The Classics Club: Two Years Later

Two years ago today, I put together a list of seventy-five classics I wanted to read by July 15, 2017 and, thus, joined The Classics Club. Last year, I reflected back on my progress — how many books I had read so far (16 from the list + eight other classics), how I overcame my fear of Edith Wharton, and how I tackled one of the longest books on my list.

This year? I’ve read two books — Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and The Iliad by Homer — from my list and one other book I’d consider a classic. Which brings my total number of classics read since July 15, 2015 to twenty-seven classics with eighteen from my list of 75.

Do I wish I had read more from my list in the last year? Yes, of course, but I’m trying to avoid words like “only” or “failure” in this recap. I enjoyed both Hardy and Homer’s novels; I’m glad the Classics Club gave me the kick to pick them up. I’m also trying to avoid making too many goals or plans in the coming year. Maybe I’ll pick up some steam in the final year before my goal date, or maybe I’ll “cheat” and extend my date to 2018 (or 2019 or 2020). But, hopefully, there will be some great classics along the way!

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The Iliad by Homer

HomerIliadPackageCarton27Mar06.inddFiction — audiobook. Translated from the Greek by Stanley Lombardo. Read by Stanley Lombardo and Susan Sarandon. Parmenides Audio, 2006. Originally published 800 BC. 15 hours, 13 minutes. Library Copy.

Grouped into twenty-four books (or, chapters), Homer’s saga covers a series of battles during the final year of the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states lead by King Agamemnon. The war was launched because the Trojan prince Paris took Helen from her husband and the King of Sparta, Menelaus, after the goddess Aphrodite made Helen fall in love with Paris as a reward for him naming Aphrodite the prettiest of the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite.

Interference into the affairs of men on the part of the gods and goddess continues throughout the war, including a plague sent by Apollo on behalf of one of his priests, the Greeks facing near destruction at the hands of Zeus they realize how much they need Achilles, Aphrodite saving Paris from being beaten to death, and so forth. The loyalties of the gods shift throughout the battle reacting not the actions of man but to the actions of one another. So much vanity and territorial infighting! At one point, Zeus prohibits the gods from interfering but, of course, the gods come up with creative ways of indirectly championing for either the Greeks or the Trojans.

The complete removal of free choice is maddening. One army may finally gain the upper hand after ten long years of war or develop a brilliant strategy of war, but their advancements are completely undone by a plague or a flood. Of course, these events may very will be natural occurrences — diseases spread in unhygienic, cramped conditions and major flooding tend to occur in cycles — but like modern-day individuals, both sides utilize the existence of a higher power to justify the bad in their life.

*spoilers*

The central figures of The Iliad are the eldest Trojan prince, Hector, and Achilles, a notorious warrior. Although his dismayed at what his brother has wrought, Hector vows to defend Troy and is the only one to show kindness to Helen, who has seen public opinion towards her change as the war drags on.

For his part, Achilles is a rather unwitting fighter; he has little stake in Agamemnon’s war and, as covered in the first book, is displeased with Agamemnon for taking his captive, Briseis, from him. He refuses to participate in battles, but lends his armor to his cousin, Patroclus, so he can defend the Greek ships from being overrun by the Trojans with stern instructions not to pursue the Trojans directly. Ignoring the warning, Patroclus decides to pursue Hector and is set upon by the god Apollo and the warrior Euphorbos.

Overcome with grief, Achilles vows to take revenge upon Hector much to the horror of his mother, Thetis, who knows that Achilles will die in his quest for vengeance. Seeing Achilles’ determination, Zeus lifts his ban on the gods interfering in the war (not that the gods had been following it) and Athena tricks Hector into turning towards Achilles’ spear in battle. Following his death, Hector’s body is dishonored by Achilles repeatedly and Zeus, disgusted with Achilles’ behavior, decides Hector’s body must be returned to his father, Priam, for a proper burial.

The scene between Priam and Achilles where Priam begs for his son’s body was my favorite part of the novel. I was very nearly moved to tears as Priam and Achilles shared a meal and tried to grapple with their grief. Neither of them wanted this war; neither of them had a role in launching it. Yet both experience the collateral damage of war, and listening to these two men on opposite sides lament how war has cost them both the person they love most in this world was the perfect conclusion after so many gruesome, descriptive depictions of men dying in battle.

*end of spoilers*

Lombardo’s translation is noted for “adding dramatic significance to Homer’s conventional and formulaic language”. I’m not sure I can comment specifically on this statement, but I did find his translation far more engaging than E.V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. And my apprehension over the translator also serving as the narrator turned out to be unfounded as Lombardo’s reading was on par with other audiobook narrators I have loved.

I also appreciated the recaps of each book as read by Susan Sarandon that are inserted at the beginning of the chapter. These summaries not only established expectations of each book, but they made it easier to start and stop the audiobook when needed. I would often re-listen to her one to two minute recaps after setting aside the audiobook in order to reorient myself with the story. It would be great if all complicated classics included these refreshers!

The infamous Trojan Horse does not feature in Homer’s tale, which was a bit of a surprise after listening for fifteen hours and expecting it to appear in the very next book. So now I will have to add The Aeneid by Virgil to my to-read list in order to experience that part of the war.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Fiction — eBook. Amazon Kindle, 2012. Originally published 1874. 512 pgs. Free download.

Hardy’s novel focuses on the follies of the heart with the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene,  falling for the superficial rather than the practical. At the beginning of the novel, young Bathsheba tells her first suitor, a promising sheep farmer named Gabriel Oak, that she should never want to marry him because she’s afraid he could never tame her the way a wife needs to be tamed in order for the marriage to work. She also believes their stations to be life to be unequal; Bathsheba is a poor orphan with a lady’s education while Gabriel is master of his own flock of sheep with a mortgaged piece of land.

“I hate to be thought men’s property in that way, though possibly I shall be had some day…I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry — at least yet.”

Following her rejection of Gabriel’s suite, Bathsheba’s fortune unexpectedly rises and she moves to Weatherbury to take up her position as farmer and owner of one of the largest estates in the area. Although Bathsheba establishes herself as a competent and capable farmer and mistress, she uncharacteristically and foolishly engages in the childish behavior of sending a Valentine to a man she does not love and is, much to her chagrin, thus pursued by Mr. William Boldwood, a gentleman who owns the estate next door.

His wealth and station combined with the fact that their two estates neighbor one another means Mr. Boldwood would make a fine match for Bathsheba, but the promise of wealth holds no attraction for Bathsheba in the face of Mr. Boldwood’s overbearing and unpleasant nature. He might have the personality to turn her into the submissive wife Bathsheba thought Gabriel would not be able to mold her into, but Bathsheba interest in becoming one has waned even further now that she has her own means of support.

She is, however, interested in becoming the wife of Sergeant Francis Troy, a officer with the “red coats” so often fawned over by females in other nineteenth-century novels. A smooth talker with a pleasing face, Troy utilizes his elaborate sword play (no, not a euphemism) to sweep the rather levelheaded Bathsheba off her feet, so to say. Bathsheba marries Troy and quickly learns that she cannot be the submissive wife she thought marriage would make her into when married to a philandering, drunkard still in love with the young girl he thought stood up him at the alter.

Troy’s antics and Bathsheba’s attempts to cover for him would drive the farm into ruins where it not for Gabriel, who came into Bathsheba’s employment after experiencing a great loss the costs him his farm and his flock. Bathsheba was hesitant to hire Gabriel given their history, but he insisted that he would be a good, obedient employee to her (and only here) and proves that over and over again.

“Thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of his own suit, a high resolve constrained him not to injure that of another. This is a lover’s most stoical virtue, as the lack of it is a lover’s most venial sin.”

Although this may sound like all the ingredients of a romance novel, Hardy’s writing and his insights in the complexity of how humans respond to the notion of live elevates this novel far above that other derisive label. Troy is, obviously, an example of how superficial love can be. Bathsheba marries him because she appreciates his good looks and his mannerisms. He is more attractive and more interesting than both Boldwood and Gabriel, and such appearances blind to her to the ugliness of his personality.

The poignant part of his inclusion in the tale, the aspect of his character that lifts him from villain to multifaceted character is the simple fact that he is in love with someone else. He acts the way he does, in part, because he’s known love and lost it. He’s had something beyond the superficial with someone else, and Bathsheba, who can only see his looks and appearances, will never be able to compete with or replace that.

“The rarest offerings of the purest loves are but a self-indulgence, and no generosity at all.”

Boldwood, for his part, is a warning sign that those appear best on paper might be actually be the worst of matches. He believes himself so in love with Bathsheba that he refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, that he becomes utterly fixated on her. His infatuation becomes sinister and creepy, and it opens up the question of whether he “loves” Bathsheba simply because she is someone he cannot have. Would he grow tired of her if she married him, or would be become further obsessed with showing of his “prize”?

One of the ideas generating a lot of buzz both within the publishing and the entertainment industries is this idea of “strong women”. This idea that women should be kick-ass, superhero leads with female friendship that transcend discussing boys. In other words, more representative of woman in real life. And, of course, I agree with this idea and long to see more of characters like this. Yet what I love about Hardy’s work is that Bathsheba — strong, independent, and level-headed Bathsheba — is allowed to be multifaceted.

“Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction into a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the degree of imbecility it supplants.”

She make a poor choice whilst simultaneously successfully running her farm; she has a strong relationship with her female employees that allows her to also be silly with them (see aforementioned Valentine). She also develops a deep bond with Gabriel that helps to explain why he was the better choice even without all the hindsight information of how life with Boldwood or Troy would work out. She evolves and she is human in a way not to often found with female characters of the twenty-first century.

With this novel, Hardy remains not only one of my favorite writers of the nineteenth-century but of all time. I adore his ability to capture the dialects of his rural settings, to paint such vivid and emotional pictures of where his characters live, and I continue to fall in love with the female characters he places at the forefront of his novels. And for those who have seen the movie, the pinnacle romantic moment between Bathsheba and Gabriel happens in the middle of the book rather than the end, which should be incentive enough to read the novel.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Kenneth Branagh. Listening Library, 2013. Originally published 1955. 3 hours, 57 minutes. Library copy.

Two young children named Digory Kirke and Polly Plummer decide to explore the connected attics their family’s homes in London during the summer of 1900. During their exploration, the two children stumble across Digory’s Uncle Andrew, and Polly is convinced by Uncle Andrew to touch a yellow ring, which causes her to immediately vanish.

Horrified, Digory learns that his uncle has been playing with magic and only the way to get his friend back is for him to touch a second yellow ring making sure to take two green rings with him so Polly and Digory can return. Digory finds Polly almost immediately in the “woods between the worlds” where puddles serve as portals to new lands but, like all curious children, the two decide to jump into one of these puddles before returning to England.

The two end up in Charn, a destroyed city where all life has died and only a few reminants of civilization remain including statues of the Charn’s former leaders and a bell imploring the finder to ring. Polly resists the temptation, but Digory succumbs ringing the bell and awakening Jadis, an evil witch who killed all those in Charn in her quest for power.

Digory and Polly do their best to escape back to London yet Jadis ends up following them. Thirsty for power in this new land, Jadis enslaves Uncle Andrew and assaults anyone who gets in her way. Determined to save Uncle Andrew and themselves, Digory and Polly grab Jadis, take her back to the woods between the worlds, and try to locate the puddle leading to Charn. Instead, the duo ends up jumping into a puddle that leads to a land not yet created and witness the lion king, Aslan, founding Narnia.

There’s some contentious over whether or not this book should be read as the first in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Yes, the novel is chronically the prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but it seems to rely upon at least a cursory knowledge of that book — the important of Aslan, the horrors of the White Witch, the existence of a lamp post in the middle of nowhere — to really work well as a story.

Even though I’ve read The Lion, the Wtich, and the Wardrobe (although, it’s been nearly five years), I felt as though I was listening to someone read a Wikipedia entry to me rather than a novel. This happened and then that happened, which lead to this. Not a lot of excitement; not a lot of intrigue. A lot like reading the first chapter of Genesis, which is clearly the inspiration for how Aslan brings about Narnia.

I know some people read fantasy novels and immediately must know how that land came into being. I’ve seen all the movies and read the first book yet I never felt that burning need with Narnia. It’s a magical land one accesses through a wardrobe simply because that’s how things are. Not very imaginative of me, I guess.

Yet that probably explains why this book did not work well for me, and the uninspiring narration by Kenneth Branagh did nothing to keep me engaged with this tale. I also must admit that the audiobook I listened to largely skipped the third chapter. The CD was scratched so it refused to load properly past the first four minutes, but I decided to read up a summary of that chapter online rather than seek out a print copy to help fill in the holes.

The Classics Club: One Year Later

A year ago today, I decided to join The Classics Club and created a list of seventy-five classics I would like to read within a three year period. I said in my introductory post that I hoped to read twenty-five classics each year and, a year later, I’ve read sixteen books off of my original list plus an additional eight books that could also be considered classics.

All of my book reviews for those titles I’ve read for the club are available here in their own category. The additional eight books considered classics I’ve read and discussed are available in my “classics” tagSome of the highlights of the past year include:

In the next year of being in the Classics Club, I plan to tackle books by the Brontë sisters as I’ve been avoiding Anne, Charlotte, and Emily for years now as a bad experience with Wuthering Heights. It would be lovely if I could fall in love with them as much as I have with Edith Wharton!