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!

Middlemarch – first impressions


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.



Thoughts from a small cabin

Blueberry shrub in autumn coloursEver dreamt of withdrawing to an isolated cabin to get undisturbed reading time? That’s how I spent much of my vacation and fittingly one of the books I read, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, is probably the best known move-into-a-cabin-in-the-woods book there is. In it Thoreau describes his experience of living two years (1845-1847) in a simple cabin he had built himself by Walden Pond.

I happened to read this book in parallel with Sapiens (by Yuval Noah Harari). In Sapiens, Harari discusses (among many other things) the reduction in free-time which followed with the agricultural revolution and the cultural myths that make (most of) us live our lives more or less like our neighbours. It was interesting to see how Thoreau challenged these myths and found a new freedom by scaling down his possessions and reduce his needs. Although it was hardly a very remote wilderness he settled in it was still a pronounced deviation from the normal way of life at the time (or today).

As a nature-lover myself I do believe that we are happier when we are living closer to nature (or at least that I am) and thus found myself favourably inclined to Thoreau’s cabin experiment. I also liked the way that he identified and differentiated between his actual needs, such as food and shelter, and stuff he just wanted. As a well-connected young and healthy man he found that he could quite easily earn enough for his actual needs and choose increased freedom rather than trying to earn more. Even if I have no real plans of moving into the woods (for more than vacations), I believe he has a point with this distinction and that a better awareness of the difference between needs and wants could be helpful also in other instances when we need to decide how to spend our life or money.

One of the real treats in the book is his descriptions of the nature around him which are often evocative and beautiful. Otherwise his prose can be preachy and long-winded. Even when I agreed with his point I frequently found him obnoxious and sometimes condescending. His descriptions of other nationalities and ethnicities, especially Native Americans, are also badly outdated, but as Thoreau was an abolitionist and seems to have been genuinely interested in other cultures I suspect that he was still ahead of his time in this aspect.

This book was on my Classics Club reading list. I also count it as my Classic with a single-word title for the Back to the classics reading challenge.





Progress report


Map showing author’s country of origin for the books I have read in 2018.

A third of the year has gone (how did that happen?) and it is time for me to look back on my reading so far. In total I have read 34 books in 2018, by 19 women and 13 men (and two anthologies). I have read books from eleven decades and by authors from twelve countries. Most of them have been very good so I’m happy with my reading year so far.

Best 2018 read so far

Honorary mentions

  • The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya. The Khvoshchinskaya sisters have been a great discovery for me this spring. I have greatly enjoyed both this one and City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya .
  • Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena follows a Latvian mother and daughter whose relationship crumble under the Soviet rule. It was published by Peirene Press, an interesting publisher of translated fiction which I discovered in my effort to read novels by authors from a wider range of countries.

Best page-turner

  • Into the Fire by Elizabeth Moon (Trading in Danger is the first book in this series). Elizabeth Moon’s novels would be my guilty pleasure if I felt the least bit guilty about reading them. Her SF and Fantasy series tend to keep me reading way past my bedtime…


Reading challenges for 2018

Finish the 30-20-20-10 challenge from 2017

In 2017 I managed to read books from (more than) 10 decades, written by (more than ) 20 men and (more than) 20 women and by authors from 21 (rather than 30) countries. In 2018 I want to finish this challenge by reading 9 books from countries I didn’t read any book from in 2017. So far I have managed to add 6 new countries to my list.

I also decided on the additional challenge of reading 12 books from countries I read no more than 1 book from in 2017, but so far the books from these two challenges completely overlap.

Read and blog about at least 12 books from my Classics club reading list

I’m falling slightly behind on this challenge, I have only read three books from my Classics Club list so far this year, bringing me up to a total of 8 out of 50 since my start in October 2017.

In 2018 I have read and reviewed the following classics from my list:

I also joined the Back to the classics reading challenge

Apparently classics not on my Classics Club list are more tempting than the ones on the list.  I therefore joined a second classics challenge which allows me to count many of the classics I have read this year but didn’t list on my Classics Club list. Here I have managed to fill seven of the twelve categories.

Read at least as many of my unread books (including new books) as I buy in 2018

Probably the hardest of my challenges and one I’m currently falling behind on. I have bought 27 books this year and have only read 25 of my unread books (in total I have read 34 books but that include re-reads and library books). And that is despite buying eight new books in December with a January delivery which gave me a head-start. However, in my defence, a few of the books I have bought have not arrived yet so I obviously cannot read them.

The challenge has helped though, it has made me somewhat less likely to impulse buy books I’m not sure about as every buy mean I cannot buy a future book I might want more. It has also motivated me to read more from my unread books rather than searching for new ones. Not a large effect but every bit helps…

The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya


Photo of wild flowers by a river

I have been lucky with my reading lately. March was a slow reading month for me but since Easter I have had much more reading time and my last few reads have also all been really good. During April I have moved from WW2 France with Flight to Arras (by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) to Latvia during Soviet time with Soviet Milk (Nora Ikstena) and now, latest, to 19th century Russia with The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya (translation Karen Rosneck).

I discovered The Boarding-School Girl when I, unsuccessfully, looked for other translated works by one of her sister, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, the writer of City Folk and Country Folk. The Boarding-School Girl is largely focused on the disillusioned and exiled Veretitsyn and his largely accidental influence on his young neighbour Lolenka. Exposed to Veretitsyn’s bitter musings Lolenka starts to question the shallow education she is getting and the confined life she is living. Partly a comedy of manner, partly a coming-of-age story the novel gives an interesting glimpse into the life and education of 19th century women from the lower gentry.

It is a very short novel, the actual story took only 137 pages in the edition I was reading, and the plot was relatively simple. The character’s on the other hand were well-developed and realistic. A sharp but subtle wit runs through the novel, it may even have a bit more edge than her sister’s novel. If you enjoy Jane Austen writing style you would probably like this one too although the stories told are very different.

Overall it had a surprisingly modern feel, also compared to City Folk and Country Folk. The edition I was reading also included an extensive introduction and a generous number of footnotes which helped me appreciate the novel even more.

I count The Boarding-School Girl as my Classic in translation for the Back to the classics reading challenge.

Watching the world from above

Photo of two flying birds

As I loved Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry it is perhaps not surprising that I’ve recently been exploring other parts of his literary output. Specifically Night flight and Flight to Arras, translated by David Carter and William Rees respectively.

Night flight is focused on a South American air base and its leader during the time postal air traffic was in its pioneering and highly dangerous days. It is a fictional story but clearly inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s own experiences as a pilot in such a company. I greatly enjoyed it but not as much as I did Wind, Sand and Stars. Often I prefer fiction to non-fiction as fiction usually allows the author to write a tighter or more interesting story. However, as Saint-Exupéry do these things brilliantly in his non-fiction the fictional element in this case only made me less involved in the plot. I would also have preferred to spend more time in the air with the pilots rather than at the air base. However, I did find it interesting to follow the thoughts of the leader who sent them into danger and desperately tried to bring them safely back. Overall a very good book but far from his best.

Flight to Arras on the other hand is a non-fiction text and much closer related to Wind, Sand and Stars. However, compared to that one it is a much sadder text. Whereas Wind, Sand and Stars was focused on the dangerous but also optimistic days of early air traffic, Flight to Arras takes place in the final weeks before the French surrender to the German invasion during WW2. The mission is to all appearances both pointless and suicidal and surrender is already inevitable. Much like in Wind, Sand and Stars we get the thrilling story of the mission parallel to the author’s philosophical musings. We follow his thoughts from surly resignation of the near certain death on this likely futile reconnaissance mission to an ultimately optimistic humanitarian message as he realises which kind of future he’d be willing to die for. I prefer Wind, Sand and Stars but this one is also a great book, in its best parts equally brilliant.

I count Flight to Arras as my Travel or Journey Classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge.


Spending time on the Russian countryside

Rural Russian orthodox church

The best thing about reading book blogs are all the great books you get exposed to. I could still have been completely oblivious to the existence of the excellent novel City folk and country folk if it weren’t for Kaggsy’s blog post about it and now when I’ve read it I just want to spread the word further.

City folk and country folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (translation by Nora Seligman Favorov) is a comedy of manner with sharp observations and wit not dissimilar to a Jane Austen novel. Of course comparing it to a Jane Austen novel sets the bar impossibly high, it is very good but it doesn’t have the tight writing of an Austen novel. What it offers instead is insight into the lives of Russian rural gentry, observations on the social changes that occurred in Russia during the 1860s and a plot which I wasn’t sure where it would take me. It was a perfect novel to ease myself back into my classics reading again. Unfortunately this novel seems to be the only text from the author that has been translated into English but one of her sisters, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, has a translated novel, The Boarding-School Girl, which I now long to read.

You should read this novel if you

  • want to read a 19th century Russian classics but want to avoid the thicker or more tragic novels,
  • love Jane Austen’s novels (just don’t expect it to actually be a Jane Austen novel), or
  • if you just like the thought of reading a little known but excellent Russian 19th century author.

(Personally I’m guilty of all three)

I found some interesting and more in-depth reviews of this book here, here and here, although they, especially the two later, do give out a bit of the plot so if you want to avoid that they may be best read after the novel.

I’m counting this one as my 19th century classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge. There’s still time, until March 1st, to sign up to this challenge if you are interested.


Classics fatigue

GullFinishing La Vita Nuova I suddenly felt that I had read too many heavy classics during 2018. That is demonstrably not true, my reading statistics tells me that out of the eleven books I’ve read this year only La Vita Nuova was a challenging read and five were children’s books but apparently that was enough.

However, it was clearly time for a change of pace and as light page-turners do not linger unread long on my bookshelves what I found was an Agatha Christie where I had conveniently forgotten who the murderer was. Cat Among The Pigeons takes place at a private girls school and involve a coup in a fictional country, missing jewels and secret agents. It is technically a Poirot novel but Poirot only plays a very peripheral role in it. I really enjoy the Christie stories that edge into adventure stories territory. They may be even less realistic than her standard crime novels but they are usually a lot of fun.

Agatha Christie x 3

The secret adversary: This one is a wild and improbable story full of secret agents. More importantly it is the first book to feature Tommy and Tuppence which I find to be some of Christie’s best characters. Great fun!

The Pale Horse: The creepiest Christie I’ve read so far and one of her best. Neither Poirot nor miss Marple makes an appearance which is a good thing, not because I don’t like those characters, I do, but because it is harder to guess where the novel is going when they are absent.

Towards zero: This one is more of a standard Christie mystery but a very good one. Once again without Poirot or miss Marple.

I count Cat Among The Pigeons, published in 1959, as my classic crime story for the Back to the classics reading challenge.

La Vita Nuova


The latest classic from my classic club reading list was La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri.

I really got myself into deep water with this book. It felt a bit like watching a game where you know none of the rules. One reason for my struggles was the disadvantage of reading it in translation which is always difficult with poetry. However, I believe the greatest barrier was the cultural one. I’m so used to texts were the plot and/or character development are central that I’m apparently lost without them. I eventually found some rhythm in the narration and enjoyed the ending much more than the beginning but it was a challenging read.

La Vita Nuova was first published in 1295, which probably explains my cultural chock. It is centred around the narrator’s impossible love for Beatrice and consists of a series of poems prizing her and describing her influence on the narrator and others. These poems are divided by texts describing the context of the poems and explanations of their structure. Little happens and Beatrice never really takes shape, she remains an idea, a living angel. Instead I felt that Love, both as a concept and its influence on those it touches, was the real focus.

In many ways it reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther which I read last year.  In it the story is also centred around an impossible love and I got the impression that the main goal of the text was that it should be beautiful. As in La Vita Nuova the love described in The Sorrows of Young Werther was an idealized romantic love which appeared more like an idea than an actual human emotion.

So did I enjoy it? Not really but I’m glad I have read it. It was different from almost anything else I have read and I could see glimpses of the beauty in it. It was also a rather short read, although it still took me surprisingly long to finish, and it may help me to better understand references to Dante in later works. However, to really appreciate it I would have needed a much better understanding of the context and preferably to be able to read it in its original Italian.

I read it in a translation by Mark Musa but an earlier translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

La Vita Nuova is on my reading list for the Classics club and I also count it as my “Classic by an author that’s new to you” for the Back to the classics reading challenge. It also means that I can add another country, Italy, to my 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, only eight more to go.




The Dark is Rising


The Dark is Rising in Susan Cooper’s classical fantasy series and the only thing that can stop it are the combined forces of a group of modern children (well 1960s children) and the heroes of Arthurian legends.

I have recently spent some enjoyable days with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (well, four out of five books in it, I somehow missed the first one at the library). There are some parts that felt a little dated but overall this is a classic series that have stood the test of time very well, I’m sure I would have loved it as a child. As an adult I greatly enjoyed the first book I read in the series (Over Sea Under Stone) but lost interest a bit when it came to the sequels. I don’t think they are actually worse in any way but to me the real draw was the world-building and the mixture of modern children and Arthurian legends. This theme runs through the entire series but in the sequels it was no longer new and therefore less exciting.

As these are children’s books they are not too heavy on the darkness which I’m sure was a good choice for the intended audience. Personally I would have preferred them to be somewhat more nerve-racking. Nevertheless these are well-written and fun books with a good concept which worked reasonably well as a light read also for an adult reader.

What the series also did succeed in was to convince me that I want to learn more about the Arthurian legends (sometime, eventually). I’m not British and my knowledge of these legends can basically be summarized as a bunch of names and a sword in a stone which is somehow important.

I count Over Sea Under Stone (published in 1965) as my children’s classic in the 2018 back to the classics challenge.