Monday, 3 August 2015

The Classics - My Current Top Ten List

Before I make a Top Ten List of  my favourite 'Classics', you have to realise that my acquaintance with said Classics is a relatively new thing. I did take a Classic Literature course at university in which we read such books as James Joyce's Ulysses (I never finished it), D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (I don't think I finished it), Henry James' Portrait of a Lady (I don't think I finished it), etc. I think you see a theme here. In High school, we took Wuthering Heights and in my French Literature class, we looked at books by Moliere (The Misanthrope) and Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and I generally didn't enjoy the experiences. I do remember back in Grade 9 or 10 reading Charles Dickens Pickwick Papers (written in 1836) and enjoying very much. So there was at least on success in my experiences.

Now also having said the above, I have enjoyed many movies based on the classics; Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (of course, it starred Olivia Hussey), the musical Oliver based on Dickens' Oliver Twist and others. So I will readily admit, I'm not adverse to a good movie adaptation of a classic.

Now since I've been married to Jo, my film and other experiences related to the Classics has increased exponentially (a lot). I've enjoyed many of the PBS classic series that were adapted from Classic novels, such as the Jane Austen series, Poldark, The Ladies' Paradise, etc. We've also talked about her favourites. I've sat with her in our den as she's listened to radio adaptations of other books, such as Daniel Deronda. It's made me more interested in taking out some of the books and giving them a try and I think, over the past 3 or 4 years, my Classic experience has been pretty good and overall, I've enjoyed it very much.

I think my first attempt was when Jo and I watched The Jane Austen Book Club. In the movie, one of the lady's from the book club is challenged by her boyfriend; he will read Pride and Prejudice if she attempts his favourite SciFi novel, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin. Well, since that is one of my favourite SciFi novels and since Jo loves the books of Jane Austen, I challenged her. I did indeed finish Pride and Prejudice (and I see that in my Goodreads scoring, I gave it a three star rating. To be fair, it was my first attempt in many years and I think if I read it again now, I would rate it much higher). Like the movie, Jo did not attempt The Left Hand of Darkness.

But all of the above factors, plus my various reading challenges in Goodreads did make me more interested in exploring the Classic genre. For the past 3 or 4 years, I've done so and it's been a pleasant experience. Before I get into a top ten list, what do I mean when I say a Classic? Firstly, if it was published before 1900, it's a classic; it might be crap, but it's a classic, just for its age. Secondly, I tend to look at a number of authors and books, especially those that were included in my English course, even if published in the early 1900's as classics. Authors like D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham, etc.

Maybe my current Top Ten List might give you some ideas. Recognise that this is a Top Ten List based on probably reading 12 - 15 'Classics' over the past few years. But it's a start.

10. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (originally published in 1886) - I read this in Oct 2011 and gave it 4 stars. "I'd never read before and can't say that I actually have ever seen the movie from beginning to end. So I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the story and how smoothly it flowed. It was a very quick read and held my attention. I was surprised that the story was actually told for the most part from the perspective of Mr. Utterson, a friend of Dr Jekyll, and that Jekyll and Hyde for that matter for the most part are somewhat peripheral to the story; until the end anyway. On the whole, a very enjoyable story and I highly recommend if you've never read before."

9. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (originally published in 1868) - I read this in Feb of this year and gave it 4 stars) "This was a bit of a slow read for me at times, but I did let myself get distracted with some of my other books. However, having said that, I enjoyed this book very much. I liked how Collins laid out the mystery; letting various characters provide their inputs to the events to help present the whole story. I enjoyed the characters; Betteridge the butler (the first narrator) and how he used the Robinson Crusoe story to provide him guidance on the goings on; Ezra Jennings, Dr Candy's assistant and an outcast for his strange appearance, but at the same time, a gentle, caring soul, who comes up with a unique solution to working out the mystery; the Scotland Sgt Cuff, droll, caught up with roses, but a sharp mind. As the story progressed, I did have the workings of a solution, but still enjoyed following through with it. I liked Collins' style of writing, finding it very accessible. Was the story too long? I thought it might have been at the beginning, but I think originally it was presented as a serial to magazines, so for that reason, it makes sense. And anyway, as the story progressed, the tension and pace, quickened perceptibly. All in all, it was an excellent story and I'm glad that I've started reading some of these classics over the past few years. It's allowed me to discover the wonders of story - telling from the past century. Highly recommended. I will check out Collins' other stories."

8. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (originally published in 1904) - I read this in Jan of 2014 and gave it 4 stars. "This isn't normally a book in my comfort zone as, of late, I do prefer mysteries and SciFi, but it's the second E.M. Forster book I've read in the past couple of years and I do enjoy his writing style. The story flows very nicely and I like how it developed and how the characters interacted. I've never seen the various movie versions from beginning to end, just snatches but as I discussed with my wife, it seems they were very faithful to the book. It is a classic and I liked the ending, it was most satisfying. Overall, I'm glad I took a chance and dove in."

7. The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola (originally published in 1883 as Au Bonheur des Dames) -  I read this Jul 2014 and gave it 4 stars. "I decided to read this because of the BBC TV series, The Paradise, which was based on Zola's book. At its core, it is the story of the development of the major department store (set in Paris) and its impact on the people of the city and especially those whose smaller shops surround The Ladies' Paradise and are threatened by its very success. The story focuses on Octave Mouret, whose vision and enterprise make the Paradise what it is, and on Denise Baudu, who arrives in Paris to live with her uncle (owning the shop across the road), along with her two brothers. Denise has nothing and finds that she must find work elsewhere as her uncle's shop can't support her. So begins her career, off and on, at The Ladies' Paradise, as a shop clerk. Fascinating story, the development and success of the store, Mouret's developing love for Denise, Denise's troubles within the store and with her family. The very impact of The Ladies' Paradise, based on actual stores that developed during the 1800's, on the city is also very interesting. At times it's a very depressing story, especially as the negative impact on the surrounding shops grows and grows, but it also portrays an interesting picture of the times, the culture.. Most enjoyable. There are other books by Zola that make this a series, if I read his biography correctly, with The Ladies' Paradise being the second book. I may have to try and find the others."

6. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (originally published in 1919) - I read this Jun 2015 and gave it a 5 - star rating. "Such an excellent story! My first experience with Somerset Maugham was The Razor's Edge, a book I had great difficulty putting down. The Moon and Sixpence is my second experience and I found this story much the same. It is based somewhat on the life of Paul Gauguin and follows one Charles Strickland, a London businessman, who in his '40s decides to leave his family, move to Paris and become a painter. The author of the tale meets up with Strickland throughout his time in Paris and follows him ultimately to Tahiti, where Strickland has finally found out where he belongs and what he wants to paint. Strickland is not a likable character; he abandons his wife and children, ruins other lives during his travels. But there is something about him that draws the author in. Maugham is a wonderful story-teller, his style is clear and flows so wonderfully. He puts you in his story, you can picture the people and the locations. And the story is fascinating, a joy to read."

5. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (originally published in 1876) - I read this in May 2015 and gave it 5 stars. "Such an excellent classic. I read George Eliot's Daniel Deronda last year and loved her writing style. She writes with intelligence and emotion. The Mill on the Floss tells the story of Maggie Tulliver and her family; father and mother and brother Tom. Her father owns the mill of the title. It has been in his family for generations. Due to various bad financial dealings, a lost court case and debts, he loses the mill and ends up working for the lawyer, Wakem, who he had the court case against. Maggie is a beautiful, head strong girl, a difficult way to be in the time of this story. She loves Wakem's son, Phillip, a disabled young man, but due to her father's strong feelings against that family, they must meet in secret. There are many tragedies in this story, the family's bankruptcy, the father's illness as a result of losing the court case, his death, Maggie's tragic loves, etc. The story is told in seven sub-stories, as Maggie and Tom grow up. Tom is her brother, she loves him dearly and craves his returned love. It is his intransigence that keeps her and Phillip apart and leads to other tragedies. I liked many of the characters, especially Maggie's cousin, Lucy, who loves and cares for Maggie dearly. The story moves easily through Maggie's life and as you get used to the language of the day, and this isn't a hard prospect as Eliot writes so well, you will quickly get into the flow of the story. The ending left me feeling very sad and bereft, especially that it took this final event to bring brother and sister back together. Excellent story..."

4. The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (originally published in 1944, definitely my latest Classic) - I read this in Mar 2013 and gave it 5 stars. "I'd never read any Somerset Maugham before and really had no desire to read anything by him either. However recently I saw The Razor's Edge in a antique/ collectibles shop and I liked the look of it. Since one of my Reading groups was reading Modern English Classics as this month's genre, I decided to read it. I must say that I was most pleasantly surprised. Maugham has a way about him of telling a story. His writing style is very fluid and eminently readable. The story was interesting, the dialogue flowed nicely and I found myself waiting anxiously to get back to the book when I put it down. Did a lot happen? It was a tale of people, specifically friends of Maugham's, as he is the narrator and a character, with whom he spends time and observes. I liked the characters and I liked Maugham as well. He's an observer of humanity and expresses his observations so very well. Anyway, I loved the story, it's one of my favourites of this year. Will I read any more of his books? Well I purchased The Moon and Sixpence yesterday, so I hope so.. "

3. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence (originally published in 1928) - I read this in Feb 2014 and gave it 5 stars. "Definitely a book out of my normal comfort zone, but such an excellent read. I had ideas about what to expect; a banned book, due to its rawness, explicit sexual language, etc. but I was surprised. It's a thoughtful story of a woman, living in a marriage with a broken man; physically broken from the war, but also emotionally broken. Constance loves Clifford Chatterley anyway, cares for him, comforts him, but finds her life to be stagnant, loveless, emotionless. She meets Oliver Mellors, an other ex-soldier who now works as the game keeper on the Chatterley estate and finds herself drawn to him. The story is about their developing relationship, both emotional and sexual. I expected the sex to be graphic, raw, but other than some language, it was crafted very lovingly, on the whole, very gently. The story itself is interesting, the characters as well and the interludes describing the countryside, the coal mining country are also well-crafted. An excellent story and I'm glad I finally pulled the book off my shelves to read."

2. Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (Originally published from 1924 - 1928) - I read this May 2014 and gave it 5 stars. "This was a challenging, but ultimately, an enjoyable and interesting read. The book is made of four separate books, Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up and The Last Post. It is set in England and France, before, during and after WWI. It deals with Christopher Tietjens, his wife Sylvia and Valentine Wannop, a young woman who has captured Christopher's heart. Around these people are family members, Christopher's brother, Mark; friends, associates and many others. Christopher's relationship with his wife is bitter and harsh, she goes out of her way to destroy his life, even though she won't grant him a divorce. At the same time, Christopher has fallen in love with the young woman, Valentine, who he met as a result of his father's friendship with Valentine's mother. Amidst these personal issues is the war, life in the trenches, all these matters. The story is detailed, it takes time to get used to the flow of the story, but when you do, it is enthralling. The second and third books, which deal more with the War itself, I personally found the most interesting. Critics have said that there needn't have been a fourth book, that Christopher, himself, isn't really even present, but, ultimately, I found that it wrapped up so many of the unresolved issues very nicely. Definitely worth reading, if you want to try a classic."

1. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (originally published in 1876) - I read this in Oct 2013 and gave it 5 stars. "Not my normal story at all; I do tend towards more light reading, thriller, adventure, but at times I do try to explore more challenging stories. This was definitely one of those. It's a true classic, well-written and intelligent. The story focuses on two main characters, Gwendolen Harleth, a selfish, young lady who thinks the world revolves around her and Daniel Deronda, a gentlemen searching for himself. This search has many aspects, the simple one being trying to ascertain who his parents are as he has grown up under the protection/ guidance of Sir Hugo Mallinger from his childhood. This also involves more internal searching, who is he, why does he think as he does. He is a caring individual, selflessly helping friends and strangers; his flighty school friend Hugo Meyrick, the lovely Jewess Mira and even Gwendolen. There is so much in this book, unspoken love, a brief study of what it is like to be Jewish in those times, death, romance, etc. I was very surprised how much I enjoyed the story and as I worked my way through the initial pages to get accustomed to the style of the time, it was published in 1876, I enjoyed it immensely. As much as Gwendolen irritated me to no end with her selfishness, at the same time, there was an inkling of sympathy for the plight she finds herself in (even if much of it is due to her own actions) and ultimately.. well, I won't go there. You can discover that for yourself. It's a heavy tome, but well worth reading. I'm very glad I did."

So there is my current Top Ten. I'm sure it will be adjusted as I explore the Classics more. I promised myself to read at least 4 this year. I'm currently enjoying Vanity Fair (1848) by William Thackeray and hope to read one more (my fourth) by December. I'm leaning toward one of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) by Thomas Hardy, Can You Forgive Her (1865) by William Trollope or The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper. Of course, I do also have a few modern Classics on my list for my Fiction challenge, including After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie by Jean Rhys, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. So I hope to continue my enjoyable journey down these paths, along with my normal mystery and SciFi reading.

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