Back to the Classics Wrap-up

Since I just finished my final book for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge, it’s time for the big wrap-up. A huge thank you to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for putting this together and hosting it. It provides great incentive to include at least a dozen classics in the year’s reading. I read a book for each of the twelve categories, so I get three entries in the final prize drawing. My books for each category were:

A 19th Century Classic: Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – This collection of humorous essays is a must-read for fans of wry humor (as long as you don’t mind wading through a lot of maudlin sentimentality that may or may not be intended humorously).

A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann – This modern retelling of the Faust legend explores the connection between genius and madness, but by the end I found it overblown and pretentious.

A Classic by a Woman Author: Silas Marner by George Eliot – I greatly enjoyed this “reclamation” story which is something along the lines of a non-supernatural version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol (Dickens loved it and wrote  her a “fan letter”).

A Classic in Translation: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I know I’m in the minority, but I didn’t care for this classic tale of revenge.

A Children’s Classic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – I will be recommending this charming little book to my children.

A Classic Crime Story: The Grifters by Jim Thompson – Thompson provides the fairly standard downward-slide-into-tragedy that you expect from this kind of crime noir but with some creepy oedipal stuff in the mix. Well written, but a bit too sleazy for my taste.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative: The Canterbury Tales – In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters.

A Classic with a Single-word Title: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – Conrad displays his trademark bleakness here. Personally, I think it packed more impact in the much shorter Heart of Darkness than in this 400+ page depressing book.

A Classic with a Color in the Title: Black No More by George S. Schuyler – This biting satire is by turns hilarious and grim as the author explores an alternate US in which a medical procedure can turn black people into white people.

A Classic by an Author That’s New to You: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I wouldn’t necessarily say that I liked this book, but the atmosphere and characterization were superb.

A Classic That Scares You: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway – I hated Hemingway in high school, but decided to be brave and give him another shot. I didn’t hate it this time, but he’s still not my cup of tea.

Re-read a Favorite Classic: The Poetic Edda by Anonymous – Who wouldn’t want to read about cross-dressing Thor, Loki getting in an insult contest with the rest of the gods, and the final showdown at Ragnarok?

And there you have it! (If I happen to win the drawing you can contact me Here.)

Atmosphere & Neuroses

It has been almost three weeks since I last posted here, but I’m still alive and reading. I have been in a bit of a reviewing slump due to migraines, holidays, and work, but I hope to get back into the “at least once per week” schedule now.

Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Genre: Modern Classic/Gothic
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian describes a book as, “I didn’t say I liked it…I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” I’ve used that quote in a few other book reviews (e.g. The Great Gatsby, and Dorian Gray itself), and it applies to this book as well. The characters sparkle with realism, but are some of the most unpleasant people you can imagine and treat each other appallingly.

Our unnamed narrator is painfully shy, socially awkward, and pathetically affection-starved. When she marries the brooding Maxim de Winter she is thrown into an upper class country manor lifestyle for which she is completely unprepared. Between the coldness of Maxim and the spiteful hatred of Mrs. Danvers the housekeeper (that window scene!), our narrator is adrift in a sea of insecurity and neuroses. She has little idea of her responsibilities or others’ expectations, and she constantly wonders what others are thinking and saying about her. She mentally plays out vivid imagined scenes of the disapproval that might be going on behind her back and the painful course that future events could take. Much of her awkwardness and self-doubt rang true to me as I am an extreme introvert in a job that involves a lot of social interaction and public scrutiny (though I hope I’m not anywhere near as neurotic and needy as she is).

Hovering over all this, driving it, and making it oh so much worse is the memory of Maxim’s first wife: the beautiful, masterful Rebecca. Her life was cut tragically short, and the more that our narrator learns about her and how much everyone seemed to adore her, the more insecure she becomes…and (because this is a Gothic novel) the more she begins to suspect that something sinister is boiling below the surface.

Eventually things come to a head, giving our heroine a chance to step up and show what she’s really made of. She does change and develop in her relationship with Maxim, but whether that is ultimately a good thing is questionable at best. The behavior of several “good” secondary characters in the later part of the book (though understandable and true to life) was disappointing to me.

Overall, this is a wonderfully atmospheric read featuring a neurotic narrator, plenty of moral ambiguity, and some downright despicable behavior. To me, its tone felt like a cross between The Great Gatsby and The Woman in White. I think that it worked, but it’s probably not for everyone.

One final thing: I am using this for my Classic By a New-To-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2018 reading challenge.

More Mini-Reviews

I’m still on vacation with the brain only half-engaged, so here are a few more mini-reviews. Most of these are books that I read earlier this year and didn’t have the leisure or inclination to review at the time.

Title: The Inimitable Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 240
Rating: 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and this one is no exception. The adventures of good-hearted-but-a-bit-dim Bertie Wooster who navigates the “trials” of post WWI English high society with the help of Jeeves, his genius valet, always provide a chuckle. This book (the second in the series) collects a number of loosely connected short stories which mostly feature Bertie trying to help the frequently-love-smitten “Bingo” Little (and then having to be extricated from difficulty by Jeeves).

Image result for Dracula book coverTitle: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Genre: Classic Gothic/Horror
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

This book that originally popularized the “sexy vampire”  doesn’t have as much to offer thematically as the equally classic Frankenstein, but I found it creepier and a lot more fun to read. Stoker was definitely sexist (and shows flashes of other common prejudices of his day), and there’s the usual Gothic ramblings and melodrama, but if you can just roll your eyes at the worst of it, it’s well worth a read.

Title: The Thin Man
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 201
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If Oscar Wilde had written  hardboiled/noir fiction this is how it would have turned out. The interplay between perpetually-tipsy ex-detective Nick Charles and his young wife, Norah is reminiscent of Wilde’s characters who say “wicked” things just to get a rise out of people…all this while solving the usual Hammett-style case. I didn’t care for this the first time I read it because I didn’t catch Nick’s slightly tongue-in-cheek tone, but after seeing William Powell’s portrayal of Nick Charles in the 1934 Thin Man movie, it made more sense and I really enjoyed it.

Title: Poems of Heaven & Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia
Translator: N. K. Sandars
Genre: Ancient Religious/Narrative Poetry
Pages: 192
Rating: 4 of 5

A large part of the page count for this book is commentary by the translator, much of which is helpful even if it does necessarily include a bit of speculation. For me, the poetry itself (the longest one is the Enuma Elish / Babylonian creation account) provides interesting background for what various people in the Old Testament would have believed (e.g. Abraham and his family when they lived in “Ur of the Chaldees”).

Black Wings Has My AngelTitle: Black Wings Has My Angel
Author: Eliot Chaze
Genre: Crime Noir
Pages: 154
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is a fairly typical crime-spiral-of-self-destruction novel on the same order as The Postman Always Rings Twice or Thieves Like Us (or the real life Bonnie and Clyde). There’s not a lot to say about it other than it’s a competently executed example of the genre.

Ten Days in a Mad-House by [Bly, Nellie]Title: Ten Days in a Madhouse
Author: Nellie Bly
Genre: Exposé
Pages: 110
Rating: 4 of 5

In the late 19th century, journalist Nellie Bly deliberately got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Her report of the callous treatment of the women there (many of whom she believed to be perfectly sane) is deeply disturbing. Apparently the publication of her observations resulted in NYC earmarking an additional $1 million for helping these women, but I don’t know if there were any lasting reforms.

Title: The Great God Pan
Author: Arthur Machen
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 84
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This story deeply influenced other horror writers, especially in the field of cosmic horror (that “something incomprehensible/evil/wholly other is ‘out there'” themed sub-genre). As with some genre-defining stories I didn’t find it as enjoyable as the works of authors who refined the formula (e.g. H. P. Lovecraft), but it was still interesting, if rather predictable and verbose.

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play
Pages: 180 (about half was commentary)
Rating: 4 of 5

I wasn’t going to review this because I kind of did so when I reviewed New Boy, but for the sake of being able to say I reviewed everything I read this year I’ll include it. A lot of people see this as being primarily about race since Othello is a Moor, but it is much more about jealousy and ambition (fueled only partly by racism). The despicable, manipulative Iago just might be one of the nastiest villains in Shakespeare. A great tragedy (though I prefer Hamlet and “The Scottish Play”).

And with that I’ve reviewed all the books I have read so far this year (63 of them)!

So Very Gothic

Title: The Monk: A Romance
Author: Matthew G. Lewis
Genre: Gothic / Classic
Pages: 420
Rating: 3 of 5

Last year I read Melmoth the Wanderer and reviewed it as “The most Gothic book to ever Gothic.” I was wrong; I think that “honor” goes to The Monk. Almost every single Gothic trope imaginable appears in this book. It contains at least one of each of the following ingredients:

  • An Angry mob
  • A Band of outlaws
  • Corrupt Clergy
  • A Dungeon
  • Excessive Emotions resulting in illness
  • A Faustian bargain
  • A Ghost
  • A Haunted castle
  • An Illegitimate child
  • Judgment (by the Spanish Inquisition…but who expected that?)
  • Killing
  • Lust, Lasciviousness, Lechery (and any other words you can use to describe sexual appetite without getting into too much trouble with your “proper” English audience)
  • Melancholy (used at least once every 5 pages)
  • Naive heroine
  • An Opposed marriage
  • A Potion that makes everyone think you’re dead
  • – nothing relevant starts with Q (unless you count the author’s homosexuality, but I’m not sure if straight people are allowed to use that word without it being considered a slur…)
  • A Rapist/seducer
  • A Secret passage
  • Tomb
  • Unknown parentage
  • A Vision (but no Vampires…I think that’s the only one he missed)
  • The Wandering Jew
  • XYZ – Yeah, I give up, but you get the idea.

So, whip all of that together with melodramatic language, occasional poetry, and a hatred of monasticism and the product just might be the most Gothic novel ever. It was mostly eyeroll-inducing or unintentionally amusing at the melodramatic-ness of it all (and one of the big “surprises” at the end was easily guessable from the first chapter or two).  However, there were occasional truly disturbing parts, and the author made some good (if highly exaggerated) points about potential spiritual dangers, abuses, and weaknesses of Roman Catholic monasticism. Overall, if you’re into classic Gothic literature, you have to read this…if not, you might want to give it a miss.

Also, I’m using this for the “Gothic or Horror Classic” category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge. And that finishes out all 12 categories!

A Clean Conscience

Jane EyreTitle: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Genre: Classic / Gothic
Pages: 507
Rating: 4 of 5

Gothic romance isn’t my usual fare (even if it is classic), but this was the monthly read over at Dewey Decimators and one of my wife’s favorite books and I’m counting it for my “Classic by a Woman Author” over at the Back to the Classics challenge, so:Image result for michael scott win win win

Anyway, on to the actual review. Jane Eyre is one of those rare Gothic novels that is widely recognized as having actual value as literature (as opposed to something like The Castle of OtrantoThe Romance of the Forest, or Melmoth the Wanderer). It has the usual trappings of a Gothic novel – melodramatic swooning, melancholy brooding, amazingly convenient coincidences, a sinister lurking figure, hints of dark secrets, shocking revelations, etc. – but it also features well-written characters who face serious, difficult moral choices with at least one of them emerging with morals heroically intact.

For me, the central point of the book was summed up in the following quote. I suppose it is a mild spoiler, so don’t read any farther if you’re worried about that (though I won’t tell you who is speaking, the issue at stake, and whether they manages to follow through):

care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would they be worth?”

Between dark fantasy and crime/noir I tend to read a lot of books with morally ambiguous heroes. It was refreshing to read something with a hero who had a clear sense of right and wrong and a strong drive to live with a pure conscience. Despite rolling my eyes quite a bit at the Gothic-ness of it all, I quite enjoyed this book.

Faux-Gothic Disappointment

Cadbury's Coffin by [Swarthout, Glendon, Swarthout, Kathryn]Title: Cadbury’s Coffin
.
.
Authors: Glendon & Kathryn Swarthout
Genre: Mystery / Gothic
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I picked this up at a used bookstore because it sounded like it might be amusing, but it ended up being a bit of a disappointment. The story revolves around the death (maybe) of rich old Lycurgus Cadbury who died (or did he?) shortly after expressing a fear of premature burial.

A slightly tongue-in-cheek faux Gothic story of scheming relatives and faithful servants ensues. Some of it was entertaining and clever, but the overall plot was boringly predictable for the first 3/4 of the book. The predictability is partly because of the writing and partly because most chapters begin with a captioned illustration many of which are spoilers for the major action that will happen in that chapter.

There is a nice twist toward the end (not in a clever “everything you think you know is wrong” way; just fate intervening), and the book suddenly turns into a sort of coming-of-age tale that kind of works but also feels a bit disjointed. Overall: there was some cleverness here, but so much of it was boringly predictable (and not in the funny “we all know I’m mocking Gothic tropes” kind of way that I think the author was going for).