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. 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 100 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 James Joyce or William Faulkner fall squarely into this category.

Woolf toys with both substance and style 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 100 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 100 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 status: 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 100 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 100 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.

Quick Reviews, Part I

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?


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#91 The Awakening, Kate Chopin

= Anna Karenina set in 1890s New Orleans.

(For the record, Anna Karenina = Madame Bovary set in 1870s Russia.)

Favorite Quotes:

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. 

Read: 2013


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#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 read.

A Passage to India is the story of a criminal trial 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?

Favorite Quotes:

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.

Read: 2014


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#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 on the story? Well, it prompted me more times than I can count to ask myself the age-old question, “Am I an asshole?” Because how can any reader be expected to feel all the sympathy Carroll begs of us 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?

Favorite Quotes:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” 

Read: 2013


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#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 become 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 worldwide Hamlet conversation (as should be obvious by now). Just read it. It’s really short.

Favorite Quotes:

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.

Read: 2014


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#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 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.

For decades.

This is miserable reading on its best day. Save yourselves; it’s too late for me.

Favorite Quotes:

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.

Read: 2014