Back to the Classics 2019

I must confess that I am a mood reader, so it is usually useless for me to make reading plans or lists. Almost hopeless, I would say. And yet I have decided to take part in a literary challenge next year – the Back to the Classics 2019 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate. The ultimate goal of this challenge is to read more classics, which goes hand in hand with my current reading goals. Besides, I can choose books from my current Classic Club list, so I get to work on that one as well. A win-win situation, isn’t it?

The rules rather straightforward. Karen proposes twelve categories and we, readers, pick a book to go with each category and then read them. But the fun doesn’t end up there. Apparently there’s a giveaway for the diligent readers who complete the challenge. Or even half of it. You can read all about it here.

Here’s my list:

  1. a 19th century classic: Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (and perhaps Alice Through the Looking Glass as well)
  2. a 20th century classic: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  3. a classic by a female author: Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
  4. a classic in translation: Beowulf, anonymous (now, as my mother tongue is Spanish anything that was originally written in English – modern or old – counts towards this one for me)
  5. a classic comedy: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
  6. a classic tragedy: Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens
  7. a very long classic: Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (I still have to check that it has over 500 pages, but I remember it as a very hefty book so I think it does. Otherwise I’ll list something else for this one)
  8. a classic novella: The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
  9. a classic from the Americas: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain (and perhaps The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn as well)
  10. a classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania: the Epic of Gilgamesh, anonymous
  11. a classic from a place where you’ve lived: Dubliners, by James Joyce (for Dublin, of course, where I lived for half a year almost five years ago)
  12. a classic play: The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster

What do you reckon? You might notice a few titles which aren’t on my Classic Club list. Well, I am also planning on starting reading through the lists of The Well-Educated Mind. I don’t know how I’ll tackle this whole project – whether I’ll read chronologically or read my way through each genre. But I think I have more or less an idea of what to read next year, but I’ll save that for another post. 

On a sidenote, I think I will up my book count to 30-36 for the Goodreads reading challenge. I know this is not much, only three books a month or less, but it is already fifty percent more than what I pledged to read this year. And yet I think it is still a doable number considering my current circumstances, i.e. two toddlers taking up most of my time and driving crazy round the clock.

Are you taking up any literary challenges in 2019? If so which? And are you planning your reading year in any way?

Six Tudor Queens, by Alison Weir: Katherine of Aragon VS Anne Boleyn (plus Jane Seymour)

King Henry VIII, one of the best known English kings, was a very controversial historical figure. He took six wives and his obstinacy to divorce his first wife in order to marry  his then mistress was the cause behind his break with Rome and the creation of the Church of England. His reign was a time merriness and fear, of triumphs and tragedies, and above all a time of change. The world was quickly changing, as America had recently been discovered and the neighbouring countries were forging trade empires, but England was changing as well and after Henry VIII’s death it was a totally different country than the one he had come to govern.

Alison Weir, a renowned English historian and writer, has set to write six novels, each telling the story of one of Henry’s wives. So far, the first three books of the series, corresponding to his first three wives, are out. The fourth one should be released earlier next year I think.

I have read and enjoyed all three books already and I thought I would write a post about them. What follows is a bit of a hodge podge, as there are mini reviews of the books mixed with my opinions of the queens portrayed in them and a brief glimpse of that turbulent time.

Katherine of Aragón, the True Queen


Katherine of Aragón was Henry VIII’s first wife. She was Spanish princess and doubly royal, as both her mother and her father were queen and king of their own territories in their own rights. It was their union what brought together the Spanish regions and shaped Spain as the country it is now. She had first married Arthur, Prince of Wales, the elder son of Henry VIII, who died shortly after the wedding. Katherine always said that their union had not been lawful, for their marriage was never consummated and Henry married her after coming of age and being crowned king. However, those subtleties that he gladly ignored in order to marry her were the very argument that he used against her many years later to declare their marriage void.

I read Katherine of Aragón, the True Queen, nearly two years ago and I truly loved it. I had never read anything by Alison Weir but I really liked her writing style and how she portrayed Katherine of Aragón. Keeping to all the historical facts available to her, she sketched a portrait of this rightful and self-righteous queen that presented her as a loving mother and wife, a woman truly enamoured of her gorgeous husband, and yet strong enough to stand for herself and her beliefs. Even though the book was over 500 pages, it was a quick and pleasant read, though it is true that the last third, more or less, was a bit of a drag as Katherine hopes time and again that her strayed husband will return to her and even when she’s been banned from court and shunned from the world, she still loves him ardently and fears for his soul.

I didn’t know much about Katherine of Aragón prior to reading this book and I was surprised by all the things she managed in a time when women were considered as baby-carriers first and foremost. And that’s where she failed. She was named Ambassador to the Kingdom of Aragon prior to her wedding to Henry, she was regent of England while her husband was away warring in France, she was an important patron for many scholars, but she failed to proved Henry with a son. And that was the beginning of her end.

Henry VIII was the second Tudor king and one of his main concerns was the legitimacy of this new ruling family; he desperately wanted a son to succeed him on the throne. Katherine was pregnant at least seven times but most of her babies were still-born and only one of her children survived through adulthood and she was a girl. Henry thought this was a sign of God being displeased with his marriage. Or at least that what he told the world. Truth is, he had fathered bastards with several of his mistresses and after Katherine’s best years were past her, he became rather obsessed with one particular lady and moved heaven and earth to put her on the throne.

After reading Katherine of Aragón, the True Queen, I was very curious about the next book on Anne Boleyn. Not only because I wanted to know more of her story but also because I wanted to see how Alison Weir would portray her. Weir is a self-proclaimed fan of Katherine of Aragón – I think she wrote that herself in the author’s note of this book – and even named her daughter after her. So I wonder how she would feel about her sempiternal rival. Hint: Alison Weir did a very fine job with Anne Boleyn and passed the test with flying colours, but read on.

Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession


I was waiting for a long time to find this book in my local library, more than a year, I think. And when it was finally available, someone had borrowed it and I had to wait two further months until I could finally borrow it. But the waiting was worth it!

I started reading it straight away and devoured almost half of it in one sitting, a very remarkable feat when you have two toddlers running around. And perhaps a very silly feat, as I was supposed to get up at 5ish am next day to catch a plane and go on holidays to Spain and yet stayed awake, reading, till 2 am. Oh, how I payed the price during the flight and the rest of that day for having indulged in my reading. And how I longed to go back home in order to read the second half of this book (I never take library books on holidays, just in case I lose them or forget them or splash them with sea water or whatever).

Anyhow. I went home and finished the rest of the book in a couple of days and I was once more impressed by Weir’s mastery of historical fiction writing. I think historical fiction sounds easy. After all you just have to do some research and put together those facts and infused them some life with your words. But in reality, I think that historical fiction is anything but easy because you’re constrained by reality and your fiction needs to be plausible. And the less information you have, the less easy it becomes because then you need to speculate and I guess it is just to easy to be carried away and fantasize way too much.

That could have been the case with Anne Boleyn, as there historical record on Anne Boleyn are not as extensive as those of Katherine of Aragón (and they’re even poorer for Jane Seymour, but I’ll get back to that later). However, Weir made the best of what little information she had and sketched a believable portrait of Anne Boleyn. Granted, she took her liberties while depicting her early years in France of what little is known and then stuck to historical facts and reliable accounts about her time in England. In that sense, I think that Weir has done an outstanding job in this book, as it might have been much harder to write than the previous one on Katherine of Aragón.

Furthermore, with Alison weir being such a staunch supporter of Katherine of Aragón, I can only imagine that it was not easy to write a neutral fiction on her sempiternal rival, Anne Boleyn. Also, most accounts about Anne Boleyn were written by her enemies, thus historical opinions on her were definitely not favourable and that doesn’t make the task any easier. And yet Weir succeeds portraying Anne in a positive (and realistic) light. She presents Anna as a courageous woman, a self-educated lady in a time when women did not have access to education, and girl who had found great mentors in France and the Low Lands, who taught her that women’s opinions were worth it, and Anne would follow their example and be outspoken and passionate about her duties regardless of the consequences.

It was also in France where Anne became acquainted with new religious ideas and upon her return to England she would hold onto that new-found zeal and ultimately use those revolutionary ideas to push Henry to break with the Church in Rome so that they could marry and their much awaited son be legitimate and therefore a heir to the crown. But Anne also failed in her most important duty and never bore a son. And an ageing Henry would not be that patient second time around.

Their marriage didn’t last long and Anne’s end was tragic. Unlike Katherine, Anne had not been brought up to be a queen and it might have been that she failed to draw boundaries between a mistress’ behaviour and that of a wife. The same personality traits that had once infatuated Henry VIII were now putting him off Anne and soon he was chasing other women. Eventually, somebody came along and stole Henry’s heart once more and that precipitated Anne’s downfall.

Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen


Jane Seymour was King Henry VIII’s third wife. Little is known of her before she arrived to court to wait on Katherine of Aragón and not much more after she became Queen of England – a title that she held for little more than a year. And yet she’s gone down in history as Henry’s most beloved wife. She’s the only one who was given queen funeral honours, she’s the one resting eternally beside Henry VIII, she’s the one who gave him a male heir.

Jane Seymour was a plain girl from a family with certain connections to the crown. She had a happy childhood, although it might have been clouded by a dark incident between her father and her older brother’s wife. But other than that, not much is knows about Jane so Weir has taken full license to let her imagination run wild and portrayed Jane as a devout catholic who intended to be a nun. Yet, when confronted with the hardships of life in a convent, she decided that contemplative life might not be for her after all and sought a place at court.

At court she served Katherine of Aragón first and the Anne Boleyn, until she could take no more of it. Jane is thought to be an ardent defender of Katherine and suffered to see how Henry mistreated her and favoured Anne instead. Again, Weir has speculated freely about this theory but what is true is that Jane definitely had sympathies for Katherine and her daughter Mary and somehow meddled to restore Mary to succession.

At first, Jane might have tried to resist the approaches of the King but eventually gave in – either because she discovered a softer side to him or to use her position to bring Anne down or simply because one cannot say ‘no’ to a King. Particularly not to Henry VIII. My favourite part of this book was the middle section, when Jane is caught in this political game to take the crown off Anne’s head. I was surprised at how fickle allegiances were and how much people were willing to risk in order to see Anne fall out of favour. But again, how much true is there in all that remains to be seen (though a big part of it might be true, as there are several historical records from the actors involved in this plotting, such as Mr Chapuys correspondence).

But other than that, this third book is weaker than the two previous ones. Jane is not so interesting as a historical persona, merely a pawn into a bigger scheme. And she dies shortly after giving birth to her first child, thus is she had any potential as a queen, it was never realised. Besides, part of this book overlaps with the stories on the two previous books so by now it can be a bit tedious to read for the third time how Henry snapped to Anne that ‘women worthier than her had endured much worse’ and so on.


One of the things I liked best about these books is how they portray Henry VIII. We only see him through the eyes of his wives but it is interesting to note how he changed throughout the years and how each of his wives saw him in a different light. Katherine adored him, she was infatuated by him, whereas Anne could not stand him or the sight of him. Jane saw him as a real man, both fragile and mighty, and attractive despite his years. And as the wives come and go, we see Henry as the man he was, the man he became and the man he could have been. He was a golden boy when Katherine first met him, an apprentice of king when they married, and good Christian. But as Thomas More could have said, ‘a lion sleeps inside the lamb’ (or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words on Katherine’s story). Anne unleashed that lion; Henry became a mighty king and did as he pleased. He was obstinate and volatile and often furious. And Jane tamed the beast – or so we are told. Henry found some respite beside Jane, a woman so different from his previous wife. She gave him a son, the most precious of gifts for him. Henry calmed down a bit but he had also learnt his lesson and was determined to never heed the advice of any wife again. He had gone too far to capitulate now, so there was no way that Jane could exert any influence on him. And she was gone too soon anyway.

Have you read this series? Any thoughts you’d like to share?

Also, I would appreciate any recommendations on further reading on Katherine of Aragón and Anne Boleyn.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Spoiler alert: This review probably gives away too much of the plot, so if you have not read this book yet you might want to skip it until you have.

I have just read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the very first time. Yep, that’s right. At the very tender age of 34. I remember having seen the film many years ago but I don’t really remember much about it. I think it would be fair to say that this has been my first introduction to the the universe of Narnia and to the writings of C.S. Lewis. And I loved it!

I am happy and sad at the same time – happy that I finally read this beautiful story (and I can’t wait to read more by C.S. Lewis; some of his non-fiction books are also on my tbr list) and sad because I never read this as a child. I now can only imagine how wonderful this story can be for children. I mean, there’s a bunch of children who find a magic land and meet fauns and beavers and a witch, and of course that’s not too good. But then, they’re having adventures and suddenly Father Christmas turns up and gives them presents. What’s not to love about all that?

But I still enjoyed this as an adult. And I guess that’s fine too. After all, C.S. Lewis dedicated this book to his godchild, who might have been already too old for fairytales but he was hoping she would nonetheless read it and like it when the time came for her to enjoy fairy tales once more. Even the dedication is lovely, so this book couldn’t have a better start.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, four siblings who are evacuated from London during WWII and sent to a country house owned by an eccentric professor. This house is huge, and magical. In one of its many rooms Lucy enters a wardrobe and walks and walks until she finds herself walking on snow, snowflakes still drifting in the air. Although her brothers and sister don’t believe her at first, they’ll all end up in Narnia and playing their part to bring back spring and defeat the White Witch. And they’ll meet Aslan. Their saviour, Narnia’s saviour, and ultimately only a lion.

This book (and the rest of the series, as I have read here and there) is very allegorical. This might be too much for small children to figure out but it is crystal-clear for adults – at least the most obvious of it, for sure there are many more meanings hidden in it that cannot be grasped in a first, fast-paced reading. Some people will like it, some people won’t. I didn’t have any issues with it. I was fine with it and thought the story worked perfectly. I was only a bit suspicious about the deeper magic from before the dawn of time as literary resource. After all, Aslan dies because of the deep magic from the dawn of time and then suddenly he comes back to life because of this other deeper magic from before the dawn of time of which the White Witch knew nothing about about. Very convenient. Oh well, I don’t think children will find any fault with it, and us, adults, will see through the allegory to justify this tiny bit of Deus ex machina in the story.

Nevertheless, this was a totally enjoyable read and I can only recommend it, both as clean children’s literature and as a fairytale for adults.

Have you read The Chronicles of Narnia? Did you enjoy them?

Some books for Christmas

Christmas is the best time of the year. And it happens to be my favourite time of the year as well. Funny coincidence, isn’t it?

Last year I kickstarted December reading Letters to Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien and I loved it! A heart-warming collection of letters that Tolkien delivered to his children every December, it is by no means serious literature but it is the perfect read to get into the mood for Christmas (particularly for adults who no longer believe in Father Christmas). And it is a beautiful book! Seriously, a small hard-cover book with a colourful jacket, good-quality paper, charming illustrations by Tolkien himself. It really is the perfect coffee table book for the holidays season.

I also read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens for the very first time and I totally enjoyed the original telling of this story that I obviously knew. So, so many versions of it have been filmed or made as animated films. When I was a child my favourite was A Flintstones Christmas Carol. Ah, The Flintstones, I actually liked anything with them in and this Christmas film was no exception. I could watch it all year round.

This year I had another short list of Christmassy stories waiting to be read in December but as I spent the last week of November grounded at home nursing two sick toddlers, I had plenty of time and I already read one of them. So I don’t have many feisty reads left for December. I am hoping to find some more inspiration though. And if not, well, I shall be busy anyway with my brother coming over for over a month (yay!) and my parents also staying with us for the holidays.

Anyhow, the books I was saving for December were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The first one I have just read for the first time ever and I totally enjoyed it (review coming soon) and the second one will be a reread. Little Women was one of my favourite books when growing up and I haven’t read it in ages, so I am very looking forward to it. And that would be all!

Do you also have a reading list for Christmas time? Any favourite you read year after year?

Things I’ve learnt from The Well-Educated Mind (part 2)


A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post on what I learnt from The Well-Educated Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer. In case you’ve never heard about this book before, it is a comprehensive guide to a classical self-education, complete with suggested readings for several genres. In my previous post I summarised the main ideas of the first part, Preparing for a Classical Education, and in this post I will discuss what I have learnt so far from the second part of the book, Jumping into the Great Conversation. This second part comprises six chapters, one per genre, but I am giving you an overall view of it rather than discuss it genre by genre. Perhaps I might do a series of posts in the future to discuss the key points of each genre – but first I’d have to read all six chapters in more depth, and not only skim through the sets of questions and reading lists.

The genres discussed in this new and expanded edition are novels, autobiographies, historical writing, plays (both drama and comedy), poetry, and science. The names of the chapters are so enthralling that I think it is worth it to copy them in here.

The Story of People: Reading through History with the Novel

The Story of Me: Autobiography and Memoir

The Story of the Past: The Tales of Historians (and Politicians)

The World Stage: Reading through history with Drama

History Refracted: The Poets and their Poems

The Cosmic Story: Understanding the Earth, the Skies, and Ourselves

Beautiful, aren’t they. But I didn’t copy them solely for the aesthetic value. Look at them again and you’ll quickly realise how they somehow relate to each other, they build onto one another. And that’s important.

There’s a reason why Susan Wise Bauer has chosen that order. In fact, there might two reasons if not more. First, because they go from difficult to more difficult to the most difficult, generally speaking. And that makes perfect sense. Just like you shouldn’t run a marathon without having trained a decent amount of time, one shouldn’t jump into a challenging, lengthy book without some proper training. And second, because indeed some genres are difficult to understand without some previous knowledge. Take for example historical dramas; they cannot be fully appreciated without some historical context. On the contrary, the novel, first genre on the list, needs little to nothing in order to be understood. It is fiction, after all.

And that would be my first lesson from this second part of the book: start easy and progress gently. No point in overdoing it, as that will only kill the spark. A second lesson somewhat related to what I have just said, was something that I already touched briefly on my previous post: read chronologically. That will definitely help to build a better sense of time and to see how literary works borrow from one another. Though I don’t think this is strictly necessary in the age of information, it might still be the most effective way to jump straight into the big conversation. After all, it is always easier to join a conversation at the beginning rather than in the middle when much has already been said.

Moving onto more practical matters, each of this chapters includes a set of question that one should ask him or herself as one progresses through the three stages of learning. These question are similar for all genres, though one or two might tackle the specifics of each genre. And of course, the way to dig into each genre will be different and Susan Wise Bauer offers a crash course on how to read these six different genres. Take for a example a novel and an autobiography; the authors have totally different purposes in mind – one might want to entertain while the other attempts to tell his or her truth – and their works cannot be assessed in the same way to determine whether the authors fulfilled that purpose or not.

I am copying here the set of questions included in the first chapter about the novel, which is probably the more general. I hope you can use it a reference for your future readings.


  • Look at the title, cover and table of contents
  • Keep a list of characters as you read
  • Briefly not the main event of each chapter
  • Make initial notes on passages that seem interesting
  • Give the book your own title and subtitle


  • Is it a “fable” or a “chronicle”?
  • What does the central character (or characters) want? What is standing in his or her way? And what strategy does he or she pursue in order to overcome this block?
  • Who is telling you this story?
  • Where is the story set?
  • What style does the writer employ?
  • Images and metaphors
  • Beginnings and endings


  • Do you sympathize with the characters? Which ones, and why?
  • Does the writer’s technique give you a clue as to her “argument” – her take on the human condition?
  • Is the novel self-reflective?
  • Did the writer’s times affect him or her?
  • Is there an argument in this book?
  • Do you agree?


As you can see, the questions and tasks are organised in three stages, which ideally would correspond to the three necessary readings to grasps as much as possible from a book. The first third of questions mostly will have you looking at the book and inquiring how it is organized and what does it tell. The second third of questions will make you reflect on what has been said and how it has been said; and the final questions will have you thinking on why the author has used that particular style to convey his or her message and to assess whether he or she has fulfilled the purpose of the narrative.

All chapters in this section are organised as it follows: a brief explanation of the genre and why its matter, a concise history of its most important developments and a set of questions to help you get the most of each reading. After that, Susan Wise Bauer offers a list of suggested reading. Some of the books in the lists are classics and some aren’t, some are timeless and others not. But altogether they represent the historical evolutions of said genre and some might have had a great influence on some generations and even shaped certain historical events. But Susan Wise Bauer even acknowledges that her lists are in no way universal; they only attempt to take the reader on a journey of the history of the genre and to serve him or her as an entry door into said genre. It is up to the reader to decide what to read and what not and to expand these lists in any way that he or she might find interesting. And that would be my final lesson from The Well-Educated Mind, a list is just a list. So feel free to adapt these lists to your purposes and tastes, give or take as many books as you consider necessary, or start your own lists from scratch. In the end, what matters is that this journey of classical self-education matters to you, that the learning you are doing is meaningful to you.


I hope you have enjoyed this post and learnt something from it. You can read the previous post on TWEM here.

If you have read The Well-Educated Mind or are working your way through the lists, I’d love to hear about your experience and what you’ve taken from it. If you want some further inspiration into this classical education journey, one great blog to follow is A Great Book Study, by Ruth – she almost halfway through and has read the novels and autobiographies; you can find reviews of everything she’s read in her blog.