Dead Souls by Gogol – Interesting but challenging

January 19, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) French title: Les Ames mortes. Translated from the Russian by Ernest Charrière (1859)

Everything about Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is a challenge. Reading it. Writing about it. To be honest, it was difficult to read and I persevered only because I was curious about what Gogol wanted to demonstrate with this book and because Gogol was one of Romain Gary’s favorite writer. I had already read the short-stories The Overcoat, and The Night Before Christmas.

My colleague in Russia says that Dead Souls is mandatory reading in school, which must be a lot tougher than reading Candide.

As always when I read classics, I’m not going to comment about the book, academics have done it a lot better than me. This is just my response to it and nothing else.

Before going further, a quick word about the “souls” the book title refers to. I’m going to quote Wikipedia instead of poorly paraphrasing them:

In the Russian Empire, before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners had the right to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, who could buy, sell or mortgage them, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word “soul” was used: e.g., “six souls of serfs”.

Gogol by F.Moller – 1840. From Wikipedia

Dead Souls is the journey of a middle-class Russian crook, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. His only goal in life is to get rich to live a comfortable life with good food, fine clothes, refine soap and perfumes. When the book opens, Chichikov arrives in the provincial city of N.N. with his coachman Selifane and his footman Petrushka. He quickly inserts himself in the town’s life, he gets acquainted with all the prominent citizens of the place, small nobility and civil servants.

He makes himself comfortable and decides to visit the country. He goes from one landowner to the other, offering to purchase their dead souls. What’s in it for both parties? The landowner pays taxes on the number of male souls they own. Souls are counted by the Russian government every few years and this count is used as the basis of the tax calculation. So, if a serf dies between two counts, he’s still considered as alive for tax purposes. If the landowner sells their dead souls, they stop paying taxes on them and the new owner pays the taxes. And what about Chichikov? What’s in it for him? Easy! A dead soul who is officially still alive is an asset. An asset can be pledged at the bank in exchange of a loan. For Chichikov, it’s a way to cash loans and have a starting capital to buy land and souls and establish himself as a landowner. (Btw, this is based on a true story and Pushkin suggested this as a plot idea to Gogol.)

In the first part of the book, we follow Chichikov from one estate to the other and meet with various types of landowners: the old widow, the paternalistic one, the philanderer, the miser…It’s didactic, you can see that Gogol wants to show you a typical Russian province. Each landowner has their flaws, their qualities and everything is told with an undercurrent sense of humor, especially at the beginning of the book.

In the second part, Chichikov finally meets a perfect landowner, one who inspires him and makes him want to better himself. He also meets someone who inspires him spiritually. In the middle of bouts of good resolutions, Chichikov is caught up by his scheme and the Russian justice is after him. He manages to dodge the bullet and settles down as a gentleman farmer with wife, children and serfs. His election at a prominent charge in the province he settled in is a farce, one that uncovers the big joke that local election are.

And that’s it for the plot.

Now, my impressions. Don’t forget that I’m French and that I read with my French literary baggage and with my French historical and cultural background.

A political novel

Dead Souls is a political opus disguised in a picaresque novel. The first part is better than the second, in my opinion. I liked the comedy side of the first part and had a hard time with the more sanctimonious side of the second part. At every turn of page, Gogol – who, ironically, wrote most of his novel when he was staying in Europe – denounces the Russian elite’s love for everything foreign. He never misses an opportunity to show that they would be better off without French wine, French cooks, Dutch fabric…

Chichikov doesn’t speak French and that tells a lot about his status. He’s not part of the Russian aristocracy who, at the time, hardly spoke Russian at all. Gogol shows the workings of small-town life, the corruption of the institutions and the collusion among the ruling class. They hold onto each other. They know exactly who misbehaved, who despoiled whom and they just find a way to let it slide.

Gogol criticizes the elite and their behavior, their tendency to look towards Western Europe and mimic London or Paris ways of life instead of being proud of their being Russian. I still find appalling that a part of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th C didn’t even speak Russian.

The author depicts their ridicules, their laziness and their lack of interest in their land. He mocks their incompetence and their quirks. In NN, the governor’s hobby is embroidery!

Dead Souls can easily be instrumentalized by politicians as it suggests to the reader to stop looking West and start leaning on Russian culture, background and strength. It can be borrowed by nationalists if they choose to pick the passages that suit their doctrine.

The serfdom system.

I knew about the law emancipating the serfs and I knew of the concept which, in my mind,  was more attached to the Middle Ages than to slavery. Reading about the transactions, the way Chichikov haggles over the price of dead souls with the owners, it sank in. It’s slavery. Pure and simple. And you need to wait for the last pages of the book for Gogol to openly condemn this system.


I was amazed by all the banquets scenes. If French people are obsessed by food, the Russians in Gogol’s Dead Souls are strong contenders for this title. No wonder Chichikov has a pot belly, he’s always invited to receptions with lots of dishes! Only the Russian ones are mentioned and described. In the election of the local representative at the end of the second part, the quality of the candidate’s cook was part of the pros and cons list made to evaluate the candidate’s worth! Apparently, having a French cook was a bonus.

The tax and administration elements

Before the events told in Dead Souls, Chichikov worked as a custom officer and I was fascinated by the passage about smuggling goods through the border.

The workings of the court in charge of recording transactions regarding properties were fascinating too. Greasing a civil servant’s palm was a local sport, one you needed to know how to play.

The tax on male souls system left me dumfounded. The system is flawed from the start with the mortality rate they had at the time. Tax bases cannot be revised often enough to avoid frauds, especially since it’s based upon declarations and transactions that are recorded at local level by an administration whose officer is elected locally. Everything concurs to have flourishing frauds. I wonder how it was in France at the time. Probably better because that’s one thing we’ve always been good at: collecting taxes. Maybe we should create Tax Officers Without Borders and send the controllers abroad, they’d be occupied elsewhere.

I can’t believe that banks took souls as collateral. Leaving aside the obvious moral issue (which means judging with 21st C eyes what was happening in the 19thC), from a business side, I don’t understand how a soul who could die at anytime could make a sound collateral.


We always think that globalization is a thing of our time. It puts things in perspective when Gogol describes how Swiss, French, German or Dutch peddlers made it to Podunk Russia to sell their goods. There were a lot more exchanges in the past than we think.

Theatre, theatrics and comedy.

I’ve read that Gogol wanted to emulate Dante and Homer when he wrote Dead Souls. I can’t comment on that.

It may come from the French translator but some passages sounded a lot like the theatrics in Molière’s plays. The coachman Selifane and the footman Petrushka are comic side-characters and they sound a lot like Sganarelle, one of Molière’s recurring character. There’s also scene in where Chichikov is in prison and pulls his hair out at the thought that the casket where he puts all his papers and money in now in the hands of the gendarmes. He’s out of his mind, behaving wildly like Harpagon, in The Miser by Molière. He laments “ma cassette” (my casket), “ma cassette” all the time and it’s hard not to think of the famous casket scene of The Miser. Maybe the translator emphasized that part for the French reader.

The first chapters of the first part are the rifest with comedy. The book gets darker after that and the moral rant took over. I know that Dead Souls has been made into a play and I can easily imagine it, at least for the first part.

I could go on and on about details that struck me, give you quotes and all but this billet is already long enough. I’m glad I read Dead Souls, even if it wasn’t a walk in the park. Now, I’m tempted to read Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. It’s a novel Gary wrote in 1977, after the 1973 oil crisis. He imagines that someone invented an “advanded fuel” based on capturing dead souls at the moment they leave the body and putting their energy into batteries. The whole humanity is at risk to be considered as cattle. I think it could be interesting to read it in the wake of Dead Souls. (Gogol-ish pun intended)

  1. January 19, 2019 at 11:33 am

    I read it at school (its mandatory, true)…but I didn’t like it much, back then. I liked the idea and some places are really funny, but its too ‘political’ and too serious for kids in the school. I loved story “The Nose” tho…
    Hes known for odd humor and creating of absurd characters (this part is very close to my heart)
    Gogol was paranoid that he would be mistaken for dead (when in reality he is not) and buried alive. He wanted his coffin to have an air hole and a rope leading to handbell at the surface so he could ring for help if he woke up in a grave.
    And he also often burned his books (scripts) 🙂 he was one mad fella!


    • January 20, 2019 at 9:27 am

      I think it’s a book you appreciate better when you’re an adult. I understand why it’s mandatory, as a landmark of Russian literature but I’m always on the fence with this mandatory school reading. (It’s the same here with classic French lit)

      On the one hand, you can’t not read major literary works in school and on the other hand, putting these classics in the hands of inexperienced readers can put them off reading. Like driving a car without a licence or trying to run when you only know how to walk. Or you need fantastic teachers…

      Back to Gogol.
      I really enjoyed the humour in the first part. I highlighted tons of passages. The descriptions of people is extremely funny with an odd way to put thing. I don’t know how to describe it. A way of seeing things from an odd angle, one which is not the obvious one but a quirky side view of people and things that is spot on and funny.

      I really recognized how strong Gogol’s literary heritage is in Romain Gary’s own writing.


  2. January 19, 2019 at 12:46 pm

    Interesting…I also enjoyed Pt 2 less than Pt 1.

    I found when I was in Russia, that is wasn’t just the tour guides who had read the great Russian novelists. A shop girl asked me if I’d read Tolstoy, and when we went to Gogol’s Restaurant, the waitress asked if I’d read Gogol. Clearly they had, from what they said about it. So I think they must have a high standard of education… and they are very proud of their literary heritage.

    My thoughts are here:


    • January 20, 2019 at 9:38 am

      I was surprised to see the number of writers’ museums they have in Moscow. I expected these landmarks to be destroyed after the Soviet years.

      I’ve read your review and I see we had the same experience with Dead Souls. As I said in my comment on your post, I wonder if I should have stopped after the first part, the tedious second part sort of erased part of the pleasure I had with the first part.


      • January 20, 2019 at 10:14 am

        It’s quite amazing to see the cultural institutions that survived the Soviet years. We grew up believing that Stalin destroyed or sold everything he could, but it isn’t true. He did sell some artworks, to fund public housing, but you only have to look at the Hermitage website to see that they had so much of it, he could afford to sell off some of it.


        • January 20, 2019 at 10:31 am

          Oops, I should correct that. Stalin sold the paintings to fund rapid industrialisation because Russia had never had an industrial revolution under the Tsars. See
          (Just as well he did, too, or they’d never have been able to manufacture the weapons which drove back the Nazis, and who knows what a mess the world might be in if they had defeated the USSR and Hitler had control of all of Europe.)


          • January 20, 2019 at 4:29 pm

            thanks for checking it out.


        • January 20, 2019 at 4:29 pm

          I assumed they had destroyed these writers’ houses as being part of bourgeois thinking or something like that. That’s why I was so surprised when I realized there were all these museums to visit.


  3. January 19, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    The original is not an epic poem, but a prose novel.


    • January 20, 2019 at 9:17 am

      Thanks, the passage with the wrong information has been removed.

      I was so sure of myself I didn’t check it again. I guess I mixed it up with Eugen Onegin.

      The fact that the book is made of cantos and not chapters didn’t help.


  4. January 19, 2019 at 4:46 pm

    Right, the “epic poem” thing is a metaphor. It’s just a novel. And when I call Dead Souls the “greatest novel of the whatever” I just mean the “first part,” the part published in 1842 as a single, complete novel. The unfinished sequel is the work of a writer who had really changed – a religious conversion, mental health problems – almost a different writer.

    I still find, having made attempts for years, that the premise of the novel is very hard to summarize. It is slippery. Part of it makes little sense, which does not help.

    I wonder what Gary does with the idea.


    • January 20, 2019 at 9:53 am

      Thanks Tom,

      My translation is in “chants” (cantos, like Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage), it didn’t help me see that the original was not poetry.

      The second part feels very different from the first. I knew they were written years apart and you can feel Gogol was a different man.

      About the translation I read.

      I’m not even sure what I read. I wanted to read Marc Sémenoff’s translation. I couldn’t find it in kindle version. I went to the Decitre website and found the paperback version. Below was the ebook version. I thought “great Decitre has it in ebook” I checked it was compatible with my kindle, it was, I was certain to download the Sémenoff translation.

      There is no mention of the translator in my ebook. I browsed through the first pages of the online versions I could find and the first paragrahs are exactly the ones from the Charrière translation. The one I wanted to avoid because 19thC translations were not done with today’s standards.

      I’m annoyed (to remain polite) at Decitre for linking the two editions. I looked at the site again and it makes you think you’re downloading the Sémenoff translation.

      Charge d’âme is not a famous Gary, there must be a reason behind that. I suspect it’s not as good as other books by him. But still, I’m intrigued by the idea.

      Then, Gary’s love for Gogol comes out of Désérable’s enquiry in Un certain M. Piekielny.


  5. January 19, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    I tend to agree with Tom that the second part really isn’t much to do with the first – and the first part I think is incredible. I’ve read it twice, once in my twenties and then a re-read in 2015 – I expect my reactions were different both times. And I also agree with Tom that it’s hard to pin down, but it’s so much about the hypocrisy existing in Russia at the time, the horrors of the serf system and the hardness of the peasants’ lives, and the ridiculous rigidity of the Civil Service. The characterisation is just wonderful. Just tragic that Gogol didn’t live to write more of this kind of thing.


    • January 20, 2019 at 10:02 am

      We seem to all agree on the second part.

      The first part has this satirical tone you find in Candide.

      He wanted to show the hypocrisy and the corruption of provincial Russia. There are a lot of snide comments about foreign influence. It’d be interesting to count how many times the word French or Champagne is written in Dead Souls. It’s incredible.

      I don’t think that Gogol wanted to show the horrors of the serf system, at least not from the human rights point of view. I find it a bit hard to swallow after the Age of the Enlightenment and all his travels abroad.

      His ideal landowner is Constànjoglo, the one of the second part who is dedicated to his land and has hard-working and healthy serfs.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. January 19, 2019 at 8:23 pm

    Although I’ve been aware of this book for some time, I didn’t know there was so much to it in terms of themes – the insights into the politics and corruption sound particularly interesting. It does sound very rich, albeit somewhat challenging. Well done for persevering with it.


    • January 20, 2019 at 10:04 am

      The first part was rather easy to read but the second part was tedious.
      I’m glad I read it but I had to push myself to finish the second part.


  7. Jonathan
    January 20, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    I read this last year (but didn’t post about it) and really enjoyed it; yes, I agree part one is much better than part two but I still wish he’d managed to complete it (and get it published before burning it). I found it fun to read and may even re-read it this year.


    • January 20, 2019 at 4:30 pm

      A bit of editing would have been nice in the second part.
      The first part is a lot easier to read and much more entertaining.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. January 20, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    This is such an interesting post Emma, thank you. I’ve not read any Gogol, my only experience of him is seeing The Government Inspector performed in English translation, which I really enjoyed. I’d like to read this, but I’ll bear in mind what you and the comments on this post have said about the difference in the two parts.


    • January 20, 2019 at 10:18 pm

      I’m interested in reading your thoughts about it.
      Maybe it’s best to read the first part, write about it to let it sink and then read the second part.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. January 26, 2019 at 2:22 pm

    I know nothing about Gogol, but your comments about the aristocracy speaking French remind me of the English royals who at different times had French, Dutch and German as their first language. It took the Norman kings a couple of hundred years to make the switch to English and I’ve often wondered how that change came about.


    • January 26, 2019 at 4:04 pm

      The aristocracy of countries quite often speak a different language than the common people and peasantry. For example, Korean courts spike Chinese for hundreds of years. Languages frequently function as markers of education and status, Global English works that way in many countries today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 27, 2019 at 9:36 am

        I hear that but did they know the common people’s language or not at all?


    • January 27, 2019 at 9:35 am

      I don’t know how it was in France at the time you mention for English royals. I imagine that sometime, somehow, the aristocracy must have switched from Latin to French too.
      With Russia, we’re speaking of the early 19th century, not the Middle Ages. I still find it unbelievable.


  10. Ольга Кириллина
    March 11, 2019 at 8:59 pm

    When I read Your review, I remembered the times of the Soviet Union. At that time, reading Gogol, talked a lot about social problems, now in the school discuss character traits of the landlords. Manilov seems to be a pleasant man, but empty. Even Plushkin, miser, is more passion. Dead souls is the Russian Divine Comedy in that sense: in it there is movement from bad for the better, to remorse. Russia reminds of hell, and Gogol offers his recipe how to turn Russia into a paradise. Major sins and the problems of Russia – indifference, dreaminess and passivity, the farther from Manilov the less these qualities in the characters.
    We now have many educated people who dream of making Russia Europe. And their Europe is idealized, without social problems and with absolute freedom of speech. It’s always been like this. Russia is hard to love. But I believe, that love is love when it is disinterested. I believe that Russia, first of all, inside of me. But for many of our educated and thinking people, Russia is Putin, it is officials, it is some kind of russian people, but not themselves, they think that they are european people, not russian. Many Russian people do not pay taxes because officials steal from us. Accordingly, we do not pay taxes to deceivers. Let officials be good and honest upstairs, then we will be honest and will love our Homeland. First they, and then we.
    Chichikov is an enterprising person, everyone sits at home, creating an imitation of activity, and he goes, doing business, he has a clear goal. He’s more of a European. So we see the Europeans, enterprising and focused on material success in life. But we like to dream, we wait for favorable conditions to start moving to change, and, unfortunately, to move, we often need a kick. “Oblomov” by I. Goncharov, too, about this.
    The second part of the “Dead souls” we have no one reads, it is considered very weak. I myself could not read to the end, afraid to die of boredom. But watched the play by the second part in the theater: the entire show was painfully struggling with sleep.
    Gogol is one of my favorite writers. He has, on the one hand, a very correct view of social problems and the Russian people character, and on the other hand, he was able to express his personal fears in his works with the help of amazing artistic techniques. In Gogol`s world, people live without a soul. In the “Overcoat” modest, inconspicuous official lives in his world, in the world of letters (alphabet). He has favorites among the letters (alphabet) – and in Russia if you talk about favorites you think about the emperors and empresses. That is, he, perhaps, is the Emperor in this world. He also can be compared to an Oriental calligrapher, he is even an artist to some extent. He is a quiet man, does not offend anyone. But he loves no one, there are no people who are dear to him. Overcoat, according to Gogol, becomes his “wife”, and he “eats spiritually” when he saves money for his overcoat. Gogol uses grotesque. For example, a portrait of Petrovich, a tailor who sews an overcoat. Eyes are not described. But Gogol shows us ugly nail of the big toe, which is compared to the shell of a turtle. Petersburg, cold and the turtle. Petrovich sitting in the posture of oriental king. It is also exotic. It is a strange portrait. Chichikov has his whole life in his box. Soul in the box. It is a strong image. Bashmachkin, the protagonist of the Overcoat, is afraid to cross the huge St. Petersburg`s square and he goes with his eyes closed, like a child, who closes his eyes, when he is scared. He talks like a child. Manilow has carrying case for toothpicks, embroidered with beads, miserly landlord Plyushkin stores used toothpick. Bashmachkin (his last name means shoe (boot)) goes to visit his colleagues in new overcoat and sees a painting which shows a girl who has only one boot on her foot, and when he comes home without a coat, he is met by the old hostess in one trampled boot on her foot. And in these details and images, comparisons, parallels is the charm of Gogol’s prose. And he plays with sound, tone very skillfully. His world is strange, frightening, people are like toys, machines.
    And what Gogol wrote about sleeping Russia is also true. In the Soviet Union brought up heroes, people willing to die for the sake of the idea, for the sake of justice. Not on all such nurture is acted. And there was a clear surplus towards the public interests to the detriment of the personal. But still, many people dreamed of something more than an overcoat. Soviet people were naive, were romantics. Now we have people-consumers. At the same time, many people do not need much, or they will have to strain themselves, to look for work, where they will have to work a lot, or to defend their rights and to think. But such people, I think, are everywhere and always, but now there are more of them at us. We often confuse freedom with promiscuity. For many now freedom is irresponsibility. We’ve had serfdom too long. Therefore, many people do not live in their own country, but in “this country”. Many dream to leave – and why to lift the country? All it’s very sad.
    I like French literature very much. I especially wish I could read G. Flaubert and A. Rimbaud in French. I love the ideas of existentialists, French postmodernists. And indeed for Russia, France has always been a particularly close country. And now for me personally the closest thing in the European culture of the twentieth century is French culture, especially 1960-1970 years. I tell a lot about this time, about French philosophers to my students. I try to convey to them my love for French literature, we read Rimbaud in various translations and compare.
    I was so excited about what you wrote about Dead souls. For me, this is the Europe that we lack: Europe which is socially responsible and patriotic. Without these qualities we cannot raise our country.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Marylou Barbara Grenstein
    May 20, 2022 at 2:10 am

    Thank you.
    This is the clearest and complete explanation I’ve come across of a rather complex and date i say, a poorly structured novel/poem.
    I have been scouring the web to find an explanation as to how the dead serfs could be of financial value to the protagonist.

    Many book summaries don’t actually fully understand the chattel/mortgage security value of a dead serf to Chichikov and this important detail is brushed over vaguely by many.

    As i stated, i feel it is poorly structured because it begins without any background exposition for the reader. It felt almost like starting the book halfway through.
    Since Gogol didn’t finish it, i assume that it was a work in progress that was not sufficiently edited and polished before publication.
    A difficult start can make ot break a piece of literature and this is not a particularly welcoming book in that respect.
    I’m sure it’s a classic for many reasons in Russia, not least through its satire, but in my mind, it pales in comparison to Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky in terms of the language and prose.


    • May 22, 2022 at 9:42 am

      Thank you for your comment and I’m glad you thought that my billet was useful.

      I agree with you, it’s more interesting for its content and its social commentary than for its style.


  1. January 19, 2019 at 7:50 pm

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