Back to the classics wrap-up

DSC_0185I joined the Back to the classics reading challenge for the first time this year. As I already read quite a lot of classics my aim was not necessarily to read more of them but to push myself to review more of my reading and to join the lovely community around the challenge. Thank you Karen for hosting it!

In this challenge the goal is to read classics corresponding to twelve different categories. In the end I managed ten out of the twelve.

These were the books I read for the challenge:

A 19th century classic

City folk and country folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, a Russian classic of a manageable length and by a new to me author. This one was a real treat.

A 20th century classic

Wind, sand and stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was probably my favourite read this year, highly recommended!

A classic by a woman author

A Maid Among Maids by Ester Blenda Nordström is one of the earliest examples of undercover journalism.

A classic in translation

The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, another little known but very interesting Russian classic.

A children’s classic

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper. I never read this series as a child but enjoyed it enough to read the whole series.

A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction

Cat Among The Pigeons. I almost always enjoy Christie’s thrillers and this one was no exception. It even helped me out of a minor reading slump so that was an extra bonus.

A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction

My choice for this topic is Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry but East of the Great Glacier by Helge Ingstad would also have been a good choice. Both of them are non-fiction.

A classic with a single-word title

Walden by Henry David Thoreau. This was a rather mixed reading experience. I liked some parts of it both other were too long-winded and preachy.

A classic with a colour in the title

I could have counted Anne of Green Gables, which I re-read this autumn, for this category, but then I would have to review it and some books are most enjoyable when read without any obligations, so I choose to fail this category.

Classic by an author that’s new to you

La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri. I didn’t really enjoy this one, probably mostly because I didn’t really understand it.

A classic that scares you

I read Middlemarch as an e-book so to be honest I never really thought of the length and thus weren’t really scared by it. However, I’m counting it for this category anyway, as the length would have scared me if I had realized it beforehand.

Alternatively I guess Shadows on the Tundra, a memoir from a Siberian Gulag by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė (1927–87),  could be an option considering its harrowing topic. It was written in 1949-1950, but the manuscript was lost and not rediscovered until 1991. It was published posthumously in 1997.

Re-read a favourite classic

I did re-read and review a favourite classic, The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren, but as it was first published in 1973 it is not old enough for this challenge. I really recommend it though!

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November reading

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In October I finished another novel from my Classics club reading list, Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson. All I had left to do was to write a review, ideally post it during November considering its theme, and go on to other novels. Unfortunately I got stuck, November is already gone, and I still haven’t written that review.

It was not really writing the review that was the problem, I just had too much other things going on, but by now I think that the wisest course of action is to write something, anything, and move on.

So what can I say about it? Well, it was good, melancholy and beautiful, like Jansson almost always is. It is the last books about the Moomins and the Moomin family is not at home. Instead we meet some of the supporting cast from the other books, people who have all come to depend on the Moomin family’s presence and struggle to fill the void on their own.

All the Moomin books can be enjoyed by both adults and children but this one may be especially relevant for adults. I really liked it and do recommend it, but only if you have read most of the other Moomin books first, as it also act as a  farewell to Moomin valley.

My first year in The Classics Club

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I’m having an anniversary! It is one year (and two days) since I joined The Classics Club and claimed that I would read the 50 classics on my list within five years.

Since then I have read 14 of the 50 books on my list and found some new favourites. The Classics Club is also a great community and I have encountered several interesting blogs and had many interesting discussions thanks to it, so if you enjoy classics I recommend it. You choose your list yourself so the only demand is that you should list at least 50 classics and aim to finish them in maximum five years.

I have enjoyed most of the fourteen books I have read from the list so far, but three of them stand out from the rest. As an anniversary is a perfect excuse to highlight some favourites, that’s what I’m going to do.

Perhaps the most surprising book to me on my “top three most memorable classics club reads so far”-list, was Wind, sand and stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I was not at all convinced by his much more famous novel, The Little Prince, but I loved this memoir, which perfectly captures the beauty and danger of the early days of air traffic.

The second one on my list was also unexpected. I knew that I wanted to have read The Poetic Edda, but did not expect to enjoy actually reading it as much as I did. It was a lot more readable than I had expected and includes some great stories, many of which I recognized.

The last one on my list was not unexpected at all. I added The Brothers Lionheart to my list because I already knew that I loved it, and wanted to reread it, and get an excuse to tell everyone else of its greatness…

All the books read for the Classics Club
Carter, Angela: Night at the Circus
Alighieri, Dante: Vita nuova
Eliot, George: Middlemarch
Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby
Kafka, Franz: Metamorphosis and other stories
Lagerlöf, Selma: Gösta Berlings saga (Gösta Berling’s Saga)
Lindgren, Astrid: Bröderna Lejonhjärta (The Brothers Lionheart)
Moberg, Vilhelm: Din stund på jorden (A Time on Earth)
Pushkin, Alexander: The Queen of Spades and other stories
Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine: The Little Prince
de Saint-Exupéry, Antoine: Wind, Sand and Stars
Thoreau, Henry David: Walden
Den Poetiska Eddan (Poetic Edda)

Focus on the indies – Slightly Foxed

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I like it when publishers have a recognizable style, when you know that if you’ve tried and liked some of their books, you will probably like most of them. Slightly Foxed is one of those publishers. They publish carefully selected memoirs in beautiful editions and, out of the four I have read so far, three have been great. They also have a good literary magazine which I subscribe to.

One of their books, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is a classic for those of us who love reading books about books. It contains the unexpectedly funny and moving correspondence between an American writer and an antiquarian book seller in London between 1949 and 1969. Also included in this edition is “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” which acts like a sequel. It has been printed multiple times so it should be possible to find cheaper copies but I like my bright read edition.

I was a stranger by John Hackett is probably the quietest WW2 book I’ve read. It starts reasonably dramatically with Hackett getting seriously wounded at Arnhem in 1944, but from thereon most of the book describes his quiet time in hiding, waiting to recover sufficiently to attempt a return to Allied-controlled areas. What really struck me in this memoir was his admiration and gratitude for the civilians who risked their lives hiding him. It is a great portrait of civilian life in the occupied Netherlands, of the Dutch resistance, and of quiet civilian courage during occupation.

Country boy by Richard Hillyer is another great read. It is a description of a rural English village before the first world war, a memoir of the author’s childhood in a poor farm labourer’s family and a moving portrayal of his thirst for reading and learning.

So far the only Slightly Foxed edition I have been disappointed in was The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham which I found a bit boring. It was well-written but as I had no relation to the fictional Mrs Miniver I could not muster enough interest in the true person behind.

Based on the four books I have read from them so far I would say that that Slightly Foxed is a reliable quality publisher. All the memoirs have been very well-written and they are beautifully produced. The texts themselves feel more conservative than daring but are generally interesting. They also feel very British.

About this series: One of the things I really appreciated when I started reading book blogs was the introduction to interesting small publishers I never would have discovered otherwise. I find it only fair that I should return the favour and present some of my own favourites. I plan to post these post ones in awhile whenever I have a publisher I want to recommend. These are not sponsored posts and include no affiliate links. Previously featured: Peirene Press.

 

A maid among maids

Sheeps in a meadowIn 1914 Swedish farms had difficulties finding enough labourers. Many young people from the country side preferred to move into the cities or emigrate to America to the hard work as a farm labourer. At this point a young Stockholm journalist, Ester Blenda Nordström (1891-1948), decided to find out for herself what it was that made people leave. Using an assumed name she applied for a position as a farm maid and spent a month working as a farm labourer. Back in Stockholm she wrote about her experience, first in an article series and later in a widely popular book, En piga bland pigor (A maid among maids) which is the one I have just finished.

So why do we need an outsiders perspective on the hard farm life when Sweden have so many great working-class authors who wrote about their own experience? Well, I must admit that I found the outsider’s perspective really helpful. Reading it today we are all outsiders and Nordström, as a very modern woman in 1914, acts as a bridge between me as a modern reader and the common life in 1914. She asks the questions I would have asked and she comments on thing I find notable but which may have been considered too normal to mention by someone who was not an outsider. She also wrote this before the working-class authors really broke through in Sweden so it was cutting edge both in its theme and the way it was done. It doesn’t hurt either that she was an excellent writer and that the book is genuinely funny.

In Swedish this type of undercover journalism is called wallraffa (to wallraff) after the famous German journalist Günter Wallraff. Perhaps it would have made even more sense to name it after the Swedish journalist who used the method more than fifty years earlier.

I may have already ordered some of her other works. I can’t wait to read about her time hitch-hiking through America or the time she spent one and a half year in Kamchatka. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have been translated into English so if you want to read anything by her my recommendation is to either learn Swedish or pester your favourite publisher until they translate her for you, whichever seems easiest

A Time on Earth

Birches in a meadow

The year is 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis casts its shadow over the world. In California the ageing Swedish-American Albert Carlson feels death approaching. The time has come for him to look back on his life and reflect on what he did with his one time on earth.

A Time on Earth (Din stund på jorden) by Vilhelm Moberg is a story about death and about living. About Albert who abandoned his dreams, and about his brother Sigfrid who died young and never got the chance to fulfil his.  It is a melancholic story, filled with regrets over two lives which never became what they ought, but it is written with a compassion for the characters which prevents it from being too bleak.

Albert Carlson has lived his whole adult life in the USA but never managed to make it his home. Now he spends his days in a lonely hotel room with his memories. He suffers from the common emigrant curse of longing for a country which no longer exists, the Sweden he knew has moved on without him (as an emigrant myself this is something I fear). The story moves back and forth from Albert’s life in California to his childhood in rural Sweden, both beautifully portrayed in the novel.

A Time on Earth is a beautiful book, which kept me captivated from the beginning, but it is not a very cheerful read. I believe I should find something a bit lighter for my next read.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I read it in Swedish but an English translation exists.

 

 

Middlemarch – first impressions

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I have a hard time reviewing Middlemarch by George Eliot, the latest book from my Classics Club reading list. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this classic novel with my first read. Thus I am not yet ready to analyse it but I can share a few first impressions.

The first time I read something most of my focus is on the plot, which in this case starts slow and for a long time seems to meander aimlessly. It was excellently written and still enjoyable, but if I had not trusted the author I would have questioned the length of the novel. She did have a plan though. Behind the scenes she was carefully placing her characters, nudging them in the right direction, never going against their natures but still getting everyone exactly into the right places for the final resolution. It was masterful plotting and I look forward to re-reading it so I can better notice how she was doing it.

The other thing that really struck me on this first read was the interesting and realistic characters. They are all flawed, yet most of them memorable and easy to like. I found myself cheering for them and hoping that they all, well almost all, would have happy endings. I believe they will stay with me for a long time.

The only thing I did not like in the novel are a few rather ugly antisemitic comments made by characters. I do believe they were meant to be read as prejudiced rather then reflecting the author’s own opinion (unless I lost track of the family relations the characters targeted were not Jewish), but they are jarring. Apart from that I found that the text has stood the test of time very well and I really enjoyed it.