Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Year of Classic Books

The past several years, I've been keeping track of what I read via Pinterest boards, but this year, I thought I'd also write a little blog recap for the year. I tend to read a lot of modern nonfiction, but in 2016, when two classic books ended up being my favorites for the entire year (Watership Down and Dracula, in case you were wondering), I decided to make 2017 a year of reading classics. I informally participated in this challenge, which had a great variety to stretch my reading horizons. It was a BIG adjustment reading loads of meatier stuff, and by March, when I had only finished two classics, I was starting to despair of actually making it through a dozen books by year's end. So I'm glad to say that not only did I finish the entire challenge, I ended up reading the most books in one year (31!) since I started tracking my reading in 2013.

So, did I enjoy this year's classics as much as the two that started me this direction? Here's the breakdown:

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1. The Count of Monte Cristo: I knew the basic plot going in, so it was VERY hard to read the first hundred pages. Like, if I procrastinate reading this, Edmund Dantes won't have to go to prison, right? It took me a month and a half to read the first hundred pages... and about ten days to read the other 1100. I may have pretended I had the flu worse than I did at one point so I could shirk all my responsibilities and finish the story. It's that good.

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2. Doctor Zhivago. I struggled a lot with this one. I didn't know where most of the locations were, I didn't know enough of Russian Revolution history to understand the flow of events... it was rough. I was reading with an incomplete mental picture, like driving while wearing filthy sunglasses. This book could have used some good annotation, like...

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3. Anna Karenina. Later in the year, I took another crack at the Russian Novel category. The version I read was very well-annotated (excessively so, even), so there was no confusion on anything happening in the novel. I really enjoyed Tolstoy's character depictions-- the philosophical chapters, not so much.

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4. Little Women. I read this back in grade school and didn't care for it too much; I played the part of Marmee in a college production of the Little Women musical and thought it was okay; I read the book this year and was like, "YES!!!" Seriously a perfect read for this very family-oriented season in my life. I was so sorry to get to the last page of this one. 

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5. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The category for this one was "Book Written Before 1800", and I decided to take that to the extreme and go to the very oldest story! The version I chose is definitely not for the purists, but I wanted something introductory for my first read-through. A raucous, rollicking bromance novel that really pares down a great story with timeless themes to the bare bones.

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6. Wuthering Heights. Is it possible to hate every single character in a single book? Yes, yes, it is, and I got first-hand experience with this in Wuthering Heights. Probably my least favorite read of the year.

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7. Cheaper By the Dozen. Hilarious yet loving true story of a family of twelve and its often-ridiculous patriarch. I guffawed all the way through this one.

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8. Northanger Abbey. One problem with reading classics is that so often you go in already knowing the plot. There aren't many surprises. So I chose the one Jane Austen novel I had zero familiarity with-- which was pretty fun, but I will say that it's easy to see why this is her least famous novel.

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9. Of Mice and Men. Short read, and I already knew the entire plot, so the ending lacked the emotional punch it should have had. The limited cast of characters was really refreshing after reading a bunch of sprawling novels filled with dozens of characters.

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10. Gone With the Wind. I started this one kind of rolling my eyes, because I thought it was "just a romance novel", but it is so, SO much more. It ended up being my favorite book of the year! This book has EXCELLENT pacing- never a slow or confusing part, which is quite a feat for a 600+ page book.

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11. Rebecca. I like to read creepy books in October, and Rebecca fit the bill. Not my favorite, but a good read for someone who would like something spooky but not terrifying. (the terror came when I read The Shining next, at night... right before bed... on a weekend that Adam was out of town. Never making that mistake again.)

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12. How to Win Friends and Influence People. The one non-fiction book on the list! Having had source-citing drilled into my bones through high school and college, I had a really hard time believing all the anecdotes in the book (and that is like 50% of the book!), but it is a classic because it had lots of good advice. Have I won friends and influenced people as a result of reading this book? The jury is out on that one, but I think I'm getting results with my five-year-old. :-P


It occurred to me near the end of the year that most of these books have been made into movies. So I fired up our free trial month of Netflix DVD and watched all the ones I could get my hands on in the month of December. How do the movies compare to the books?

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Count of Monte Cristo: THUMBS DOWN. The whole point of the book is about moving on and getting closure, but this movie completely trashes a beautiful monster-to-mercy arc for the cheap Hollywood satisfaction of ensuring the hero ends up with the old girl, wins old scenarios, and even finds out he has a son (!!!!) from the old days. Very disappointing.

Doctor Zhivago: THUMBS UP! I still wasn't too thrilled with the story by the end, but the cinematography is FANTASTIC-- really portrays the vastness of Russia and the contrasts between Imperial and Communist life in Russia very well.

Anna Karenina: THUMBS UP! Very unusual presentation, but I respect it. They did an excellent job of distilling all the characters and events of an 800-page book into a two-hour movie. Was really iffy at first on the casting choice of Keira Knightley as Anna, but she made it work!

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Little Women: THUMBS UP! Really sweet, Winona Ryder is a great Jo; not a huge Claire Danes fan, so I'm not too fond of Beth. Sad to say, but after reading the novel, I have to give a huge THUMBS DOWN to the Broadway musical version of Little Women, because it strips away everything charming about the story and leaves us with a bunch of obnoxious, anachronistic charaters.

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Wuthering Heights: THUMBS. Just thumbs. I still hate this story, but the screen version was a bit more enjoyable and livelier than the book. There are a whole bunch of film versions of Wuthering Heights, and supposedly every version is untrue to the book one way or the other, so I just picked the Fiennes/Binoche version and called it a day. Really liked the "I am Heathcliff" monologue.

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Cheaper By the Dozen: The old 1950 version gets a big THUMBS UP. The 2005 atrocity, produced by Hollywood producers that have no idea how large families actually function and who probably never even cracked open the book, get a big THUMBS ALL THE WAY DOWN TO CHINA. I couldn't actually get a copy of the (good) movie this month, but I saw it in high school and really enjoyed it. Reading the book made me recall many movie scenes vividly, so I'm guessing the film version stays pretty true to the book.

Northanger Abbey: An okay version of an okay novel. THUMBS UP. 

Gone With the Wind: THUMBS UP! The film sticks surprisingly closely to the book. I didn't remember the movie having the Frank Kennedy arc and thought that was cut out, but surprise! It's in there, too! The book is still better, but the movie is a-mazing.

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Rebecca (Hitchcock version): THUMBS UP. I remember really hating the heroine when I saw this movie in high school, but on a rewatch after reading the book, I thought she was really quite true to the text. The problem, I think, is casting: Joan Fontaine is just too mature and beautiful to be believable as a very young (19 or 21, I think?), insecure, nervous girl, so the incongruence between her persona and her actions doesn't make sense to someone unfamiliar with the book. Actually, the same could be said for Mrs. Danvers. These leading ladies are just too glamorous for the story!

So what's next? After a lot of hemming and hawing (because I really should work on trimming down my TBR pile), I've decided to do the same blog's 2018 classics challenge. I also have a few more modern books on the docket. So far (and this is always subject to change), the books I want to read in 2018 include:

I Am Legend
The Old Man and the Sea
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and/or Deep Work
The Odyssey or Innocents Abroad
The Handmaid's Tale
A Stephen King novel (probably the first Dark Tower book. The movie previews looked pretty cool, and when that happens, I read the book to see if I then want to watch the movie, haha)
Gulp by Mary Roach, one of my favorite authors
The Koran
Some Edgar Allan Poe

I'm pretty stoked to flex those reading muscles in 2018!