100 Books! a.k.a. Challenge Completed! a.k.a. A Cautionary Tale

This is it, folks. The last chapter. Five and a half years, triple-digit classics, and—in self-congratulations—the pie party to end all pie parties.

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IT’S MY PARTY AND I’LL PIE IF I WANT TO.

On my long and harrowing journey across the wilderness of my own bookshelf, I visited 30+ countries—some real, some imaginary. I met heroes, villains, God, and the devil. I went to war and fell in love and traveled through time and witnessed magic. I worried and grieved and LOLed and maybe, slightly, occasionally lost my mind.

And I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to find it again.

I never doubted that I’d finish—mostly because I try not to make a habit of self-doubt. I’m still convinced that if I really wanted to, and worked really hard at it, I could be an Olympic triathlete, or a Mars-bound astronaut, or a turtle whisperer with my own TV show. And while that kind of certainty is probably diagnosable, it may also be the very reason I was able to finish The Challenge. Predicting how this story ended was—spoiler alert!—the easiest part.

The hardest part was, of course, everything else. The 100 Greatest Books of All Time don’t read themselves—and it was up to me, day after day, to sit down and turn pages. My best estimates suggest that I read 50,817 pages to close out The List, one determined word at a time. The shortest book on The List was 75 pages.

The longest was 4,217.

But it’s all over now, and I can devote my remaining lifespan to full-time snobbery. I can casually name-drop Proust, and sneer at the very idea of e-readers. I can even call myself a literary badass, if there is such a thing.

I won’t, obviously, do any of that. But I will take a moment out to shake my own hand, feather my own cap, and pat myself on the back for a mundane victory. What is life, after all, without a little revelry? Why even bother existing, without the slightest swagger?

I hope I never find out. But if I do, it will probably be in a book.

When I celebrate, I celebrate in lists. (Well, and pie.) Every milestone up until this point—50 books, 75 books, 80 books, 90 books—has been commemorated with at least one list, but usually several. And even though I don’t believe in tradition for tradition’s sake, I do believe in the power of lists to spread peace, love, joy, and the satisfaction of a job well-organized.

So here we go, one last time: The List, in lists. 

Strategies for Every Readventurer

(Or, How I Read 100 Classics)

 

  1. Engage in wanton book polygamy. The idea of reading several books at once used to give me an insta-headache, but The Challenge changed all that. Anyone reading books so bloated they require two epilogues, or come with an author’s apology, is bound to burn out hard and fast. I’ve learned to love “revolving door reading,” and never looked back since.
  2. Play it by ear. Audiobooks are the easiest way to read loads and remain lazy. You don’t even need to change your existing routine, except to press a button once in a while. And to all those who insist that “audiobooking isn’t reading,” I’d like to say this: You do you. But audiobooks, in my mind, enhance the reading experience—and they’ve been one hell of a sidekick throughout The Challenge.
  3. Proceed not with caution, but with confidence. Even if a notoriously rabid, 800-page beast of a book with a barely pronounceable Russian name sounds mildly intimidating, ignore that initial instinct to dip a couple of dainty toes in the water. Cannonball into that book. Commit right up front. I read somewhere once that if you can dog-paddle your way through 25 pages of Ulysses per day, you’ll be done in a month. (Math agrees, and so do I.)
  4. Just keep reading, reading, reading. Can’t keep up with your own ambitions? There’s still hope. Success can be a sprint, but more often, it’s a marathon. Yours depends on turning just a few pages—five will do—every night before bed. I got through some of the most head-scratching, mind-boggling, brain-bruising novels this way: a little at a time.
  5. Use your resources. Don’t give up on that impossible read just because it’s impossible. Dial 911—a.k.a. SparkNotes, Cliff Notes, Shmoop, and the blogosphere—and ask for help. There’s always some brave hero(ine) out there waiting to save the day. Let them come to your rescue—then turn around and pay it forward.

Biggest Takeaways

(Among Countless Lessons Learned)

 

  1. Just because someone did it first does not mean they did it best. Often, it means just the opposite. So can we stop worshiping the ground trodden by Tolkien, and Lawrence, and Hemingway? Or at least acknowledge that their imagination far outstripped their implementation? No? OK. I tried.
  2. No book is made “classic” by accident, and we’re leaving a lot of our fellow humans out of the club. If the Literary Canon were a person, he’d be a straight, white, rich, able-bodied colonialist, probably with a beard and a monocle. He’d definitely be a he. And while his voice deserves to be heard, just like anyone else’s, the anyone elses have been patient enough. It’s the Canon’s turn to listen, and to make a little room.
  3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Not even by its back cover. Plot summaries can be woefully misleading at the best of times, and tragically deterrent at the worst. There were moments during The Challenge that I fully anticipated an epic struggle with an epic hate-read (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange)—or prepared a place on my bookshelf for a brand new favorite (Wuthering HeightsTristram Shandy)—only to be taken by surprise. But you know what? There’s a reason they call it the thrill of discovery. And it’s probably the reason we should read outside our comfort zone.
  4. Don’t waste time reading books you hate. This might seem counterintuitive, since I spent five and a half years doing just that. But I couldn’t agree less with that snooty Atlantic writer who thinks there’s shame in DNF’ing. I admit that I’m unable to abandon books en route, but I consider this a weakness instead of an asset. Quitting books is a habit I’d give anything to cultivate—if only to continue reading like crazy while (hopefully) remaining sane.
  5. There’s only one thing that makes any book Great: You. You decide. Don’t listen to any publishers, reviewers, hipsters, or lists telling you there’s anything objective about Greatness. You may not know yourself what makes you connect with one book, and shudder at another. But the good news is that nobody can tell you you’re wrong.

My Favoritest Classics of All Time

(In No Particular Order)

 

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  2. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
  3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  4. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  6. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  7. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  8. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  9. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  10. Beloved, Toni Morrison

Works of Indisputable Genius

(Whether I Liked Them or Not)

 

  1. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  2. 1984, George Orwell
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  5. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  7. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  8. King Lear, William Shakespeare
  9. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  10. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

My Literary Grudges

(May Their Ink Fade Away and Their Pages Crumble to Dust)

 

  1. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (to be referred to hereafter as “The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named”)
  2. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  3. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  4. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  6. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  7. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  8. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  9. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
  10. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Most Challenging of the Challenge

(Especially Difficult and/or Tedious Classics)

 

  1. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

We should probably stop here and camp out for a while. That’s how formidable Finnegans Wake turned out to be.

For the sake of time, though, we’ll move on. Just know that there’s a boundless, hopeless chasm between the Wake and the rest of this list.

  1. Finnegans Wake (it bears repeating)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
  4. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  5. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  6. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  7. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
  8. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  9. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Buried Literary Treasures

(Books I May Never Have Read, and Loved, Without Taking on The Challenge)

 

  1. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  2. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  3. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  4. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  5. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

Frequently Asked Questions

(Or, More Accurately, Questions Literally No One Has Asked Me)

 

1. Will you read any more classics after this?

Of course. I’m even more excited to read the classics now that I know which authors to seek out (Baldwin, Morrison, Vonnegut)—and which ones to avoid like puddles on a subway platform (Updike, SteinbeckJoyce).

2. Will you continue blogging?

That’d be a heartfelt maybe. Someday I hope to get a pet and blog about it.

3. Was The Challenge worth the time and effort?

God, no.

4. Really? Not even for the bragging rights? 

I avoid discussing The Challenge as much as possible—mostly because reading The 100 Greatest Books of All Time makes me sound like an asshole. In the end, The Challenge has mostly served to fuel my reckless TBR on Goodreads (see #1) and my Christmas gift ideas for friends and family.

I mean, yeah, I read some incredible books (Lolita, Midnight’s Children, The Canterbury Tales). But whether or not those Kings Among Books outrivaled all the monsters (Tristram Shandy, Finnegans Wake, The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named) isn’t something I’m equipped to measure.

5. What is the greatest book of all time? 

That’s up to you to decide for yourself. The book that stood out to me the most among all the masterworks on The List—the book that, for me, transcended every other reading encounter I’ve ever had or expect to have—was Beloved.

6. So, what now? Book-wise?

I don’t know! And I’m trying to be OK with that.

And so, on my very last page, I wish you—forever and ever—happy reading. Consider yourself invited to my pie party, happening now at a bakery near you.

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COME AT ME, PIE. IT’S EAT OR BE EATEN. I hope you’re up to the challenge.

Eligible: Abandon All Joy, Ye Who Enter Here

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Matchmaking books and readers would be one of my favorite hobbies if I got to do it more often—that is, if I had more friends. It is nothing short of a thrill when someone comes to me and says, “I loved that book you recommended. What should I read next?” or “What did you think of such-and-such? Is it worth the time?”

But every once in a while, I come across a book so appalling I want to shout it from the rooftops. Every once in a while, I feel like rushing from one acquaintance to the next to un-recommend a book—to remove it from the shelves of, first, my friends, and then my enemies, on a singular mission to make it un-exist. Every once in a while, I dedicate an entire blog post to a book that made me wish I could un-learn to read.

Most recently, I had this experience with Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Hating Eligible was not a foregone conclusion, despite my love for the source material. I’m not an Austen purist; in fact, I love adaptations. I’ve seen countless film versions of her novels, as well as a theatrical rendition of Pride and Prejudice, and enjoyed them all from start to finish. I even loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, if only for turning the Bennet sisters into fearless, impeccably coiffed warriors. I’m a fan of the looser adaptations, too, from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary to The Jane Austen Book Club, and I laughed at every cringeworthy plot twist in 2013’s Austenland.

But Eligible wasn’t just a listless reimagining of Austen’s original; it was dull, irritating, and offensive. Parallels between the two are abundant and apparent, but usually clumsy and crude. That said, it is, perhaps, the more obvious deviations from Austen’s starting point(s) that precede Eligible‘s weakest stumbling blocks.

“Innocent until proven guilty,” you say? Fair enough.

I haven’t even launched into my opening argument.

Eligible is set (mostly) in Cincinnati, Ohio, which in itself feels wrong. Pride and Prejudice is a quintessentially British story begging for rolling hills and sleepy shires. Of all the things that went wrong with this story, though, I’m willing to overlook the setting—so Cincinnati, Ohio, it is. Liz and Jane Bennet are back home from New York, caring for their father post-heart surgery. Both are nearing 40 and unmarried, though Liz is dating the (married) douchebag who strung her along for a decade and Jane is pursuing motherhood through artificial insemination.

The younger Bennet sisters are aggressively useless. Lydia and Kitty, in their mid-twenties, are CrossFit gym bunnies who text a lot. Mary is working on yet another online Master’s degree. All three live at home and freeload off their parents, who have mismanaged their finances to the point of bankruptcy.

Enter “Chip” Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Chip is best known to the Cincinnati elite as the star of last season’s Bachelor-esque reality show Eligible. Darcy is a neurosurgeon, obvi. Each combines enormous wealth with zero personality to make a perfect catch. Chip and Jane date enthusiastically until Jane finds out she’s pregnant via donor sperm. Chip’s sister Caroline jumps on the opportunity to push them apart, because that’s a thing that happens in the 21st century.

Liz and Darcy engage in Hate Sex until, for Darcy, it turns into Love Sex. His attempt at a grand gesture is to knock on Liz’s door and announce that “she’s neither beautiful nor funny, but he’s in love with her anyway, although that may just be the oxytocin talking.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much.) A few misunderstandings later, Liz proposes. Chip and Jane reconcile in the kind of happy ending only a reality TV wedding can bring about.

A large portion of the plot revolves around Liz’s efforts to save the Bennets from themselves—because God forbid a family of privilege actually live with the consequences of their poor decision-making. Mr. Bennet, at 60+ years of age, doesn’t even have health insurance.

Lucky for them, Super Liz is around to act as cook, maid, chauffeur, accountant, real estate agent, exterminator, and mover to this lazy brood of asshats. She spends all her savings bailing them out of their various financial messes, then proceeds to co-sign Kitty and Mary’s new lease and pay their rent. You could argue, in one sense, that Liz retains the original character’s status as The Only Sensible Daughter… but a sensible person would know when to quit. Instead of rooting for her to set the Bennets straight, you root for her to wash her hands of their superficiality, disrespect, and ingratitude and hightail it back to New York.

Add to this a Glee-like approach to “social issues”—a sort of heavy-handed, transparent, [insert issue here] strategy—and you’ve got an exhausting, insufferable read in your hands. If it’s not Darcy’s anorexic sister, it’s Jane’s lesbian roommates or Kitty’s black boyfriend. I would appreciate the diversity if Sittenfeld’s main characters were any less bigoted—that is, if any of the minority characters were treated like people instead of problems.

Did I mention this book is gratuitously transphobic? The major conflict of the story—intended to mirror the original Lydia’s elopement with ne’er-do-well George Wickham at the cost of her reputation—is when Sittenfeld’s Lydia elopes with her transgender boyfriend. The Bennets are, at best, confused (e.g., Jane and Liz)—and, at worst, horrified (e.g., Mrs. Bennet). Darcy is applauded all around for restoring harmony by explaining gender dysphoria as a birth defect… because that was easier than persuading Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to be tolerant.

Believe it or not, the dialogue is even worse than the plot, which is even worse than the character development. For all her determination to update Pride and Prejudice to the year 2013, Sittenfeld clung steadfastly to 19th-century language. Here’s Liz’s response to Jane’s bewilderment at Chip’s reality TV fame:

“Oh, Jane,” Liz said. “So innocent and unspoiled. You’ve heard of the reality show Eligible, right?”

And here’s Darcy at his first run-in with the Bennets:

I’m sure they do their best, but Cincinnatians are painfully provincial.

Painfully provincial! I would call this book painfully provincial if it didn’t reflect poorly on my manners. Y’all know I’m delicate AF.

Oh, and if you were hoping for a more overtly feminist Bennet clan in this modernized take, you will be disappointed on that front, too. All of the novel’s most “independent” women—Jane, Liz, and Liz’s BFF Charlotte—uproot their lives to move across the country for men they barely know:

  • Charlotte meets the Bennets’ step-cousin Willie exactly one time at a party. After exchanging a handful of emails with him, she quits her job at Procter & Gamble to move into his house in the Bay Area. She is then horrified to discover that he snores, which should be the least of her worries IMHO.
  • By the time Liz proposes to Darcy, they’ve only spoken a handful of times, including their bouts of (so-called) Hate Sex. Liz, who loves NYC, announces mid-proposal that she knows she’ll “need to move to Cincinnati”—as if it’s out of the question that Darcy might, at any point, leave his job to live with her in New York.
  • Only Jane and Chip actually date before moving in together, if only for a brief period. She follows him to LA when he decides to make an abrupt career change, after zero discussion of her own work prospects. (Let’s hope that baby is super fulfilling, amirite?)

This book goes from bad to worse so often that the feat seems impossible—like one of those auditory illusions that keep descending until your brain implodes. Eligible, as Michiko Kakutani puts it,

reads less like a homage or reimagining of Austen’s classic than a heavy-handed and deeply unfunny parody.

Ursula Le Guin—channeling Emma‘s Mr. Knightley—declares, more pointedly,

It was badly done.

I wish I hadn’t read it. I hope no one else ever reads it. I physically cringe at the thought that Jane Austen inspired it. Not only are her subtle wit and human insight absent from this grotesque P&P mutation, but they’ve been replaced with corrupt characterizations, infuriating plot points, and belligerently shabby writing.

Has Eligible ruined me forever when it comes to Austen adaptations? Definitely not. But I must have learned nothing from Pride and Prejudice after all, because I won’t be giving Sittenfeld a second chance at a first impression.

#51 The Tin Drum, Günter Grass

Oskar Matzerath is no ordinary three-year-old.

He’s not even three years old.

Oskar decided, in fact, to remain three years old no matter how much time went by—all because #adulting held so little appeal.

But wait—there’s more.

Oskar has this drum, this tin drum, a drum he’s obsessed with to the point of violence and betrayal. Also, his scream can shatter glass. So Oskar drums and screams his way around his native Danzig, like a three-year-old but not as a three-year-old, while the Nazi Party gains power over in Germany and begins its march toward Poland.

When he finally decides to grow up a little (mentally and physically) after the war ends, Oskar:

  • works a series of random jobs (gang leader, tombstone engraver, nude model, and jazz band drummer, to name a few)
  • is accused of murdering his neighbor, and
  • winds up in an insane asylum.

His only regret is that he’s innocent.

This is a nasty piece of literature narrated by a nasty piece of work. Oskar is a lying, thieving, whining, bragging, manipulating sociopath. He hits pregnant women and kicks dogs. He has a God (or, more accurately, a Jesus) complex. Worst of all, he regularly refers to himself in the third person.

We can only assume Mr. Burns and Dolores Umbridge are saving him a seat in Hell.

And yet, despite my generalized disgust for The Tin Drum, there is one contextual detail I find endlessly intriguing. Günter Grass, like Oskar, grew up in the Free City of Danzig (now called Gdańsk) and moved from Poland to Germany after the war. With The Tin Drum, published in 1959, Grass hoped to force a post-war Germany to confront its past—military members and civilians alike. What Grass didn’t mention until 2006—almost 50 years later—was that, at 17, he himself was a member of the Waffen-SS and trained as a tank gunner. 

Accused of hypocrisy for holding himself up as a “moral authority, [and] a rather smug one,” Grass nevertheless felt the time had come to confront his own past. Shmoop, always spot-on, sums up the controversy like this:

What do you think? Did Grass earn a ton of money and a Nobel Prize by claiming a moral high ground he really didn’t deserve? Or did having to confront his own participation in the war give him the right to demand that others confront theirs?

If you like unreliable narrators, demon children, historical themes, and magical realism, you might enjoy The Tin Drum. Just know that the longer you spend with it, the dirtier your hands will get.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Audiobook was probably the wrong format for this novel. I’ll have to get back to you on this when my ears stop ringing from all the moaning, wailing, screaming, and sneering.

Also the criminal third person.

Favorite Quotes:

When Satan’s not in the mood, virtue triumphs. Hasn’t even Satan a right not to be in the mood once in a while?

Today I know that all things are watching, that nothing goes unseen, that even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings.

Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.

Read: 2016

#98 The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

I like to think of The Count of Monte Cristo as a scientific experiment conducted by God during one of Earth’s more tedious centuries. What happens when you surround a man with enemies, watch them lock him up in prison for 14 years, give him an education, give him endless riches, give him back his freedom, and then unleash him on the world at large?

The Count of Monte Cristo happens. And it ain’t pretty.

Edmond Dantès is, at 19, a happy, well-liked, and gifted young sailor with a doting father and a devoted fiancée. Fortune smiles upon him like a favorite pastime. The future looks bright enough for Ray-Bans.

But Edmond is crushed under his own windfall of good luck when three local dickheads let jealousy get the better of them. Danglars, the treasurer of Edmond’s ship; Fernand Mondego, a local fisherman in love with his fiancée; and Caderousse, his resentful neighbor, accuse Edmond of treason on the eve of his wedding to Mercédès. (Edmond does, indeed, carry a letter from Napoleon, exiled to Elba, but only as a favor to his friend and former captain.) The prosecutor, Villefort, sees Edmond’s innocence for what it is and intends to send him home… until Edmond reveals the intended recipient of Napoleon’s letter: Monsieur Noirtier, a.k.a. Villefort’s father. To protect his own interests and cover up his father’s treasonous affairs, Villefort sends Edmond to the notorious island prison known as the Château d’If.

Edmond is educated in secret by another prisoner (a former Italian priest) before finally making his escape over a decade later. Once freed, he follows a tip from the priest to the island of Monte Cristo and discovers unfathomable sums of buried treasure. The next time we meet him, Edmond has become the Count of Monte Cristo, an omniscient and omnipotent god-like figure with mysterious, foreign habits and an appetite for revenge.

At this point, only a quarter of the way into the book, things really start to heat up. Edmond takes his vengeance on Danglars, Fernand, Caderousse, and Villefort slowly, surely, and mercilessly. He lays complicated traps for each of his prey, adopts numerous aliases, spends an enormous fortune, and generally takes “obsession” to new levels of entertainment.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an adventure tale in the truest sense of the word. Originally written in serial format, it is 117 chapters of rollicking thrills, dark secrets, and moving romance. We read a separate novel’s worth of stories-within-the-story and witness many of the dramatic events that changed the course of French history. We watch Edmond play the role of Karma and take Destiny into his own hands—for the good of some and the detriment of many.

Since its 2002 release, The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite movies. And while many alterations were necessary to squeeze 1200 pages into two hours of film (and gratify a Hollywood audience), it captures the spirit of Dumas’s original reasonably well: Revenge is satisfying, but not as much as you’d think. We can change who we are, but only by a little. Happiness will elude us as long as we compare our lot with others’. It’s all there, even if it takes a different form.

Between The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers alone, Alexandre Dumas has left a considerable legacy. Born in northern France in 1802, his background was both aristocratic and mixed-race. He moved to Paris in his twenties and worked at the Palais Royal for the Duc d’Orléans. By the time he died in 1870, Dumas’s bibliography included much more than his popular adventure novels: His works ranged from travel narratives on Florence and Naples to historical dramas about famous English actors to essays on infamous European criminals.

By way of curious anecdotes, he had at least 40 mistresses throughout his (apparently very busy) lifetime and fathered a handful of illegitimate children. He also built a country house (circa 1846) and named it the Château de Monte-Cristo—along with a writing studio he called the Château d’If.

The best part of The Count of Monte Cristo? It is said to be based on a true story.

I wholeheartedly recommend this lively and rewarding read, even if it leaves you contemplating vengeance on your own bullies of days gone by.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It may not be Lolita or War and Peace, but it’s way better than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

Favorite Quotes:

There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another.

It is for justice to avenge those she has been unable to protect.

All human wisdom is summed up in these two words: “Wait and hope.”

Read: 2015

Quick Reviews, Part III

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#72 Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

On the back cover of my Signet Classics edition of Sons and Lovers, E. M. Forster declares D. H. Lawrence to be “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.”

This is ironic for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing imaginative at all in Sons and Lovers. The book is known, in fact, to be largely autobiographical.
  2. E. M. Forster himself—a fellow member of Lawrence’s generation—is more imaginative. And even that isn’t saying much.

Sons and Lovers is no more than a protracted look at the Oedipus complex—and not a very insightful one, IMHO. At the head of the Morel family stand an alcoholic miner hated by his children and an anguished housewife adored by them. Eventually, the sons grow up and fall in love/lust, and the shit hits the fam. All of them spew a steady stream of verbal abuse at each other—father and mother and sons and lovers—from start to finish.

Apparently the “sex scenes”—by which I mean vaguely sensual forest romps—were considered obscene back in 1913. To the modern reader, they are too ambiguous to be sexy and too boring to advertise.

I am pleased to say Lawrence and I can call it quits now that I’ve put Sons and Lovers and Women in Love behind me. I fail to see how his work is in any way outstanding, well-crafted, or entertaining.

And that’s putting it nicely.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

May I quote Bart Simpson? “I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows.”

Favorite Quotes:

She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be.

Then Dawes made a remark which caused Paul to throw half a glass of beer in his face.
“Oh, Mr. Morel!” cried the barmaid, and she rang the bell for the “chucker-out.”
Dawes spat and rushed for the young man. At that minute a brawny fellow with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his trousers tight over his haunches intervened.

He loved her. There was a big tenderness, as after a strong emotion they had known together, but it was not she who could keep his soul steady.

Read: 2015


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#28 Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, sayings things she didn’t mean…

writes Virginia Woolf of her genteel heroine. That, and PTSD, provide the outline for this modernist masterpiece.

Modernism describes the literary period from around 1900 to the end of World War II—a period marked by dramatic experimentation with traditional narrative forms. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and pretty much everything written by Joyce and Faulkner fall squarely into this category.

Woolf toys with both style and substance in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The novel takes place over a single day, largely inside the minds of its two protagonists (the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway and a World War I veteran by the name of Septimus Warren Smith). Major themes include isolation and oppression, memory and madness, and the trauma inflicted on an entire generation by war and its aftermath.

I say give it a chance. Mrs. Dalloway will walk you through the streets of Westminster, buy you flowers, and throw you a party. And even if you hate London, and flowers, and parties, hey-o… this book is super short.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s hard to pull off a meaningful “day in the life” portrait, but Woolf manages it with seeming ease.

Favorite Quotes:

The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.

She had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying — what one felt.

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

Read: 2013


#95 King Lear, William Shakespeare

Like I always say (or said, at least, that one time): If you’re going to write a tragedy, make it the TRAGEDY TO END ALL TRAGEDIES.

The problem with this advice is that only Shakespeare can write a truly sensational tragedy. And only Shakespeare can top Shakespeare.

So… yeah. Good luck with your tragedies, and all.

Here we go:

King Lear wants to retire. But first, he has to divide up his kingdom. Easy, he thinks. I’ll just slice it into thirds and pass one wedge to each daughter. I’ll even put a little whipped cream on top. That’ll be easy, too, because it comes in this handy aerosol can.

But it’s not easy. Nothing is easy for idiots. King Lear decides to give the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him the most.

The ass-kissing that follows is exquisite.

But, soon, everything starts to suck. Daughters are disowned. Earls are fired. Kings run naked across stormy heaths. Eyeballs get torn out. And then everyone dies.

In other words: King Lear is your family Thanksgiving.

Here’s hoping y’all skip the pie.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Duh.

Favorite Quotes:

The rain it raineth every day.

But his flawed heart—/Alack, too weak the conflict to support—/’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief/Burst smilingly. 

If Fortune brag of two she loved and hated/One of them we behold. 

Read: 2015


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#35 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Noteworthy features of the so-called “World State” in Aldous Huxley’s famous (and infamous) 1932 novel include:

With this in mind, we get to know Bernard Marx. Bernard is an Alpha but feels like an outcast, which is hardly fair. So on his trip to a “Savage Reservation” (similar to the Native American reservations of today), he picks up a souvenir that will catapult him to celebrity: his boss’s son, John, raised by his mother and Shakespeare’s collected works among the villagers there.

Bernard decides to take John back to London as a kind of social experiment. The experiment, as you could probably guess, is a disaster, rife with shame, drug abuse, self-flagellation, and exile (in that order, or almost).

Thirty years after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley revisited his vision of the future to assess its accuracy. In what was hardly a class act, he gave a smirk and announced, “Haha, told you so.” But he probably wasn’t referring to the public orgies… unless he caught a glimpse of MTV.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s got something—I’m just not sure if it has enough of that something.

Favorite Quotes:

Wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way. 

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.

Crying: My baby, my mother, my only, only love; groaning: My sin, my terrible God; screaming with pain, muttering with fever, bemoaning old age and poverty — how can they tend the wheels? And if they cannot tend the wheels… The corpses of a thousand thousand thousand men and women would be hard to bury or burn.

Lying in bed, he would think of Heaven and London.

Read: 2014


#55 Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett

WTF, Beckett.

WTF.

Like, what is this? I can’t even.

In the words of the great Wikipedia Britannica:

One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or even setting in this novel.

Oh no—no, of course not, because that would be preposterous. That would result in a book, whereas this is meant to be…

Well, I don’t know, really. You’d have to ask Samuel Beckett, if he’s not too busy listening to Fleetwood Mac. All we’ve been able to make of this postmodernist mess (yes, we’re into post-modernism now) is that it largely records the rambling interior monologue of Malone, an old man lying naked in a hospital OR insane asylum (we can’t be sure, because Malone isn’t). Highlights of this meditation include a nurse with a crucifix carved into her tooth, a bearded giant (aren’t they all?), a boat and a picnic, a dropped pencil, and a boy named Sapo, who is later renamed Macmann because Malone can’t “stomach” the name Sapo anymore.

Beckett translated Malone Dies from French to English himself and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969…

…which just goes to show how easy it is to confuse lunacy with genius.

I kid, I kid! Although now that I mention it, history is teeming with examples. Hmm.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Your guess is as good as mine. EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER READ IT.

Favorite Quotes:

There is naturally another possibility that does not escape me, though it would be a great disappointment to have it confirmed, and that is that I am dead already and that all continues more or less as when I was not.

It is because it is no longer I, I must have said so long ago, but another whose life is just beginning. It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old all down the unchanging days and die one day like any other day, only shorter.

Let me say before I go that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell.

Read: 2015

If you missed Quick Reviews, Part I, or Quick Reviews, Part II, you can find them here and here.

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

The One Where I Review What’s Left of Faulkner with What’s Left of My Mind

It is with great sadness indescribable joy that William Faulkner and I announce our separation. After nine wonderful agonizing years together, we both feel that it is time to move on. We ask that you please respect our privacy join in celebrating alongside us during this difficult time before we run out of cake and champagne. Our two beautiful children mutual regret and shame remain, as always, our top priority immune to all forms of therapy.

P.S. For the record, it was all his fault.

If you’ve accidentally stumbled upon this blog in the past, you may already be up to speed on my thoughts re: Faulkner. You may already know that I consider him one of my literary arch-enemies, a formidable challenge-within-The-Challenge, and something of a sadistic son-of-a-bitch even on his best days. I’ve made snide remarks about his use (or abuse) of grammar, his sour relationship with Hemingway, and my suspicion that it was, in fact, his cat who did the bulk of the work on many of his best-known novels. I’ve even written up Four Rules for Reading Faulkner as a kind of CPR for all those issuing Do Not Resuscitate orders mid-way through a reckless attempt at taking him down one-on-one.

But I’ve got one thing left to say to him before we part.

First, though, I must offer up some sort of sacrificial review to the literary gods, since I swore to report back (in some form, at least) on all 100 books on The List. The Sound and the Fury, which I compare to an army crawl, is here. But that leaves three more to revisit before we wash our hands of this mess—because, of course, Faulkner was not just “Great” in the eyes of his critics, not just demanding in the eyes of his readers, but also startlingly industrious.

It figures.

Here we go:

Absalom, Absalom! and I go way back. It was, in fact, my first encounter with Faulkner, long ago in my early college years, and the origin story of our Epic Struggle. And OK, that struggle might have been a little one-sided, but it’s hard to believe Faulkner didn’t mean any of it personally. This is some sick, Saw-level shit.

Here’s the Absalom, Absalom! excerpt I shared in my Four Rules post:

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?’

Please note that in Faulkner Land—Yoknapatawpha County, or the Ghastliest Place on Earth—all of the above is one sentence.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Faulkner, it’s that with every Epic Struggle comes an Epic But. Usually the But goes something like, “But it’s so rewarding!” “But you’ll feel so much better afterwards!” “But it’s totally worth it!” I know you won’t believe that, though, not after seeing the savage beast of a sentence above.

No, Faulkner is not exactly what I would call rewarding, BUT he is what I would call gratifying. And Absalom, Absalom! has its unfair share of gratifying moments. (You’ll see for yourself, later, when we reach my Favorite Quotes.)

Faulkner’s ninth novel, Absalom, Absalom! (1936), is the story of one Thomas Sutpen, whose life mirrors the rise and fall of the American South in the Civil War era. Sutpen sets out to establish a powerful dynasty in Jefferson, Mississippi, but can’t shake the dark secrets lurking in his past. (By dark, I mean, of course, black. This book is full of racists.)

Told out of sequence by a diverse cast of characters from multiple generations and with more or less distant connections to the Sutpen family, Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most confusing, laborious, and fascinating classics I’ve come across in The Challenge. It has been called the best Southern novel of all time and contributed to Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. It also contains a 1,292-word sentence that earned an entry in the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records.

So, yeah, we might have to come up with some new superlatives for this book. Backbreaking-est? Punishing-est? Surpassing-est? Faulkner-iest?

I’ll keep working on it in my abundant free time.

Remember what I said about the Epic But? Well, some Epic Buts are more predictable than others. I’d pretty much resigned myself to my Epic Struggle with Faulkner after The Sound and the Fury and Absalom Absalom!, only to receive another curveball to the face—another Epic But—in the form of Light in August.

Far from being another trek through the word jungles that flourished in Faulkner’s fertile mind, Light in August (1932) was more of a stroll through the countryside—pleasant, fresh, and invigorating. Sure, it’s about the decapitation of an abolitionist woman and the manhunt for her killer. But it’s also a love story, a study of race and identity, a Southern gothic influenced by history and mystery, and—most importantly—highly accessible in terms of style (at least, compared with Faulkner’s other novels).

It’s the only one out of all four novels (Faulkner appears more often than any other author on The List) that I actively enjoyed, if only because it felt less like a hammer to the skull. It left me, in fact, to wonder if Faulkner thought it best for the two of us to apologize, shake hands like gentlefolk, and call time on our by-now-lukewarm rivalry.

But just to be safe, I kept one wary eye on him.

Last up was As I Lay Dying (1930). I listened to it on audiobook for reasons I have since forgotten. Fortunately, audiobook proved to be a format well-adapted to the story, which follows the many perspectives of the Bundren family as they transport their mother’s corpse to Jefferson, Mississippi (her hometown and requested burial ground). Unfortunately, the cover image that graced my Moto G for the duration of As I Lay Dying fueled countless nightmares:

A neighbor to Light in August in terms of style, As I Lay Dying is a much more straightforward read than either Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury—but it lacks their coquettish intrigue and chaotic vitality. Three novels later, I’d come to expect a certain… well, sound and fury from Faulkner’s heavyweight imagination, and this book didn’t even put up a fight. Anticipating, once again, an Epic Struggle, I was left with yet another Epic But.

And this time, for the very first time, as dusk crept up on The Challenge, Faulkner left me disappointed.

So what was it, you ask—the last thing I want to say to Faulkner before we bury our firearms, turn about-face, and march on forever toward separate horizons?

A soldier’s farewell, of course: Good-bye. Good luck. And see you in Hell.

Because I have a feeling—a tickling suspicion—that we’ll meet again someday.

Old enemies friends always do.

Are They Four of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I would never have admitted this during my reading, but in retrospect—and from, now, a great distance—Faulkner brought something unique to The Challenge, something unprecedented and unrivaled.

…Which must be why, then, he has a habit of making the reader his adversary.

Favorite Quotes:

Absalom, Absalom!

But that our cause, our very life and future hopes and past pride, should have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it—men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit to let us lose? 

Perhaps I couldn’t even have wanted more than that, couldn’t have accepted less.

I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.

Don’t talk to me of love but let me tell you, who know already more of love than you will ever know or need.

I now believe that you and I are, strangely enough, included among those who are doomed to live.

I will tell you what he did and let you be the judge. (Or try to tell you, because there are some things for which three words are three too many, and three thousand words that many words too less, and this is one of them. It can be told; I could take that many sentences, repeat the bold blank naked and outrageous words just as he spoke them, and bequeath you only that same aghast and outraged unbelief I knew when I comprehended what he meant; or take three thousand sentences and leave you only that Why? Why? and Why? that I have asked and listened to for almost fifty years.)

That was the miscast summer of my barren youth which (for that short time, that short brief unreturning springtime of the female heart) I lived out not as a woman, a girl, but rather as the man which I perhaps should have been. 

There is that might-have-been which is the single rock we cling to above the maelstrom of unbearable reality.

And then one afternoon—oh there was a fate in it: afternoon and afternoon and afternoon: do you see? the death of hope and love, the death of pride and principle, and then the death of everything.

I will accept either an apology or a bullet, as you prefer.

Read: 2014

Light in August

She continues to watch him with that expression not so much concerned for the future as suspicious of the now.

I mind how I said to you once that there is a price for being good the same as for being bad; a cost to pay. And it’s the good men that cant deny the bill when it comes around.

Yet neither surrendered; worse: they would not let one another alone; he would not even go away. And they would stand for a while longer in the quiet dusk peopled, as though from their loins, by a myriad ghosts of dead sins and delights, looking at one another’s still and fading face, weary, spent, indomitable.

It is because so much happens. Too much happens. That’s it. Man performs, engenders, so much more than he can or should have to bear. That’s how he finds that he can bear anything. That’s it. That’s what is so terrible. That he can bear anything, anything.

It is as though he has already and long since outstripped himself, already waiting at the cabin until he can catch up and enter. And then I will stand there and I will. . . . . . . He tries it again: Then I will stand there and I will. . . . . . . But he can get no further than that. He is in the road again now, approaching a wagon homeward bound from town. It is about six oclock. He does not give up, however. Even if I cant seem to get any further than that: when I will open the door and come in and stand there. And then I will. Look at her. Look at her. Look at her———

Read: 2015

As I Lay Dying

I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, “Get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man.

People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too. 

She was watching me. But then, in the eyes all of them look like they had no age and knew everything in the world, anyhow. 

Sometimes I ain’t sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.

Read: 2016

The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels (The New Yorker)

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This article is long-ish, but also fascinating-ish. Adelle Waldman looks at romance and marriage in classic literature old and new and argues that male and female authors approach them differently—in a way that just might offer some insight into gendered perspectives on love IRL. In her own words:

The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.

Female protagonists, when authored by women, evaluate their suitors based on intellect, taste, and the potential for conversation. Male authors and characters, however, tend to characterize love as a “profound, mysterious attraction” with an emphasis on the physical.

Waldman points out that “men have been, in a sense, the real romantics,” but offers her own theory to explain why:

For centuries, men have had far more opportunities to find intellectual outlets outside the romantic sphere—they’ve been able to travel more, to meet a broader range of people, to have professions, to win the respect of peers. Women, on the other hand, were forced to lean more heavily on love and marriage, for intellectual recognition and companionship as for everything else.

Compelling stuff. Here’s hoping it comes up on your Valentine’s dinner date. And that you follow it up with 10 p.m. tickets to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

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


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#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


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#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.

#21 Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

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It should have come as no surprise to me that Moby-Dick, a novel famous for being boring, was… well, boring.

But it did, a little. I put too much faith, apparently, in the potential thrill of a madman’s swashbuckling adventures on the sea in pursuit of a living, breathing holy grail. And I indulged too far, it seems, in the comfort and relief of the novel’s opening chapters—which, if not exhilarating, are at least readable.

It all goes south from there. (Pun intended, obviously. I always intend my puns.) Around Chapter 32, Melville mutates without warning into a stodgy university professor, cloaked in dusty tweed, and dutifully steps up to the podium of our literary nightmares.

Because the thing is, when all is said and done, there’s very little plot in Moby-Dick. What little plot there is amounts to prepping for a whaling trip, embarking on said whaling trip, and then whaling intermittently (when the mood strikes, I guess) until lives and limbs are lost to Davy Jones’s locker. Between those chapters, Moby-Dick reads like a textbook—the only textbook, probably—about whaling.

There’s the chapter classifying the different types of whales. There’s the chapter(s) on whale anatomy. There’s the chapter about harpooning a whale, and the chapter about beheading it. There are lots of chapters about whale oil. Moby-Dick is more manual than novel, right down to the instructional guide on fashioning the skin of a whale’s penis into a jacket.

So, for the record, Melville isn’t fooling anyone with Moby-Dick. We know he was just looking for an opportunity to show off his exhaustive first-hand experience of “the honor and glory of whaling” (the not-so-subtle title of Chapter 82). We know he spent years wringing out this epic and ambitious meditation on religion, revenge, insanity, and death in a bid for dignity and consequence.

And even if, by all accounts, he failed (Moby-Dick flopped like a whale onto shore), the attempt is admirable in hindsight. So if Melville owes us an apology for this confused and radically dull hot mess of a high school reading assignment, we owe him one, too—for ignoring the delicate genius it left in its wake.

A fun fact: Moby-Dick is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, of Scarlet Letter fame. The two were neighbors and close friends in 1850s Massachusetts.

Another fun fact: Chapter 63 of Moby-Dick is called “The Crotch.” The term refers to an upright stick used to prop up harpoons.

Fun Fact the Third: Starbucks—yes, the ubiquitous coffee chain—is named for Moby-Dick‘s famous first mate, Starbuck…

sort of.

That’s just about all Moby-Dick has to offer by way of fun. Not for nothing did Melville take cues from Shakespeare and the Bible—but I can’t help but wish he’d stopped undercutting his own adventure tale with lessons in whale law and whale art history.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

A lot of important people have a lot of important things to say about Moby-Dick.

I’m not one of them.

Favorite Quotes:

When I was a child, I well remember a somewhat similar circumstance that befell me; whether it was a reality or a dream, I never could entirely settle. The circumstance was this. I had been cutting up some caper or other—I think I was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless,—my mother dragged me by the legs out of the chimney and packed me off to bed, though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st June, the longest day in the year in our hemisphere.

A good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing.

With much interest I sat watching him. Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face—at least to my taste—his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.

Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

Read: 2015

#3 Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita is hard to stomach. Let me make that clear right off the bat. A pull-no-punches back cover summary would describe a middle-aged academic (Humbert Humbert) lusting after, and ultimately sleeping with, his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter (the eponymous Lolita). In other words, Lolita is the story of a pedophile and the child he rapes repeatedly over a two-year period. A spade is a spade is a spade.

But plot, as we know, is only one force at play in any story we’re destined to pick up. What makes Lolita fascinating—and it is, no doubt, fascinating—is the way the story is told. Nabokov, in this 1955 fictional memoir, toys to great effect with the idea of style vs. substance. Can the taboo turn to treasure if we polish it hard enough? Can a horrible story unfold beautifully?

The answer, it seems, is yes—and that yes is Lolita. Nabokov’s prose bounces and swings; stirs and sparks; snaps, crackles, and pops. He builds a rich literary world full of artistic allusions, foreign languages, and clever word play. As you twist and turn your way along the contours of each serpentine sentence, the intimate intensity of Humbert Humbert’s voice is so absorbing that you lose the will to resist. You nearly forget, mid-stream in his passionate plea for compassion, that this is a narrator who:

  • Coins the term “nymphet” to describe a sexually attractive girl between the ages of 9 and 14
  • Solicits adolescent prostitutes
  • Makes repeated attempts to lure twelve-year-old Lolita into his presence
  • Decides to marry Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, to remain close to Lolita
  • Plans to slip Lolita and Charlotte sleeping pills so he can fondle Lolita
  • Plots to kill Charlotte
  • Kidnaps Lolita at camp after Charlotte is hit, and killed, by a car
  • Uses historical anecdotes and magazine articles to justify having sex with Lolita
  • Persuades her to keep quiet about their relationship with reminders that if he goes to jail, she’ll end up in a juvenile detention home
  • Restricts Lolita’s social and leisure activities (especially with boys)
  • Ignores heartbreakingly obvious signs that she is loath to continue their affair
  • Pays Lolita for sexual favors and then steals back the money so she can’t run away
  • Imagines impregnating Lolita (and, ten years later, having sex with the ensuing daughter) as Lolita’s nymphet qualities begin to waste away

Suffice it to say that the writing is exceptional, to make any of the above fit for literary consumption—much less praise. Nabokov himself puts it best in the book’s foreword, written by a fictional academic editor upon publishing Humbert’s manuscript:

I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

All of this, though, makes our modern pop culture references to “Lolitas” not only inaccurate, but disturbing in the extreme. “Lolita” as an archetype should, by rights, have nothing to do with a sexually precocious schoolgirl, and everything to do with a victim of rape and other forms of abuse.

Equally sickening are the methods used to market Lolita, conflating Humbert Humbert’s hysteria of lust with an epic and enduring love. Whether he loves Lolita or not is arguable. But Vanity Fair‘s baffling interpretation of Lolita as “the only convincing love story of our century,” quoted on the back cover of my Vintage International paperback, is inarguably grotesque.

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Threats to Lolita‘s existence were, of course, numerous and adamant. Four American publishers refused the manuscript. It was accused, following its publication by the Parisian Olympia Press in 1955, of being “pornographic,” “obscene,” and “anti-American.” It regularly appears on “Banned Books” lists. In spite of this (or because of it), Lolita has remained, for over 50 years, a beast of a bestseller, alternately captivating and horrifying its readers.

In the book’s afterword, written in 1956, Nabokov asserts that his now-classic tragicomedy has no moral. His goal, he insists, in answering the “initial shiver of inspiration” to write Lolita differed considerably:

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

To that I say, with no misgivings, to Nabokov beyond the grave: Mission accomplished.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Read as a study in insanity, or a tale told from the villain’s point of view, Lolita is worthy of admiration (be it reluctant or enthusiastic). Read as a lesson in literary technique, Lolita is a masterpiece.

Favorite Quotes:

I have still other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain.

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

It occurred to me that if I were really losing my mind, I might end by murdering somebody. In fact—said high-and-dry Humbert to floundering Humbert—it might be quite clever to prepare things—to transfer the weapon from box to pocket—so as to be ready to take advantage of the spell of insanity when it does come.

I am sufficiently proud of my knowing something to be modest about my not knowing all. 

Read: 2015