Classics Club Spin – The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

I did not like this book.

I did not finish this book.

I will never pick this book up again.

Besides not having enough story to keep me interested past page 60, Bellow describes every character in detail. In so much detail my mental snapshots were muddy, confusing and seemingly contradictory. These complex descriptions bogged down the narrative – what little narrative there was. So, I won’t be checking this book off my 1001 Books list. I suppose it’s in good company, with Moby Dick and Middlemarch.

In the good news department, I did learn something from what little I read:

In writing, less is more.

Classics Club Spin Book

The number selected for the Classics Club Spin is #4, which means I will be reading The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.

augie

Description from Amazon:

As soon as it first appeared in 1953, this gem by the great Saul Bellow was hailed as an American classic. Bold, expansive, and keenly humorous, The Adventures of Augie March blends street language with literary elegance to tell the story of a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Great Depression. A “born recruit,” Augie makes himself available for hire by plungers, schemers, risk takers, and operators, compiling a record of choices that is—to say the least—eccentric.

Doesn’t tell me much about the book. Let’s try Goodreads:

Augie comes on stage with one of literature’s most famous opening lines. “I am an American, Chicago born, and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.” It’s the “Call me Ishmael” of mid-20th-century American fiction. (For the record, Bellow was born in Canada.) Or it would be if Ishmael had been more like Tom Jones with a philosophical disposition. With this teeming book Bellow returned a Dickensian richness to the American novel. As he makes his way to a full brimming consciousness of himself, Augie careens through numberless occupations and countless mentors and exemplars, all the while enchanting us with the slapdash American music of his voice.

Hmm. The “Call me Ishmael” of mid-20th-century American fiction, as if there is an iconic opening line in every phase of American literature. Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis both call The Adventures of Augie March the “Great American Novel.” Somehow, all of the accolades and hyperbole aren’t exciting me. Still, I’ll read it. I have it on my bookshelf, in fact. No idea why.

It’s good, then, that the non-fiction book is one I’ve long wanted to read: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

cagedbird

A phenomenal #1 bestseller that has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years, this memoir traces Maya Angelou’s childhood in a small, rural community during the 1930s. Filled with images and recollections that point to the dignity and courage of black men and women, Angelou paints a sometimes disquieting, but always affecting picture of the people—and the times—that touched her life.

Since I’m reading two from the lists already, I’ve decided to choose my September reading from The Classics Club and Non-Fiction Challenge lists. I have two books left on my bedside table for August and I haven’t bought one book this month. It’s a record!

The Classics Spin #3

From The Classics Club:

It’s time for another Classics Spin for any who are interested. What is the spin?

It’s easy. At your blog, by next Monday, Aug 19, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list – in a separate post.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books in August & September. (Details follow.) So, try to challenge yourself.

Below is my list.

  1. The Shining by Stephen King
  2. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
  3. One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey
  4. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
  5. The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
  6. The Third Man by Graham Greene
  7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  8. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  9. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
  10. They Shoot Horses Don’t They by Horace McCoy
  11. The Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
  12. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
  13. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  14. Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
  15. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  16. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  17. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  18. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  19. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  20. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Why not add 20 from my Non-Fiction Challenge List, too?

  1. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  2. Storm of Steel
  3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  5. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  7. The Best and the Brightest by David Halbersham
  8. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – by Dee Brown
  9. The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  10. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
  11. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  12. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer
  13. The Executioner’s Song by Normal Mailer
  14. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  15. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
  16. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  17. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  18. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  19. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  20. The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell

“Speech is sliver, but silence is golden.” Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

 

I picked these books because of their length. It is a sad fact I have to pad my reading stats with short books with my 100 books read goal for 2013. The good news is one of these books is also part of my 1001 Books/The Classics Club Challenge and the other is by an author I’ve heard of but have never read.  The bad news is, I didn’t care for either book.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparkbrodie

Synopsis: Jean Brodie is a teacher with advanced and unconventional ideas that put her at odds with the other members of staff at the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, as she endeavours to shape the lives of the select group of girls who form her “set”.

What saved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (★★★) from a two star rating was the writing. Spark has a unique style, omniscient narrator, jumping back and forth in time  between paragraphs. She so casually drops into the story who “betrayed” Miss Brodie I had to go back and read it a few times to make sure I read it right. I liked her writing style enough I will read more of her work, but the characters in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were less than appealing. Thank God it was a short book.

 

 

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano

bolanoSynopsis -Paris, 1938. The Peruvian poet César Vallejo is in the hospital, afflicted with an undiagnosed illness, and unable to stop hiccuping. His wife calls on an acquaintance of her friend Madame Reynaud: the Mesmerist Pierre Pain. Pain, a timid bachelor, is in love with the widow Reynaud, and agrees to help. But two mysterious Spanish men follow Pain and bribe him not to treat Vallejo, and Pain takes the money. Ravaged by guilt and anxiety, however, he does not intend to abandon his new patient, but then Pain’s access to the hospital is barred and Madame Reynaud leaves Paris…. Another practioner of the occult sciences enters the story (working for Franco, using his Mesmeric expertise to interrogate prisoners)-as do Mme. Curie, tarot cards, an assassination, and nightmares. Meanwhile, Monsieur Pain, haunted and guilty, wanders the crepuscular, rainy streets of Paris…

On the other hand, there wasn’t much of anything I enjoyed about Monsieur Pain (★★), except the Paris setting and recognizing streets I visited on my trip there last year. There was no plot to speak of (the above summary is technically accurate, but it makes the plot sound more interesting and cohesive than it was); it seemed to be mostly about Pain walking around Paris, getting drunk and having hallucinations and nightmares. I found it a rather difficult read, as if Bolano worked so hard to write deeply he ended up with a story without a point. At the very least, the point or theme was so camouflaged I didn’t get it. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for Monsieur Pain, or maybe I’m just not bright enough to “get” Bolano. It definitely didn’t make me want to read his 1000 page posthumous novel, 2666.

The Classics Club/1001 Books – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

innocenceLast month, I cheated a little bit on my Young Adult read. Car sickness, boredom and my inability to think ahead meant I had to listen to audiobooks I had already downloaded from Audible on the 12 hour car ride through flat, featureless though starkly beautiful New Mexico and west Texas. Since I wanted to be able to finish the book on the ride, or soon after I got home, the 12 hour reading of The Age of Innocence was the choice.

Though I haven’t read much Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth years ago and Ethan Frome recently), I knew what I was getting into when I started. SPOILER ALERT: Wharton doesn’t do happy endings. Laura Miller, book reviewer at Salon, wrote a great piece last year: The Tyranny of the Happy Ending. The whole post deserves a read, but this stuck out (emphasis mine):

Some aspects of the human experience can only be addressed in a tragic mode, and the truth of “Romeo and Juliet” — that the intransigence of elders often leads to the sacrifice of youth — is one of those aspects. The tragic Victorian novels of Eliot and Hardy deal with, among other subjects, the restrictions that class and gender roles impose on heroes and heroines who are capable of much more than their allotted place in society permits. Seeing the intellectual and spiritual yearnings of Maggie Tulliver (in “The Mill on the Floss”) and Jude Fawley (in “Jude the Obscure”) being crushed is agonizing, but providing either character with a miraculous escape from that fate would render the novels themselves pointless. Their point is precisely that sometimes the best people will fail, and fail utterly.

This sums up Edith Wharton’s sensibilities to a ‘T.’ Reading Miller’s critique should make me appreciate The Age of Innocence’s ending and while it does take a bit of the sting out of it, my dislike for the main character, Leland Archer, keeps any sense of awe or loss at the resolution at bay. Yes, Archer was restrained by society and the time he lived, but in the end, when the restraints were lifted, he was a coward. His final act transformed him from a tragic and noble character (at least I think that’s what Wharton was going for) into a spineless weakling.

Still, Wharton is a master as depicting upper middle class New York and illustrating the mores of a group that rarely gets the attention. Think about it. When you think of fiction set in the 1870s, what comes to mind? England in the Victorian Era.  There is a real dearth of fiction set in the US during that time (save The Civil War era which usually always deals with the war, slavery and politics instead of class), either contemporary (written during the time it is set) or modern (or what we would call historical fiction, now).  And, what fiction there is is always overshadowed by their British counterparts, even in modern times. (It is telling that in Miller’s article linked to above, she uses only British works as examples when Wharton would work as well.) Though American history is littered with examples of us rejecting England’s religion, political structure and class structure, we have always been enthralled with their society, and the fiction that depicts it, to the detriment of our own.

I don’t mean to suggest you must read The Age of Innocence (★★★★) because of a jingoistic zeal to support American writers and setting. Or that my four star rating is a result of a fist pumping celebration of ‘Merica. Rather, you should read The Age of Innocence – as you should read any and all Edith Wharton’s novels – because she will show you an America many of us haven’t bothered to learn about, as well as make you wonder how much has truly changed in the subsequent 140 years.

 

1001 Books/The Classics Club Book Review – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowaySynopsis: This brilliant novel explores the hidden springs of thought and action in one day of a woman?s life. Direct and vivid in her account of the details of Clarissa Dalloway?s preparations for a party she is to give that evening, Woolf ultimately managed to reveal much more. For it is the feeling behind these daily events that gives Mrs. Dalloway its texture and richness and makes it so memorable.

Reading Mrs. Dalloway was a bipolar experience. I hated it. I loved it. It confused me. Its brilliant prose brought moments of clarity. It bored me. It riveted me. It challenged my mind. My mind wandered. I wanted to abandon it. I couldn’t stop reading.

Did I like it? Yes and no.  Will I ever read it again. Definitely not. Unless I find a version with one page the text and the page opposite an explanation of what is going on, what Woolf is alluding to, and What It All Means. Would I recommend it? No.

And, yes.

1001 Books/The Classics Club Book Review – Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Synopsis:Tragic story of wasted lives, set against a bleak New England background. A poverty-stricken New England farmer, his ailing wife and a youthful housekeeper are drawn relentlessly into a deep-rooted domestic struggle in this hauntingly grim tale of thwarted love. Considered by many to be Wharton’s masterpiece.

Hmm. Wharton’s masterpiece? I didn’t see it. Granted, I’ve only ever read one other novel of Wharton’s (The House of Mirth) and that was years ago, but I absolutely loved it. So much so, I’ve included it in my Classics Club challenge to re-read. Ethan Frome, on the other hand, is a very slight book that took me at least two years, if not more, to read. I started it, put it aside because either it was dull or I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for a bleak New England winter setting. The only reason I picked it up again is because it was short. That is my pre-requisite, these days. It’s amazing how many classic novels, especially early 20th century, fit the requirements. Yea!

Since the description calls the novel a ‘tragic story’ it isn’t much of a spoiler to say things don’t end well for Ethan Frome. I understand the literary merit of tragedies, and who doesn’t like a good cry after investing yourself in characters for hundreds of pages? But for me to feel anything I need to care about the characters or, even better, like at least one of them. I didn’t care for anyone in this novel so their pathetic lives elicited barely a shrug when I finished. Whereas, Lily Bart’s fate in The House of Mirth haunted me.

I might not have enjoyed the book, but I do think Ethan Frome has inspired some pretty cool book covers.  I love to look at bleak winter landscapes but apparently don’t enjoy reading about them. Huh.