Two More Classics

I’ve completed two more books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021, and it’s time to review them!

Jamaica Inn by [Daphne du Maurier]

Title: Jamaica Inn
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Classic Potboiler
Pages: 352
Rating: 2 of 5

For me, Daphne du Maurier is very hit-or-miss. I greatly enjoyed the morally ambiguous psychological gothic-ness of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, but thought The Scapegoat was improbable to the point of eyerolling. Jamaica Inn was another miss for me. On the Gothic spectrum it is much closer to Ann Radcliffe than the Brontë Sisters.

The bones of the story aren’t terrible (orphaned young woman sent to live with her aunt and uncle [by marriage] discovers that Uncle Joss Merlyn and his Inn have a deservedly sinister reputation), but it was all so melodramatic. If there had been some sex scenes thrown into the instalove-with-a-rogue storyline I would have thought I was reading some hack Harlequin Romance, not a modern classic. Nevertheless, I will be using this for my Classic by a Woman Author category.

Chaka by Thomas Mofolo

Title: Chaka
Author: Thomas Mofolo
Translator: Daniel P. Kunene
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 192 (including translator’s introduction)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This ended up being a very different book than what I expected. I thought that it was going to be a hero-worshippy fanboy account of King Chaka/Shaka’s greatness and glory like you usually get in historical fiction centered around a military hero or empire builder.

While there is some admiration for Chaka’s fighting prowess and the power of the Zulu nation, the overall story arc is of boundless ambition leading to insatiable brutality and tragic downfall. By the end, Chaka comes out looking more like Josef Stalin (or any other sadistic, paranoid, egomaniacal autocrat) than anyone admirable.

The narration of this tragedy feels as if you are listening to a folksy master storyteller who throws in occasional asides, explanations, rabbit trails, and editorial comments. I don’t know much about the real Chaka, so I couldn’t say how much liberty the author has taken with the story. However, I suspect that it has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. There are many mythical elements (the translator interprets them as personifications of character traits), and the level of bloodthirstiness and brutality seem highly exaggerated. Overall, this was not unlike an over-the-top Shakespearian tragedy in the form of a folktale rather than a play.

I will be using this for my Classic by a BIPOC Author category.

Catch Up with Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing, so it’s time for some mini-reviews (presented in order read):

Mistress of the Art of Death (A Mistress of the Art of Death Novel Book 1) by [Ariana Franklin]

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Fiction / Serial Killer Mystery
Pages: 420
Rating: 2.5

This tale of a female medieval forensic pathologist provided interesting/disturbing details of King Henry II’s England (particularly in regard to anti-Semitism). The serial killer mystery element was horrifying and well enough constructed to keep my reading. However the constant center-staging of the hatefulness and/or foolishness of Christians, piggish misogyny of men, and superiority of our “free thinker” heroine became grating and preachy by the end (to say nothing of a fairly awkward romance).

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Pretentious Modern Classic
Pages: 307
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I guess I can see why this would be considered a classic: it’s a window into the mind of “the beat generation,” and some of the stream of consciousness prose approaches the lyrical (or the pretentious, depending on your inclination). That said, I would have been perfectly okay with never having looked through that window into a world of drunken, drug-fueled feckless wandering interspersed with petty theft, promiscuous sex, adultery, bigamy and pedophilic lusting. (I am using this for my 20th Century Classic over at the Back to the Classics Challenge).

Title: Voodoo Histories:
The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History
Author: David Aaronovitch
Genre: History of Paranoia
Pages: 372 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

Occam’s Razor states that, “entities should not be multiplied without necessity” (i.e. the simplest explanation should usually be preferred). David Aaronovitch applies this principle as he examines a number of popular conspiracy theories (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Kennedy assassinations, the Priory of Sion, 9/11 Truthers, etc.). Along the way he explores the real-world impact of these theories and what leads people to believe in conspiracies. Some of his argumentation was a bit weak/incomplete due to the overview nature of the book, but overall it is a worthwhile read. The book was published in 2010, and I would love to see a sequel or updated edition to cover the lunacy of the last 10 years.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by [Ariel Sabar]

Title: Veritas:
A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
Author: Ariel Sabar
Genre: Investigative Journalism
Pages: 393 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 4 of 4

In 2012 a Harvard professor caused a stir by unveiling a tiny, purportedly ancient papyrus fragment that contained the phrase  “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’.” In this book, journalist Ariel Sabar recounts his involvement in tracing the actual origin of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. In the end, it is a tale of a scholar who valued ideological “truth” over objective historical truth. In my opinion, the author spent way too much time expounding the theory that Gnosticism vied with orthodox Christianity from the beginning, but overall this was a fascinating read.

Persian Insanity

The Blind Owl by [Hedayat, Sadegh]Title: The Blind Owl
Author: Sadegh Hedayat
Translator: D. P. Costello
Genre: Modern Iranian Classic
Pages: 160
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories of madness and the macabre, and this Iranian classic promised to be like one of those on steroids (in a Persian setting, of course). It delivered convincingly on the madness as our opium-addicted narrator spirals ever deeper into his insanity. We see him struggling with (or giving in to) obsession, loss of identity, sexual frustration, alienation, paranoia, homicidal urges, suicidality, and more. And, I’m sure that people more proficient at literary analysis than I will also find layers of allegory and other juicy things to (over)analyze.

The story of his pathetic life slowly unfolds throughout the course of the story. At least it sort of does…he’s so spectacularly unstable that it’s pretty hard to distinguish fact from delusion. I can definitely see how this book gained its reputation as a modern classic with its exploration of dark psychology and lyrical prose.

That said, I didn’t especially enjoy the book. It is incredibly dark (urban legend has it that many readers have committed suicide), and a lot of the sexual (and other bodily function) stuff was just kind of gross. If you’re into psychological horror this may be right up your alley, but it was a bit much for me.

(Also, I’m using this as my Classic from Africa, Asia, or Oceania at the Back to the Classics Challengewhich means I’ve completed it other than the final wrap-up post!)

Flowery Language & Horrifying Conditions

Image result for Doctor zhivago book coverTitle: Doctor Zhivago
Author: Boris Pasternak
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 456
Rating: 3 of 5

My rating on this semi-autobiographical modern classic reflects my own personal taste more than the  quality of the writing. The only thing I really appreciated about this book was the historically important portrayal of the difficulties and horrors of life in Russia/USSR from the October Revolution through WWII.

Aside from the historical value, this just wasn’t my kind of book. I do not enjoy adulterous love stories and that is a central thread to this somewhat plotless book. Description of events takes a backseat to flowery/poetic description of landscapes, feelings, and philosophies. Characters are known by a bewildering profusion of names (as in many Russian novels) and interact with each other through a slew of amazingly convenient coincidences.

While this didn’t really work for me, your mileage may vary. If you’re the kind of reader who places a premium on “sublime” language, you will probably love this book.

(Also, I am using this for my 20th Century Classic category 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.

2019 Back to the Classics Challenge

For the third year in a row I will be participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen @ Books and Chocolate. The challenge is to read classic books (50+ years old) in the 12 selected categories.

Books don’t have to be chosen at the beginning of the year, but I like to start with a provisional list. I usually end up changing 3-4 of them by the end of the year, but here’s my starting list:

  • A 19th Century Classic: Lilith by George MacDonald
  • A 20th Century Classic: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • A Classic by a Female Author: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
  • A Classic in Translation: Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
  • A Classic Comedy: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leonard Q. Ross
  • A Classic Tragedy: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  • A Very Long Classic: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
  • A Classic Novella: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  • A Classic from the Americas: The Prince & the Pauper by Mark Twain
  • A Classic from Africa, Asia, or OceaniaCry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  • A Classic from a Place You’ve Lived: O Alienista by Machado de Assis
  • A Classic Play: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

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.

The Devil Went Down to Moscow

Title: The Master & Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translators: Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
Genre: Modern Russian Classic
Pages: 432
Rating: 2 of 5

A subtitle to this review could be: “What did I just read?” This is one of those books where I have to wonder if some of its critical acclaim doesn’t come from the “I didn’t understand half of what was going on but it sounded so deep!” factor. The book mixes together historical fiction, magical realism, and romance to tell the intertwined stories of Pontius Pilate’s interaction with Jesus and Satan visiting Soviet era Moscow with his entourage (complete with gun-wielding talking cat). I’d probably have to read the book another time or two to fully understand how the stories play off each other, but I didn’t enjoy it enough to do so any time soon.

The aspect of the book that I enjoyed most was the social commentary. I’m not sure  how Bulgakov managed to publish this without ending up “disappeared” or in the gulag. He points out the absurdity of atheism (or at least anti-supernaturalism), the housing shortage, censorship of literature, the greed and privilege of the rich, the climate of silence surrounding arrests and disappearances, cowardice (especially cowardice), and more, but he does it all in a light humorous tone.

Some of the antics of Satan’s associates are entertaining as they expose the nastiness in society, but the overall portrayal of spiritual issues and characters in the book twisted them from their biblical portrayal so much that it irked me. Given the central position of Jesus Christ the Son of God in my worldview, I have a hard time appreciating a book that portrays him as a slightly loony, naively optimistic travelling philosopher of illegitimate birth while playing the devil as a clear-sighted cynic capable of giving people true peace.