Wednesday, December 28, 2016

166. Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ

Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ
Lew Wallace
1880
Around 550 pages









Once again, I apologize for the delay in posting.  However, can anyone really blame me for putting off Ben-Hur?  It actually worked out okay, because I got to be reading this on Christmas.  As readers of my movie blog might know, I love taking credit for coincidental themes.

Judah Ben-Hur is a Jewish prince who wants to be a Roman soldier.  He hopes that the Romans will train him so that one day he can fight against them.  During a Roman military parade, Judah rushes to the roof of his house to watch, only to accidentally dislodge a roof tile.  The roof tile falls on the head of the Roman governor.  Although the governor wasn't killed, Judah is accused of being an assassin.  Nice going, dingus.  Judah pleads to Messala, an old childhood friend who is now a Roman officer, to help his family, but Messala merely laughs.  Judah is forced to become a galley slave and his mother and sister are imprisoned.  For the rest of the novel, Judah's only has two goals: avenge his family and find out what happened to his mother and sister.  Oh yeah, and Jesus' narrative runs parallel to Judah's.

I should probably mention right off the bat that I am not Christian.  I am familiar enough with the stories, though, that I found the passages about Jesus to be quite dull.  Wallace didn't really do anything new with the texts (as far as I know) so I felt like I was stuck in a bible studies class.  I did enjoy Judah's story, which unfortunately does not begin until about page 80.

As far as Wallace's writing style goes, I was not overly impressed.  He was his own worst enemy throughout the novel; it was almost as though he wanted it to be dull.  For example, one of the chapters ended with Judah about to embark on a journey that might tell him where his mother and sister are.  The next chapter was then titled "Disappointed."  Obviously much of what happens in this book is already known to the audience; do you really have to destroy the few chances you have at dramatic tension?

Despite all of this, there are still parts of the story that I really enjoyed.  I loved hearing Iras' stories and the chariot scene was truly exciting.  Still, it goes without saying that this is an extremely preachy novel that I was eager to finish quickly.

RATING: ***--

Interesting Facts:

Fans of the book include Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis, and James Garfield

Blessed by Pope Leo XIII.

UP NEXT: Nana by Emile Zola.  I have already read this one so expect another post shortly!

I watched the 1956 version for my movie list and thought it was incredibly dull.  Here's a trailer from YouTube of the 2016 version, which I guess totally bombed.  CGI=good movie, right?:

Friday, October 28, 2016

165. The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
1879-1880
Around 800 pages












I was just reading something, I think it was Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, where the narrator said that The Brothers Karamazov can only be read and enjoyed once.  I am going to have to take his word for it, as I never plan on trying to read this again.  Brilliant?  Yes.  Grueling? Absolutely.

I don't think even know where to begin my summary of this one.  I suppose the plot is kind of secondary to the philosophical discussions in the novel, but I am a stickler, so here goes.  Um...patricide?  Confusing pet names?  Brothers?   Karamazovs?

This is Dostoyevsky's final novel.  I know many people proclaim this to be his masterpiece.  Perhaps it is.  He certainly packed the book with enough philosophical material for the reader to use it as a blueprint for how to live life.  Still, the sheer density of the book precludes it from being an enjoyable read.  I fell in love with The Idiot (fortunately, talking about the novel this time) because he told an engaging story that happened to be sprinkled with insight.

I can't believe I am finally through with Dostoyevsky.  I'll miss you, even though you were kind of a sleazeball.

RATING: ***--

Interesting Facts:

Sigmund Freud called this "the most magnificent novel ever written."

A copy of this book was found on Leo Tolstoy's nightstand when he died.

UP NEXT: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace.  Ugh, I already had to sit through the movie and now I have to read it?  Damn the Listmakers and my dog-like obedience to authority.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

164. The Red Room

The Red Room
August Strindberg
1880
Around 300 pages













I have spent the last month reading "scary" list novels in preparation for Halloween (even my mother thought I was a dork for that one).  Of course, having already read Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Shining, there wasn't that much of a selection, but I did enjoy few remaining titles that I shoehorned into fitting my theme (In Cold Blood, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and House of Leaves).  Anyway, onto The Red Room.

Basically, the novel tells the story of Arvid Falk, a young civil servant in a seemingly loveless marriage, who dreams of escaping the monotony of bureaucratic work.  He wants to become a writer, but becomes disillusioned by the corruption associated with publishing.  He finds a great group of friends to complain about stuff with, though, so I wish he would stop bitching.

So we get a Swedish, slightly worse version of Lost Illusions by Balzac.  Apparently, this is considered the first modern Swedish novel.  I definitely think I would have enjoyed it more if I was Swedish, as I had a hard time putting Falk's journey in context.

It would have probably worked better in Swedish as well.  Some of the phrases used just seemed odd, but I am going to blame the translator for that one.  I guess it is good to expand your literary horizons and read novels from every part of the world. At least, that's what I told myself to get through this one.

RATING: **---

Interesting Facts:

Wasn't translated into English until 1913.

UP NEXT: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I have already read this so expect another review up very shortly!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

163. Return of the Native

Return of the Native
Thomas Hardy
1878
Around 500 pages



















Hello all!  I just got back from a very relaxing beach vacation.  I am not sure if Return of the Native was the most thematically appropriate book to read while lying in the sun and watching hot guys bodysurf, but I absolutely adored this novel.

Thomasin Yeobright plans on marrying Damon Wildeve, a local innkeeper.  Her aunt disapproves of the marriage for good reason, as Damon is kind of a rogue (21st century translation: a dick).  Thomasin and Damon are unable to get married on the fixed day due to a mistake in their marriage license.  Not wanting to be seen as a "fallen woman," Thomasin begs the local reddleman, Diggory Venn, to take her back to her aunt's house.   Diggory is in love with Thomasin, because every young woman in these novels has at least two men in love with her at a time.  Thomasin is unaware that Damon is also in love with Eustacia Vye.  Eustacia dreams of getting away from the heath.  When Thomasin's cousin, Clym returns from Paris, Eustacia believes that he is the hero of her dreams.  Love pentagons can be hard to explain so I apologize if that was confusing.

My heart ached for the England while I read this.  I know it is cliche to label the environment as one of the characters, but with Hardy it is true.  The way everybody reacted to the heath was indicative of the deeper natures of their characters.   For Clym, the heath represented something untamable and beautiful, so his attraction to Eustacia felt very natural.  For Eustacia, the heath was oppressive in its wildness, which is ironic, given the similarities between her and the home she loathes.  I suppose some might call her the villain of the novel, but she was far more interesting than her vanilla counterpart, Thomasin.

Beautifully written and I can't wait for my next Hardy.

RATING: *****

Interesting Facts:

Referenced in Catcher in the Rye.

UP NEXT: The Red Room by August Strindberg

Monday, August 8, 2016

162. Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy
1877
Around 850 pages









I knocked this one out awhile ago back when I still feared Tolstoy (now we are bosom buddies).  I listened to it every day during my commute.  There is nothing like a 19th century Russian novel to really get you pumped for the day.

Basically, a St. Petersburg aristocat, Anna Karenina, is married to a dull government official.  She begins an affair with the sexy Count Vronsky.  I haven't seen the movie adaptation but I understand that Jude Law plays Anna Karenina's husband?  Who would cheat on Jude Law??  I am not sure I should be asked to suspend my disbelief in this way.  Anyway, Anna's brother Oblonsky also cheats, but no one really cares, because he is a man.  Sigh.  Oh yes, I suppose I should mention Konstantin Levin, who attempts to woo Oblonsky's sister in law, Princess Kitty.

I found bits of this novel to be quite dull, but I am hesitant to blame that on Tolstoy.  I am really just not a fan of being read to, unless it's by a shirtless James Marsters.  Still, I don't think this was as strong as War and Peace.  The secondary characters were nowhere near as rich and I ended up finding Levin's story rather tiresome.  I wanted more tawdry descriptions of Anna's affair, not endless details about Levin's moping.

In any case, I think if you are going to dedicate yourself to a long Russian novel, it should be War and Peace.  Still, it's Tolstoy so it is worth a read.

RATING: ****-

Interesting Facts:

Praised by Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, and Faulkner.

Trailer from YouTube:


UP NEXT: Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

161. L'Assommoir

L'Assommoir
The Drunkard
Emile Zola
1877
Around 400 pages












Once again, I hang my head in shame for being away for so long.  I always reread my favorite series every summer.  I have also been cheating on the List a lot.  It's not my fault that the Zola collection at my library sucks.  Anyway, I finally got around to reading this one on my iPad.  While it certainly wasn't terrible, it was definitely a downgrade from Therese Raquin.

Gervaise is abandoned by her drunk and abusive lover, Lantier, leaving her with two young sons and almost no money.  She marries Coupeau, a roofing engineer, and they have a daughter named Nana (uh oh. I can see where this is going).  Gervaise opens her own laundry and all seems right in the world.  That is, until Coupeau falls off one of the roofs he was working on.  During his recovery, he begins to drink and loses all desire to ever work again.   Lantier returns and Coupeau invites him to stay with them because...um...alcoholics be crazy?

I read that this book was taken up by temperance workers across the world as an example of the dangers of alcoholism.  It is easy to see why.  According to this novel, if men get a drop of alcohol in their systems, they start kicking their wives to death.  Apparently Zola claimed his novel was more than just a teetotaler's wet dream.  I suppose you could argue that Gervaise's pride was just as destructive as Coupeau's alcoholism.  Still, it was a bit heavy handed for my taste.  I mean, did we really need to hear about Gervaise's drunk neighbor beating his wife and daughter to death? We could all save some time by just watching The Lost Weekend instead.

It became clear within the first ten pages what direction this novel was headed in, making for a rather predictable experience.  In any case, it's Zola, which means it's well written.  Still, after Therese Raquin I was hoping for a bit more depth.

RATING: ***--

Interesting Facts:

The title refers to shops that sell cheap liquor, enabling the working class to drown their sorrows.  The shops were popular in late nineteenth century Paris.

UP NEXT: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  I have already read this, so you don't have to expect a three month gap until the next post.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

160. Virgin Soil

Virgin Soil
Ivan Turgenev
1877
Around 300 pages













I was rather disappointed that this was the last Turgenev novel on the List, as I greatly enjoyed Spring Torrents and King Lear of the Steppes.   After this book, I am quite glad we are done with him.   Maybe I should be grateful that he made our break up easier.

Alexey Dmitrievich Nezhdanov is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat.  Has there ever been a Russian novel that didn't have a character named Alexey in it?  Anyway, he gets a job as a tutor to the young son of Vasily Solomin, a local politician.  He meets and is instantly attracted to the idealistic Marianna, Solomin's niece.  Marianna is hated by her vain aunt, most likely because of her youth and political opinions.  Alexey hopes to connect with peasants and get them involved in politics.

I don't think I did a very good job of explaining the plot, but I kind of checked out halfway through.  There are plenty of overtly political novels that I have taken to, some even taking place in Russia.  But I just couldn't get interested in the 1870s Russian Populist movement.  I am going to go out on a limb here and say most people wouldn't find this novel very compelling.  Turgenev seemed more interested in getting his political agenda across than telling a good story.  Knowing what a good storyteller Turgenev can be, this was a huge disappointment.

I don't want to end on a sour note, so I will say that Turgenev's works have enriched my life; Spring Torrents continues to resonate with me.  He is probably my second favorite Russian author, after Tolstoy.  Still, I would avoid this one.

RATING: **---

Interesting Facts:

Don't really have any interesting trivia for this one, but I will provide my official ranking of Turgenev novels:

1. Spring Torrents
2. King Lear of the Steppes
3. On The Eve
4. Fathers and Sons
5. Virgin Soil

UP NEXT: Drunkard by Emile Zola.  Long time, no see with Zola but I thoroughly enjoyed Therese Raquin so I am looking forward to it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

159. Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda
George Eliot
1876
Around 750 pages












For once I don't have to start off the post by apologizing for not writing for several months, as it has only been a few weeks since my last entry.  This is the fifth and final George Eliot novel on the List.  I am quite sad to see her go, although I won't miss having to tell people who have to comment on the book I am reading that Eliot is, in fact, a woman.

The novel really follows two main characters, both of whom are worthy of being title characters.  I guess it is no secret that Eliot believes a male name carries more...zing.  In any case, Daniel Deronda is the ward of Sir Hugo Mallinger.  He is unsure about his family history, even wondering if Sir Hugo may actually be his father.  Daniel finds himself attracted to the beautiful (or not beautiful?) Gwendolen Harleth at a roulette table.  Gwendolen is touched by Daniel's kindness but is forced to marry the cruel and controlling Grandcourt because of her family's financial troubles.   Meanwhile, Daniel rescues a young Jewish woman (or Jewess as they repeatedly say, making me cringe) from attempting to drown herself in the Thames.  Daniel promises to look after her, getting involved in London's Jewish community in the process.

Sorry if that plot summary was a bit scattered, but it is hard to encompass the content of a 750 page novel in a paragraph.  I was pretty shocked by the majority of this book.  I was expecting a typical romance novel, one that would follow the relationship between Gwendolen and Daniel.  Instead, its sole cause seems to be to support the Zionist movement.  It's odd, because we have seen incredibly cringe worthy Jewish characters in the past (i.e. Oliver Twist).  I guess this is supposed to be progressive, but Eliot still describes Jewish people as if they are another species.  It is, of course, not as bad as what we have seen in the past, but it is still rather tough to read sometimes.  It is so dated now it is hard not to judge by today's standards.  It does seem like at times she promotes the very same prejudices she intends to condemn.  Certainly the ending wasn't very progressive.

Still, it is Eliot so it is elegantly written with fascinating characters.  I still think Middlemarch is her true masterpiece, but this is worth a read as well.

RATING: ****-

Interesting Facts:

George Henry Lewes, George Eliot's lover, said "The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody."

UP NEXT: Virgin Soil by Ivan Turgenev, which will be our last Turgenev on the List.  Lots of goodbyes lately, although I will definitely miss George more than Ivan.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

158. The Hand of Ethelberta

The Hand of Ethelberta
Thomas Hardy
1876
Around 460 pages












It has been a couple of months since I posted, so I apologize for the delay.  I feel like I start every post with that sentence.  Here's the flimsy excuse for this time: I was reading A Dance To The Music of Time, which is the second longest "book" on our list (it's actually a series of twelve novels).  I was reading that for approximately a thousand years, but I FINALLY finished and was able to knock this one out in a couple of days.

Ethelberta Pershwin (I have to admit the name kind of floored me) is a young widow and talented "poetess."  Because of her husband's wealth and social rank, she was forbidden to see her somewhat destitute family.  When her husband dies, Ethelberta is once again strapped for cash so she decides to make a living as a storyteller and poet.  To prevent London society from discovering her low family, she pretends that all of her relatives are actually her servants.  And apparently everyone is okay with this.  She is also courted by four different men (because love triangles are passé).

I am a little confused about why this was included on The List, as it doesn't really stand out compared to Thomas Hardy's other work.  It is not a bad novel by any means.  As with any Hardy, it is filled with rich descriptions and clever dialogue.  Maybe it was the characters that made this one fall flat.  Ethelberta is our usual perfect female lead, worshipped by both men and women.  At least Bathsheba had personality traits besides "flawless."  The ending also rubbed me the wrong way as it was decidedly un-Hardyish.

Still, I love Hardy so even his lackluster novels fill me with delight.

RATING: ***--

Interesting Facts:

Published in serial form for the Cornhill Magazine.

UP NEXT: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.  I have high hopes for this one, as I adore George Eliot.

Friday, January 22, 2016

157. The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Gustave Flaubert
1874
Around 260 pages











Well that was truly horrendous. I never expected anything like that to come from Flaubert.  I feel more betrayed than when the man I was in love with chose another woman over me.  After all, I trust my books far more than I have ever trusted men.

Where to begin on this "novel."  It is actually written in the form of a play script, so I don't know if it can be rightfully called a novel.  It is clear from how fantastical it is that it could never actually be performed so perhaps writing it in that format was some kind of Joycean stylistic choice to convey....something.  I have no idea.  The "story" follows Saint Anthony as he tempted by a myriad of things over the course of one night.  I think.  My knowledge of early church/Roman history isn't great.  I really had no clue what was going on and Flaubert didn't seem that troubled to let people in on anything if they didn't get the references.

I felt like I was reading Maldoror 2. Some of the images in this story were truly horrific, like when Flaubert walked us through the castration of some crazy guy.  I could not believe that this was the same Flaubert who delighted me with Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education.  It felt like it was written by an uber religious Russian hermit.  According to Wikipedia, Flaubert worked on this novel "fitfully" for most of his adult life.  Wow. I hope I can forgive him for this and remember the good times.  It will take a lot of healing to get back to that place.

RATING: *----

Interesting Facts:

Has overwhelmingly positive reviews on Goodreads.  I find that mind boggling.

Before this, I read Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day.  Absolutely beautiful.

UP NEXT: The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy.  Back into the safe, warm embrace of Hardy.

Monday, January 18, 2016

156. Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
1874
Around 500 pages








I completely devoured Ian McEwan's Saturday, but as I was having trouble with nausea because of my pain medication, I made myself sick from reading so much.  I was still eager to know the ending, so I had my mother read the last twenty pages out loud for me.  Thankfully, I don't have that problem anymore and could read Far From the Madding Crowd without vomiting.

Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful young woman who inherits her uncle's farm.  Despite Thomas Hardy's barely contained sexism, Bathsheba commands the respect and love of her employees.  She attracts the attention of three men and each romance plays out in shocking ways.

I absolutely loved this novel.  I became completely obsessed with these characters and all I wanted to do was to sit with my bowl of M&Ms and read about Bathsheba's farm.  I know Thomas Hardy always describes landscapes beautifully, but I didn't expect him to make me laugh out loud with his narration.  I thought watching the three types of love develop was the most compelling part of the story.  You had Gabriel Oak's love of Bathsheba, which was solid, unwavering, but also a bit dull and unromantic.  Then you had Farmer Boldwood's love, which was irrational and crazed.  Finally, you had Francis Troy's "love" which was based on sexual desire and self flattery.  Being in my 20s, I have experienced quite a few Troys.

I think a lot of people find Bathsheba annoying, but really, I don't think it is her fault that the men around her are a bit loony.  I probably should wind this down.  I loved it and it is certainly a promising start to our Hardy phase.

RATING: *****

Interesting Facts:

Fourth of Hardy's novels and first major literary success.

The title comes from a poem; the word "madding" means frenzied.

Trailer for the latest adaptation.  Readers, is it worth watching?

UP NEXT: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert.  I do adore Flaubert but that is a rather frightening title.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

155. The Enchanted Wanderer

The Enchanted Wanderer
Nikolai Leskov
1873
Around 300 pages













I can't believe my last post was almost two months ago!  I have several good excuses for this.  In the past month and a half, I have moved then had my long distance boyfriend visit for two weeks.  On Friday, I had surgery that will leave me confined to my bed for months.  The silver lining of this is that I will have plenty of time to read and update this blog!  My pain is your gain.

Basically, we have an insufferable male character who was "promised to God" by his mother.  He refuses to join a monastery and so must suffer through many trials.  I almost felt like this was a parody of a Russian novel since everyone was so miserable.  At one point, a man ordered vodka.  He said he couldn't pay for it so instead ate the glass.

With a name like "the Enchanted Wanderer" I expected some bright eyed, earnest person who explores the world.  Instead, we got a complete psychopath who gives away babies and tortures cats.  What a waste of time that was.  I am in quite a bit of pain right now and I need really amazing books!  Hopefully the next one will impress.

RATING: **--- (two stars only because it was a bit short)

Interesting Facts:

Critics were generally lukewarm about this book upon its first release.

UP NEXT: Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.  I have actually heard of this one so maybe it will be a good read.