Best to dance while Rome burns, since it must burn, don’t you think?
-D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love
Best to dance while Rome burns, since it must burn, don’t you think?
-D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love
It’s time for my first round of Quick Reviews—critiques of those novels I am unwilling or unequipped to review more thoroughly.
Because isn’t it better to half-ass something than to none-ass it?
#91 The Awakening, Kate Chopin
= Anna Karenina set in 1890s New Orleans.
(For the record, Anna Karenina = Madame Bovary set in 1870s Russia.)
They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.
At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life—that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.
It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her.
She had all her life long been accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves. They had never taken the form of struggles. They belonged to her and were her own, and she entertained the conviction that she had a right to them and that they concerned no one but herself.
#26 A Passage to India, E. M. Forster
I wanted to love A Passage to India (1924). I really did. It touches on a number of thought-provoking themes, from colonialism and race to gender and justice. It encourages critical thinking and open-mindedness. It contains some lovely writing.
But I returned it to my bookshelf feeling neutral at best. I never quite found my rhythm with Forster and wound up too distracted to glean much from his poetic, metaphor-heavy writing style. With a bit more concentration than I am able to devote during my commute, this might be worth a reread.
A Passage to India is the story of a criminal trial set in the fictional city of Chandrapore, early in the 19th century when the nation remained under British rule. The case divides two populations already half a world apart and chronicles the cultural, political, and social upheaval that inevitably follows.
The ending is vaguely satisfying, if anticlimactic (and, perhaps, unrealistic). But that’s about the best we can hope for with the classics, isn’t it?
Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence.
We have a proverb in Urdu: “What does unhappiness matter when we are all unhappy together?”
I’d far rather leave a thought behind me than a child.
There are many ways of being a man; mine is to express what is deepest in my heart.
#67 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
As a major cultural reference, Alice and her adventures in Wonderland (1865) should need no introduction.
My take? Well, for one, Alice prompted me countless times to ask the age-old question, “Am I an asshole?” Because how can any reader be expected to supply all the sympathy Carroll demands on Alice’s behalf? She is referred to as “poor Alice” on almost every page and had already cried three times less than a quarter of the way into the book.
Does anyone else find Alice insufferable? Or am I an asshole?
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
#83 Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Hamlet (~1600) is known to most of us as the story of a whiny prince doomed to tragedy, and by the rest as Shakespeare’s masterpiece among masterpieces.
I’m almost sure I’d read Hamlet before beginning my List. My high school Brit Lit teacher was obsessed with Shakespeare, and we spent two solid months covering his works in every imaginable form: We watched two film versions of Hamlet, listened to The Merchant of Venice on a cassette tape (well after cassette tapes had grown outdated, mind you), read Macbeth aloud to each other in class, saw a stage version of Twelfth Night, and watched The Tempest in claymation. And somewhere in there, I’m almost sure I read Hamlet.
But I don’t have any actual definitive memory of reading it, the way I remember reading Othello in the parking lot of Chipotle, and Romeo and Juliet on a beanbag chair in my bedroom. And so, last summer, I gave it a(nother) quick run-through for good measure.
I have absolutely nothing to add to the global, historical Hamlet conversation (which should be obvious to you by now). Just read it. It’s really short.
We know what we are, but know not what we may be.
I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.
This above all,—to thine own self be true.
All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart.
#44 Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
If I can save you from any mistake on this List, let it be Wuthering Heights.
Wuthering Heights (1847) is about a horrible family full of horrible people who do horrible things to each other. Catherine Earnshaw quickly became one of my least favorite protagonists of all time, second only to Rabbit Angstrom. I am, moreover, utterly baffled by Heathcliff’s status as a great romantic hero. He’s a piece of shit. He’s the shit that shit would shit if it were to shit.
As one reviewer put it, Wuthering Heights is:
a fiend of a book—an incredible monster … The action is laid in hell, only it seems places and people have English names there.
Wuthering Heights is not a love story, as far as I can tell. Mostly, it follows the vengeful warpaths of characters twisted by jealousy, rivalry, alienation, betrayal, and greed. Each blames the others for suffering that is plainly self-inflicted.
This is miserable reading on its best day. Save yourselves; it’s too late for me.
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.
If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.
Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message—describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.
–Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
In case you missed them way back when, you can check out my reviews of The Portrait of a Lady, The Magic Mountain, and Middlemarch over at Punchnel’s. In one of them, a primary subject of analysis is boobs. In another, you can find out my most-viewed film on Netflix.
Next week will bring the debut of my Quick Reviews—basically lazy versions of my usual review work. Now that I’ve decided to cut back on blogging, I have, of course, managed extraordinary productivity, of which you will savor the delicious fruits by and by.
Look out for reviews of The Woman in White and Robinson Crusoe coming soon to a blog near you. And happy reading!
Age has a great advantage over youth
In wisdom and by custom, that’s the truth.
The old may be out-run but not out-reasoned.
-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
Over the past few weeks, in between rounds of Robinson Crusoe (on audiobook) and Journey to the End of the Night (in French), I’ve turned my exhausted eyes on A Walk in the Woods. The memoir—a classic work of travel writing if ever there was one—hilariously describes Bill Bryson’s attempt(s) in the mid-1990s to hike the Appalachian Trail—a 2,200-mile stretch from Georgia to Maine.
After weeks of hiking, Bryson and his companion, Stephen Katz, arrive in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At a local outfitter’s, they spot a 4-foot map of the Appalachian Trail and, eager to measure their progress, examine the lower half of the map. They discover that their trek, in its entirety, covers barely two inches.
In Bryson’s words,
One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.
Instead of feeling defeated, Bryson and Katz celebrate their liberation from a self-imposed obligation. They were, they reasoned, left to select the sections of the AT they wanted to hike, and to enjoy the journey. “A whole dimension of drudgery,” he wrote, “—the tedious, mad, really quite pointless business of stepping over every inch of rocky ground between Georgia and Maine—had been removed.”
Recognizing their limitations—and reining in ambitions run amok—freed them from the weight of a burden they didn’t even realize they carried. (They were, in all likelihood, too distracted by the 40-pound burdens that were their hiking packs.)
Today, I am recognizing my limitations, reining in my ambitions, and removing the weight of a burden that is simultaneously weighing me down and blocking my path.
Oh, I’m still going to read all 100 Greatest Books of All Time. That’s what this Challenge has been about all along, and I’m as determined as ever to meet it, shake its hand, and take a selfie or two with matching duck faces and a flattering filter.
But I’m not going to write long-form reviews of every last title on the List.
This blog has steadily overtaken the time and energy I intended to devote to reading—and as much as I love it, something’s got to give. The blog was meant to accompany the Challenge, not become one of its own. And as my only obligation is to myself, I think it’s time I eased up a little.
Since—for now, at least—I hate the idea of stopping entirely, I’m just going to cut back. I’ve begun preparing a series of “Quick Reviews” of those novels I don’t feel inclined or equipped to critique more thoroughly. The first set is scheduled to go up in the near-ish future at something o’clock.
The likelihood of anyone caring is, I realize, microscopic. And therein lies my point. So here I go, on a trail ever upward but a little less steep, through a forest with a few extra resting places. I have 31 books left and a fresh pair of boots.
Happy reading to me, and to you.
Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love.
–Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
There are so many YA books right now with TV/movie deals that I can’t get the phrase “adaptations are in the air”. It’s pretty exciting! Except if you’re a fan of any of the books to be adapted, it’s basically like being an angry dragon curved possessively around a pile of books that some well-money, not-so-nice-intentioned producer is trying to obtain.
Not that I don’t want to see my faves on the screen, big or small. I do. It’s just that the excitement is often mixed with nerves. I do, however, value and look forward to the following:
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I might as well get this out of the way: I don’t like Hemingway.
I don’t like him. I don’t aggressively dislike him, so you can remove your fighting gloves. Rather, I lazily, passively, non-confrontationally dislike him. I’m not worked up about it—I just don’t understand the appeal.
Sure, if you’re the gun-toting, Ron Swanson-worshiping, carnivorous, hyper-masculine type, Hemingway is an obvious candidate for a literary crush (except you would never crush on a dude, because you’re also an obvious candidate for homophobia). But if you’re anything like me, Hemingway’s popularity is a little puzzling. His plotlines are erratic and half-baked. His characters are vapid and shallow (unless you subscribe to the “Iceberg Theory”—a topic I’ll sideswipe later, much like the Titanic). And his “style”? Well, now, we’re getting optimistic.
Hemingway’s output invariably reads like a first draft to me—like an outline he never got around to developing. It’s the bare bones of story and character; the Wikipedia version, sans emotion. It’s also repetitive, simplistic, and dull, as long as we’re counting transgressions. Without knowing its author, I would guess that The Sun Also Rises was a series of diary entries written by a ten-year-old with a moderate vocabulary and irresponsible parents.
Take this example:
The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta. All during the fiesta you had the feeling, even when it was quiet, that you had to shout any remark to make it heard. It was the same feeling about any action. It was a fiesta and it went on for seven days.
So no, I don’t “get” Hemingway. Maybe he was good at other things that are not the subject of this blog. But writing? Not so much. I’d even bet good money that Hemingway would make for a tiresome Facebook friend, if he thinks this text is worth the ink:
I felt I was a fool to be going back into Spain. In Spain you could not tell about anything. I felt like a fool to be going back into it, but I stood in line with my passport, opened my bags for the customs, bought a ticket, went through a gate, climbed onto the train, and after forty minutes and eight tunnels I was at San Sebastian.
I’m sure the many, many Hemingway fans out in the great big “there” are just as baffled by my apathy as I am by their admiration. After all, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Around that same time, the New Yorker said he “may well be the greatest living American novelist and short-story writer.” Hemingway critics and enthusiasts have called his style “lean,” “spare,” “athletic,” “hard-boiled,” “terse,” and “economical” (as if any of these descriptions were compliments).
In any case, his literary charms have apparently taken a flight path right over my head.
Perhaps the breakdown in communication between good ol’ Ernest and me lies with the so-called “Iceberg Theory,” or “theory of omission.” The theory cleverly rewrites the definition of good writing to include Hemingway, who wrote what most of us used to call bad writing. His claim to a fame bordering on literary immortality is a minimalistic style that dismisses context, detail, and theme, leaving intact only surface-level events and dialogue. Subtext, according to Hemingway, is more important than text—and it’s the audience’s job to read between the lines.
Maybe he’s right, and maybe I’m wrong. MAYBE. Or maybe it’s just a matter of opinion, and there is no shame in my Jazz-Snob-reminiscent eye roll at all this iceberg nonsense. For me, Hemingway’s precious icebergs fall utterly flat. They’re not even icebergs. They’re just your mundane, mainstream ice sheets—the kind that are literally, physically depressing the entire country of Greenland. The kind that are, in their very essence, cold, and horrible, and boring.
Hemingway believed the strength of a story emerges from what isn’t there. But I remain camped out on the other side of the argument: The strength of a story emerges from what is there. What it comes down to, maybe, is that—at the spectator level, at least—I’d rather watch God spend six days painting the universe into existence than guess how the Big Bang created something out of nothing. And, given the choice, wouldn’t Hemingway join me? Wouldn’t he park himself right there next to me in a ridiculous turtleneck and pour me a glass of whiskey? Wouldn’t he??
So why all the iceberg absurdity?
To be fair, I thought A Farewell to Arms was an improvement over The Sun Also Rises, and can only assume The Old Man and the Sea is better still. Farewell, at least, meets war head-on, and greets love by name, and tries to tangle with my emotions instead of tango-ing right past them. Farewell has battlefields and hospitals and rowboats. Farewell has ever so slight suspense, and characters I almost cared about. Farewell has sex.
Well, almost sex.
But every time, the fatal tripwire is Hemingway’s iceberg-raw style. Yes, a couple of short and easy reads were welcome on a TBR list full of weighty, self-important, long-winded snoozers. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them any more than their stale, tedious counterparts.
Oh, and speaking of those laborious counterparts, let’s pay our dues to the over-hyped Hemingway-Faulkner rivalry. According to dubious sources, it all started sometime last century in a flurry of typewriters and tears.
While each respected the other’s talent, Hemingway and Faulkner took polarized approaches to writing. You’ve heard, by now, about Hemingway’s literary method: Brevity is the
soul deathbed of wit. But what about Faulkner?
Faulkner, for his part, opted for impenetrable, abstract, stream-of-consciousness ramblings related out of order with dramatic literary flourishes. In other words, his iceberg isn’t just submerged in murky waters; it’s pretty much invisible to human eyes.
The most famous exchange between the two began with Faulkner commenting that Hemingway had never been known to use a word that would send a reader to the dictionary. Hemingway’s response:
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?
I would hardly count myself among Faulkner’s groupie were he alive, but I can discern more beauty in a single sentence written by Faulkner than an entire novel written by Hemingway (and not just because they would be, in all likelihood, the same approximate length). Critics have long compared Hemingway’s style with journalism, especially given Hemingway’s background as a journalist. But we don’t seek the literary in a newspaper, do we? We seek facts, not frills.
When I pick up a classic, I’m not looking for brief and informative, or coy and mysterious. I’m looking for writing that sounds the depths of the human condition—not writing that taps quietly and impatiently at the surface, waiting for me to open the door myself.
Yes, Faulkner is a challenging knot to untie. But he’s more interesting than the limp shoelace that is Hemingway.
I’ll stop there. I think (and hope) you get the idea: The next time you happen across Hemingway OR Faulkner in your local bookstore, back away slowly. Whatever you do, don’t pick up For Whom the Bell Tolls or As I Lay Dying, and certainly don’t take them anywhere near the cash register.
The price you’ll pay will be your sanity.
Are They Two of the Greatest Books of All Time?
I’m too busy yawning to answer this question.
From The Sun Also Rises:
I never liked to hunt, you know. There was always the danger of having a horse fall on you.
“You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.”
“It’s sort of what we have instead of God.”
From A Farewell to Arms:
“They say if you can prove you did any heroic act you can get the silver. Otherwise it will be the bronze. Tell me exactly what happened. Did you do any heroic act?”
“No,” I said. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.
Read: 2014, 2015
musings inspired by literature, poetry, nature, and occasionally everything else.
A blog about reading, books, and language.