My 2018 Reading Challenge

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I’ve made up a reading challenge for myself. I have done Goodreads.com‘s challenges where I read a certain number of books per month. This time I’m adding some themes and other specifics to spice things up.

Susan’s 2018 Reading Challenge

January – read a memoir and another book that’ll help me change my outlook (i.e. achieve a resolution)

February – read a 19th century novel and a religious book (for Lent)

March – read a book written by a Russian author

April – read a play by Shakespeare and commentary in a Norton Classic edition

May – read a detective story

June – read a book of historical fiction

July – read a travel book

August – read a humorous book

September – read a book by a Japanese author

October – read something scary

November – read a book a friend has recommended

December – read a children’s book and a story or book with a Christmas theme

 

No one has to join this, but you’re free to do so.

I am curious about what sort of challenge you’d set for yourself. Share in the comment section below.

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What is Great Books?

One of the most influential experiences in my life was my parents putting me in Junior Great Books. It made me learn to read difficult books and to look more deeply at literature and essays.

Now I’m thankful that Northbrook Public Library offers a monthly Great Books Discussion group. I’ve gone when I can in recent years. Currently we have an exceptional leader who provides excellent background information and keeps us on track. The group includes brilliant people who share perceptive comments and ask intriguing questions that help and challenge me not just as a reader, but as a person.

If you can, give Great Books a try.

Fr. Laurence, Why?

For my online book club we read Romeo and Juliet, which my students are now reading as well. Once I get to Act 4, I want to just ask Friar Laurence why on earth he thought this plan with Juliet taking a sleeping drug would work. Why not tell her parents, Friar? Since she’s already consummated her marriage to Romeo, wouldn’t the Capulets and the Montagues have to make the best of things?

The Friar even tells Paris he doesn’t like the hasty marriage to Juliet. That’s a great start. Just tell the truth or if he’s such a coward, tell the parents they have to wait a certain amount of time after Tybalt’s death to marry. Then have them tell the truth. One of them would get the courage to.

I realize Shakespeare took the story from another source, a poem by Arthur Brooke and he saw that it had a lot of powerful elements, but there are some glaring mistakes in the plot.

The Kill

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Émile Zola continues his stories of the Rougon-Marquart clan with The Kill (La Curée), which tells the story of Aristide Rougon, who is introduced to readers in The Fortune of the Rougon-Marquart’s as a slothful (accent on full) son of the matriarch of this clan. Aristide changes his name to Saccard when the gets to Paris. He hits his well connected brother to get a cushy government job with loads of status. He’s disappointed at first with apparently low level job till he realizes that he will get all sorts of information on city plans that enable him to make real estate deals, quite questionably ethically ones, that will get him a fortune. Saccard is slimy for sure, but the house of cards he sets up is compelling. As a reader, I was just wondering when this all would fall.

Along with Saccard, his second wife Renée is equally questionable ethically. She’s materialistic, superficial, self absorbed and incapable of loyalty. The marriage was arranged to get Renée out of trouble. Her early life was pitiful, but by the time of the story she’s in control and for much of the story rather powerful and independent. Her undoing is her relationship with Saccard’s son.

The writing is beautiful and this portrait of a corrupt society feels real and moves quickly. It was fascinating to learn about the corrupt real estate market of 19th century France. Wall Street didn’t invent financial malfeasance..

 

 

 

Poem of the Week

Now Winter Nights

By Thomas Campion

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.

The Fortunes of the Rougons

What a crazy family! Well, that’s not quite right. They aren’t outright crazy, they’re just greedy, selfish, venial social climbers for the most part.

Emile Zola’s 20 novel series, Rougons-Macquart, begins with The Fortunes of the Rougons, which I’ve relished. I’m on determined to read all 20 books about the two sides of a family descended from Adelaide Fouque whose legitimate son spawns the Rougon side of the family and whose two illegitimate children are the start of the Macquart side.

Set in provincial France, the story opens with two young lovers, Silvère and Miette, marching with hopeful revolutionaries participating in a coup d’état led by republicans trying to wrest power the elites who’ve neglected the needs of the working class.

The story shifts back a generation to Adélaïde Fouque, who marries Rougon, a gardener, and they have a son Pierre. When Rougon dies Adélaïde takes a lover, Macquart, who’s a drunk and something of an odd ball. With Marquart Adélaïde has two illegitimate children, Antoine and Ursule. Antoine and Pierre are particularly at odds with each other especially after Pierre fools his mother into giving him control of her money.

This first book sets the stage for struggles and troubles to come as I’m seeing in the second book, The Kill. Zola’s style moves fast and I find learning about the French history of the Second Empire.

The Quiet American

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“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

I really loved Graham Greene’s The Quiet American even though the tone and the main character so differed from favorites like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Gaskell’s Margaret Hale or any 19th century novel that I treasure.

Yes, the two world wars left a stamp of jaundice and cynicism on Europe and Greene shows that (in many of his works). Yet I think he’s insightful and observant. Somehow while the main character Fowler, cynical, selfish and tapped out, earned my sympathy because he was honest with himself. I guess the similar sorts I’ve run across aren’t.

I like how Greene plays Fowler’s cynicism off Pyle’s (the chatty, “Quiet” American) innocence. By connecting them through Phuong, Fowler’s mistress whom Pyle falls for and takes. Through Phuong we see the the West’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Pyle sincerely and innocently loves her. He deals with Fowler, who offers Phuong so little. She’s like a servant and whose job could end whenever he’s called back.

Fowler lies to her, has cheated on his wife and while I didn’t like or respect him, he was the most perceptive observer in the book. He saw how flimsy and immature Pyle’s views on democracy, world affairs and Vietnam were. He also is fully aware of the selfishness of his relationship with her, but does nothing for her. While Pyle offered Phuong marriage, love and respect as well as future prosperity, his simplistic ideas about politics led to many deaths including his own. Insulated from reality by his optimism and blind trust in a handful of books, Pyle epitomized the idea that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Throughout the story Phuong is distant and opaque throughout the book. Other than her penchant for buying scarves, we know so little of what Phuong really thinks. Pyle and Folwer probably didn’t know her all that well either. Phuong never complains to her sister or anyone about her life direction. She’s willing to forego decision-making and leave that to her sister or Pyle or Fowler.

What engaged me most was Greene’s style and the complexity of characters and plot. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam in the 1950s and this book made me appreciate that history more.

A few favorite quotations

“So it always is: when you escape to a desert, the silence shouts in your ear.”

“Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.”