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Tag: classic

READING THE TBR, DAY 285: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922) by G. K. Chesterton

I am so mad that I brought this book back with me from London more than a decade ago, and have given it shelf space ever since. WHY did I do that? Why did I not read it as soon as I bought it and learn how unutterably boring it was right away, and discard it with prejudice before allowing it to take up valuable baggage allowance on an across-the-world flight?

Oh, right. Because that’s what I do.

Damn it.

Anyway, this book. Dull, dull, dull. I cannot understand how Chesterton has become such a byword for English mystery writing, often spoken of in the same breath as Christie, Heyer and Sayers. His Father Brown series, which I have never read (but I’ve seen a few episodes of the TV series) might account for it. But this one–no. It is nothing more than a misbegotten collection of eight short stories that showcase the Discount Sherlock Holmes that is Horne Fisher solving crimes and posing metaphysical and/or moral dilemmas while attempting to deliver wry one-liners that simply never land. 

There is something very disconcerting about so thoroughly disliking a book by anyone universally accounted a “classic” author. You feel like you must be wrong, somehow. But, no. Surely you can’t be wrong when it comes to whether you enjoy something or not?



TBR DAY 285: The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton
GENRE: Mystery, Cosy Mystery, Classic
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Charing Cross Road, London.
KEEP: Nope.

READING THE TBR, DAY 281: The Enchanted Castle (1907) by E. Nesbit

I have fond memories of The Railway Children, arguably E. Nesbit’s most popular title, and which I distinctly recall reading when I was in Grade 4. But that was the only one of her works I ever did read as a kid, and so, over the years, I have gathered up a number of her sixty or so titles, planning to read them someday.

In the case of this particular book, that someday has at last come.

Twenty years later.

The story centres on Gerald, James and Kathleen — Jerry, Jimmy and Cathy — three intrepid siblings who spend their summer holidays at an English boarding school under the careless stewardship of the French mistress who really cannot be bothered with little things like making sure they don’t die horribly. Exploring the school’s surroundings, the children soon get swept up into assorted magical adventures and bring inanimate objects to life, with little rhyme or reason (and possibly, it’s all in their imagination), and that’s about it.

After a childhood spent slavishly devoted to the works of Enid Blyton, I can feel the influence she must surely have taken from Nesbit. Nesbit is, objectively, a much better writer. The language here is far denser, the characters more developed, and the ideas more sophisticated — indeed, Nesbit is far more accomplished than Blyton in almost every way, except that when I read an Enid Blyton book, even now, I love it, in all its silliness and frequent repetition. But this book, for all its many merits, does not… sparkle for me. Even when it is very, very clever.

Had I read it in childhood, doubtless I would feel differently about it. But now… I can appreciate it intellectually, but I can’t say I especially enjoyed the experience of reading it.

I’ll still read the other five E. Nesbit books on my TBR, though.



TBR DAY 281: The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
GENRE: Children’s Fiction, Classic
TIME ON THE TBR: 20 years. 
KEEP: Eh, sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 262: Daisy Miller (1878) by Henry James

I have a complicated relationship with Henry James, because the man never found a happy ending he couldn’t ruin, and having read The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove as a teenager — when happy endings were very important to me — I had shed far too many tears of frustration over his pages to hold him in unreserved admiration.

On the other hand, I think about those stories a lot, more often that you might think, and any story that can so easily worm its way into my subconscious that I spend decades sporadically reflecting upon it, even when I didn’t like it, is indicative of a mighty literary talent. (I know! Henry James is a good writer! Who knew?)

Years ago, riding the wave of a then-recent hour-long rumination on the ultimate fate of Portrait‘s Isabel Archer, I decided I would attempt James again, and began collecting his assorted works. Daisy Miller is quite short, and as an experiment in assaying this most heartbreaking of authors once more, I thought it would be a good one to start with, a mere six years after first buying it. (Sigh.)

The titular Daisy is a beautiful free-spirit of a young girl who is touring Europe with her foolish mother and scapegrace little brother. In Switzerland, she outrages the wealthy expatriate travellers her family encounters with her independence of spirit — she dares to speak to people, even men, without an introduction, if you please — and in Italy her dalliance with a handsome but impoverished local puts her quite beyond the pale. Not that Daisy notices that she and her family have been sent to Coventry, she is having far too much fun. Observing all is the much-smitten Frederick Winterbourne, who comes from the right kind of family and yet is drawn to Daisy’s artlessness. If only Daisy could have realised her affection for him before tragedy strikes so maliciously! Because, of course, a happy ending would be out of the question, even in this early entry into the James canon (this novel was, in fact, his first big success), not least because such a lack of virtue as Daisy displayed — by going for walks unchaperoned, if you please — can obviously not be rewarded.

I really liked Daisy, and in many ways consider her something of an early feminist, even if mostly she was acting out of ignorance of established social rules. After all, why shouldn’t she talk to people? Why shouldn’t she go for a walk with whomever she wished? Hypocrisy and double standards are still with us, of course, but a book like this does, at the very least, remind us of how far we have come. For the most part, anyway.

I can’t say I loved this short novel entirely, or Winterbourne, who has all the hallmarks of an obsessive stalker type, but it is another James tale I will be thinking about for a long, long time. And in this case, I even think it’s a good thing.    


TBR DAY 262: Daisy Miller by Henry James
GENRE: Classic, General Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 6 years. 
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 160: Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot

This is another book I didn’t read all in one day (cf. War and Peace). I have been dipping into it all week, slowly absorbing the pastoral splendour of this classic and beloved novel, and discovering why it has stood the test of time — not to mention appearing on a million high school English tests.

There is a lot going on in the town of Middlemarch, and a lot of it has to do with politics that I simply did not understand and had to go research. What was the Reform Bill? What were Reformers? Did it have something to do with church?

No, it turns out it changed the laws regarding who could stand for parliament and how, and also gave more people the right to vote. (Not women though, obviously. That would have been crazy.) How that affects this story is that many of its central figures are either pro- or anti-Reform, and somehow that all ties into how they are able to run a charity hospital in the town. I think?

Of much more interest to me were the romances offered up by this epic, none of the objects of affection truly worthy — except, perhaps, for the lovely Mary, who nevertheless ends up with the wrong man — but all of them very real, and interesting, and infuriating in turn.

I was particularly taken with the story of Dorothea — prim, saintly, often insufferable Dorothea — and her devoted swain, and relation by marriage, Will Ladislaw, who is forbidden from pursuing her after her widowhood by a particularly nasty condition in her deceased husband’s will. The restraint with which the two lovers carefully don not say things to each other is captivating, as is their tendency to measure everything through the lens of the other, and their quickness to take offense or read into perfectly innocent encounters with others. 

For the rest, the steady reform of profligate youngster Fred Vincy is a pleasure, and the comeuppance delivered to one particularly venal bastion of the community is deeply satisfying, and there are moments of dry, almost fourth-wall-breaking wit that raise a chuckle along with the requisite confusion that the author’s belief that you know exactly what is going on in the world of the time is bound to produce.

Of all the “Classics” I have read over the past years — maybe even ever, with the exception of Jane Austen’s ever-delightful output — I think that Middlemarch may very well be my favourite. I not only feel virtuous for having read it, but am genuinely glad that I did.

Who knew?


TBR DAY 160: Middlemarch by George Eliot
GENRE: Classic, Pastoral, General Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 67: The Lost World (1912) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have long meant to read all the Sherlock Holmes novels. They are on my TBR, in a gorgeous hardback folio edition, and no doubt at some point this year I will begin with A Study in Scarlet and work my way through them all. But in the meantime, this other Doyle work of staggering genius came to my hand, and I have meant to read it for almost as long. There have been so many TV and film versions of this book made, and I have always wanted to watch them, but – unlike with Sherlock, which is nigh on impossible – this is a case where I was determined to read the source material first, especially since I have owned said source material since I was a teenager, and so have had to avoid all adaptations for a long time, even the one with a very young and handsome Eric McCormack from the early 90s in it.

The story here is a familiar one, but only because this book came out in 1912, and a lot of stories since have employed a similar theme. Edward Morton is a young and ambitious journalist in pre-war London, whose object of affection, rejoicing under the name of Gladys, tells him he is not intrepid enough for her to marry him. She wants an adventurer. She wants a trailblazer. So Morton asks his editor for a challenging assignment, and is sent to one Professor Challenger, who has recently returned from a trip to the Amazon and claims to have seen dinosaurs there, much to most of the scientific community’s outrage and disbelief.

Challenger is a egomaniac and a martinet, violent and cruel (and his long-suffering wife, one of only two women in the book, is illustrative of just how constrained was a woman’s lot at the time), but he is not a liar, and when a second expedition to the Amazon is mooted, with a party of sceptical scientists to go along with Challenger and Morton in order to debunk his so-called discoveries, they soon learn that every word he said was true. And more.

The Lost World described in the book is thrilling and momentous, and while there is – unfortunately, of course – some problematic racial profiling and some irksome nomenclature given to assorted natives of the region, not to mention a blatant colonialism that is just outright vicious, the story is filled with magic, and as a work of speculative fiction, it is both gripping and thought-provoking.

Anchoring it all is our first-person narrator, Morton, who sees all with a wide-eyed neophyte’s wonder, and the pompous but compelling Challenger, who is Sherlock without the urbanity and actual claim to genius, since his discoveries fall very much into his lap.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will forever be best-remembered for his detective creation, but with this book, he proves (to me, which I am sure will be very important to him) that he had much, much more than one string to his bow. There are several other Professor Challenger books, and I will be searching them out with much interest.

But I really should read all those Sherlock original stories on my shelves first. Right?



TBR DAY 67: The Lost World (Professor Challenger #1) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
GENRE: Fantasy, Science Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 25 years!  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers, Melbourne.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 30: The Mists of Avalon (1983) by Marion Zimmer Bradley

This is one of those books I have long been ashamed to have never read. Feminist Fantasy doesn’t get much more iconic than The Mists of Avalon, after all. But between its hefty weight — my copy is 884 pages, you guys! — and the fact that it treats with Arthurian legend, which is not my favourite at all, I just kept putting it off. And off.

I finally bought a copy back in 2011, after my good friend Kate waxed lyrical about the book in particular, and Bradley’s genius in general. Kate knows ALL THE THINGS and is a woman of great taste and discernment, and I aspire to be like Kate in most ways, so naturally I had to add this to my reading list after such an enthusiastic recommendation. But then… it just kept being so long… and so about Aruthurian legend… and I couldn’t do it.

I have finally done it. And I am furious about it.

This book. This book is dire. It is full of inconsistent characterization and brutality and bizarre mysticism, and I did not enjoy it at all. Oh, I understand what Bradley is doing here — history has not been kind to women; women can be manipulative masters of the universe, too; religion makes people crazy, and Christianity is especially bad for women; etc. — and it’s clever, sure. But it’s also such a damned slog to get to any of the remotely interesting messages, a slog through remarkably similar minds, none of which anyone can damned well make up. 

The story kicks off with Igraine, who has been given in marriage to one man against her will and is now instructed by her sister Viviane, Lady of the Lake — basically, keeper of the Old Religion of the Goddess, which the Roman conquering of Britain has brought into conflict with the patriarchy of Christendom — to seduce another, soon to be High King. Then Viviane sends Igraine’s daughter Morgaine, who is a priestess of the Lady, to sleep with her much-younger brother (Arthur, though he had another name as a child; people in this book keep having other names!), because he too will some day be High King, and the old ways have no prohibition against incest. They conceive a son, Gwydion, later named Mordred, and yes, the women of this book, and age, are highly ill-used, but so too is Mordred.

You know how the rest of the story goes, right? It just takes HUNDREDS OF PAGES to get there.

It’s hard not to blame Viviane for the tragedy of everything that befalls Morgaine, Arthur and their son, plus everyone else associated with them. She and “the Merlin,” which it turns out is a status not a name, denoting the chief druid of the Goddess, manipulate events because they claim it to be the will of their deity, but in fact it is all a bid for their personal power, and the ascendancy of their religion throughout the land.

And look, I like the religious aspect of the book. The pitting of old versus new, one way of controlling and manipulating people versus another, it’s all very well drawn, making mythologies of both. True, the religion of the Goddess is given to us as a real thing, with manifestations of Her divine purpose left and right, while the dogged, misogynist priests of the usurper Christ are not painted in a very good light at all. (Nor should they be. I’m no Medieval scholar, but I know that the plight of women in Britain was made far worse when powerful men started ranting about the sins of Eve.) But to get to that kernel of subtext/actual text/READ MY TEXT I AM MAKING A POINT NOW — it all gets far less subtle as the book goes on — one has to wade through chapter upon chapter of vacillating, infuriating women who alternately despise and adore the same person, who both do and don’t want to betray their husbands, depending on the day, who have the hots BAD for Lancelet, but also kind of hate him some of the time. It’s exhausting.

(Lancelet’s beloved and Arthur’s queen, Gwenhwyfar, by the way? One of the most selfish people alive, as presented here, and a freaking religious extremist, as well. I think I hate Gwenhwyfar the most.) 

Yes, the book takes place across decades, and our protagonists — I will not call them heroines — grow and age, and naturally we all change our minds about things over time. But at the root of pretty much every woman’s problem in this book is jealousy: jealousy over lovers, jealousy over children, jealousy over status, jealousy over youth, jealousy over beauty, jealousy over freedom. And I just don’t think women are solely driven by such a cruel mistress. Not even in a time when they were most valued for their looks and dutifulness and ability to provide heirs.

Of course, Bradley is constrained somewhat by the various retellings of myth passed down through the ages, and her scholarship throughout is obvious. Indeed, it is very possible that a big part of why I did not enjoy this book is explained by my reluctance to read it in the first place: Arthurian stuff bores the hell out of me. But, no, I mainly disliked it because not only could I not find anyone to cheer for in these pages — or, at least, not to continue to cheer for, when they turned into first class jerks a chapter later — I could not find a single woman within that I was not perfectly happy to see killed off, the sooner the better.

Quite frankly, when the regicidal, patricidal, slut-shaming Mordred is the most sympathetic character in your feminist retelling of Camelot, I think you’re doing it wrong.


TBR DAY 30: The Mists of Avalon (Avalon #1) by Marion Zimmer Bradley
GENRE: Arthurian Legend/Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 years.  

READING THE TBR, DAY 27: The Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London

Towards the end of 2016, I spied a rack of books branded “Doomsday Classics” and, of course, I was drawn to it as surely as if it was a rack of free donuts. (Note to booksellers: promotional idea!) I am something of a student of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, and so I was fairly sure that I would have read at least a few of those presented in this series… but, no. Not a one. Happily for me, the books were part of a 3-for-2 sale, so I bought six of them for the price of four.

Bargain books are my weakness.  

One such bargain was The Scarlet Plague by Jack London. “Jack London?” I remember wondering aloud. “Wrote science fiction? I have a copy of his Collected Works, but this isn’t in there.” (I should mention, here, that I was with a friend in that bookshop, and wasn’t just sharing this random thought with the air and/or my fellow patrons. Not that I wouldn’t…)

The book is indeed quite a departure from London’s usual style. True, its prose is stark and clean, as is true of London’s best-known tales, high adventure in the frozen north the likes of The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But while he is usually to be found setting his scene in new frontiers, brutal but conquerable to the brave, here an old man details the end of the world as we know it — as he knew it — in a comfortable 2012, and the brutality is so extreme that no amount of courage could withstand it.

He talks of a fast-acting disease turning people against each other, the only survivors those with a) the correct immunity and b) enough callousness. He tells of civilization crumbling, of men turning on men and enslaving women, of cruelty and violence unleashed when the rule of law vanishes. He also talks of telephones and radios and aeroplanes being commonplace — and okay, sure, also dirigibles; pre-Hindenberg visionaries always saw a future full of dirigibles —  and a world population of 8 billion by 2010, which is actually a pretty good guess, in a time before two world wars, before the Spanish Flu and the Holocaust among so much other unimaginable tragedy wiped so many out of the gene pool. In fact, not only does London presage our modern society in many ways, he also presages many tropes of post-apocalyptic tales that were to follow this one.

It’s not pleasant, of course. It’s kind of racist and classist, and the people who survive the outbreak are basically the worst. But it is visionary, and impressive, and utterly compelling throughout its short but action-packed length. It is a book that certainly belongs under the imprint of “Doomsday Classics.” Because it is a capital-C Classic indeed. 


TBR DAY 27: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London 
GENRE: Post-Apocalypse
TIME ON THE TBR: A little over 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: The Book Grocer, Brunswick.
KEEP: Maybe.

READING THE TBR, DAY 26: H.P. Lovecraft’s the Call of Cthulhu for Beginning Readers (2017) by R. J. Ivankovic

I have long-meant to reread The Call of Cthulhu.” I read it as a teenager, along with much more of the Lovecraftian tradition, and have to admit that I don’t remember a whole lot. Oh, I know all about Miskatonic University and Ry’leh and a whole bunch of other ideas now appropriated by the creators of Hearthstone. But I feel I should know more — these stories are, after all, among the first examples of horror and SF and many subgenres thereof.

What better way to reread it, then, than in this easily accessible style, which I received as gift last Christmas? It is just so well done! It is the story of Cthulhu, but in Seussian rhyme and with  Seussian pictures. Seriously, I went and read the original story after finishing this book, just to see how it holds up, adaptation-wise, and the answer is, it holds up ridiculously well. It’s clever, it’s jaunty, but still dark and creepy — it might even be made creepier, in fact, with the colourful illustrations acting as a counterpoint to the nightmares they convey. 

I always appreciated this book as pretty much the perfect gift for me. Now I appreciate it as the perfect gift for geeks like me everywhere. It’s funny and charming and just gets me, you know?

Well played, book. Well played. 


TBR DAY 26: H.P. Lovecraft’s the Call of Cthulhu for Beginning Readers by R. J. Ivankovic 
GENRE: Horror, Classic, Humour
TIME ON THE TBR: > 2 months.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Yes, of course. It was a gift.

READING THE TBR, DAY 24: The Darling Buds of May (1958) by H. E. Bates

When I saw this book on the op shop shelf, with its media tie-in cover, it brought flooding back to my mind the TV mini-series version, which I watched with my parents in my early teen years. That series was the adaptation of this novel, what I remembered was a montage of sunlit fields, the guy from Only Fools and Horses, and a straight-laced gentleman inveigled by the simply stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I had periodically thought of that mini-series over the years. For one reason, because Catherine Zeta-Jones went on to worldwide stardom after it, and it’s always a pleasure to have just known someone was going to be a star before they made it big, isn’t it? (I feel the same about Natalie Portman and the film Beautiful Girls; my friend Megan and I predicted she was destined for greatness from the first scene she shared with Timothy Hutton). And for another, because I remembered the love shared among the large but simple family that is at the centre of the story being so heartwarming.

As indeed it is, as the source material has now assured me. This book is darling, indeed, as it deals with wheeler dealer Pop Larkin and his large brood, especially the beautiful Mariette, a girl with a zest for life almost unequalled in the annals of 50s fiction. Into their lives comes a tax inspector, Mr. Cedric Charlton, whom Pop soon christens “Charley” and who is swept off his very inexperienced feet by the confident charms of Mariette, who is in need of a husband and believes he will do very well. Throughout, Pop and his wife, the bountiful Ma, show extraordinary understanding of their children’s foibles, especially Mariette’s many neighbourhood dalliances, as well as a total lack of understanding about their obligations to Her Majesty’s Tax Office. All of the Larkins have vast appetites — for food, for love, for new friends and new words (Pop’s admiration of his dissipated Brigadier friend’s use of “adamant” and of Charley’s use of “status quo”, for example, are beyond adorable) — and their sheer cheekiness is a joy to behold.

There are four other books in the Pop Larkin series, and I very much look forward to reading them all.


TBR DAY 24: The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates 
GENRE: Humour, Classic, Fiction, Literature
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years.  
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 23: Rip Van Winkle (1819) by Washington Irving

I thought I had read Rip Van Winkle. Until I saw this sweetly-bound vintage copy of the book, I think for my whole life I thought I had read it as a kid, because I thought it was a picture book. Indeed, before today, when I thought about this story, what I saw in my head was nothing but a cartoony picture of a small man with a long, long white beard awakening from a long sleep, covered by leaves.

It may even have been a Bugs Bunny cartoon or some such that is in my head. I definitely did not read this book.

It’s short — indeed, nothing more than a glorified short story — but it’s packed so full that it feels longer. The basics remain the same from the picture book/cartoon version I feel like I already knew: a man goes to sleep in the mountains, and when he returns home it is twenty years later. Where this original creation adds to the drama is in the temperament of Rip (he’s a lazy good for nothing), in the temperament of his wife, Dame Van Winkle (she’s a bit of a nag, according to Rip), in the Dutch history of his home in the Kaatskill Mountains (it actually was once spelled that way, and still sometimes is, I checked), in the magic of his long sleep, and in how freaking weird it was for Rip when he not only awakened twenty years in the future but also learned when he did that he had become a citizen of the United States of America and was no longer a subject of George III. (“You’ll be back/Soon you’ll see/You’ll remember you belong to me…”)

Also, he totally feels like he dodged a bullet — having missed twenty years, he’s missed twenty years of his marriage, and now his wife is gone and he is taken in by his grownup daughter, responsible for nothing and no one.  

This, in fact, is no kids’ story, and I really don’t understand how it came to be considered one. I guess it’s much like Irving’s other American Classic, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, another short story which has been turned into a horror tale down the years, and is yet somehow also featured in children’s stories, but in its original form really isn’t either of those things. 

I also just learned, looking into it, that both stories were first published as part of a collection called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which was serialized from 1819 – 1820. 

And here I thought I was supposed to be removing books from my TBR with this challenge, not adding them. Damn.


TBR DAY 23: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving 
GENRE: American Folk Tale
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Alice’s Bookshop, Carlton.
KEEP: Yes. My copy is gorgeous.