia at The Broke and the Bookish invites readers this week to talk about setting.  As she says, "Today we get a special glimpse into one reason why we love the books we love: the settings and the worlds. A setting can make or break a book for me, especially if it is supposed to be in a world different than our own." 

A sense of place and time is one of the most important aspects of fiction for me, and a vivid setting can often make up for a book's other shortcomings.  (In the same way, I can often enjoy a movie I wouldn't otherwise care for if the setting is very compelling, like Defiance, or if the cinematography is stunning, like The Water Horse.)  Here are a few (not ten, sorry!) of the most memorable novel settings I've experienced, in no particular order.

England between the wars, as depicted in Agatha Christie's mystery novels.  To my suburban teenage self, this world in which people travelled by train, wore hats and stockings, had tea parties and cocktail parties, attended plays in the city, and ate off of china was the most exotic and wonderful of existences.

The bleak and paranoid world of the Soviet Union under Stalin, depicted in In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  In hundreds of chapters with alternating points of view, the voices of prisoners, scientists, civil servants, diplomats, intelligence agents, and even Josef Stalin himself build a picture of a system that crushes hope, initiative, and intellect.

Askatevar, a fascinating and forbidding planet far in the future which is the setting for Ursula K. LeGuin's Planet of Exile.  This enormous planet is located far from its sun, and therefore its single years are as long as human lifetimes;  its earlier seasons are remembered only by the very old.

Russia in the early nineteenth century, in War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  Tolstoy recreates Russia around the time of the Napoleonic invasion.  Characters are drawn from every level of society;  we care as much about serfs' and prisoners' concerns as those of princes and princesses.   Inward spiritual struggles, confused teenage romances, military strategy, and family relations all contribute to the historic panorama. 

Any of the exotic rural settings described by Mary Stewart in her suspense novels.  Nobody can describe scenery like Mary Stewart.  Greece, Lebanon, Austria, Scotland, France--these landscapes are still vivid mental images for me after decades because of Stewart's evocative prose that appeals to all the senses.   

India just after Partition, as depicted in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.  Seth does for India what Tolstoy did for Russia:  brings to life an entire society and all its strata at a particular historic moment, and deals with every kind of concern, from a mother's dislike of her son's wife, to the enactment of laws that would end the feudal system of landowners and tenants in India.  We get scenic descriptions, family relations, parliamentary sessions, religious riots, caste injustices, romances, friendships, factories and slums.  It all forms a wonderfully detailed picture of the time and place.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Just Finished: A Suitable Boy

In talking about Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, I'm going to try to avoid using terms like "epic" and "tour-de-force," but it won't be easy.  This is a 1300-odd page novel with dozens of characters and a scope that is both grand and intimate, and yet it's so compulsively readable that I was interested in every character and every story line.

The book is set in India in 1951.  The story loosely revolves around the main character, Lata, whose mother is determined to find a "suitable boy" for her to marry.  Although the book begins and ends with weddings, and the title notwithstanding, this story line is only one of many.  In addition to marriages, births, and deaths, subplots deal with land reform, caste discrimination, shoe manufacture, Hindu-Muslim relations, post-partition politics, university faculty politics, and more.  Jawaharlal Nehru himself makes a few appearances.

Although even the political story lines were interesting, the great pleasure for me was the depictions of Indian family life, with which I am familiar in a secondhand sort of way as my inlaws are Pakistani (raised in India and migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition).  They have brought many elements of that culture with them here to the US, and I felt real affection for many of the characters, both Hindu and Muslim, for that reason--I almost "knew" them already.  Not that such a body of background knowledge is necessary to thoroughly enjoy A Suitable Boy.  Seth's storytelling is at once so fluent and so sympathetic that I always wanted to read more.  By the end, I had spent so much time with these characters in their world that I knew I would miss them.

The Classics Club

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Nice Prose

Here's a beautiful passage from A Suitable Boy

She had dispersed.  She was the garden at Prem Nivas (soon to be entered into the annual Flower Show), she was Veena's love of music, Pran's asthma, Maan's generosity, the survival of some refugees four years ago, the neem leaves that would preserve quilts stored in the great zinc trunks at Prem Nivas, the moulting feather of some pond-heron, a small unrung brass bell, the memory of decency in an indecent time, the temperament of Bhaskar's great-grandchildren. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Liebster Blog Award


Amber at A Morose Bookshelf has tagged me for the Liebster Blog Award.  Says Amber, "You're tagged if you have under 200 followers and do a good job blogging. Those who are tagged then share 11 random facts about themselves, answer 11 questions posted by the person that tagged them, and then create their own set of 11 questions for others to answer."  Well, thanks, Amber!  I'll do my best. 

 Eleven Random Facts About Me:

1.  I live on the Gulf coast of Texas.
2. The only thing I enjoy cooking is soup.
3.  I think Puget Sound is the most beautiful place in America.
4.  I dislike driving.
5.  I love walking.
6.  In my teens, I was addicted to Agatha Christie.  I read every one of her books multiple times and can virtually recite them now.
7.  My current favorite poet is Anna Akhmatova.
8.  I have never waterskied.
9.  I try to eat, cook, and grow food as organically as possible.
10.  My favorite city to visit is London.
11.  I love tofu.

Amber's Questions:

1.  You're going to be stranded on an island.  You can only bring three books.  Which three?  They should be long, and they should be books I haven't read yet.  Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, and Les Miserables.
2.  One book you wish you had written.  Why Houston Needs Bike Lanes and a Decent Public Transportation System.
3.  Do you speak more than one language?  Am I fluent in more than one language?  Sadly, no.  I'm working on getting fluent in German, but that may or may not ever happen.  And I speak a little Urdu (my husband's language) but I'm nowhere near fluent.
4.  Which one is the better actor:  Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg?  Damon is good, but I haven't seen enough of Wahlberg to say whether he's better.  I did like him in Three Kings, though.
5.  What are you listening to?  Bollywood songs mostly these days.
6.  What is the worst book you've ever read?  That's tough to answer because I don't get very far into a book if I think it's really bad.  The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon comes to mind--I read the whole thing because I had to;  it was assigned in high school. 
7.  Do you have a doppelganger?  I don't have a lookalike that I'm aware of, but I do have a distant cousin with the exact same name. 
8.  SVU or Criminal Intent?  Don't watch either one.
9.  Three authors that "get" you or that you really love?  Tolstoy.  Ursula LeGuin.  Irene Nemirovsky.
10.  Do you have any other hobbies?  Reading and walking are my favorite pastimes.  That makes me sound really boring, I know, but there it is!
11.  Are you okay with reviews containing spoilers?  No!

Questions I'm Asking:

1.  How do you feel about the reading you were assigned in school?  Dislike?  Appreciate?
2.  Is there a book you have read so many times you almost have it memorized?
3.  What's your favorite non-fiction genre?
4.  Do you listen to many audiobooks?  Why or why not?
5.  What's your favorite movie based on a novel?
6.  Do you talk books with anyone in real life?  Who?  Or is your blog your only avenue?
7.  Is there any book you associate strongly with a particular place or time in your life?
8.  Where and when do you do most of your reading?
9.  What period in history have you read the most about (either fiction or non-fiction)?
10.  What kind of poetry (if any) do you read?
11.  What is the funniest book you've ever read?

I am passing the Liebster Blog Award on to the following bloggers, who may answer the above questions if they wish to participate:

Jean@Howling Frog Books
James@The Frugal Chariot
Monika@Library Mistress
Brona@Brona's Books
SmellinCoffee@This Week At the Library
Jo@Mixed Book Bag
Yvonne@fiction books

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Just Finished: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

When it's very hot, and where I live it's very hot most of the time, I love to read about cool, green, misty places.  (That is a not insignificant part of my love for English classics.)  So this collection of poetry and prose by Matsuo Basho was just the ticket last week.  The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches is his collected observations from several walking trips around the wild areas of northern Japan in the seventeenth century.  Autumn winds and moonlit mountains sound like heaven to me these days.

The translator of this edition, Nobuyuki Yuasa, explains that in the years preceding these journeys, Basho had been "casting away his earthly attachments" in an effort to attain spiritual purity, and that these journeys were intended as a final step in that process.  His intention was to travel until he died.

Although Yuasa provides a very interesting introduction to the haibun form (linked prose and haiku) and to the evolution of Basho's style, I didn't look at it until after finishing the book.  I wanted those images--I wanted to head north into those wild mountains.  And the poetry on its own was a great pleasure.  Images like this
Over the darkened sea,
Only the voice of a flying duck
Is visible--
In soft white.
and this
Not knowing 
The name of the tree,
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.
and this
Only half the way I came
To the ancient capital,
And above my head
Clouds heavy with snow.
were what I was craving.

Basho seems to be trying to notice and preserve every impression.  But more than just recording what he sees, he seems to want to see everything mindfully;  to see the essence of whatever he looks at.  He visits old friends, shrines, and the sites of ancient battles;  reflects, and is moved to tears.  It's as if he is trying to take leave of the world by studying and making poetry of it.

Mixing It Up
The Classics Club

Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Beginnings: Narrow Road to the Deep North

Rose City Reader invites us to "join me every Friday to share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires."

"Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have travelled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida in the August of the first year of Jyokyo among the wails of the autumn wind."

Sigh.  This so makes me want to walk in the misty mountains of Japan in the autumn wind and write my impressions in the form of haiku.  Especially since it's 104 degrees where I live right now and likely to stay that way for the next several months...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Verse

Another poem to go along with Bloodlands:  Czeslaw Milosz was a Lithuanian/Polish poet who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and, after the war, worked as a cultural attache to the (Soviet-controlled) People's Republic of Poland in Paris.  He defected to France in 1951.  

A Task
by Czeslaw Milosz

In fear and trembling, I think I would fulfill my life
Only if I brought myself to make a public confession
Revealing a sham, my own and of my epoch:
We were permitted to shriek in the tongue of dwarfs and
But pure and generous words were forbidden
Under so stiff a penalty that whoever dared to pronounce one
Considered himself as a lost man.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Just Finished: Bloodlands--Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, is, in the author's words, "a history of political mass murder."  In a region that includes eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and western Russia, which the author calls the bloodlands, the Nazi and the Soviet regimes between them murdered fourteen million people.  This number does not include deaths in battle;  these people were murdered as a result of either Soviet or Nazi government killing policies between 1933 and 1945.

The bulk of the book is taken up with outlining this history.  It's worth outlining, as separate from the battle deaths of World War II, because over the course of twelve years, "...mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region."  Snyder further contends,

Today there is widespread agreement that the mass killing of the twentieth century is of the greatest moral significance for the tweny-first.  How striking, then, that there is no history of the bloodlands. 

Stalin's plan to turn the Soviet Union into a modern industrial state in the early 1930s led to the decision to wipe out the peasants of the Ukraine and nearby regions.  When agriculture was collectivized and peasants deported to labor camps (the Gulag system), food production dropped, and grain quotas were not met.  The farming class as a whole was blamed, and all farm produce was seized, causing the death by starvation of over five million people.

In 1937 and 1938, in the Great Terror, another nearly 700,000 peasants and ethnic minorities who had survived the collectivization disaster were were blamed for it and executed by shooting. 

In 1939 the Germans and the Soviets simultaneously invaded Poland.  Between them they murdered about 200,000 Polish civilians, mainly the educated classes, in an effort to prevent organized resistance.  They also deported one million Polish citizens to the Gulag and to German labor camps, and put Polish Jews into ghettos in Poland.  Tens of thousands more died in these camps and ghettos.

In 1941 the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, intending to starve or work to death its peasant class and colonize the land with German farmers.  They were not successful in this aim, but they did starve to death several million prisoners of war and civilians.

Hitler's desire to remove all Jews from Europe evolved from plans to resettle them in Siberia or Africa, to deportations eastward, to mass executions.  Beginning with mass shootings, then using mobile gas vans, and finally dedicated gassing facilities, the Germans killed between five and six million Jews.  They also killed between 100,000 and 300,000 gypsies by the same methods.

These are numbers that are really too big to comprehend, and Snyder knows this:  "The sheer numbers of the victims can blunt our sense of the individuality of each one."  A strength of the book is his extensive use of victims' diaries and survivors' memoirs in an effort to convey lives and personalities that were lost--the real suffering behind the numbers. 

In the final chapter, "Humanity," Snyder examines theories of cause and effect.  He compares the Nazi and Stalinist systems, and how they separately and together destroyed so many lives.  He discusses Hannah Arendt's theory of modern alienation resulting in totalitarian systems, but doesn't accept it as a complete explanation for what happened in the bloodlands.  He reaches no ultimate conclusion about causes, but frames his history of the bloodlands as a necessary and overdue first step in understanding.  Before we can understand why, we must accurately understand what happened:

But before we draw such theoretical conclusions, about modernity or anything else, we must understand what actually happened, in the Holocaust and in the bloodlands generally.  For the time being, Europe's epoch of mass killing is overtheorized and misunderstood.

Mixing It Up

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Top Ten Books On My Summer TBR List

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's topic is "Top Ten Books on the Summer TBR List."  Any summer list of mine will generally include  books that I plan to assign to my various children next fall.  So that means some ancient literature.  My list will also include books for the two challenges in which I'm currently participating:  Mixing It Up and the Classics Club.  And there will be some I'll read just because I want to.  So, here is my tentative top ten, in no particular order except as they occur to me:

1.  The Aeneid by Virgil.  I'm very interested in reading this, having read the Iliad for the first time last year.  Last year I also read Lavinia, by Ursula LeGuin, which is a retelling of the Aeneid from the point of view of Lavinia, a character who only merits a few lines in Virgil's epic.  Lavinia was so beautiful that it made me want to read the work that inspired it. 

2.  Metamorphoses by Ovid.  Metamorphoses is a verse treatment of classical mythology.  Although I read it in college, I've retained almost nothing.  A fellow homeschooler who is fluent in Latin raved about Ovid on a message board some time back, sparking my interest. 

3.  The Five Books of Moses, translated by Everett Fox.  This has been recommended as a translation that really captures the flavor of the ancient Hebrew, and some of the drama of that civilization.

4.  Bhagavad Gita.  It's part of the founding epic (the Mahabharata) of Hindu civilization and religion, and a masterpiece of Sanskrit literature that should be read by any student of ancient history.  I know nothing else about it but am eager to experience it.

5.  A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.  I'm already more than halfway through this book, but I expect to be reading it thoughout the summer (it's enormous).  A wonderful epic of families and politics in 1951 India.  Both intimate and panoramic.  I'm loving it so far.

6. Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho.  Basho, medieval Japan's pioneer of Haiku, recorded, in poetry and prose, his impressions of the landscapes and wildlife on his journey through Japan in search of spiritual enlightenment.  I'm just about to start reading this book, and am so looking forward to some dreamy poetry.

7.  Last Tales by Isak Dinesen.  Dinesen is one of my favorite authors.  Her stories combine gothic atmosphere and magical realism in nineteenth-century Scandinavian settings.  Mystical, whimsical, sometimes heartbreaking, and often creepy--what's not to like?

8.  A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I discovered this author a few months back with his earlier novel An Artist of the Floating World, a subtle and ironic story set in postwar Japan.  A Pale View of Hills is set in 1980s London, but is told in flashbacks to the same era. 

9.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  A Victorian classic with a strong feminist bent, and hopefully moody and atmospheric like the other Bronte sisters' works.

10.  Coriolanus by William Shakespeare.  I want to see the Ralph Fiennes movie, but not without having read the play.  So the play goes on the TBR list. 

My first reaction on looking back over this list is that there is no way I'm going to read all these books in the next ten weeks!  I predict that I'll read maybe half of them.  But it's something to shoot for.