Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

617q3USNgiL._SS400_I first read Little Women as most girls do sometime between the ages of 10 and 13 and, like many others, I’ve always remembered it fondly. I’ve seen the movie versions and even a community theater production many years ago. So when I unwrapped my new Kindle at Christmas, it was one of the first free downloads I made. Rereading this classic has been extremely interesting and worthwhile, I think. There are some scenes I literally recall word for word, but some elements that I have no memory of at all. I also find myself thinking of the characters and their struggles great and small much differently so many years on.

I’ve read what a few others have thought when reexperiencing the book as an adult, and two feelings in particular seem to be common. 1. The book is far more moralistic than I remember. 2. While I actively disliked Amy as a child, I quite like her now.

In terms of the first point, the book is quite strongly vocal about Protestant morals of the time and goes beyond just “teaching lessons” with each event. Jo advises Teddy never to drink and he shakes hands on it, a promise that Alcott tells us he will never regret. Jo takes to writing “sensation” stories to make money, which seem to just be what we would call fiction today, but these tales begin to weaken her morally and something terrible might have happened had not Professor Baehr admonished her against them. Some of the lessons of the time do not mesh with how we’d want a girl to behave today. Amy prepares an art table for the fair and a rival demands that Amy let her run the table. Instead of defending her work and being proud of it, Amy gives up her table and the lesson is that she should turn the other cheek.

But speaking of Amy, I found her to be a much different girl than I remembered. The fault may lie with the film versions, which make her out to be very vain and spoiled. But though the Amy of the book begins a bit silly, it must be remembered that she is the youngest and will of course say and do the most childish things. As she grows up, Amy is not vain or spoiled at all; rather, she is quite grateful to others, and seeks to make them happy. While I remembered Amy’s trip to Europe as a slight to Jo, the actual event is quite different. In reality, Jo is rude and snobbish to her aunt, while Amy is appreciative, kind and patient, so her aunt chooses her for the trip. I also remember feeling quite let down that Jo didn’t marry Laurie, but in my rereading I now agree with her feeling that they are too alike. I think this is a lesson of age. At 12 or 13, I would have been just like Laurie and nothing would have pleased me more than to fall in love and marry a childhood sweetheart. It would have been poetic and romantic. But now, I see things Jo’s way and understand her choice.

Meg’s character also surprised me as some of the qualities I had given to Amy are actually hers. I remembered Meg as almost motherly, as a demure girl who marries the sweet tutor next door. But Meg is the one who longs for riches, who lets herself be dressed up in finery and paraded like a doll at a friend’s ball until she is shamed by comments behind her back. Meg is also described as the beauty of the family, where I had always imagined her as plain and Amy as the beauty, perhaps because of the old blonde v. brunette trope. I send my apologies to Amy; you are exonerated and Meg, rather than being ruined by these realizations, is actually given dimension and humanity.

All those things considered, there are still so many moments that shine bright, especially the dynamics of the four March sisters. Despite each being a “type,” you still find them endearing and all too human. Their struggles are quite relatable, if occasionally put quite bluntly. What young girl doesn’t wish to be rich, famous, beautiful and loved by all? The turning point for me in the book is the crisis of their father and Beth falling ill simultaneously. Before this, the book’s greatest traumas are those of children—Amy wasting her money on a bag of limes only to have the teacher throw them out and send her to the corner; Jo learning to deal with her hot temper. Even Amy’s near-death drop into the ice falls lightly and the lesson is quickly learned and passed over. But Beth and Mr. March mark a turning point, after which the girls must quite truly become “little women.”

P.S. I just discovered this book cover and now I want to buy this edition. So cute!


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In which we see Brooklyn in a bygone era through the eyes of a bookish young narrator

Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Author: Betty Smith

What it’s about: Francie Nolan thinks that Brooklyn has a sort of magic. It’s unlike any other place in the world, even better than New York City.  She lives in Williamsburg at the turn of the century with her beautiful but stoic mother who makes a living as a cleaning woman, her kind but often-drunk father who works intermittently as a singing waiter, and her younger brother Neelie who is her partner in adventure and misfortune. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie’s childhood, but also purely captures a long-ago moment in history. It’s the story of a poor immigrant family slotting pennies into a tin can bank in hopes of one day owning a piece of land. Francie’s mother invents a game called Arctic Explorer, in which the children pretend they’re lost in the far North waiting for rescue care packages to arrive when there’s nothing in the house to eat. But there are many moments of happiness as well. Francie loves to sit perched on her fire escape with a book in her lap, visiting the library every day to borrow a book. She loves the good days spent with her father, waiting up at night to hear him singing “Molly Malone” in the hallway and racing to the door to open it before the final note.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those classics that somehow fell through the cracks of my reading history and I’m only getting around to now. I am glad that my first reading comes while I’m living in New York, because it adds an extra dimension to Francie’s life to know what’s become of the neighborhoods she describes and to read about the city in a bygone era. Pre-WWI New York is fascinating in its differences from today and Betty Smith seems to know just the right scenes to convey everyday life in a way that’s compelling and endearing. I found myself engrossed in scenes that described how Francie’s mother would go about paying for dinner and which shops they would visit and how they would haggle. These details might have seemed mundane at the time, but to read them now is truly a treasure. Smith has a beautiful voice that adds weight and dignity to the smallest daily concern.

You also care passionately for her characters since they are so uncompromisingly real. Francie loves her father more than anyone else in the world, but also is completely aware that he can’t support the family. A child’s love and adoration is mixed up with an adult understanding of the world. Francie and Neely are adult-children, all too familiar with hunger, poverty and unfairness. But their youth also gives them resilience and they turn out just fine.

Would I recommend? Yes! In the same vein as I Capture The Castle or Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of a girl growing up and evokes a particular place and time with stunning detail. A must-read American classic.

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In which you have been wondering where I am and I return triumphant having read a literary classic

So…did you miss me? Thanks for sending out the search parties, I really appreciate it. Astonishingly, I have a good reason (or two) for my absence. I swear you haven’t been missing out on reviews, because I actually only read one book since my last post—the epic Anna Karenina. My other excuse? Well, I started a new project. Check it out at UltimateBridesmaid.com. I’ve been blogging bridesmaid advice, party-planning tips for bridal showers and bachelorette parties, invites, dresses, DIY and much more!

But now, back to business. And yes, I know I have some mad catching up to do to keep up a decent total this year. I am aware and will read accordingly.

Title: Anna Karenina

Author: Leo Tolstoy

What it’s about: First, we need to blame this on the boyfriend. He’s responsible for some other pretty long books I’ve read (see J.R.). This time we decided it would be fun to have a book club of two and pick a book that was strikingly absent from our English-major repertoires. We landed on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s Russian epic on love, class, commerce, Communism, religion, et al. But, even though it took me a couple months, the time was worth it.

I first have to recommend the translation I read: The Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The boyfriend read an older edition and occasionally we would directly compare passages to see how the translations differed. I almost always preferred my version, finding it clearer, more nuanced and lyrical and, in my opinion, truer to the spirit of the characters and the work. The book often reminded me of Dickens in its scope and attention to character. It’s almost impossible to explain what happens, because Karenina is really a work about life, in particular the lives a group of interrelated nobles in nineteenth-century Russia.

The nominal center of the book, Anna, leaves her husband for the dashing officer Vronsky and spends the next 800 pages or so dealing with what this means for her as a woman (loss of social status), a mother (loss of her child), and a Catholic (loss of eternal life). Unable or unwilling to obtain a divorce, Anna becomes a sort of social pariah, a kind of nonentity who can’t be accepted into the circles she once frequented but is nonetheless still alive and in need of a place in the world. In contrast to Anna is Levin, whom I personally could make a case for being as important a character as Anna. It certainly seemed to me that he received almost equal page time. A gentleman with a farm in the country, Levin is a classic case of head versus heart. He is preoccupied with solving the Russian problem of profitable farming and dealing with the peasant class, but also feels he’ll never find true happiness without a wife and children. His ambitions to improve society are directly at odds with his romantic quest, and he finds himself asking that eternal question: What is the meaning of it all?

My favorite parts of the book focus on human interaction: love, betrayal, hate and just how we muddle through this thing called life. Nineteenth-century Russia is a place at a turning point. For the upper class, it is still all about etiquette and “rightness,” but the old ways have begun to disappear. While there is a general loosening of decorum and tradition, there’s no accepted path forward. So, for example, while it’s known that arranged marriages are out of style, it’s not quite known how things “should be done” now. This makes for an interesting exploration as different generations deal with the fallout of society rethinking its organization. We see this not only in the sphere of marriage, but in class, politics and religion as well. Unfortunately, Tolstoy does tend to go on about these subjects in intimate detail. There are long passages on farming, Russian local government, and religion, which were at times a struggle to get through. But I was always able to pick up on the other side and occasionally found a buried gem—a beautiful passage or interesting maxim to take away. Like Dickens’ work, it’s the kind of book that takes a long time, that you struggle with at times, but you’re ultimately happy you made the commitment when you finish.

Would I recommend? Certainly. Anna Karenina is an ambitious read, but it’s fulfilling, fascinating in its density and brilliant in its scope. A must for literature buffs and those who like to peek behind the curtains into the lives of others.

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In which I present my dissertation on the merits of rereading

Title: The Great Gatsby

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

What it’s about: Let’s get something straight before we start. I’m not planning on “reviewing” The Great Gatsby because frankly that wouldn’t benefit anyone. The Great Gatsby is probably one of the most read books in America. Thanks to some unwritten rule that this book must be taught in high school, it’s got a pretty wide readership and, what’s more, many people name it their all-time favorite book (behind Harry Potter and Catcher in the Rye, of course). And after I read the book for the first time, I stood resolutely outside that group. Not only would I not have listed The Great Gatsby as one of my favorites, I would have gone so far as to say that I didn’t see what all of the fuss was about. On my first reading, which I think was early in high school or perhaps even in middle school, I found Gatsby dull and unremarkable. But after the passage of many years, I decided to treat Gatsby to a rereading.

I’ve always been a rereader, most often with books I love. I like to revisit them after at least a year and I often find that on my second reading I absorb the text more, focusing on the wording and enjoying each phrase. I think it’s because I’m not dying to find out what happens. Since I know where the whole plot thing is going, I’m able to concentrate more on the craft and less on whether or not someone’s going to die or if those two are going to end up together. I learn more about the characters, flesh out the setting, and catch motifs I might have missed on the first frenzied read. I even like to reread books from my childhood, picking up old favorites to see if they’ve stood the test of time, but also to bring myself back into a world I once loved.

Books I didn’t love rarely get a chance at the reread. There’s a pretty steep backlog of books I’d like to read, so coming back to a book that didn’t impress me can feel like a waste of time. But, there was one notable exception that convinced me to give Great Gatsby another shot: The Lord of the Flies. I first read Flies in middle school as part of an “advanced” literature group. Myself and four others met in the hallway for independent reading and our teacher chose Flies as our first book. Maybe it was the way our group was structured—we didn’t have much teacher interaction, just worked from lists of discussion questions—or maybe I just wasn’t ready to enjoy Lord of the Flies, but I just hated it. Until I was forced to read it again for a high school class. I wasn’t even sure I was reading the same book! Things that had seemed pointless or gross to me on that early read suddenly made sense. I liked the book and my eyes were opened. Maybe some books were worth a second read.

So, recently I said to myself, “You know what book you hate that everyone else seems to love? The Great Gatsby. Can all these people be so wrong?”

So I guess I don’t hate The Great Gatsby. I even found it sort of beautiful. And funny! I had no idea it was funny. It wasn’t the dense, dry thing I remembered—it was vibrant! So, what I meant to say is, rereading is a worthwhile endeavor. Now Heart of Darkness…I’m not quite ready to give that one a second chance.

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In which a promising meta-fiction and a once-favored author let me down

Title: At Swin-Two-Birds

Author: Flann O’Brien

What it’s about: I have a secret to tell. I actually read this book in 2010. So technically it should be included in that count. Yeah that’s right, I really read 23 books, not the measly 22 you imagined. But here’s the problem. Every time I sat down to write a review of At Swim-Two-Birds, creativity fled. A feeling of dread came over me and I just couldn’t do it. So here we are, 2011 and there’s this one rogue draft of a blog waiting to be written.

I’ll keep it short. At Swim-Two-Birds disappointed me. I loved Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, which is why I picked up this book in the first place. The Third Policeman was hilarious, clever, and engaging–in short, all the things I want most in a book. At Swim-Two-Birds wasn’t. If I could describe the problem, it would be that the book was too place-specific. The plot in itself sounds deliciously meta: A struggling writer is working on his novel, the story of an innkeeper and writer (Dermont Trellis) whose characters live with him in the inn and are completely controlled by his pen.  At Swim-Two-Birds alternates between the perspective of the failed writer (ostensibly a member of our world) and the characters in his novel who are also characters in a character’s novel. Get it? No? Understandable.

It’s made even more troublesome by the Irish problem. No, not that Irish problem, but the problem of language and idiom. O’Brien borrows characters and tropes from Irish folklore that would have significance to those familiar with the old stories. But for a young American reader such as myself, I don’t have the history or background to “catch on” to the puns and references he’s using. It made me feel like an outsider, unable to truly participate in the story because I wasn’t privy to the inside joke.

Would I recommend? As you might guess, no. If you’re Irish, yes (and I mean really Irish, like you live in Cork, not American Irish. I’m American Irish and trust me, it’s not enough). But I won’t discount Flann O’Brien as a writer. I just adored The Third Policeman and I highly recommend that book.

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In which, in a book entirely without quotation marks or attribution, an eleven-year-old builds a multinational import/export business via payphone

Title: J. R.

Author: William Gaddis

What it’s about: Trying to describe what J. R. is about is like trying to describe capitalism or the neural pathways of the mind. It’s not a story about one person, per se, or even the story of many people. It’s more the story of a collective. This is because J. R. is almost entirely written in unattributed dialogue. There are no breaks in time and almost no narration to show place change. The reader’s vantage point could be likened to a flea traveling on the back of a man on his way to work, then jumping onto his secretary’s desk, then leaving in the pocket of a delivery man. The flea would be privy to overheard conversations, but he’d have no background material to provide context to what he heard. He’d only hear one half of phone calls and he’d enter into many exchanges in medias res. If he traveled around in pockets for several days and targeted a specific cast of ten to twenty regulars, he could perhaps put J. R. together. But he’d never capture voice or nuance of character as well as Gaddis has managed.

The book is truly astonishing in that Gaddis not only holds up his conceit, he makes it an art form and a commentary on society in itself. His dialogue is full of interruptions and forces us to consider the pace of interaction today and how often we misunderstand one another through simple lack of attention. (more…)

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In which I read something very simple (and I mean that in the best possible way)

Title:Cannery Row

Author: John Steinbeck

What it’s about: Sometimes we have a longing for something that is simple. There are two kinds of simple I suppose. One is mindless and easy, while the other is poignant and sweet. Cannery Row is the latter. A short novel by John Steinbeck, the book tells the simple story of the California town of Monterey, a center of sardine tinning. Despite the title, none of the main characters are involved in the canning industry. Doc is a marine biologist who acquires animals for laboratories. He has a special fondness for classical records, burgers, and beer. Across the road is Lee Chong’s grocery store and next to that the local whore house. Up the hill live Mack and “the boys,” a group of drifters who take up odd jobs to earn enough for whiskey and food each month. Mack and the boys get it into their heads that something nice should be done for Doc, and resolve to throw him a party. But the execution is shakier than the conception. The boys set out on a frog collecting expedition to gather the money for the festivities and though their intentions are good, the outcome is likely to be a disaster. The whole cast of characters fall into the preparations for Doc’s celebration, for better or worse.

Cannery Row might be seen to follow in the vien of Steinbeck’s most famous portrait of America, The Grapes of Wrath. Row is much shorter, however, and necessarily more focused. Mack and the boys are certainly funny–swerving only slightly off the road to run over a loose chicken, trading frogs for bottles of whiskey at Lee Chong’s, employing so many methods of training their hound that she never learns a thing. They are meant to be both a cautionary tale and an ideal. They are truly the heart of the story though. Their devotion is sweet and intentions are good, even if on the surface they are just a group of bums whose actions are likely to result in property damage and spoiled goods.

Would I recommend? Maybe. Steinbeck’s style won’t appeal to all. If you liked Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, you’ll certainly enjoy this and find it a much quicker read as well. If you’re new to Steinbeck, this book might actually be a good gauge as to whether you should dive into any of his more well known novels. It doesn’t have any of the dark gravity of the books I’ve mentioned, but it certainly has his voice and it’s a great showcase for his humor.

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