Category Archives: 12. Back to the Classics 2022

Project Management at the Mid-Year

I started out really strong on my reading projects at the beginning of the year, but have sort of faded. This is a pretty common phenomenon for me – January brings lots of vigor and optimism, and then I lose focus after a few months. I’ve made solid progress on two major projects/challenges, though, and reviewing it will, hopefully, give me a shot of energy to keep moving forward!

A Century of Women

According to my analytics, I’ve read 17 books for this challenge, and written 13 reviews. The books I’ve reviewed for this project, so far this year, are:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (1965)
  2. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (1969)
  3. The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1931)
  4. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville West (1930)
  5. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple (1939)
  6. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (1926)
  7. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1977)
  8. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
  9. Jubilee by Margaret Walker (1966)
  10. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985)
  11. Firestorm by Nevada Barr (1996)
  12. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James (1972)
  13. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple (1949)

I decided at the beginning of the year to focus my attention on two decades – the 30’s and the 60’s, since I had a good start in both of them. This was wildly successful, and allowed me to completely fill the 30’s, and fill the 60’s with the exception of 1960. For the second half of the year, I am going to focus on the 40’s – I only need 1942 and 1947 to complete that decade – and the 50’s – I need to read books for 1953, 1954, 1956 and 1958. If I complete those two decades, I will have finished 1930 through 1969 by the end of the year. I really need to sprinkle in some books from the beginning of the century, though, since those will be the hardest for me to fill and I don’t want to just leave it to the end.

Back to the Classics 2022

I have finished 7 out of 12 categories so far:

  1. 19th Century Classic: open;
  2. 20th Century Classic: The Priory by Dorothy Whipple;
  3. Classic by a woman author: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather;
  4. Classic in translation: Maigret and the Minister by Georges Simenon is waiting for a review;
  5. Classic by a BIPOC author: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  6. Mystery/detective/crime classic: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
  7. Classic short story collection: open
  8. Pre-1800 classic: open
  9. Non-fiction: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
  10. Longest on your TBR: open
  11. Set in a place I’d like to visit: open
  12. Wild card: Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson

This leaves me with a couple of categories that are pretty easy to fill, but also with the two that will be hardest for me: pre-1800 classic and short story collection. The first is hard because I don’t enjoy reading books published pre-1800; the second because I struggle with short stories. This is solid progress, though, so I’m pleased with it.

The also have a second round of The Classics Club going, but I’ve done so poorly on it so far that I’m just going to ignore it for now.

Black History Month: A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes

A Rage in HarlemA Rage in Harlem
by Chester Himes
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Harlem Cycle #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1957
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 160
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

A Rage in Harlem is a ripping introduction to Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, patrolling New York City’s roughest streets in Chester Himes’s groundbreaking Harlem Detectives series.

For love of fine, wily Imabelle, hapless Jackson surrenders his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds—and then he steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a craps table. Luckily for him, he can turn to his savvy twin brother, Goldy, who earns a living—disguised as a Sister of Mercy—by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem. With Goldy on his side, Jackson is ready for payback.


This is the last of my Black History Month reads, and was also the Appointment with Agatha side read for February. Chester Himes was an African American novelist whose novels included the Harlem Detectives series, featuring two black police officers, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

This book has a definite noir flavor, and is also completely bonkers. It starts off with a bang, and continues to explode periodically throughout the entire experience. Non-stop action from start to finish, with a lot of twists and turns, and some extremely unexpected murders along the way. It’s an extremely violent book.

On my GR group, it has had a bit of a polarizing effect. There are several people who really liked it, but others who DNF’d early on because they couldn’t connect to the story or style. I’m in sort of middling position – I liked it, but it was really violent. Himes certainly did surprise me several times. I think it’s unlikely that I’ll continue with the series, even though I found it to be worth reading as an example of early crime fiction written by a Black author.

Black History Month: Jubilee by Margaret Walker

JubileeJubilee
by Margaret Walker
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1966
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 497
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and one of his black slaves. Vyry bears witness to the South’s antebellum opulence and to its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker’s novel brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light. Jubilee churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history.


I stumbled on Jubilee when I was looking for a book for my birthday year of 1966 to finish up that decade for my Century of Women project. It fit well with my reading for Black History Month as well, and my public library had a copy available, so I grabbed it.

I’m really surprised that this book isn’t better known because it was an amazing read. Margaret Walker, the author, was a black woman born in Alabama in 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Jubilee draws heavily on the oral history of Walker’s family, and is basically an unromanticized, unsanitized (and frankly much better) answer to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

The character at the center of the book is Elvira, or Vyra. The reader meets Vyry at the very beginning, as a small child who is brought to see her mother, a slave, one last time before she dies, worn out from child bearing and physical labor. Vyry is the daughter of a slave and her white master, who rapes her on the regular (the book doesn’t frame the relationship as “rape” and the master would surely not have imagined himself a rapist. But a person who is property has no ability to decline consent, and therefore the entire concept of consent is meaningless when it comes to sexual contact between the man who owns the woman and the woman. All sexual contact is coercive and is also, therefore, abusive and assaultive). She is the despised half-sister of the legitimate daughter of house, who looks enough like her to pass as white and to constantly remind the mistress that her husband was forcing himself on a slave during their marriage.

The book begins in around 1850, fifteen years before the Civil War, through the Reconstruction. Vyry is a fantastic character – fully realized and complex. She rebuts many of the myths about slaves – that they were happy, that they weren’t mistreated, that they didn’t yearn for freedom, that they neither saw nor internalized the unjustness of their circumstances. She is absolutely indomitable, as are many of the black characters in this book.

Before the Civil War, she falls in love with a wealthy, well-educated and free Black man. They want to marry, but are denied the opportunity because the plantation owners recognize that the very existence of free Blacks will create unrest among their slaves. When she approaches her master – who is also her father – about her wish to marry, he is indulgent until he finds out that she has been keeping company with a free man, at which point he becomes abusive. The man she loves wants to purchase her freedom, and this request is denied. It is cruel.

I suppose that this is one of those books that the new breed of book banners would likely seek to ban. It shows the south for what it was – a brutal, white supremacists regime under which a good chunk of humanity lived in terror (and was denied their humanity). The Civil War destroys the south, leaving the plantations in ruin and economically broken. The North abandons the emancipated slaves, leaving them to fend for themselves in circumstances that are impossible and horrific.

No, they have begun a reign of terror to put the Negro back in slavery. They will never accept the fact that the South rose up in rebellion against the Union North and the North won the war. They mean to take out all their grudges on us.”

Vyry and her children struggle on, scraping by in poverty, fleeing from one racist town to the next, supported by a good and decent man that Vyry marries when she believes her first love has died in the Civil War. Vyry dies free, but there is no real happy ending for her, unless you consider the life of Margaret Walker to be her happy ending – a brilliant, successful young granddaughter who stood on the weary shoulders of a great-grandmother who never really had a moment’s rest.

Walker, born in 1915, was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. She was a poet and a novelist, and her poem, For My People, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1942. It reminds me of Amanda Gorman’s poem read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, The Hills We Climb. It begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;
1942 was 12 years before Brown v. Board of Education and 22 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can read the whole poem here.

This book is a great read, and I highly recommend it. It can be difficult to be reminded how brutally the United States treated some of its citizens, but it is better to remember than to pretend. Our shared humanity demands that we be strong enough to face the truth about our history and ourselves.

Back to the Classics 2022

I know that I said that I wasn’t going to participate in any challenges this year, but I can’t resist joining this one again. I’ve done it several times, with varying levels of success, and I can fill it with books that will double up for my on-going Century of Women and Classics Club 2.0 projects. Usually I easily fill the categories, but I struggle with getting posts up, but I’ve already read and posted to fill 2 of the categories this month alone.

This challenge is hosted by Karen @ Books and Chocolate! You can find the sign up post here.

So, the categories & possible books to fill them:

  1. A 19th century classic: I have several books planned that could fill this spot, but I think I’ll either read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (1848) or Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)
  2. A 20th century classic: The only limitation for this category is that the book must be at least 50 years old. I’m going to check this category off with The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, which was published in 1939. See, already one classic down!
  3. A classic by a woman author: I’m going to check this one off, too – I finished my second-to-final Willa Cather novel, My Mortal Enemy, over the weekend, so I just have Shadows on the Rock left.
  4. A classic in translation: This category is often a problem for me, but I want to read more translated work this year anyway. I’ve been meaning to read The Wreath, by Sigrig Undset, for a number of years.
  5. A classic by BIPOC author: I’m planning on reading books by both James Baldwin & Zora Neale Hurston this year, so possibly If Beale Street Could Talk by Baldwin or Moses, Man of the Mountain by Hurston for this one.
  6. Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic: I read so much classic crime that I could already fill this category three or four times over this month. I’ll grab something later in the year that really stands out for this one.
  7. Classic Short Story Collection: On the other hand, I rarely read short stories. I have a copy of NYRB’s The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, so maybe I’ll read that one?
  8. Pre-1800 Classic: I rarely read anything this old because I find pre-19th century lit to be heavy going indeed. I have been considering reading The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1796) for a number of years; alternatively, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding (1749) is somewhat appealing, but it’s 975 pages long! A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstoncraft was published in 1792, and it’s only 269 pages.
  9. Non-fiction: I’m strongly considering Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but it’s 1100 pages long, so I may look elsewhere, maybe at Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals or Come Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie.
  10. Longest on Your TBR: I can’t even begin to imagine which book has been on my TBR the longest, but I do know that I bought Lark Rise to Candleford  by Flora Thompson in October, 1997, and I have never read it, so that’s got to be close!
  11. Set in a Place You’d Like to visit: For now, I’m going with The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, set in Ireland.
  12. Wild Card: I have a whole stack of D.E. Stevenson books that were just released by Dean Street Press, and she’s always delightful. So, one of those – maybe Green Money or The English Air.

So, there we have it! My Back to the Classics project, which is well underway, with categories 2 & 3 already completed!