Two Quirky Classics

Title: Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas)
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Brazilian Classic
Pages: 223
Rating: 2 of 5

Machado de Assis had one of my favorite reads of the year a few years ago (O Alienista), but I did not enjoy this one. It features the same absurdism and quirkiness (reminiscent of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman). For example, one chapter was titled something like “How I Failed to Win the Election” and is followed by a blank page. However, the highly digressive story ultimately revolves around an adulterous love affair, which is among my least favorite plot devices when played for humor or romance. Someone who doesn’t have this hang-up would probably enjoy it a lot more than I did. I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Title: The Sundial
Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Gothic Absurdity
Pages: 241
Rating: 4 of 5

The Sundial is reminiscent of Jackson’s later We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but if feels like she read a lot of Oscar Wilde before writing this one. Ostensibly, it is about a rich blueblood family (and various hangers-on) preparing for the cataclysmic end of the world and dawning of a new age. However, it’s more of an excuse for wicked/clever repartee among eccentric characters who believe crazy Aunt Fanny’s doomsday predictions to varying degrees, but none of whom want to be left out just in case she’s right. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I did enjoy it. I will be using this for the Classic by a Woman at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Satire & Insanity

I recently finished two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Because they’re both on the satirical side, I’ve decided to review both in the same post:

43358571Title: O Alienista (The Alienist)
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Brazilian Classic Satire
Pages: 81
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I grew up in Brazil, but until now I had never read a Brazilian classic (my education was mostly American, and I didn’t have access to a public library). The archaic, literary Portuguese challenged me a bit since even my everyday conversational Portuguese is starting to get a bit rusty after living here in the US  for the last 20 years. However, vocabulary struggles aside, I really enjoyed this book.

This satirical novella follows the life’s work of a pioneering alienist/psychiatrist in colonial Brazil. His belief that science can provide cut-and-dried universal definitions and solutions for identifying and treating mental illness leads to a variety of absurd conclusions and events. This being satire, the author dryly narrates most of these absurdities as if they are perfectly reasonable.

Even though this is 130+ years old, the author’s themes continue to be relevant. Many people still think that science can give them all the answers to the meaning of life the universe and everything, and some people in the mental health field are still much too quick to label any slight quirk, foible, or struggle as a mental disorder in need of treatment/drugs. Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

I am using this book for my “Classic from a Place You’ve Lived” category.

Wise Blood: A Novel (FSG Classics) by [O'Connor, Flannery]Title: Wise Blood
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Genre: Modern Classic American Fiction
Pages: 256
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I must admit, I really didn’t get this book. I understand some of the religious themes and dark irony it is dealing with through characters like a charlatan preacher in it for the money, a young man of doubtful sanity who acts on mystical impulses (“wise blood”), and the main character who claims a sort of atheism (“The Church without Christ”) yet is more religiously dedicated than anyone. However, as a whole the book left me saying “what did I just read?”

The overall tone was a bit surreal (almost kafkaesque, but not quite that weird), and the plot felt like it was cobbled together from unconnected stories. A little investigation afterward turned up the fact that this is in fact multiple independent short stories smooshed into a single “novel.” Overall, some of the images and plot points were memorable, but it felt like a strange hodge-podge to me.

I am using this book for my “Classic by a Woman” category.