Month: March 2011

2011 Book #19: Brideshead Revisited

30933-1.jpgI enjoyed Brideshead Revisited sooooo much more than I thought I would. In fact, I think it’s one of my favorite books ever. Evelyn Waugh has a lot in common with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, though it was published twenty years after The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. Brideshead Revisited is about wealthy English families between the World Wars. In college, Charles Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte, and they run around together. Then Charles becomes involved in Sebastian’s family, and due to a flaw, of sorts, in Sebastian’s character, bad things begin to happen, and they part ways. But Charles can’t shake the Flyte family, and we hear about what happens to them through the rest of the novel while Sebastian remains on the periphery. It’s really depressing, though not in the family-loses-its-money-etc-etc way that you might expect. The characters are empty and remain so. No one is happy for long.


Though, again, it’s up there with my favorite novels. I spent a long time reading this one because I didn’t want to leave it. I liked the atmosphere. At the end, I found myself in a daze like I did with For Whom the Bell Tolls, when I felt like I was in the mountains of Spain during their Civil War for a few hours after.

Before this novel, I didn’t know much about Waugh, and I guess I still don’t. I most clearly associate him with my chronic confusion over his gender: I’ve embarrassed myself several times calling him “she”. In my defense, though, Evelyn is a pretty girly name. I also don’t understand why he’s not taught in universities. I have an English degree, and I feel like I should have at least heard of him while I was in college. At least for GRE purposes.

I’ll certainly be reading more Waugh in the near future. A Handful of Dust is probably next. It’s funny: sometimes I use a site called The Book Explorer for recommendations, and the list for Brideshead Revisited includes several of my favorite novels. One Hundred Years of Solitude, my Very Favorite Book, is at the top. I wish I’d been introduced to Waugh much earlier.

Fail Pile Book #2: Herzog

n126527.jpegUsually, when I can’t get into a book, I stop around page 50 and move on. I read an article a few years ago that said if you’re not interested at that point, you probably won’t ever be, so you might as well read on. That’s not always the case, of course. The Satanic Verses starts slowly, and so does The Grapes of Wrath, but I liked both of them in the end.

I made it far past the 50-page mark with Herzog, and I never got into it. I just do not care what happens to Herzog. He’s about forty, divorced twice, a failed professor, etc (kind of like the protagonoist, whose name I don’t remember, of Disgrace). He writes letters to people, and as he writes them, he reminisces about the circumstances surrounding their subjects. And he just goes on and on and on. I made it almost halfway through, and it seems that if something was going to happen, it would have happened by this point.

Herzog isn’t my first experience with Saul Bellow. A couple years ago, I read Seize the Day, which I really liked, though I only vaguely remember what it’s about. A few years before that, there was Henderson the Rain King, which I remember liking, though all I know is that it involved a guy going to somewhere in Africa and meeting some natives. I didn’t make it through that one, either, but I’m not sure why. I’m not even sure if I would make it through Seize the Day if it had been any longer. Maybe I’m just not the Bellow type.

2011 Book #18: The Grapes of Wrath

the-grapes-of-wrath-by-john-steinbeck-profile.jpegI usually make myself write these blog posts within hours of finishing the book so I don’t forget what I want to say about them. Except I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath a couple of days ago, so I don’t have as much to talk about.

I really loved this novel. It’s the most beautiful English I’ve read in a long, long time. Here’s the first paragraph:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

After I read that paragraph, I knew I’d be able to get through this novel. Whole (short) chapters like these are interspersed with the actual plot.

As with Crime and Punishment, this book is so widely read that it has its own Cliff’s Notes, so I’m not going to bother with a real summary. It’s basically about a family from Oklahoma who gets forced out of their house during the Depression and the Dust Bowl, moves to California (with all the other farmers), and tries to survive. It’s sad but soooo rewarding. I had a hard time not crying.

I’ve read two other Steinbeck novels: Travels with Charley and Of Mice and Men. The former was required reading before my senior year of high school, which was a looong time ago, and all I really remember about it is that I liked it. I read Of Mice and Men a couple of years ago, and I liked that one, too. The language, though isn’t what stuck out for me about those novels – okay, I don’t remember enough about Travels with Charlie to make that statement fairly. Both are very short novels, and I think Steinbeck might work best with a longer form.

The other day, my mom asked me what I was reading, and when I told her, she said that she liked it and that it was sad. I said, “Wait. You’ve read The Grapes of Wrath?” I really wasn’t expecting that. I guess she read it in high school or college. Which brings me back to my earlier point on professors not assigning long books anymore. This novel is the kind you assign to make people love literature and language. Sure, Of Mice and Men is great, but I’ve found it hard to get absorbed in a short book, and I think most authors do best when they have some space to dig in their roots.

Until very recently, I haven’t been a fan of long books. I’ve always had an attention span issue, and I’d lose interest after a couple of days or a couple hundred pages. And I think the shorter books I’ve always been assigned is what made the difference. The syllabus, for instance, would you have five days to read The Awakening (it’s very short), and then we’ll discuss it for one (maybe two!) class periods. That’s not what college should be. Isn’t the point to learn to analyze and write about literature? How are you supposed to do that when you never really get into anything beyond surface level? It’s impossible if you’re only discussing it for an hour. Reading longer books for my 52-Books-in-a-Year challenge has totally changed my mind about this stuff. Professors are pressured to fit a ton of stuff into their syllabi, and it’s the students who are suffering. It’s become quantity over quality (Must Prepare for the Lit GRE!), so it’s no wonder universities are churning out English majors who are barely even literate.

BONUS (I couldn’t help myself):


2011 Book #17: Crime and Punishment

crime-and-punishment.jpegSo. I read Crime and Punishment and liked it, though not as much as I thought I would when I was halfway through. At one point, I thought it might trump One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it didn’t. I’m not going to summarize it here because everyone is familiar with it. The funny thing is that I had no idea how it ends. I knew, going in, that Raskolnikov kills someone and then suffers because of it. I didn’t know that he, in fact, kills two people, though the second person, I guess, doesn’t really matter. (I felt better when neither Jacob nor Palmer knew about the second, either.)

My only problem with the novel is the end. I was disappointed that it ends relatively happily under the circumstances, that Raskolnikov sees the light, so to speak. It’s hopeful. I’d braced myself for a depressing, pessimistic ending, and I was disappointed because it wasn’t the life-changing end I’d expected. Crime and Punishment is, after all, considered one of the best novels ever written. My expectations, I guess, were too high.

This novel got me to thinking, though. The main reason I’d never read it is that I wasn’t assigned it in college. Granted, I don’t think I ever took a class that involved Russian lit of any sort, beyond a modern lit class in grad school, and even then it was Notes from Underground, which is very short. Professors don’t assign long novels anymore. I’ve heard many times things like “I assigned such-and-such, but I’d have assigned such-and-such instead because it’s better, but it’s sooooo long.” I think My Antonia, The Well of Loneliness, and Orlando might have been the longest novels I had to read in college, and they’re all significantly shorter than Crime and Punishment. And the same professor assigned all of those novels.

I often feel shorted in my English degree, though UNO had a really good English department back in the day. And I’m not sure I’d have read a long novel if I was assigned one, though I think I read all of those three. I don’t think I got all the way through Orlando, though I put in a good effort. It sucks that professors have become so cynical that they assume students won’t read long assignments. Not that students help, of course. I read my share of Cliff’s Notes.

As disappointed as I was in Crime and Punishment, (and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t all that disappointed) I can easily recognize that it’s a Great Novel and that anyone with a lit degree should have read it. I remember a professor assigning a short Dickens selection and claiming that a whole Dickens novel would be too much. I read A Tale of Two Cities right after I graduated and was angry that I hadn’t read it earlier. I have too many holes in my English degree, and I think it’s because professors are caving in to students’ laziness. I slipped through college with mostly As and didn’t do a quarter of the work I should have had to do to get them, and now I regret it. And I went to a good school. Sometimes I’m amazed that LSUS English graduates are even literate.

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