#76 The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

Wind_in_the_Willows_-_Front_cover

Let me start by saying that The Wind in the Willows is delightful. It is a romp in the purest, most innocent sense of the word—and better yet, it is a British romp, so you can safely imagine all the characters in tweed.

This collection of tales, chronicling the four-way friendship between a Rat, a Mole, a Toad, and a Badger, was penned during the “Golden Age” of children’s literature (the mid-19th century to the early 20th century). Up until the 1600s, specially designated children’s books did not even exist, because childhood was not considered a separate or significant period. Children were viewed as smaller, grubbier adults upon whom the Bible should be thrust at every opportunity in the name of education.

Once childhood was recognized as a distinctive period, and children as a group began to receive special treatment for the unique needs this interval represents, the body of children’s literature began to develop.

The Wind in the Willows as a written work (and, now, classic) evolved out of the bedtime stories Kenneth Grahame told his son, the oh-so-nobly-named Alistair. The early chapters establish and build upon the friendships between the featured foursome, while the later stories concentrate on the fumbles and foibles of Toad.

Toad is the star of the show. He represents the British upper class, using his unlimited wealth to chase his childish impulses, ever in denial of life’s consequences. He’s far and away the most interesting character, and arguably the most complex.

Things Toad Does:

  • Steals a car
  • Wrecks said car
  • Goes to jail (on a 20-year sentence, no less) for stealing and wrecking the aforementioned car
  • Disguises himself as a washerwoman to escape from jail
  • Forgets his wallet
  • Talks his way onto a train
  • Steals a horse
  • Attempts to sell said horse to a peddler
  • Steals a car again (the same one as before)
  • Wrecks said car (again)

Things Toad Is:

  • Wealthy
  • Manipulative
  • Boastful
  • Ostentatious
  • Stubborn
  • Manic
  • Outlandish
  • Immature
  • Snooty
  • Hilarious

At the end of the book, Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger have to seize Toad Hall back from the weasels and stoats who have taken over in Toad’s absence. Then they throw a party.

Like I said: a romp.

I’m finding unexpected similarities across the many English novels included on The List. Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger remind me very much of the hobbits of Hobbiton. (They don’t volunteer for a mission to save Middle Earth, but if they did, they would be about as likely to succeed.) Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited shares personality traits with Toad, and England feels like the same drowsy, peaceful place in both The Wind in the Willows and Middlemarch. Also Jane Eyre. And Wuthering Heights. The English love their countryside—I can tell you that much.

It would be hard not to like the amusing, feel-good playground-for-the-brain that is The Wind in the Willows. In fact, don’t trust anyone who hates it. They probably grew up without love or TV.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

Hailing this collection of children’s bedtime stories as one of the greatest books of all time—better, apparently, than anything Victor Hugo ever wrote—seems like a stretch. Top 500, perhaps, but not top 100, if I’m going to be the judge.

Favorite Quotes:

“Well, never mind what done it,” said the Mole, forgetting his grammar in his pain. “It hurts just the same, whatever done it.”

The Mole was a good listener, and Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticize in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go. Indeed, much that he related belonged more properly to the category of what-might-have-happened-had-I-only-thought-of-it-in-time-instead-of-ten-minutes-afterwards.

It was, to be sure, but a small thing that I asked—merely leave to blossom and expand for yet one more evening, to let myself go and hear the tumultuous applause that always seems to me—somehow—to bring out my best qualities.

For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.

Read: 2013

Student Strikes in Strasbourg, and accidental alliteration

This one time, I went to study in France, and my university went on strike for four months. No one would tell me what was going on, and whenever I asked, someone closed a door in my face. Oh, and then they actually blocked the doors around campus with desks and chairs, probably so I’d stop bothering them:

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It’s pretty much my best anecdote, except for the time I got hit by a car, and then ninja-rolled away from traffic.

Anyway, you can read about it here. My article on Strasbourg has nothing to do with books, so this is basically shameless self-promotion heaped on heartless exploitation of my own blog. I’m counting on the possibility that some of you like travel writing as much as I do, and on your forgiveness just this once (plus all the other times I’m likely to do this in the future).

Also, on the off chance that tarte flambée is something you adopt into your life per my suggestion, YOU’LL BE THANKING ME LATER.

Reading Checklists and Recommendations

Nothing brings joy to my heart quite like book recommendations and lists. Combining both is about as good as a Tuesday gets.

I may not have any specific intentions (yet) to follow PopSugar’s Reading Challenge checklist for 2015, but I CAN examine my bookish efforts from 2014 and make recommendations as appropriate.

 

reading-challenge-2015

I’ll avoid repeating answers as much as possible to broaden the range of recommendations. Happy reading!

A book with more than 500 pages: Anna Karenina. A true masterpiece, and a surprisingly readable one if you get the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation.

A classic romance: Wuthering Heights. Spare me the retelling of this awful book, please.

A book that became a movie: Women in Love. Apparently the 1969 film version was one of the first movies to show male genitalia. I was decidedly not a woman in love with Women in Love, but who could forget the naked wrestling scene?

A book published this year: Here’s Looking at You by the glorious Mhairi McFarlane. It’s my least favorite of her books, but all of them make me laugh out loud.

A book with a number in the title: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I can’t say enough good things about this strange and beautiful history of the (fictional) Buendía family in the (fictional) town of Macondo.

A book written by someone under 30: Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, is very young (26). It shows.

A book with nonhuman characters: The Call of the Wild, a.k.a. the dark horse of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. I really didn’t see it coming, but this book is fascinating.

A funny book: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. There’s a scene where she interviews Colin Firth that had me in hysterics. I choked on air.

A book by a female author: The Husband’s Secret. I sprinted through this on vacation, vaguely enjoyed it, and have not thought about it since.

A mystery or thriller: Gone Girl. A surprising read in all the most sinister ways. The first half is slow, but the second half more than makes up for it.

A book with a one-word title: Only Bossypants and Hamlet fulfill this one. And Hamlet is technically The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

A book of short stories: Does Winnie-the-Pooh count? That’s the best I can do for this one. It’s hilarious and adorable and one of the best books I read all year.

A book set in a different country: The Sun Also Rises. All the characters start off in Paris, and then travel to Pamplona for the bullfights. I’m anti-Hemingway but maybe not his target demographic? Shrug.

A nonfiction book: U.S. History for Dummies. My husband immigrated to the States this year, and I thought learning about the Boston Tea Party and William Howard Taft’s enormous bathtub would really help him understand his adoptive country. We read this together.

A popular author’s first book: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Would we call James Joyce “popular,” though? Or just famous? Anyway, it was a tedious read.

A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet: A Long Way Down. Nick Hornby is just brilliant, and A Long Way Down—along with its four suicidal protagonists—is beautifully, hilariously, insightfully written.

A book a friend recommended: The Book Thief. Very unique—I am a fan of Death as a narrator. I wasn’t completely won over by The Book Thief, but I’d like to read more from Markus Zusak.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning book: Apparently nothing I read this year has won the Pulitzer. But I’d recommend The Age of InnocenceTo Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, and The Hours.

A book based on a true story: On the Road. The definitive American roadtrip and Beat novel. I was neutral about it at the time but remember it fondly now.

A book at the bottom of your to-read list: Absalom, Absalom! I’ve been putting off Faulkner’s books as much as possible, mainly because I have to read SO MANY of them for the 100 Greatest Books Challenge. It was better than I expected, but my feelings about Faulkner remain complicated.

A book your mom loves: I failed here. Sorry, Mom. I promise I’ll read Unbroken eventually.

A book that scares you: Dangerous Liaisons. It’s an excellent book, but the social dynamics and gender politics of 18th-century France are pretty disturbing.

A book more than 100 years old: Don Quixote. Published in 1605, this is one of the oldest books I read in 2014. It’s longer than it needs to be, but still feels fresh and fun 400+ years later.

A book based entirely on its cover: I had to read The Trial anyway, but I bought it on an impulse one day because I loved this cover. It’s a murky and infuriating story, as well as anticlimactic, but nevertheless an interesting look at the “justice” system.

A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t: I am guilty of this with Absalom, Absalom! It scared me off Faulkner for years.

A memoir: Bossypants. I listened to the audiobook (Tina Fey reads it herself) and loved it—particularly the story of her honeymoon.

A book you can finish in a day: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a little underwhelming overall, but short enough to tackle just “because.”

A book with antonyms in the title: It’s Not Me, It’s You—but this is probably a stretch as antonyms go. Mhairi McFarlane does chick lit right, with an emphasis on wit. Best line:

They’re babies. Twins. Ugly ones, actually, they look like haggis.

A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit: A Passage to India. Hopefully India itself will not be as boring as this book.

A book that came out the year you were born: Apparently the big names in 1989 were John Grisham, Amy Tan, Lois Lowry, John Irving, and Stephen King. I am ashamed to say that I have no relevant suggestions here.

A book with bad reviews: The God Delusion. Like most books with religious themes, this one had plenty of critics. I liked it.

A trilogy: I skimmed the Divergent trilogy last spring. Thumbs down.

A book from your childhood: The Princess Diaries. I’ve reread it every year since I was twelve, usually when I’m sick. Actually, I think it’s my cure-all.

A book with a love triangle: The Good Soldier. There are multiple love triangles in The Good Soldier, but as a reader I didn’t feel particularly invested in any of them.

A book set in the future: Brave New World. Not a favorite, but worth reading.

A book set in high school: The Mediator series. Old YA from Meg Cabot that saved me from boredom on several long-haul flights this year.

A book with a color in the title: The Golden Notebook. According to Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook is accidentally feminist. It’s also anti-war, intentionally (I think). I was happy with both themes.

A book that made you cry: I probably cried reading The Book Thief. I avoid sad books whenever possible.

A book with magic: I’m going to repeat One Hundred Years of Solitude here because it is an iconic work of magical realism, and because I have no other answers.

A graphic novel: Umm… none that I can recall. I like Pénélope Bagieu’s Joséphine, though. It’s like Bridget Jones’s Diary, but French. And a comic book.

A book by an author you’ve never read before: The Secret Keeper (Kate Morton). Intriguing but ultimately forgettable.

A book you own but have never read: I suppose I owned A Long Way Down for a while before picking it up. The book that has been sitting unread on my shelf foreeeeeever is A Tale of Two Cities.

A book that takes place in your hometown: I don’t think there are any books set in Carmel, Indiana. If there were, I’d be sad.

A book that was originally written in a different language: The Divine Comedy. Dante’s chef-d’oeuvre helped to standardize the Italian language. Inferno is the best cantica by far, and well worth a read. If you’re the can’t-leave-a-book-unfinished type, you might as well continue on to Purgatorio and Paradiso.

A book set during Christmas: I want to say there was a Christmas scene in The Book Thief? Maybe? OK, I’ve got nothing. Carry on with your lives.

A book written by an author with your same initials: The Call of the Wild (Jack London). Didn’t think I’d get this one! But yes, my claim to fame is sharing Jack London’s initials. We’re basically best friends AND siblings. I’m the Kourtney to his Kim.

A play: Hamlet. This one should speak for itself, but I won’t let anything speak for me. I like Shakespeare generally, but I have a hard time seeing real, genuine, human motivations in his characters. It’s excellent (if melodramatic) writing, but it never makes me feel anything. That said, if you’re going to write a tragedy, you might as well outdo everyone and write the tragedy to end them all.

A banned book: Invisible Man. This is one of a handful of books that I’ve whipped through in a few days thinking they were nothing special, but that lingered in my mind long afterwards. Read it. It genuinely transports you to another world.

A book based on or turned into a TV show: Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line. A fun mystery, but one with a significant lack of LOGAN.

A book you started but never finished: I revisited The Aeneid this year, having only read the “Dido” section for a college assignment. If you’re into legendary figures, the glorification of war and violence, and squabbling Greco-Roman gods, this might be your Thing. If not, you might be me.

 

Let’s make fun of Fifty Shades!

Back when Fifty Shades of Grey had its heyday, I heard enough about it to confirm my suspicion that it probably wasn’t worth my time.

I have no problem with romance and/or erotic novels in general. Like any genre fiction, it suffers rampant stereotyping: popular opinion (and your average book snob) maintains that romance/erotica is trashy, sexist, unrealistic, and so on. Undoubtedly some are, and others are not. Sure, there are conventions and tropes that appear on a regular basis (that’s why it’s called a genre), but as always, it’s unfair to generalize.

The rumor that stopped me from reading Fifty Shades of Grey was that it’s poorly written. Even my friends, family, and colleagues who tended to shy away from literary fiction admitted that Fifty Shades was poorly written—not your most persuasive recommendation as they come. If I’m going to buy and read erotica—or any kind of book, for that matter—I’d rather invest my time in something of quality.

Since then, I have come across many excerpts from E. L. James’s bestsellers proving all of them right. The writing isn’t just poor, but astoundingly, shockingly, hilariously, and distressingly so. Here’s a roundup of the best/worst examples:

“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.”

“Double crap—me and my two left feet!”

“And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain—probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells—comes the thought: He’s here to see you.

“The orange juice tastes divine. It’s thirst-quenching and refreshing.”

Or perhaps:

“I sit up and reach for the orange juice, drinking it down too quickly. It’s delicious, ice cold, and it makes my mouth a much better place.”

“I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto.”

“Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms… coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.”

“Oh, the many faces of Christian Grey. Will I ever be able to understand this mercurial man?

 

Mocking Fifty Shades of Grey may be unoriginal, but somehow it never gets old.

Sources (with even more comically bad quotes and excerpts):

http://goo.gl/w8bmhu

http://goo.gl/tU5MmW

http://goo.gl/bHUjxN

http://goo.gl/KTKEcK

http://goo.gl/BNXg3A

 

The Problem with Classic Editions

An interesting perspective on revisions to classics. Enjoy!

Speculosity

I hadn’t considered that the contents of a book might change between publishers or print editions when I was purchasing the classics I’ve read so far. I only concerned myself with the price point, print quality, overall appearance, or availability of a book. If everything looked in order, I bought the book. I didn’t worry that I might end up reading an altered, shortened, or otherwise substandard version of the original piece of literature. Since the book is a classic, I assumed all publishers would maintain its integrity.

How naïve was I.

Drafts, Page Proofs, and Eager Publishers

The classics are classics owing in part to their wide print and reprint distribution. Many publishers house imprints dedicated to publishing classic literature, such as Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Dover Thrift Editions, Barnes & Noble Classics Sets, and Sterling Classics Series. Thus any reader can most often find numerous publications of…

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Infographic: The History of Print (Electric Literature)

Electric Literature has kindly laid out everything you didn’t know about the history of print in one infographic. And even though text-heavy infographics are one of my pet peeves (infographics are supposed to render statistics more palatable through visual representation, not hoard image captions in a messy repository), this one is pretty interesting. For example, did you know that in 2015, we print more words every second than the global population printed in an entire year during the 15th and 16th centuries?

For more wordy infographics from Electric Literature (and another of my pet peeves, by which I mean Tolkien), trot over here.

Four Rules for Reading Faulkner

I'm resurrecting this photo, mainly because it's in the creative commons.

I’m resurrecting this photo, mainly because it’s in the creative commons.

In November, I read Absalom, Absalom!

It was the second time I’ve tackled one of Faulkner’s novels—and I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. That, and Absalom, Absalom! is slightly less disorienting than The Sound and the Fury (and slightly means a lot in Yoknapatawpha County).

While I’m still facing two more of his novels—there are more of Faulkner’s works on the List of 100 Greatest Books of All Time than any other author—this lineup is starting to feel somewhat less like a firing squad. Why? Because each time, I’m a little more prepared, and a little less naïve. And because, now, I come armed. Here are my Four Rules for Reading Faulkner, in case anyone else is tricked into reading him:

1. Study a detailed synopsis on SparkNotes beforehand.

Yes, this will obviously spoil the entire plot for you. Tweet a sad emoticon and then get over it. This is the first Rule for a reason: Faulkner tends to presume from the opening line of each of his novels that you, the reader, already know what happens later… so actually knowing what happens later is the only way to follow his twisting, turning, turbulent, tenebrous trains of thought.

Some may say this is cheating. I say that sometimes you have to cheat just to stay in the game… and in this case, the outcome is the same either way: Faulkner WILL get the best of you,* no matter how prepared you are. You might as well try to get something out of it.

*Noam Chomsky is the only possible exception to this, but I doubt he is reading this blog.

Noam Chomsky, if you are reading this blog, I love you and forgive you for obviously Googling yourself and clicking through thousands of results to reach this page.

2. Slow down.

Faulkner’s books aren’t long, but they are (very) dense. Set aside a chunk of time—at least half an hour—to sit down and consume them a handful of pages at a time (at a pace, in other words, that can barely be distinguished from “idle”). Whatever you do, don’t try to swallow them whole; take small bites and chew thoroughly. Faulkner’s prose can read gently and rhythmically, like all things aquatic, if you give it a chance. Otherwise it’s just a misshapen dump-heap of half-formed thoughts bombarding you all at once.

So slow down, you crazy child. And keep in mind that if you’ve only got five minutes to set aside for Absalom, Absalom!, or Light in August, or whatever, you may not manage to finish a single sentence. Which brings me to Rule Number Three.

3. Concentrate.

To illustrate this point, here’s a brief typical excerpt from Absalom, Absalom!:

I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance, with no foreword, no warning, the postulation to come after the fact, exposing Henry slowly to the surface aspect–the architecture a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant and therefore to Henry opulent, sensuous, sinful; the inference of great and easy wealth measured by steamboat loads in place of a tedious inching of sweating human figures across cotton fields; the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels, in which women, enthroned and immobile and passing rapidly across the vision, appeared like painted portraits beside men in linen and a little finer and diamonds a little brighter and in broadcloth a little trimmer and with hats raked a little more above faces a little more darkly swaggering than any Henry had ever seen before: and the mentor, the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing too, whose clothing and walk and speech he had tried to ape, along with his attitude toward women and his ideas of honor and pride too, watching him with that cold and catlike inscrutable calculation, watching the picture resolve and become fixed and then telling Henry, ‘But that’s not it. That’s just the base, the foundation. It can belong to anyone’: and Henry, ‘You mean, this is not it? That it is above this, higher than this, more select than this?’: and Bon, ‘Yes. This is only the foundation. This belongs to anybody.’: a dialogue without words, speech, which would fix and then remove without obliterating one line the picture, this background, leaving the background, the plate prepared and innocent again: the plate docile, with that puritan’s humility toward anything which is a matter of sense rather than logic, fact, the man, the struggling and suffocating heart behind it saying I will believe! I will! I will! Whether it is true or not, I will believe! waiting for the next picture which the mentor, the corruptor, intended for it: that next picture, following the fixation and acceptance of which the mentor would say again, perhaps with words now, still watching the sober and thoughtful face but still secure in his knowledge and trust in that puritan heritage which must show disapproval instead of surprise or even despair and nothing at all rather than have the disapprobation construed as surprise or despair: ‘But even this is not it’: and Henry, ‘You mean, it is still higher than this, still above this?’

All of that is one sentence. A run-on, obviously, but still “one” sentence. Faulkner takes it for granted that you will patiently absorb this nearly page-long monstrosity of a sentence in one go; that you will claw your way to the meaning behind it with your superpowers brainpower; and that you will not be interrupted in either of these tasks by the oven timer, that super loud real estate agent who always sits by you on the subway, a call from your mom, an Amazon delivery, or a strong, sudden urge to pee. It (this presumption) may be a little rude of him (Faulkner), but there you have it. Don’t fight him on it. Remember: Faulkner ALWAYS WINS. He’s kind of an asshole that way.

4. Listen.

Even after you’ve read the SparkNotes, and slowed down, and concentrated, you may still have no idea what Faulkner is saying half the time. (By “you,” I of course mean “I.” But also you, unless you’re Noam Chomsky.) Faulkner’s style is abstract, crowded, and ambiguous—and if you let it, this can cause a lot of frustration. Don’t let it. Even if you don’t catch the meaning behind every marathon runner of a sentence, you can indulge in the beautiful, rolling, rambling power of his words. Faulkner’s prose is like music in a foreign language: you don’t have to understand the words to like how it sounds.

 

What Lies Beyond (the Rules)

Am I ever going to call Faulkner a favorite author? I doubt it. Do I like him at all? I haven’t decided quite yet. I’m certainly glad he’s dead, and can no longer create illustrious works of fiction quite so prolifically. (Four novels is plenty of Faulkner to commit to reading for this Challenge.) But I do admire him, like an incoherent grandfather figure, and that’s a start.

For those of you who read this entire post and are still thinking How bad can it be? I’ll just grab that copy of As I Lay Dying from my teenage son’s dusty bookshelf and give it a go!, don’t worry.

I’ll pray for you.