Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Native Son

I chose this book for the 20TH Century Classic category for Karen’s Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge at Books and Chocolate.  This was a very uncompromising book about the life of a young black man in Chicago in the late 1930s who commits two horrific crimes.    The book was surely controversial when it was first published in 1940 and I would argue it is still so now.  
“He had done this. He had brought all this about. In all of his life these two murders were the most meaningful things that had ever happened to him.” 
“But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.”
The story starts off with Bigger killing a rat in the shabby one room he shares with his mother, sister and brother. On that same day, Bigger will go for a job interview with Mr. Dalton, the kindly white man who wants to help Negros by giving them menial jobs and donating ping pong tables to community centers in black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Mr. Dalton owns the company that rents that crappy one room to Bigger’s mother in one of the few crowded neighborhood where blacks are "allowed" to live in Chicago. Even when confronted with this fact later in the book, Mr. Dalton does not understand how no amount of ping pong tables will make up for that kind of systemic racism and discrimination.  

This book is terribly frustrating to read. Bigger goes to work for the Daltons as a chauffeur, which really is an excellent opportunity for him and he destroys that opportunity. But the reader also sees where Bigger is overwhelmed culturally, out of his element, so much so that he can’t consider any options, any other way of behaving. He knows how to act in his black neighborhood where he is a bully motivated mostly by fear, but he is flummoxed in the world of white people. And equally, many of the white people with whom he interacts don’t understand either that he comes from what might as well be a different universe from them. The view into Bigger’s thoughts and motivations do not excuse his actions, but they do help make them understandable. Even if throughout the book the reader wants to step in and set him straight constantly. 

The weakest part of the book for me was the endless, rousing closing argument made by Bigger’s lawyer at his trial. It’s a little too over-the-top and over long with its message when the book was doing just fine before I thought.  I’m not sure if Wright didn’t trust his readers to get it or if he just wanted to preach his points. Still, this is a book very much worth reading and still unfortunately relevant. I'm glad to have read it. I think next I need to check out James Baldwin's Notes from a Native Son which contains an essay about this novel. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Suite Française

My choice for the category “Classic in Translation” for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate was Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky. This is one of those books that meets the Challenge’s bylaws in that it was first published in 2007 but actually written in 1942. The story of the author’s life and how the book came to be published is worthy of a novel itself. Némirovsky was originally from the Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) but had immigrated to France with her family as a teenager. She was a popular and well-known author in France. Her debut novel David Golder was a best seller and published when she was only 26 years old.

However, when France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940, Némirovsky, as a woman of Jewish ancestry and denied French citizenship, began to feel the pressure put upon Jews by the French government under the occupation. Ultimately, she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered (she died actually of typhus but let’s call a spade a spade. There was never any intent that she should survive her deportation). Her daughters survived the war hidden by friends of the family. Némirovsky’s oldest daughter, Denise Epstein, had kept the manuscript but not read it thinking it was her mother's journal and fearing the experience would be too painful. When she later discovered it to be an unfinished manuscript she approached a publisher and the rest is history.

The novel Suite Française is the first two sections of what the author envisioned as a five-part chronicle of life during wartime under the occupation. Némirovsky was writing as the actual events were unfolding.  The first section is titled “Storm in June” and it depicts an ensemble of characters as they flee Paris at the onset of the invasion in 1939. It reminded me a bit of The Grapes of Wrath in how the best and the worst in people will come out in desperation as people traveled on foot or in vehicles with as much of their worldly possessions as they could carry with the situation becoming more and more dire the further they went. It was very vivid.

The second section titled “Dolce” is a little less tense and definitely more romantic. It takes place in a village located in Vichy France where German troops are sequestered and the characters are only tangentially related to those introduced in the first section. The story’s focus is an unrequited love affair between a French woman and a German officer with other characters showing some of the initial signs of underground resistance by the French and the burden of collaboration.

The edition I read had notes from the author at the back which give hints as to where the final volumes were headed plot wise.  I think the final version would have been epic and an instant classic had the author lived to write it.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge: Cannery Row and The Scapegoat

I read two books for the Back to the Classics category “Classic from a Place You’ve Lived” for the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate and both are thanks to Jane who blogs at Reading, Writing, Working, Playing who encouraged me to read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck back when I posted my potential list in January 2019 and who wrote such an appealing review of The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier last month that I was impelled to read it right away. I even had an old Book of the Month hardcover edition of it, inherited from my mother. Another encouragement to read both was the fact that Cannery Row is so short; It wasn't stressful to read both books

The Scapegoat takes place in France (in a village called St. Gilles somewhere in the Northwest) and I lived in Bordeaux, France for a year in the late 1980s when I was in college. Later in the early 1990s I lived for a year in Monterey, California. I know I visited Cannery Row at least once while there, but I only remember it as being very “touristy”. I have fonder memories of the Monterrey Aquarium.

My journey through Steinbeck’s works has been up and down. I first read Travels with Charley, which I loved. But then I read East of Eden which I didn’t love. But when I read The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, I was very impressed with the writing and that positive impression carries over to Cannery Row as well. The descriptions are vibrant and colorful.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen" and he would have meant the same thing. 
The book is collection of semi-connected vignettes about the inhabitants of the row, most featuring Doc, a marine biologist/procurer of marine animals, Mack the leader of a crew of lay-abouts, Lee Chong, the grocer. There is virtually no plot. At best, one could say that it is about Mack and the boys wanting to throw a party for Doc which goes awry. In some cases, Steinbeck borders on clichés with some of his characters, particularly that of the hooker with a heart of gold, but generally I found the characters to be realistically flawed and it was clear that Steinbeck had a real affection for all of them, whatever their moral weaknesses.

My history with du Maurier is equally mixed. In brief, no book has quite lived up to Rebecca in my estimation. But nonetheless, The Scapegoat was an interesting and propulsive read and boy does it have a plot! Two men meet by chance in Le Mans, France and they are by all accounts identical. One is an Englishman named John, a professor of French history whose command of the language is that of a native. The other is a French count called Jean.  I won’t say how, but in true soap opera tradition, they end up switching places.                                                                                            The book then follows mild mannered John who sees the chance to live another person’s life both a challenge and freeing. John is an orphan and a loner who has always had difficulty connecting to other people. When he steps into the rather profligate Jean de Gue’s shoes, he is thrust into a complicated familial and cultural situation that invigorates him. The book almost reads as a thriller as John navigates one tricky situation after the next. And at any time, the real Jean could return and then what? The Scapegoat’s plot is completely implausible yet du Maurier makes it believable.  My only niggle was the ending but not because it was a bad; it just didn’t end the way I wanted it to.  

Friday, May 24, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: The Way We Live Now

One of my favorite things about the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate is the indulgence of the excuse to read Dickens and Trollope, my two most loved Victorian era authors.  Accordingly, for the category “Very Long Classic”, I opted to read the doorstopper, The Way We Live Now which just happens to be Trollope’s longest of the 40-plus novels he wrote over his long career.

Now, of course, the title could be changed to “The Way They Lived Then” since Trollope meant the book to be a commentary on late 19th century upper-class society and their twin obsessions with status and money. But as with so many classics, there is plenty in the novel which still applies to our modern lives. 

But how to write a short review of such a long novel? That’s the challenge. The story is rich with a variety of subplots and intrigues, but the majority of them all revolve around one man: Auguste Melmotte.  Mr. Melmotte is a financier, a capitalist, a man who makes nothing himself but is able to use the money of others to make more money, chiefly for himself. His origins are murky, his past checkered. But as long as he appears to have the Midas-touch he is courted by the upper classes outwardly while behind his back they despise him. There is particular interest in Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, who is to be sacrificed to anyone with a title, provided the groom is willing to only have limited control over Marie’s dowry.

Marie, however, has other ideas about who she will marry. She is enamored of  Sir Felix Carbury, Baronet. Felix is a useless idiot who loves no one but would like a way out of his debts. His mother, Lady Carbury, is all for the match since Felix, though he is her favored child, is rapidly depleting her own finances which she supplements by writing terrible books. Lady Carbury’s daughter, Hetta, has no problem with her mother’s favoritism. She only wants to be free herself to marry young but poor Paul Montague. But her mother wants Hetta to marry her much older cousin, Roger Carbury, who has an estate outside of London. 

Paul Montague wants very much to marry Hetta if only his can get his finances in order, which are ultimately tied up with Melmotte and his dealings. But that’s not all. Roger Carbury is his closest friend and a father figure to him. Marrying Hetta may destroy that friendship. And, to complicate matters further, Paul is pursued by a certain Mrs.  Hurtle, an American widow to whom he was once (and may still be) engaged.

There is so much more in terms of plot and characters than this bare bones outline, like the snobbish Longstaffe family who are inextricably bound up in Melmotte’s financial machinations or Ruby Ruggles, a country girl who wants to throw over her bumpkin finance John Crumb in the forgone hope that Felix Carbury will marry her. Also there is a wonderful parallel plot about gambling at cards among the aristocrats which satirizes the kind of high finance perpetuated by people like Melmotte.

I really enjoyed The Way We Live Now. I didn’t find it quite as charming as some of his previous novels, however; mostly because I found it hard to really root for any of the characters. They were all frustrating, though some such as Lord Nidderdale, Marie Melmotte, Hetta Carbury, Mrs. Hurtle, etc. were less egregious in the errors of their ways than others. But I always found them interesting and I was invested in their fates.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019: Three Men in a Boat

'In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being “a general disinclination to work of any kind.”

What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell.  From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it.  As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day.  They did not know, then, that it was my liver.  Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.'

I read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome for the Classic Comic Novel category of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 hosted by blogger Karen at Books and Chocolate.  Apparently, the book started off as a travel guide for points of interest along the Thames.  That part of the book was a bit of a miss for me since I am not very well acquainted with British history. Nor am I familiar with boating and the technicalities of that such as using tow lines, punting, etc. 

Occasionally in the travelogue parts, the writing was flowery about sunsets and flowers and the like and the tone more serious.  But was it funny? Generally, yes. The sense of humor was very familiar; fairly broad and a bit silly. The punchlines usually weren’t terribly clever such as never finding a cab when you need one but when you don’t there are tons.  My first real laugh came when the narrator is describing his dog Montmorency, who “came to live at my expense…” That is a perfect description of the dogs and cats in my home. They live at my expense…total freeloaders! 😺

There is no plot. Three young men set off boating for two weeks on the Thames. Some shenanigans and minor disasters happen and there are many digressions, like the inadvisability of offering to store a wheel of cheese for a friend for any length of time or a friend who gets himself and his fellow tourists lost in a maze and almost lynched by the mob of people trying to get out.  

I read the unabridged text in physical form but because it was only two hours and twenty minutes, I also later listened to the abridged audio version narrated by Hugh Laurie  which was delightful.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The 1965 Club: At Betram's Hotel and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

I read two other books for The 1965 Club that I wanted to post about. The page count of the two books COMBINED is only a little more than half of the total page count of The Magus, which was refreshing.  I read both in a matter of a couple of days.  Also, both are by favorite authors of mine:


At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie is the third to last of the Miss Marple mysteries. It is probably not the best jumping in point for any reader who is new to Miss Marple since it is fairly slow and the murder comes only very near the end.  Miss Marple, however,  is my favorite of Christie’s detectives and I unreservedly love all the books which feature her.  I just wish Christie had written more Marple mysteries for me to enjoy.  

The story is that Miss Marple spends a fortnight at Bertram’s Hotel as a gift from her nephew and his wife.  Miss Marple spent time at the hotel as a girl at the turn of the century and at first is delighted to discover that the establishment is practically unchanged since the Edwardian era. There is quite a bit of discussion in the book about how times have changed, in particular how young women of a certain class are not looked after by their mothers as they should. 

However, soon our elderly sleuth starts to notice that the hotel is too perfect …or rather a facsimile of an Edwardian Era hotel; she begins to wonder what the hotel is fronting behind its facade. Meanwhile, the London police are also taking a closer look at Betram's since it has been linked ever so tenuously to some recent heists. But it isn’t until absentminded Canon Pennyfather, who was staying at the hotel, goes missing that the mystery really starts. 


God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut could have been written today it many respects. It is an angry satire about greed and America.  But it was to me mostly message and not a lot of story.  Personally I think Slaughterhouse-Five and/or Cat’s Cradle are better crafted.  But this short book might be like music to your ears if you are left-leaning and appalled by the lack of compassion in much of the current political scene in the West. 

The story (what story there is) is about two men named Rosewater.  The first one is Eliot Rosewater, who is the beneficiary of an enormous corporate trust fund, the Rosewater Foundation, which he is barred from managing but from which he reaps the cash rewards. The other man is Fred Rosewater, a distant relative of Eliot, who sells insurance and while not poor, is decidedly not rich. An ambitious lawyer working at the Rosewater Foundation realizes that if he can get Eliot deemed incompetent and convince Fred to sue as the legitimate recipient of the Foundation’s funds, he (the lawyer) can make a pile of cash on the lawsuit and subsequent transaction. 

There is a lot of quotable stuff in this book, but the t-shirt slogan and truest message of the book is this one, when Eliot is asked how he would baptize children. This is pure Vonnegut: 

'Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule I know of, babies-: God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Monday, April 22, 2019

The 1965 Club: The Magus by John Fowles

Confession #1: I actually read the 1977 revised version of The Magus, which was originally  published in 1965. Alas, the revised version is what was available at the library.

Confession #2: I read most of the book in March because this baby is over 600 pages long!

The Magus was John Fowles third published novel. Today, I think he is better known for his debut The Collector or his fourth novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman.  The reason I chose to read The Magus (other than its publication date) for the 1965 Club was because it is on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels in English of the 20th Century, a list I have been slowly reading through on since 1998.  I still have 25 titles left to read and cross off. 

The story is narrated by Nicholas Urfe and it begins very much like a 19th century novel, "I was born in  1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf, Queen Victoria." 

The first 50 pages or so are Nicholas recounting his childhood and education, bringing the reader to to the present day as he is in his mid-twenties and ready to flee gray London for a teaching job at a boy's boarding school located on a remote Greek island. Also Nicholas is fleeing an intense relationship with a young Australian woman which Nicholas is too immature to handle, though he doesn't realize it at the time. 

"The thing I felt most clearly, when the first corner was turned, was that I had escaped; and hardly less clearly, but much more odiously, that she loved me more than I loved her, and that consequently I had in some indefinable way won. So on top of the excitement of the voyage in to the unknown, the taking wing again, I had an agreeable feeling of emotional triumph. A dry feeling; but I liked things dry. I went towards Victoria as a hungry man goes towards a good dinner after a couple of glasses of Mananzilla. I began to hum, and it was not a brave attempt to hid my grief, but a revoltingly unclouded desire to celebrate my release."

I'm not sure if it comes across in the above quote, but Nicholas is kind of an a**hat. It is something I as a reader had to wrestle with, since the book is entirely in Nicholas' point of view and we tend to want to empathize with first person narrators. 

Once Nicholas is on the island, he meets a mysterious millionaire, Maurice Conchis, who owns a private villa not far from the boarding school. It quickly becomes clear that Conchis is very interested in and possibly manipulating Nicholas, but to what end? As the book progresses, both Nicholas and the reader begin to doubt reality and question Conchis' motives. To say any more would be to go into spoiler territory. Just know that the original title of the book was "The Godgame".

I do think I would have appreciated the metaphysical aspects of The Magus more had I read it when I was younger.  As a novel, it is very much a thought-experiment and it asks some really big questions about psychology, religion, mythology, free-will, etc. It is a book I admired more than I actually enjoyed. 

I read this for the 1965 Club hosted by bloggers Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings and I thank them both for this opportunity