Monday, December 28, 2020

2021 Book and Movie Challenge

It's been a while since I've challenged myself with a big list of books and movies to read in the upcoming year. But lately I've had an urge to tackle War and Peace. Maybe it's because reading all Dickens left me with a taste for big books. Maybe it's because I read Crime and Punishment last year and so I'm not as afraid of Russian authors as I used to be. 

Whatever the reason, it took me back to the days when I'd put together a list at the beginning of every year and see how I did.

I'm keeping it as short as I can because I already know I've got some big reads coming up next year. Scott and I are going to tackle The Epic of Gilgamesh and Gone with the Wind over at the podcast. The Close Reads podcast is going to take on Anna Karenina on their Patreon feed so that will help pull me along (they are why I was able to read Crime and Punishment this year). And my Catholic women's book club always keeps my reading list pretty full. 

Plus some of the books below are real doozies. But they are all doozies I'm interesting in giving a fair trial to and possibly getting all the way through.

(Titles are marked in red when finished, with a few words on how they hit me.)

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Anthony Briggs translation) — because it's there. Result – I just couldn't care about any of the characters although I was 250 pages in. That was reason enough to stop reading.

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell — I loved the movie. Let's see if the book is as good or even better! Result - no. No it isn't. I got 50 pages in and gave up.

  • Moved to next year — Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry — everyone's told me to read this. Time to stop fighting them. We will be reading this for a 2022 discussion on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast so I will wait until then for the McMurtry experience!

  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco — Did not read. I gave this a very fair trial - to page 250 but in the end the insanely detailed immersion in medieval things did me in. I no longer cared who killed those monks. I just wanted out of that nutty abbey!

  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck — the Novel Conversations podcast made this sound light and fun as opposed to Steinbeck's usual doom and gloom. So I'm trying it. Result — it was more a series of vignettes than an actual novel. Not bad but nothing I cared about much.

  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles — another one that's been recommended  a lot and the last time it finally sounded good to me for some reason. Result — I loved this book. My review is here.

  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell — the book I've fought hardest against in recent years. Let's see if my instincts were right or wrong. Result — Both the plot and the characters got more interesting once Elizabeth was established in Milford though I did find the romance tiring after a while. It is a book I can imagine rereading in the future although not nearly as eagerly as I look forward to reading my beloved Dickens. Elizabeth Gaskell was soooooo serious, without much to lighten the mood, and that got tiring also. However, good enough and I'm glad I read it.

  • And It Was Good by Madeleine L'Engle — Did not read. This was from the early 1980s and showed it in the way L'Engle is noodling around with thoughts about faith and religion and personal approaches. Most of it was unexceptional and, I must admit, occasionally inspiring. However, there was enough of a New Agey feel and approach that made it feel just relativist enough that it kept kicking me out of the book mentally.

  • Wilding by Isabella Tree — been wanting to read this since I read the WSJ review. Enjoyed this, especially the bits following the author and her husband as they reintroduced animals as like the original  ecosystem as possible and watched what happened. A lot of what happened was unexpected. (Fuller review at Goodreads.)

  • Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay — a very recent recommendation from a podcast listener. Result - 50 pages in I realized that I just didn't care about a gigantic Roman alternate history story.

  • Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World by Christopher de Hamel — this was a gift some time ago but I haven't done more than sample it. This is the year to read it all! I read this very slowly but enjoyed meeting each manuscript and the window it gave into earlier ages.


Further reading inspired by the book challenge, in a way:

  • Les Miserables — I've not been able to read so many big books that when I watched Les Mis and loved it yet again, then I wanted to try the book again. By judiciously using my expert skimming skills to skip things like the history of the convent and multiple chapters on Waterloo, I'm loving it.

    FINAL REPORT: It took three months and so much skimming but I'm glad I read it, although I will never read it again. And I'm very impressed that the Les Miserables movie (Hugh Jackman) did such a good job of carrying through important characters and themes. In fact, if I hadn't seen the movie about 5 times I would occasionally have gotten lost in the novel. As it was, I was fascinated at the places where the plots diverged between the two with both still carrying the same message. In fact, I wound up being surprised that the movie's ending was so overtly religious when the book handled religious elements in that spot with much less emphasis.

  • William Wyler — we're slowly working our way through this director's filmography. We're up to Wuthering Heights and will see how far we get this year. My personal challenge here is not to skip any (such as Wuthering Heights, for example).

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starring Lon Chaney — this has been on my list ever since reading Joseph's review. Result — Lon Chaney is why I wanted to watch this and he rewarded my viewing with a stellar performance as Quasimodo. I also enjoy a good epic historical film and this also hit that target. This movie challenge has hooked on silent films so much that I'm looking for other silent movies to try when these choices are all done.

  • The Rules of the Game directed by Jean Renoir (son of the painter) — a classic that has been mentioned many times in our house by Rose. I want to know why. Result — Another of the best movies ever made that I don't love as much as I should.

  • The Man Who Laughs — another classic mentioned by Rose a lot. Result — an enjoyable over-the top melodrama with the little grotesque, off-kilter touches that German expressionism did so well. Conrad Veidt was fantastic in the title role since his expressions had to be done solely with his eyes and forehead.

  • Metropolis — a classic mentioned by everyone! Result — This movie was nuts. And I mean that in a good way. Starting with a sexy robot, mad scientist, and lots more. See my review here.

  • The Phantom of the Opera (1925) — I really didn't like the modern musical. This surely has to be better! Also, some review (I can't remember where from) loved it. Not as good as Hunchback, but Chaney was still amazing.


Further viewing inspired by the movie challenge since it turns out that I'm hooked on silent movies now:

  • It — not the "it" you think. This is the silent movie that made Clara Bow the "It Girl." A cultural phenomenon.
  • The Haunted Carriage — I've wanted to see this ever since reading about it years ago. The library finally has a copy. Also silent. Simply stunning drama, which is not what I expected from a 100 year old Swedish silent movie. My review here.
  • Sherlock, Jr. — the original meta film, maybe? 1925 silent Buster Keaton film.
  • The Adventures of Prince Achmed A very creative and fun telling of an Arabian Nights style fairy tale done by a German female director. The use of detailed, intricate silhouettes was expert, with a lot of stop motion movement which was very smooth. Really impressive and the first animated feature length movie (no matter what Disney says).
  • The Lodger — the most famous of Alfred Hitchcock's silent films, based on a famous story by Marie Lowndes. Artfully shot and told, with a surprisingly modern vibe for a lot of it. It grabs you from the first shot. The story is nothing new to the modern mind almost a hundred years later but it was quite suspenseful at a few moments when we were genuinely unsure who the serial killer might be. If you know Hitchcock's favorite themes and style already then it is a real pleasure to see how well he expresses them here.


  1. Wilding is on my list of books to read. Isabella got a copy last year for her birthday and loved it. I have picked it up a couple of times, but I'm only in the first chapter.

    Sailing to Sarantium is one of my favorites.

    1. I think I read a review in WSJ but then my daughter (a real nature lover) read and loved it. So it's been on my list with increasing interest, but if I don't "assign" it then I'll just keep shoving it away when the new and shiny books show up. :-)

  2. Wow, silent cinema is coming your way! That Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera is great. I saw it long before I was blogging, so I wasn't the reviewer. I should watch it again. I wish I could find The Man Who Laughs somewhere.

    1. The link goes to your post.

    2. Meant to say that when we find The Man Who Laughs I'll let you know. :-)

  3. Cannery Row is pretty slim actually!

    Cloud Atlas is such a joy. I found going between audio and print to be another level of joy, and sometimes necessity like in the middle. WAY BETTER than the movie in my opinion. And the author is so lovely.

    1. I will keep the print-audio suggestion in mind! I'm looking forward to that one a lot.