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Previously posted on August 30, 2015

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On September 1, 2012, I started my Classics Club project with big plans – I had a long list of hard books that I intended to read. I reorganized my project about 15 months later, after I realized that an assignment list really wasn’t very much fun and was turning the project into something that I wasn’t enjoying. I updated my page with classics that I had read but that weren’t on the existing list, and then decided to scrap the list altogether and just go forward reading what struck my fancy, with some basic ideas as to where I was headed. Recently I realized that I was really close to my initial goal of 50 classics in 5 years, so I made a huge push to get everything reviewed by August 31, the three year mark.

And, whew, I made it. I’m done.

Project Recap:

Total number of pages read: 20,634

Total number of centuries spanned: 3 (1794 through 1962)

Total number of books written by women: 21. I’m actually sort of surprised by the fact that 42% of the books were written by women. I didn’t make any effort at all at gender balance, but I know that I absolutely gravitate to books written by women writers. Even in a challenge that is probably going to be heavy on dead white guys, while I didn’t make it to 50% women, I wasn’t far off.

Oldest book read: Lady Susan by Jane Austen: Lady Susan was my only 18th century work, and just barely squeaked in because it was written in 1794. A novella, it was crisp, entertaining and Austen’s portrayal of the manipulative Lady Susan was first rate. Totally underrated, in my opinion, and should be more widely read by readers who love Jane Austen.

Newest book read: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. One of my few rules was that any book I read for the Classics Club had to be at least 50 years old. This one was published 53 years ago.

Favorite author: Edith Wharton. Before the Classics Club I had only read The Age of Innocence, which I just re-read. After the Classics Club I can honestly count Wharton as one of my favorite authors. I absolutely love the complexity and depth of her books.

Favorite book: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. This book was a total treat for me. I loved so many things about it – John Thornton is right up there with Mr. Darcy in the swoon-worthy category, and many of the supporting characters were complicated and interesting. I can’t wait to read more Gaskell.

Least favorite author: Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance and I can say unequivocally that I am over Hawthorne. Never again.

Most hated book: King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. What I thought I was getting: a rollicking adventure story about an Indiana Jones type character. What I got: a book that was devoid of suspense about an obnoxious, racist jackass who slaughters elephants. It had no redeeming qualities as far as I was concerned.

Longest book: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. At 1200+ pages, this was a committment that took more than a year to fulfill. I ended up really liking it, but Hugo never had a thought that he didn’t think was worthy of inclusion.

Shortest book: Lady Susan by Jane Austen. But since I already mentioned that one, the second shortest was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, which is a fun read for the autumn season, and is more humorous that scary.

Biggest failure: Not finishing The Count of Monte Cristo after two and a half years. Not sure if I will ever go back.

Biggest success: reading four Dickens novels. I initially planned to read all 15 of Dickens’ novels, but struggled through Dombey and Son and realized that I needed a change of plans. I still eventually want to read them all, but I’m not going to force a schedule.

Previously published January 19, 2015

Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Published in 1962

Summary from Goodreads: Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one’s host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. “It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night,” explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. “My sister made these this morning,” says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner’s kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. “What place would be better for us than this?” she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. “Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.” Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made “a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us” against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives — cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters’ careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat’s treasures, talking privately to Constance about “normal lives” and “boy friends.” Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning “time and the orderly pattern of our old days” in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson’s novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more — like some of her other fictions — as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. “Poor strangers,” says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. “They have so much to be afraid of.”

A slender book, only 148 pages long, that packs an outsized punch. Prior to reading it, I’d heard a lot about it, as well as a lot about Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her short story that launched a thousand anthologies: The Lottery. I vaguely remember reading The Lottery in high school, and finding it more than a little disturbing.

And it is my general sense that “more than a little disturbing” pretty much describes Shirley Jackson to a T.

In any event, I participate in a blog event every year called R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) that is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It is a lot of fun, and is an opportunity to read books that are on the chiller/thriller/horror end of the spectrum. This was one of my R.I.P. reads for 2013.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a brief tale of two sisters: Merrikat and Constance, who live in their family home after someone has murdered every other member of the family (with the exception of their crazy uncle) using poisoned sugar six years earlier. Merrikat is 18, although she perpetually seems to be about 12, and Constance is her older sister, who was acquitted of the murders. The unsolved mass homicide hangs like a pall over the house, and over the village in which Merrikat and Constance live.

It is a fast read, a page turner, propelling me forward with a sense of vague unease and discomfort. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a little psychological horror. It is a remarkable book.

As an aside, I read The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year (well after reading this one – this review was long-delayed on my blog) and I actually prefer this one. Take that for what you will!

Originally published October 2, 2014

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Published in 1959

Summary from Goodreads: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

“What else could you call Hill House?” Luke demanded. “Well—disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit.

Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different style. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.

The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters – Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House – was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?

In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the “help,” who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor’s oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide – or possibly to force – the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor’s narration slips further and further into confusion.

One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word “journey” over and over again, in discussing Eleanor’s trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.

“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.

When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;

“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague.”

Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase “journeys end in lovers meeting,” fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:

“It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House.”

The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor’s relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor’s journey at Hill House.

Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson’s ability to describe the oddities of the house – the doors that won’t stay open, the angles that aren’t quite right, the rooms that don’t fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both – always in autumn.

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Originally published April 20, 2015

Title: The Last Battle
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #7
Published in 1956

Summary from Goodreads: NARNIA…where you must say good-bye…and where the adventure begins again.

The Unicorn says that humans are brought to Narnia when Narnia is stirred and upset. And Narnia is in trouble now: A false Aslan roams the land. Narnia’s only hope is that Eustace and Jill, old friends to Narnia, will be able to find the true Aslan and restore peace to the land. Their task is a difficult one because, as the Centaur says, “The stars never lie, but Men and Beasts do.” Who is the real Aslan and who is the imposter?

And so we come to the end.

I really don’t like this book at all. Of all of the Narnia books, this is the one that won the Carnegie (in 1956), which near as I can tell must be like when a really talented actor finally wins the Academy Award for one of their weaker performances. Because the fact that this book won an Carnegie, but that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was overlooked is a travesty.

Because The Last Battle, in my opinion, has little to redeem it. It is, at its most basic level, an allegory of the Book of Revelations from the Bible. Narnia perishes in darkness, and those who are chosen of Aslan are taken to his country.

But where I cannot forgive Lewis is for his treatment of Susan. Susan Pevensie haunts me, like she does many readers. She is barely mentioned in the book, a few paragraphs worth of dismissal are all that she receives, when her entire family, from Digory right through to Jill Pole, perish in a train accident and are transported to Narnia. Without her:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter.

Don’t let’s talk about that now? Really, Peter? When do you think you might want to talk about Susan? No one spares a thought for Susan, who is literally the only member of her family who does not perish in a fiery train crash. She is left, alone, in England. And I can’t help but think of her, grieving her siblings, and the moment that she figures out that she alone of the survivors of Narnia has been left. Because Susan may be frivolous, but she isn’t stupid.

It’s cruel. It is a cruel thing to do to a character, and I honestly can’t understand why he would do it, and dismiss her so cavalierly. I get it, I guess. He had to make some kind of a point that not everyone gets into heaven.

I reread Narnia regularly. But I never reread The Last Battle. I still remember the first time I read it. It pissed me off. Deeply. As far as I am concerned, the series is better without it. About the only thing that I like about the book is that Reepicheep reappears in Aslan’s Country. I don’t recommend it. Stop with The Magician’s Nephew.

Neal Gaiman wrote a fascinating and more than a little disturbing short story called “The Problem of Susan”. It used to be available on the internet, but has disappeared. If you stumble upon it, it’s worth reading.

Originally posted April 6, 2014

Title: The Magician’s Nephew
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #6
Published in 1955

Summary from Goodreads: The Magician’s Nephew is a gorgeous introduction to the magical land of Narnia. The many readers who discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will be delighted to find that the sixth volume in the series is actually the first in the sequence–and a step back in time. In this unforgettable story, British schoolchildren Polly and Digory inadvertently tumble into the Wood Between the Worlds, where they meet the evil Queen Jadis and, ultimately, the great, mysterious King Aslan. We witness the birth of Narnia and discover the legendary source of all the adventures that are to follow in the seven books that comprise the series.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion as the creation story for his world of Middle Earth. Christians, of course, have the Book of Genesis.

C.S. Lewis gives his readers The Magician’s Nephew as the creation myth for Narnia, which borrows heavily from both of the above (it is true that The Magician’s Nephew was published before The Silmarillion, but it is also true that The Silmarillion was written before TMN. Given the close relationship between Tolkien and Lewis, it is undeniable that Lewis would have read The Silmarillion before putting pen to paper to write TMN). There is a world sung into existence (thanks, JRR), and forbidden fruit that just so happens to be an apple (thanks, Bible dudes).

The Magician’s Nephew – like all of the Narnia books – is a quick read. I have to say that I don’t think it comes even close to Wardrobe, or The Horse and His Boy, or even The Silver Chair for quality. In my wrap up post, I’ll rank the books based on my personal enjoyment. This one is near the bottom. Along with the final book, Lewis appears, to me, have abandoned any pretense of story telling, and moved into pure allegory and Christian propaganda. I feel like he sat down at some point and thought, “well, Clive, you really need a beginning – you know, like “in the beginning there was” and you need an ending, like, you know, “the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and someone has got to go to hell,” so get to it, man,” and he wrote The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.

Now, I know that isn’t how it happened. Actually, TMN took him forever to write – approximately six years. He began it after finishing TLTW&TW, but interrupted writing it to complete all five other books, including The Last Battle. It was published before The Last Battle, but finished after.

At this point, I am going to make my argument for publication order as opposed to chronological order. I am quite immovable on this point – it is my opinion that there cannot be two legitimate opinions on the subject. The books should be read in publication order. Period.

As I’ve said several times throughout this process, TLTW&TW is the strongest of the books. It carries the most emotional resonance. The image of Lucy entering the snowy wood through the wardrobe and finding the lamppost burning quite unexpectedly and without warning is one that is rich and thrilling. It is the signature piece of imagery for the series – the movie posters feature it. The title alludes to it.

It is critical that the reader enter Narnia for the first time with Lucy. Only in that way can we connect to her astonishment. Her disorientation. Her sense of wonder. Having already read TMN ruins the mystery and the magic of the entire series. Reading TMN nearly last, on the other hand, prepares the reader to overlook its flaws because of that emotional connection to Narnia, to the Pevensies, to the narrative constructed by Lewis. Learning the origins of the lamppost and the wardrobe, and the identity of the professor, and how everyone is connected within the stories is a most marvelous gift and is the best part of the book. By far. It is opening that box of Turkish delight, and finding several delicious pieces of candy inside. Where did the White Witch come from? Answered. Why do the animals talk? Answered. Why is the wardrobe a portal into Narnia? Answered. Why is the professor so awesome? Answered.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that even identifying the Professor by name in the plot summary for TLTW&TW is a mistake on the part of the publishers. We are meant to NOT KNOW the identity of the professor when we are reading Wardrobe. We are meant to NOT KNOW, but merely suspect, that the Professor himself has some connection to Narnia, with his mutterings about “what do they teach children these days?” Knowing that the Professor is the Digory Kirche who was there for the genesis, the creation, of Narnia, sucks the life out of the best of the books.

Anyway, TMN is worth reading, but only barely just. It’s worth reading after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but not before. Not ever before.

Originally posted April 5, 2014

Title: The Horse and His Boy
Author: C.S. Lewis
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #5
Published in 1954

Summary from Goodreads: Narnia… where some horses talk, where treachery is brewing, where destiny awaits. On a desperate journey, two runaways meet and join forces. Though they are only looking to escape their harsh and narrow lives, they soon find themselves at the center of a terrible battle. It is a battle that will decide their fate and the fate of Narnia itself.

I’m totally behind on the Narnia discussion!

The Horse and His Boy holds the distinction of being the only Narnia book which takes place entirely within the boundaries of Narnia. It was the fifth book written and published, but chronologically, would be in the third position, because it is basically a tale of some events that occurred during the time that the four Pevensies were “Kings and Queens” of Narnia, before they tumbled back out of the wardrobe to resume their childhoods. While they are tangential to the story, it is interesting to get to see the children as adults (or at least young adults).

The plot summary provided by Goodreads really sucks, so I’m going to expand on it a bit. TH&hB is an adventure story of a flight by a pair of children, Shasta and Aravis, from their home of Calormene, a vaguely Islamic-style kingdom to the south of Narnia, to freedom in Narnia. Shasta is the equivalent of a slave, with a rather Moses-ish backstory. He was found floating in the Calormene equivalent of bulrushes by his “father”, the fishmerman Arsheesh. Shasta overhears Arsheesh selling him to a Calormene noble, and when he overhears the transaction, any sense of loyalty towards Arsheesh for taking him in disappears. He decides to flee. In the course of making this decision, he learns that the horse belonging to the Calormene nobleman is a Narnia horse. A talking horse, named Bree. They decide to escape to Narnia together.

The second pair of our quartet are Aravis and her horse Hwin. Aravis is a young female Calormene of noble birth who has been betrothed to a man who is approximately half a century her senior. She is, in my opinion, Lewis’s best female character, being resourceful and clear-headed in her decision to leave behind the land of her birth for the freedom of the north. Yes, there are distinct cultural problems with the idea that a dark-skinned adolescent would flee her oppressive Islam-style kingdom for the freedom of the white-skinned north in order to escape a disgusting marriage to an elderly, wealthy man. It is not as though Lewis’s homeland was exempt from this phenomenon – after all, Henry VIII married Catherine Howard when he was 49, and she was 16. In any event, however, Aravis rocks, and Hwin, her horse is a humble, helpful foil to the pompous Bree.

Shasta and Bree, Aravis and Hwin, are more or less pushed together in their northward flight by Aslan, and they decide to travel together. On their quest northward, they discover a plot by the Carlormenes to seize control of Narnia which they must foil. The plot relies heavily on coincidence, and also on the idea of an infallible and inevitable destiny. A chess game, with a divine player cooly moving the pieces about on the board while playing several moves ahead.

The four Pevensies themselves enter into the story but a little. Most importantly, I think, Lewis begins the process of severing Susan from the Narnian narrative. It is her poor judgment and obsession with boys and other frivolities that make it possible for the Calormenes to embark on their evil plan to subjugate free Narnia. The problem of Susan is, for me, the biggest problem with the series and is the reason that I am left with extremely mixed emotions about the series as a whole. The only book of the seven for which I have unadulterated admiration is the first. By the time we get to book 7, I am utterly disillusioned.

For all of its failings, I really do like this book. I think it’s the horses, honestly. Bree and Hwin are absolutely delightful. Bree, pompous and arrogant, is humbled in a really convincing way. And Hwin is unassuming, but full of integrity and inner strength. For a horse-loving girl, a story that includes talking horses escaping oppression is pretty wonderful.