Quick Reviews, Part II

Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited first book cover photo

#75 Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

If I’m being honest (and why wouldn’t I be), Brideshead Revisited (1945) didn’t leave much of an impression. It is a competent novel about the golden age of English aristocracy, following Charles Ryder along a nostalgic path toward his youthful encounters with the Marchmain family. There’s some drama about Catholicism. Everyone eats and drinks a lot, and we hear a lot about what they ate and drank. The point of it all is that being young and carefree is preferable to being old and alcoholic, which we all knew anyway.

I’m sorry I can’t offer more. I wish Brideshead Revisited had.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I like my classics to do, or try to do, something new. Brideshead Revisited failed on both counts. But if you like Brit lit, it’s a satisfactory addition to the canon.

Favorite Quotes:

My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me.

“Sometimes,” said Julia, “I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”

This was the creature, neither child nor woman, that drove me through the dusk that summer evening, untroubled by love, taken aback by the power of her own beauty, hesitating on the cool edge of life.

“What is it?”
“His heart; some long word at the heart. He is dying of a long word.”

Read: 2015


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#33 The Trial, Franz Kafka

Whether it’s Gregor Samsa morphing into a monstrous insect, or Josef K. battling a mysterious legal authority, Kafka is full of grim surprises. The Trial (1925) reads like a prolonged nightmare—a chain of eerie, inexplicable events doused in anxiety and irony. It is unlike anything else I’ve ever read, for The List or otherwise.

For Josef, the justice system is a dark labyrinth with no exit but death. He is arrested and tried in suffocating attic courtrooms with no inkling of his crime or effective legal support. Even the most alienated among us would feel #blessed after a glance at The Trial.

Baffling, infuriating, and haunting in turns, The Trial is memorable in all the most shudder-inducing ways. Save it for a wintry, overcast, couch-confined day, or it will start to feel like one.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Kafka didn’t even finish it, and it still ranks among the best novels ever written. That’s got to count for something.

Favorite Quotes:

It’s in the nature of this judicial system that one is condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.

One lawyer leads his client by a slender thread to the judgment, but the other lifts his client onto his shoulders and carries him to the judgment and beyond, without ever setting him down.

Read: 2014


The_Good_Soldier_First_Edition,_Ford_Madox_Ford

#54 The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

All I can think of these days when I come across this 1915 title is the hilariously terrible Alexis Bledel movie loosely based on it. Seriously, go watch it right now. It’s on Netflix as of this writing, and it needs to feed on your intellect to survive.

The novel itself is an intriguing—if rambling and jumbled-up—read. Ford opens the first act with this unforgettable line:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

And even if, like me, you never quite find yourself invested enough in The Good Soldier to actually feel sad, we can all agree the events of the novel are sad. Ford, in fact, wanted to call the book The Saddest Story, but his publisher thought the title inappropriate after World War I broke out.

Wise, that one.

This is, after all, no tale of war, but of woe—and the lover’s sort, at that. It’s a post-mortem of two failed marriages conducted by an unreliable narrator, out of order, in a seeming attempt to navigate the dark corridors of morality. Considering Ford’s own extramarital affairs (which informed, if not inspired, the novel), whether the “saddest part” of The Saddest Story is the endless parade of infidelities or the merry-go-round of suicides is anyone’s guess.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I wouldn’t shelve it alongside the best, but I’d give it another read.

Favorite Quotes:

Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

It is a thing, with all its accidents, that must be taken for granted, as, in a novel, or a biography, you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity.

Read: 2014


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#19 Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

Swift’s crowning achievement, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), is a study in satire. Nipping sharply at the heels (or, well, tearing at the vital organs) of European society generally, and British society specifically, Swift nevertheless reveals his doubts that any nation or community can negotiate utopia.

The diverse peoples Gulliver encounters in his travels represent various aspects of human nature, human folly, and the human experience. The Lilliputians are both small-bodied and small-minded, symbolizing all that is egotistical and vain in our at-once proud and pathetic species. The Brobdingnagians reflect the more physical and personal facets of life—what we are up close and behind closed doors. The Laputans symbolize wasted knowledge and contemplation, and the Houyhnhnms show us that reason and harmony come only at the sacrifice of individuality.

All in all, it’s a pleasure to follow Gulliver to new worlds, discover new cultures, and learn new languages, even if they’re all made up. Like all forms of travel, Gulliver’s adventures teach us more about our home, our values, and ourselves than any foreign land.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

As one of only a handful of truly inventive works to come out of the 18th century, I’m going to let it keep its place among the Greats.

Favorite Quotes:

Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.

Read: 2014


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#38 Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Nigeria. Warrior/farmer. Village elders. Colonialism. Family. Rigid gender roles, women as property. Domestic abuse. Locusts. Oracle. Sacrifice. Strength as weakness, pride as downfall.

Machetes. Guns. Religion. Exile. Ancestral spirits. Jail. Murder. Suicide.

Depressing. Not my thing.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It stands out but isn’t outstanding, IMHO.

Favorite Quotes:

There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad.

The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.

Read: 2015


herzog-saul-bellow-cd-cover-art

#89 Herzog, Saul Bellow

Oh, misogyny. I never tire of your teeming delights.

Seriously, though, is there any major takeaway from Herzog besides misogyny? Because in my heart of hearts and my tapping fingers, I suspect Bellow’s predominant theme of being “Bitches be crazy!” And while, yes, they be crazy, bitches be no more crazy than the Herzogs of the world (and they be crazy, most often, because of them).

Here’s how it goes down: Moses Herzog is a middle-aged man who has made the mature decision to manage his life’s disappointments and failures by whining about them. There was some potential here, structurally: The novel is largely composed of letters Herzog drafts (but never sends) to the president, to his lawyer, to God, and to Heidegger, among others. But when most of them reflect a “hero” more bitter than thoughtful, we’re left wanting a little more.

I listened to Herzog on audiobook and physically cringed at passages such as:

Please, Ramona, Herzog wanted to say—you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch—everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.

And:

It was true, he couldn’t offer much. He really was useless to her. With Gersbach she could still be a wife. He came home. She cooked, ironed, shopped, signed checks. Without him, she could not exist, cook, make beds. The trance would break. Then what?

And:

“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”

It is unfair, probably, to conflate a protagonist with his author… So it’s irrelevant, probably, that Bellow was divorced four times.

Right?

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Please no.

Favorite Quotes:

There was no need to be driven away by a little scandal. It would have been painful, grotesque, but a scandal was, after all, a sort of service to the community.

I thought I had entered into a secret understanding with life to spare me the worst.

But what about justice? – Justice! Look who wants justice! Most of mankind has lived and died without – totally without it. People by the billions and for ages sweated, gypped, enslaved, suffocated, bled to death, buried with no more justice than cattle.

One thought-murder a day keeps the psychiatrist away.

Read: 2015

If you missed Part I of the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.

If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.

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16 thoughts on “Quick Reviews, Part II

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  9. I was also surprised by your review of Brideshead, but only because it usually ranks lower for me than for my friends! I have met several people who call it their favorite book, without doubt. Although it is still not a favorite of mine, I come away appreciating it more after each conversation I have on it.

    The book is about grace, and how it can look very different in the lives of different persons, and even more so, how it looks to someone on the outside–I can’t think of someone more “on the outside” than Charles Ryder. Despite being the narrator, he seems hardly present for the whole book, only more interesting than his own father. But that family at Brideshead! He is fascinated by it because it has what he is missing, whatever that might be…

    I’ve never talked to a non-Catholic about the book, but I imagine the experience would be different.

    • Maybe I should convert to Catholicism to better understand Brideshead. Kind of like how I should learn Spanish to give 100 Years of Solitude a Proper Read, and then Russian to fully appreciate War and Peace.

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