Tag: Classics

by Ernest Hemingway

Set in World War I, narrated by an ambulance driver on the Italian front who gets injured and falls in love with a nurse. I did not get very far- just past the part where he was wounded and in the hospital, about sixty pages. Then started to wonder why am I using up my time reading this? I thought I could see what the author was doing- showing how casual people kept their attachments when anyone might die senselessly at any moment, how pointless the war was, how inane their conversations- but I found nothing artful in the way he did it. The dialog particularly felt very stiff. I suppose the style was intended to be the way things were, but it was hard to stay interested in the words. So brief and matter-of-fact and unemotional. I couldn’t find it in me to care about any of the characters, and I wasn’t drawn into the surroundings or events either. Another case where a classic falls totally flat for me. I think I just really do not like Hemingway. I am baffled why he is considered a great writer- honestly. Even more baffled why this edition contains not only visual reproductions of his handwritten manuscript with crossed out lines and rewritten passages- so readers can admire how he crafted the novel- but also a myraid of alternate endings in the appendix (like movie outtakes, haha). I do like studying preliminary sketches by artists- sometimes I feel like I can see how their mind was thinking to lay down certain lines- and often I even like the sketches better than the finished paintings! but reading how phrases were different before the writer committed to his final draft, I get nothing from that. Probably because I didn’t care for the final product, here.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: Abandoned
330 pages, 1927

and Other Writings

by Henry David Thoreau

I finally read this, after two previous attempts (years ago) and a break in the middle for something easier. My copy contains not only Walden: or Life in the Woods but also Civil Disobedience, Slavery in Massachusetts, A Plea for Captain John Brown and Life Without Principle.

Here’s the thing: this is not at all what I expected. I always thought it was some wonderful if slightly archaic nature writing full of observations on the weather, birds and creatures, growing things etc. Not really. It’s a lot more about politics (as they were back then), protests on slavery, umbrage at modern developments ruining mankind (there’s pages and pages about how the train makes people hurry and rush about), how government should or should not affect our lives, why people should be engaged in something useful and soul-lifting instead of just working to earn money, etc. He criticizes his fellow man a lot. He does mention a few birds here and there, how peaceful it is to just sit under the trees, how much he appreciates the simple life. But he wasn’t far off in the woods in isolation. Tons of people visited him all the time it sounds like, really curious what he was doing out there by himself. The train ran very close to his cabin, the pond was a regular fishing spot for many, farmers and kids out picking berries walked close by, and he could hear cattle in the adjacent fields. It was walking distance to the village. He eschewed coffee and other so-called luxuries to live pretty much just off what he grew or gathered (I think): mainly his beans, and fish he caught. I thought there I would relate, there’s a whole chapter about cultivating the bean plants and I\’m a gardener too, but nope. It starts out about hoeing the beans and how nicely meditative that task can be, but soon unravels into other lofty topics that supposedly relate to what bean plants with their nice broad leaves made him think of but I can’t make head or tails out of it.
That was my main problem. Thoreau is very much a philosopher and it either makes my mind wander, or go in circles, or I have to read a passage three, four, five times in a row and I still don’t get what he was saying. So many pages of this book I was actually thinking about something else as the printed words marched through my head unheeded (so now I know how a fellow book-blogger could sing while she reads, which I didn’t comprehend before). The parts I liked? where Thoreau describes in detail the ice on the pond, the air bubbles in it, the way it forms and later on breaks up in the springtime, the industry of hired people who come to cut blocks of it, harvesting for use in summer- people had ice-boxes back then, not fridges and freezers, so this was interesting to read how that was done and how it was stored to prevent melting. How mud makes weird shapes during the spring thaw (but again he turned this into some lyrical comparison I did not get). The voices of owls, a mouse that got used to his presence, the geese he observed on the pond and fish under the clear water. I liked reading how he undertook to plumb and measure the pond’s depth, as people in the vicinity claimed it was bottomless, but nobody had ever really tried find out. I liked a lot of his sentiments and agreed with many of his opinions on what’s valuable in life etc, but it sure was tough to wade through all the words. Philosophy and political rants are really not my thing.
Note on below: this is obviously one of those great books which I personally have difficulty appreciating. I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it, though I do feel enriched by it. It was pretty hard to get through. If it had been easier and more enjoyable, definitely would have given it a 4. The publication dates noted span the five works in this volume.
Rating: 3/5
368 pages, 1849-1863

by Pearl S. Buck

I think this book may have sat longest unread on my shelves, and it\’s actually been there twice. I had a different copy and tried it a few times when I was in high school, didn\’t get far, re-shelved it. Weeded it out once, then after finding that I liked Peony, decided to give this a second chance when I came across another copy. 

This is about the Wang family, in China. When the story begins Wang Lung is a young farmer on his way to get married. It\’s an arranged marriage, with a woman who has been a slave in a wealthy household in the town. She\’s not beautiful but he\’s satisfied because she\’s a faithful wife, a hard worker, and bears him many children (promptly going straight back to work in the fields after each birth, without complaint!) The family survives through floods, drought, and locust plague. Every handful of years one or the other natural cause results in a famine and people around them starve. During one famine (so bad that people are literally eating dirt) Wang Lung takes his family south to a big city where they live in deplorable conditions, beg, and work at hard physical labor for very little pay. There\’s no way to get ahead, until unrest sweeps through the city. The homes of the rich are broken into, Wang is swept up with the mob and intimidates a terrified wealthy man into giving him handfuls of silver. Then they flee the chaos and return to the countryside. Wang uses the money to rebuild his house, and eventually buy more land. Soon he needs help with the harvest, eventually finds himself as a landowner instead of a farmer- with hired help and overseers, never actually working the fields himself anymore. He moves his family into the town. Being frequently idle now, he starts to explore the pleasures of the wealthy class- and dissatisfied with his wife\’s appearance, takes as second wife a much younger woman. He thinks that having success and money will ease all his troubles, but new problems arise instead- unpleasant relatives connive him into letting them live in his household, there\’s constant friction between his two wives, and his growing sons have their own interests- none of them really want to keep or work the land as he did. As the book closes, Wang is an old man and his sons are inspecting the fields, talking among themselves of selling the land that Wang had worked so hard for, and built the security of his family upon.
I can well see why The Good Earth is a classic. It\’s not very descriptive, the writing style is kind of plain- in the manner of he-said-this and they-did-that which usually bores me. But this was compelling nevertheless- I read it straight through in just a few days. In the end, I didn\’t like the main character Wang much- I felt like he sometimes made selfish or poor decisions, thinking of prestige and appearances more than I expected, when he came into wealth. In particular I felt bad for his first wife. Overall women are not treated well in this story. It\’s simply a fact that in the era and culture it depicts, girls were not valued and if the family was in need, they were often sold as very young children to be slaves or prostitutes. During the famine times some poor families quietly performed infanticide rather than see their babies suffer and starve. In this case I was glad of how sparse the prose is, reading about such hardships and terrible things people did to survive. 
The story really shows a broad spectrum of human character. It wasn\’t only what people stooped to when their survival was at stake, but also what they indulged in or did with their money when fortunes changed, that seemed to demonstrate what they were really made of. Or what they cared most about. I think that\’s why I liked and felt most for Wang\’s first wife. She was steadfast, never asked much for herself, saw and did the work required in hard times as well as good. Wang really was unkind to her in the end.
There\’s a sequel called Sons. I\’ll probably read it at some point. But I\’d have to be in the right mindset, this one takes a particular kind of mood to appreciate it.
Rating: 3/5                357 pages, 1931
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by E.M. Forster

Just a quick note on this one. I tried to read it on a very long drive. Sixty pages in, after picking it up and putting it down repeatedly, I had to give up with a sigh. If this is Forster\’s best work, it makes me wonder if I should cross Room with a View and Howard\’s End off my want-to-read list. It\’s about a bunch of people in India nearing the end of colonialism, snobs of the British ruling class trying to mix socially with native Indian people (who are well-educated themselves) but nobody understands each other and it all goes wrong. At least, I gathered that much from the back cover text and glancing at a few reviews online. I just could not picture anything in my mind, or figure out what was going on, or keep the characters straight, while reading this. So I ended up disinterested and bored. Of course, it could just have been my mood and the surrounding circumstances (long hours in the car with a restless eight-year-old in the back seat) so I am re-shelving this one to try again at a later date. Do tell me if it\’s worth the effort of another attempt.

Abandoned              335 pages, 1924

by Joseph Conrad

I had a hard time with this classic, even though I found the prose riveting. I\’m glad I knew a little about it beforehand, or I might have been thoroughly confused and not made it through. The narrative is by a seaman telling a story to his fellow sailors while waiting for a tide to turn- about a former trip via steamboat upriver into the depths of the Congo. He was hired by a trading company to travel to a remote post to collect a man named Kurtz who has a load of ivory extracted from the interior- as far as I could tell. Kurtz is strangely held in awe by many, and when the narrator finally reaches the destination, it\’s obvious he\’s been out in the jungle wilderness far too long- he has the native population (depicted in very racist, stereotypical fashion from a nineteenth-century imperialist perspective) under his thrall, raves in lunatic fashion and appears to be suffering from some awful disease.

Most of the novella is about the frustrating travel upriver through the dense jungle, suffering frequent breakdowns, lack of materials, poor management, horrific exploitation and suffering on the part of the natives. It\’s very rambling and dense, a lot of it internal monologue on the depravity of human nature and moves without description or explanation between scenes- so I often had difficulty understanding what was actually going on. In a way it is Kafkaesque, in another way the deeply visceral prose reminded me of William Golding\’s The Inheritors (which I now regret I culled out of my library- this book makes me want to read that one again, oddly enough). Many of the passages also brought to mind Lord of the Flies, and I rather wonder if Golding wasn\’t heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad. Sample of the descriptive power in the text:

Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on- which was just what you wanted it to do…

or: 

The mind of man is capable of anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage- who can tell? – but truth- truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder- the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But…. he must meet that truth with his own true stuff- with his own inborn strength.

It\’s a book I found hard to put down even though it was difficult to get through, and one that definitely merits a re-read (or several!) in order to understand. I read this one in e-book format.

Rating: 3/5              280 pages, 1902

more opinions:
Melody and Words
Vulpes Libris
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by W. Somerset Maugham

 * * * warning there are spoilers here * * *

It is a highly fictionalized account of the life of Paul Gauguin; in this novel the character of the artist is named Charles Strickland. It is told through the eyes of a bystander, a man who happens to meet Strickland\’s wife at a dinner party and later becomes curious about the man\’s character and becomes a close acquaintance. I wouldn\’t say friend, as he never liked the man, who had a blatant lack of regard for other people\’s feelings. In this story, Strickland suddenly leaves his wife and moves to France in order to pursue his art undistracted. The narrator encounters him again through the friendship of another artist- a simple, trusting man who admires Strickland\’s then-unrecognized genius. When Strickland, often destitute, falls seriously ill, this other artist takes him in; things happen and the poor man\’s marriage is destroyed. Strickland leaves- and our narrator (willingly) looses track of him for a while. Later he conveniently happens to meet other men who have had later acquaintance with the artist, and finds out that Strickland went to live in Tahiti, where he lived among the natives, seeking out a primitive idyll. He lived with a young woman who was his unofficial wife, and died in isolation and great suffering from leprosy. All the while, to the very last trying to paint and express some ideal vision from his soul.

While the book has a rather pessimistic view of human nature- at least, as far as the character of Strickland is concerned- it is so well-written I did enjoy it. Being told as a second-hand account, it has a lot of other characters and little side-stories. The writing style and descriptions of life in Paris, reminded me somewhat of George Orwell\’s work, Down and Out in London and Paris.

It did spur me to look up more about Gauguin, so I learned how many liberties this story actually takes. While a lot of it is roughly true to case, he didn\’t, for example, leave his wife in the way described. He did have quite a number of sales during his artistic career, had a dealer, didn\’t die in complete obscurity – nor of leprosy- and lived on a few south sea islands in succession, not just Tahiti. He had a different, young \”wife\” at each tropical locale- quite arguably the man was a pedophile. One of the scenes in the book which I found most moving, where he painted the entire walls of his house in a mural considered a masterpiece, and then his young wife burned it to the ground at his request after his death, was completely fabricated. I did wish more of the story covered his life in the tropics- that was such a short segment at the end of the novel.

The idea of a man driven to express something, having no desire for anything but to paint, and forsaking everything in his comfortable life to pick this up at age forty, facing the ridicule of those in polite society around him- well, there is something admirable in that. I know what it is like to be enthralled by the act of creation with your hands, even if the resulting product is not so great- to want to keep doing it just because you feel so alive when you do.

Does anyone know what the title refers to? I could not quite figure that out. I\’m now curious to read a travelouge Gauguin himself wrote, about his time in Tahiti, called Noa Noa, and perhaps another fiction loosely based on his life by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Way to Paradise.

Borrowed from a family member.

Rating: 4/5                   264 pages, 1919

More opinions: Living 2 Read
anyone else?

by Richard Llewellyn

I can\’t remember the last time it took me a month to read one book. I have simply been busy- all the regular stuff plus a basement remodel, guests for the holidays and a very large project at work that has gone way past the deadline, have eaten up all my free hours. I\’m still trying to wrap up stuff at work, often too tired at the end of the day to focus on more than a magazine article before sleep…

Well, this is a book that sat a very long time on my shelf- for over eight years. I can\’t recall what prompted me to first pick it up at the Book Thing, except perhaps the title caught my eye. Reading it at once I was reminded of Germinal, because of the similar theme. How Green Was My Valley is set in a coal-mining village on a mountaintop in Wales. It is told from the viewpoint of a younger son in a large family, Huw Morgan. Most of this bildungsroman is about family centeredness- the strong moral code, the younger son learning skills from his father and older brother. There is an incident in his childhood which leaves him weakened and bedridden for several years, so he studies a lot and becomes well-versed in classical literature. It is baffling later on when he is sent to receive formal schooling, but the school is run by the English and they look down on him and think he is ignorant, just because he is Welsh. Huw learns carpentry from the local preacher and boxing from a group of prizefighters- and there are lots of ins and outs in the story about love- his brothers wooing different women and getting married, the unrest some of these pairings cause in the family, his long infatuation with his brother\’s wife, his curiosity about \’the facts of life\’ and final realization with a girl from the next valley over- this part of the story was actually quite funny, as he didn\’t like the girl at first but she weaseled her way into his company. For some reason I never really connected with the main character- nothing about him really stood out to me, except that he had a strong sense of right and wrong, curiosity about how the world works, and didn\’t hesitate to question the actions of those around him when they seemed senseless.

The parts about mining and its effect on the valley loom in the background- slag heaps piling up to nearly topple over the houses, grime slowly covering everything, the meadows of flowers suffocating, the streams devoid of fish- but it all occurs so gradually people don\’t notice until it seems too late. Most of their concern was keeping their livelihood- Huw\’s brothers are involved in creating a union and there is a lot of unrest, times of suffering and famine. The ending, when Huw\’s father goes down into the mine to find one of their men who didn\’t come back after going down to see why the tunnels are flooding- well, it ends in tragedy as you might expect. All the fighting and suffering and despoiling of the mountain, to end in loss and sorrow.

The language is beautiful. Throughout the entire book there is a unique pattern of phrasing that comes from the Welsh language- it took me a while to get used to it, and then I loved the way the descriptions would put images in my mind. Huw\’s thoughts on the nature of the land and the depth of relationships in people around him are quite eloquent. It is for this I might keep the book on hand to read again, or look for others by this author- although from reviews I glanced at, the sequels to How Green Was My Valley aren\’t as good.

Rating: 4/5         497 pages, 1940

by Jean Craighead George

The pains of growing up and culture clash meld into a story of animal communication and survival skills with some beautiful nature writing. No wonder this book is a classic. It is told in three parts, and the first one is about Julie\’s interactions with a wolf pack, which hooked me from the beginning. In the opening scene Julie, a thirteen-year-old Inuit (or Eskimo as they are called in the book) is lost on the Arctic tundra. She had run away from home, trying to reach the coast where a ship would take her to San Francisco. She ran out of food and in spite of finding ways to hunt and forage, is slowing starving. She comes across a small wolf pack and decides that her only hope is to gain their trust and share their food. Incredible patience and close attention to the subtle ways the wolves communicate allows her to do this. I really loved reading about how Julie integrated herself into the wolf pack, and how she lived alongside the animals. It felt quite plausible.

The second part of the book is a flashback to Julie\’s childhood, which tells how she got into her present predicament. Her father, a great hunter who taught her many traditional skills, disappears one day on a trip and is presumed dead. She is forced to move away and live with an aunt who only seems to want Julie in her household as a source of free labor. Julie escapes this situation via an arranged marriage to an Inuit boy, but this new home is also insufferable. Having run away, got lost in the wilderness and found ways to survive, Julie (whose Eskimo name is Miyax) gradually discovers that she loves living close to the land, that she has a deep appreciation for nature and finds satisfaction in using her skills (not without some major challenges, though). When she finally reaches populated areas again, she\’s no longer sure if she wants to live among men. Her value system is different now. She directly sees the threat modern man poses to her wolves (who follow along towards the village). And when she makes contact with people, she discovers that far more has changed than her own perceptions. I really felt like the ending was too quick, and I had forgotten what sad notes it contained.

But it does make me more eager to pick up the second book and see where the story goes. Julie of the Wolves was a re-read for me. I\’m not sure if I read the sequel before. I have a dim memory of abandoning it, but will see how much is familiar.

Rating: 4/5        170 pages, 1972

more opinions:
Inkweaver Review
Rhapsody in Books
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Skipping Along

by H.G. Wells

This was a strange view of the far, distant future. It\’s projected from the Victorian era, where an eminent scientist announces to his friends and colleagues that he has built a machine which can travel through time. They are skeptical and the first chapter of the book is a detailed discussion between them about the nature of time and space, physical matter etc- a lot of it over my head, frankly. At the end of the discussion the Time Traveller (as he is identified throughout the novella) announces that he is going to experiment with his machine. When all the men arrive for a dinner party the following week, the Time Traveller arrives late for the meal, looking disheveled and shaken. He relates a detailed story about where he has been- to the year 800,701 and beyond.

It is a very strange report that he makes. The world he visited is practically unrecognizable. The people he encounters are small, mild-mannered and apparently unintelligent. They seem to live at ease in a world without disease, animals or any conflict. Of course he can\’t understand their language, and his first attempts at understanding the situation turn out to be greatly mistaken. He\’s only there for eight days but soon finds out that there is another population living underground- that, in effect, the human race evolved into two very distinct groups. Alarmingly, the Time Traveller discovers that his machine is missing- and he thinks that the underground people have stolen it…

I can\’t think of another story or premise that shows mankind becoming less advanced in the future. The idea that Wells posited of human abilities becoming atrophied and the entire population slowly falling into decline made sense when finally explained, but I also found it odd. And although the book is quite short, it feels very dense- full of ideas and theories and speculations.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5       122 pages, 1895

more opinions:
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Fyrefly\’s Book Blog
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Ardent Reader

by Philippa Pearce

I really enjoyed this story. Tom is sent to spend the summer with his aunt and uncle when his brother has the measles. His aunt and uncle live in a small flat, part of a larger house. There is very little to entertain Tom- the small walled yard has only dustbins and a parked car, and he can’t go out because he might be contagious. He thinks he’s going to die of boredom until he makes a wonderful discovery. When the grandfather clock downstairs chimes thirteen, the back door opens into a vast, manicured garden. Pretty soon Tom is sneaking out every night to explore the garden. He meets other children there, catches glimpses of the gardener and a few adult members of this other household. Only one little girl can see him, and they strike up a friendship. Eventually Tom puzzles out that the children in the garden are from the Victorian era, and also that time moves differently for them. His life becomes so enmeshed in the happenings of the garden that he never wants to leave it.

Funny, if you think about it this book is something of a mystery. Who are the other kids in the garden? where do they come from? why can’t they all see Tom? is he a ghost in their world- or are the Victorian children all ghosts themselves? It all comes together neatly in the end. I didn’t find it sad like some other readers, I rather liked the ending. Very well written, believable characters and lots of interesting stuff to think about time, aging, how relationships change… Definitely one I’d read again, or put into my kids’ hands.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5        229 pages, 1958

more opinions:
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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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