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Tag: classics

READING THE TBR, DAY 272: What Katy Did (1872) by Susan Coolidge

In Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, she mentioned What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, a nineteenth century book I remember reading at much the same time in primary school at which I met the March sisters, Pollyanna and that one girl’s friend Flicka. It was one of those improving kids’ books that aren’t really what we’d consider eminently suitable reading for primary school kids these days, but that everyone then thought of as both age appropriate and of literary worth for a bookworm like me.

When Mangan described the book, though, I realized that I hadn’t actually read it all. I had definitely read the first part, the “few chapters of delightful adventures and mischief-making,” but I did not remember the part where Katy became bedridden and saintly at all. Meanwhile, I knew I had two sequels to the book, What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next, in my possession, and I certainly had not read either of those.

It was time to find out exactly what Katy did, indeed, do.

And what she did was she fell off a swing, became temporarily paralyzed, learned to be forbearing, and learned to walk again. (Not, as Mangan reports her sister — not a big reader — said when she finished the book as a child: “Katy did nothing!” ) It’s kind of dull, and also weirdly full of death for a book given to me by my godparents for my seventh birthday, but I have to admit that I am intrigued enough about Katy’s reambulatory life post-what she did that I am definitely keen to find out what she did at school.

Not to mention which of her family members are destined to die next.  

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 272: What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
GENRE: Children’s Fiction, Classics
PUBLISHED: 1872
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift when I was seven. 
KEEP: Yes, because it was a gift when I was seven!

READING THE TBR, DAY 176: Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney

I bought this one on a whim, having almost enjoyed Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends. But I didn’t start on it until my friend Kaitlyn mentioned this evening that it had been assigned for her book club, and we decided to compare notes.

I came home and began on it right away, and we have now made plans to catch up as soon as possible. Because I had Thoughts. (Edit: So, it turned out, did she.)

These Thoughts were not good thoughts. I actively detest this book. It is just hideous, all about two wounded teens who end up wounding each other, and one of whom then goes on to enjoy wounding, in a hurts-so-good kind of way — except then she hates herself.

My understanding of the S&M world is limited, I have to admit, but I can’t imagine that community would be flattered by the assertion that one is led to embrace that lifestyle due solely to an abusive childhood and some crippling self-doubt.

The relationship between our two lead characters — I will not say protagonists — is toxic and disturbing, as right from the outset, as teenagers, he takes sexual advantage of her neediness and then treats her like dirt. She feels worthless anyway, and he just reinforces it, makes it worse. At University in Dublin, they reconnect, she now the popular one, he now struggling to find his place, but still, she is downtrodden, by her awful friends and him, and good gods, girl, just stop being so whiny.

Normal people they may be, in that we all have our regrets and flaws and we’ve all been terrible to others in the past and have made assumptions and have cared about being cool. But they are also people I hate.

This book is everywhere at the moment, I see people reading in cafes, on trains, in parks. Occasionally, I stop and ask: “Are you enjoying that book?”

Not a single person has yet said yes. Which gives me a renewed faith in humanity, at any rate.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 176: Normal People by Sally Rooney
GENRE: General Fiction
PUBLISHED: 2018
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 months. 
PURCHASED FROM: Dymock’s
KEEP: NO!!!

READING THE TBR, DAY 170: Year One (2017) by Nora Roberts

For anyone who may be unaware, and it seems unlikely but I suppose it’s possible, Nora Roberts is a prolific romance novelist who also writes supernatural romantic thrillers as J. D. Robb, and other things under assorted other pseudonyms. It was probably only a matter of time before she got on board the Apocalypse train, given that the genre is among the most popular of present times — I think we all just want to be assured that now matter how bad things seem, things could yet be worse. Certainly, my friend Lara, who gave me this for Christmas last year, says she hates the world a little less every time she reads a book like this.

What I didn’t expect was that “a book like this” would involve fairies.

Told through multiple perspectives, the end of the world leads to the usual rioting, rape and rationing, as well as sending good people on the run because of dark magics and a messiah. You know. The usual.

For all my extensive reading in pretty much every one of her frequent genres, I have never actually read a Nora Roberts book before this. There is no denying her talent, of course — as millions of readers, and billions of dollars, will attest — and she certainly has a way with a compelling cliffhanger. Whether I am invested enough in her vision of TEOTWAWKI to rush out and buy the sequel I am as yet unsure, but I am certainly going to start reading more of her books.

Luckily, I have collected more than a few of them over the years.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 170: Year One (Chronicles of the One #1) by Nora Roberts
GENRE: Post-Apocalypse, Paranormal Thriller
PUBLISHED: 2017
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 months. 
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Maybe?

READING THE TBR, DAY 168: Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe (2014) by Christopher Hastings

The title of this limited run both attracted and concerned me, speaking as it does of some major fourth-wall-breaking, and that can be very hit and miss. On the one hand, there is Deadpool, King of the Fourth Wall, and on the other there is the 90s She-Hulk title, which was basically just MAD Magazine, but even more obvious and juvenile.

Happily, this wacky installment isn’t fourth wall-breaking at all, or maybe it is, but more like in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, which not only broke the fourth wall but also examined the trope as a storytelling medium. Because Longshot — who is already a pretty confusing X-Man (but not mutant), his powers of luck causing havoc almost everywhere he goes (yes, luck is a superpower; cf. Domino in Deadpool 2) — alters reality when he… er… luckily?… gets his hand on a cosmic cube that is comic-speak for the tesseract, and suddenly there’s some kind of Q-like guy (Star Trek, not Bond) in charge of an anti-magic S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr. Strange shows up to explain everything. 

Thanks Doctor Strange!

Of course, many other Marvel stalwarts show up too, and that is always the most fun part of an alternate universe story line. From Scarlet Witch to Hulk to Ghost Rider to Deadpool to Reed Richards and Tony Stark (who share some of the blame for the craziness herein) and many, many more besides (Blade! Spider-Man! Cap!, the cameos fly thick and fast and it is a joy. There’s also a possessed teddy bear. Of course.

Does Longshot actually save the Marvel Universe? Well, yeah, which is good, since he’s pretty much the one who endangered it in the first place. And it’s mostly a good time, though the yin/yang rhetoric is pretty pointed, and the allegory about control stamping out artistry is… not new. Still, there are worse ways to spend a half hour or so.

Much worse.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 168: Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe by Christopher Hastings, illustrated by Jacopo Camagni and Matt Milla
GENRE: Comics, Superheroes, Marvel
PUBLISHED: 2014
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: City Comics.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 158: Leaves of Grass (1889) by Walt Whitman

Honestly, I only really know anything about Walt Whitman due to Chris in the Morning on Northern Exposure. There as an episode where the bombastic Maurice objected to Chris mentioning Whitman’s sexuality, and I remember watching that and deciding I had to find out more about this classic LGBTQI+ American poet.

Not long afterwards, I found a copy of Leaves of Grass in a second-hand bookshop — a surprisingly intimidating tome, given it was just poems — and of course I bought it, just like I bought La Nausée by Sartre because Angel was once reading it on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have to say, I enjoyed the French existentialism more than the poetry, but that’s probably just because poetry is a very, very subjective medium, and it turns out I am just not particularly fond of Whitman’s particular gift for it.

Oh, I can appreciate it for its innate cleverness, insight and even, occasionally, wit. He knows his stuff, and there can be no doubt he justly deserves his reputation. But for me, this collection was a slog, just one of those things I was reading because I thought I should, not because I wanted to, and I was very, very glad when I came to the end of it all.

It took me almost thirty years to read this book, after having first bought it. I probably could have waited another thirty, to be honest. Or forever. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 150: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
GENRE: Classics, Poetry, American Poetry
PUBLISHED: 1889 (“Deathbed” Edition)
TIME ON THE TBR: ~30 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: City Basement Books.
KEEP: Probably not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 157: Shadow of a Dark Queen (1994) by Raymond E. Feist

Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is a stalwart of Epic Fantasy, a now 30 book-long odyssey that began with Magician, way back in 1982. I read Magician about ten years ago — long after I had already immersed myself in all kinds of Epic Fantasy, both classic and modern, heroic and grimdark — and was quite taken with its worldbuilding, its intriguing cross-dimensional societies, and its unlikely hero, the (of course) secretly powerful country lad, Pug. I read the next seven books in the series in pretty quick succession, but then I just… kind of forgot the series existed, I guess. I certainly never cared enough to seek the rest of it out.

Then about five years ago I found a huge stash of Feist books for sale at a school book fair for just $1 each, and I bought every one of them. I’ve been slowly rereading the initial eight ever since, and today I finally hit a new one, which also happens to be the beginning of a new trilogy within the Riftwar universe.

It’s… not as good as the earlier ones. But it’s sufficiently Fantasy-ish to satisfy my craving for same, and there are enough cameos from earlier installments to keep the story within the familiar landscape. Even if everyone is ruthless as hell.

Our tale begins in a small town overseen by an erratic but generally honourable lord, except that his illegitimate son,  blacksmith apprentice Erik, lives there, much hated by the lord’s wife and heirs. When the eldest lordling assaults Erik’s lady love, Erik and his friend Roo — son of a merchant, and kind of a creep — kill him, and are soon sentenced to death. 

But they don’t die! Instead, they are seconded into an elite commando regiment and sent into enemy lands to track the advance of the dark queen of the title (and of whom we know from earlier titles in the series). That part of the book is better, and Erik’s instinctive horse sense, which almost amounts to animal magic, makes him an engaging hero, even when he is under the sway of the typical break-them-down-to-build-them-up asshole army sergeant type, whom I hate with a burning passion.

In all, it’s not a bad book, and I am intrigued enough with this set up that I am prepared to go further with the series, now that I have recalled its existence. I just hope there’s less of the Falsely Accused nonsense in the next one, because I hate that.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 150: Shadow of a Dark Queen (Serpentwar Saga #1) by Raymond E. Feist
GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 1994
TIME ON THE TBR: 15 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 155: War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy

Now, obviously, I didn’t read War and Peace in a single day. I’ve been reading it since January. A chapter here, a chapter there, every now and then I’d get swept up in the story and read it for an hour or two and a time. But today — oh, the glory of it, today! — I finished the thing.

I am now someone who has read War and Peace. And not as I attempted to read it as a pretentious thirteen-year-old, puzzled but dogged, and eventually giving up, but properly. All the way through, and I understood it and everything.

Even liked some of it.

What I found most fascinating about reading it, as my friend Clara had suggested I would, was to see the Napoleonic Wars dealt with from the Russian perspective instead of the English one. Clara and I are both big fans of Georgette Heyer; we’ve even written essays about her; and in Clara’s she discusses how her college Russian Lit class was made so much easier because of all the backstory she got from our favourite historical novelist. She is so right, but what I also felt was a sense of heady realization that I have been ignoring the “other” side of too many conflicts for too long. When Napoleon showed up in this book, even though he is something of a figure of fun, it suddenly occurred to me that, forget about the Russian perspective, I have never encountered this era of history from the French perspective.  I’ve read Heyer and Forrester and Cornwell and O’Brien — hell, I’ve even read Naomi Novik’s version with dragons, now. 

I really should do something about this blindside I have so recently discovered. History is, after all, written by the victors, but the… do we call them losers?… have a story to tell, as well.

Anyway. Back to War and Peace.

In such a long and sprawling narrative, of course there are many, many characters to keep track of, and many, many plotlines to attempt to follow. (And, equally of course, since this is a Russian novel, all of our many, many characters each have many, many names.) But it mostly hung together, I found, even with my incremental reading of the epic, and I developed some favourites — poor misguided Pierre! Troubled, but kindhearted Natasha! — and some less favourites — shut up, Boris! Grow a spine, Maria! — even while I got involved in the battlefield derring do. (Could have done without a lot of the long passages about military strategy, however.) 

The best part of the book, for me, was the evacuation of Moscow, when Napoleon is advancing on the city and rich and poor alike are scrambling to take what they can with them into the countryside, and to safety. It’s a thrilling scene — it’s where Natasha became my favourite — and perfectly encompasses the many horrors of war, even for those not directly in the thick of it.

The worst part of the book, by far, is the epilogue, which is so long you have to wonder if Tolstoy originally planned it as a sequel. If so, it would have been a pretty bad one. The first part of it is just “and this is what happened next” and it’s pretty dull and kind of upsetting, when you see Nikolai mistreating his serfs so badly. (No wonder the revolted… like, a hundred years later.) But the second part is just interminable. Basically, Tolstoy has taken a look at your history books, historians, and you are doing it wrong. At best, it’s an Appendix — it is certainly not an epilogue. It took me a month to read it, in very grudging installments, and I hated it all the while.

But today I finished it, and I am glad. So glad. I can’t remember the last time reading gave me such a profound feeling of accomplishment — no, not even when I finally made it through Ivan’s epic religious poem in The Brothers Karamazov. (Seriously, shut up, Ivan!).

I’m feeling very proud of myself right now, but I also feel a bit empty — I’ve been reading this book for so long that it feels weird to not be reading it anymore. 

Time to start on Crime and Punishment, I guess.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 150: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
GENRE: Classics, Russian Literature
PUBLISHED: 1869
TIME ON THE TBR: 20 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Alice’s Bookshop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 150: The Cosmic Computer (1963) by H. Beam Piper

I have a fondness for old SF paperbacks, and it is very hard for me to pass one by should I see it at a book sale or op shop or similar. This one came in a set of six vintage titles on which I successfully bid at filking convention’s silent auction in Atlanta — “filking” is, essentially, making music about nerd stuff, and I went to a convention of same because I was living in Atlanta at the time and Seanan MGuire told me to — and is the first one of them I have actually read.

Set on a world struggling to lift themselves out of economic collapse, it tells the story of the enterprising Conn Maxwell, who returns from a university stint on Earth and tells his compatriots that a long-rumoured super-computer known as MERLIN does, in fact, exist, and is buried along with much other disused weaponry in the planet’s wastes. He employs some people to help him dig, and more people dig, and all of a sudden the desolate planet with  no hope is buzzing with industry and purpose. It’s very pro-capitalism (there are a lot of ltd. companies created in this book, plus holding companies and shell companies and companies of every kind, really), and also very anti-worker’s rights — they get whipped, if you please — so that’s kind of problematic. I mean, I like capitalism as much as the next business owner, but come on.

Still, it’s a pretty inventive story from a stalwart of SF’s golden age, and as I have not read any of H. Beam Piper’s other works, and given that he wrote dozens of books and short stories, I am just glad to have, at last, sampled his offerings. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to read any more of them, however.

There are only so many board of directors’ meetings and formation of LLCs that a sci-fi fan can take, after all.   

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 149: The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper
GENRE: Classic SF, SF
PUBLISHED: 1963
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 9 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: A filking convention…
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 149: Cousin Phillis (1864) by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve slowly — by which I mean, over several decades — been reading all of the works of Elizabeth Gaskell (known in her lifetime as Mrs. Gaskell), whenever I happen upon one. I was handed probably her best-known novel, Cranford, by a knowing vintage book dealer when I was seventeen, and have searched out her others ever since.

This one is another Victorian delight, a pastoral reflection of country life at the dawn of the steam age that sees young Paul Manning, sent out into the wilds of a bucolic idyll by his bosses at the railroad, and forced to pay a visit on his aunt, who lives nearby.

Said aunt is married to a vicar, and is possessed of a lovely daughter — the eponymous Phillis, and I have literally read that name as “Phyllis” every time until just now, because my brain wants it to be that way — and while the ungainly Paul is not immune to her beauty, he soon settles into a familial relationship with her, acceptable to even modern readers. (Cousins get married all the time in books of this vintage, of course… and it’s never not squicky.) Meanwhile, both Paul and Phillis find themselves deeply admiring Paul’s personable boss…

Lyrical and lovely and sentimental and sad, with occasional leavening by some pointed humour, especially in the dialogue, this is the story of a particular time and place that perhaps never was, but that will live forever in these pages. Bucolic and timeless, the lifestyle this book captures is about to change dramatically, altered inexorably by the tide of progress that is about to spread throughout the land, and world. It’s like reading a book set just before the internet, or before smart phones, but one that sees the change coming and begins to envisage just what the world will be like at the same time the next year (or the next week, in the case of smart phones). 

Which accounts for my sense of melancholy just now. These days, we’re constantly on the brink of a Brave New World. And, like the residents of this sleepy little hamlet, I’m never quite ready when it comes. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 149: Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell
GENRE: Classics, General Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1864
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 129: She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard

It never ceases to amaze me, how many books there are in the world, and how many authors of great fame and acclaim I have never heard of.

H. Rider Haggard is just such a one, and when I saw this 2007 reprint of his 18th-century novel, obviously I had to buy it and fill this gap in my knowledge.

I’ve just now, more than ten years later, done just that, and wow, I kind of wish I hadn’t now. Even if it weren’t for all the late-Victorian colonialism and sexism and racism and such (literature of the period is replete with those isms, and at some point you just have to let it go), the book is just flat out boring as hell for the first hundred pages, and then even when the plot heats up, the somnolent prose style emphatically does not.

The story spends a long, long time setting up a journey into deepest Africa, in which the boring and — apparently — hideous professor Horace Holly conducts his boring 25-year-old ward (whom we meet as a boring baby), all due to a mysterious legacy. Eventually, the pair meet Ayesha, a 2, 000-year-old sorceress who is not boring, but by then it is all rather too late, and besides, the hatred of sexism kicks in again and honestly, I was just desperate for the torture to end.

I actually wanted to stop reading this book the whole time I was still reading it, but I didn’t feel like I could stop reading it… because it’s old, I guess? Because I feel like old books are worthy pursuits, and I didn’t want to quit on it like I would on, say, a YA paranormal romance novel. Hmm. I really need to think about this some more. I just don’t want to go through this trauma ever again.

Oh, and it turns out H. Rider Haggard wrote the Allan Quartermaine novels, the source for the 1980s camp classic King Solomon’s Mines, starring Richard Chamberlain, and also the 2000s one starring Patrick Swayze. So I actually had heard of him prior to She, anyway.

This has not been a good day.     

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 129: She (Ayesha #1) by H. Rider Haggard
GENRE: General Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Classics
PUBLISHED: 2008
TIME ON THE TBR: ~10 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: Absolutely not.