Friday, July 21, 2017

174. A rebours

A rebours
Against the Grain
Joris-Karl Huysmans
1884
Around 200 pages













I have been about 75 pages into this book for weeks, unable to make myself finish it.  It's so strange that a 200 page novel could feel as long winded as an entry in A Dance to the Music of Time.  Finally today I forced myself to endure the remaining pages.  I am going to treat myself to something wonderfully trashy as a reward.

Clearly inspired by the vastly superior Bouvard and Pecuchet, Against the Grain tells the story of Jean des Essientes, the last member of a noble family.  He once lived a life of debauchery in Paris (we get it List Books, Paris=vice), but now seeks a quieter life in the country.  He then has some wacky misadventures, like when he gets a toothache or when he tries to encrust his tortoise's shells with jewels and accidentally kills it.  Okay, the adjective "wacky" might have been a bit too generous.

I am racking my brain trying to think of redeeming qualities of this film.  Let's see.  I suppose the literary references might be of interest to my fellow nerds, but the allusions are somewhat obscure.  In fact, this entire novel is so firmly situated in a specific place and time that it felt incredibly foreign to me (and this is coming from someone who thought The Female Quixote was relatable).

I would recommend sticking to Flaubert.

RATING: **---

Interesting Facts:

Considered the ultimate example of "decadent" literature.

UP NEXT: Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

173. The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Leo Tolstoy
1886
Around 100 pages












After A Woman's Life, we were clearly in need of something a bit more cheerful.  Enter The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Ivan Ilyich lives a completely ordinary life as a magistrate, providing for his demanding wife, equally awful daughter, and son.  One day, he is putting up curtains and falls (this is why my apartment does not have curtains; it has nothing to do with laziness), resulting in some sort of terminal malady.  As Ivan is dying, he realizes his whole life has been a waste.

In fiction, death is often romanticized.  People get to die for the people they love, it's always sudden, and they often get to have amazing last words.  In real life, of course, it is nothing like that.  Tolstoy gives us an unflinching look at the agony and horror of real death.

As Tolstoy illustrates, death is senseless, drawn out, horrific...and I found myself saying, so what?  It's not like anything is going to actually prepare us for it when it happens to us.  I suppose Tolstoy is trying to impart some sort of wisdom: don't waste your life, etc.  This is pretty vague and in any case, I don't really subscribe to Tolstoy's advice.  Tolstoy as a writer I love.  Tolstoy as a philosopher?  Not so much.

Anyway, it's a short read and obviously well written.  But it is overrated in my opinion.

RATING: ***--

Interesting Facts:

Tolstoy tried to commit suicide at the age of 50 but was unsuccessful.

UP NEXT: Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

172. Une Vie

Une Vie
A Woman's Life
Guy de Maupassant
1883
Around 200 pages







I apologize for the long delay, although rest assured I was still reading.  I briefly became obsessed with the Eragon books and then I relaxed with some old favorites.  I finally picked this book up and finished it a day.

The story centers around Jeanne, an idealistic young woman who is eager to start her life after spending her formative years in a convent.  She adores her parents, and they adore her in turn, however, she dreams of falling in love and having a family of her own.  When she finally fulfills her hopes, she realizes that married life and motherhood are nothing like she thought they would be.

How many times have we seen this story before?  A woman marries someone she barely knows...and things get worse.  Off the top of my head, I can think of about ten examples from the List.  The stories are rarely boring, although they are quite depressing.  I feel like these authors are desperately trying to advise women not to trust men so much, as they see the devastating consequences in their own lives.  Well, they don't have to worry about me!  That ship sailed a long time ago.

In any case, it was a bit frustrating to read this.  I cringed at nearly every decision Jeanne made; I actually had to put the book aside for a few hours when Jeanne gave her husband her money "to look after."  At times, I wanted to shake Jeanne for her naïveté.

I guess even the smartest women can be taken in by love; just look at Bethenny Frankel (yes, I am referencing Real Housewives in a discussion about French literature).

RATING: ****-

Interesting Facts:

Leo Tolstoy said this was the best French novel since Les Miserables.

UP NEXT: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.  I've already read this one, so expect a review up shortly!

Monday, April 3, 2017

171. Treasure Island

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson
1883
Around 250 pages








After assigning such heavy novels, the Listmakers give us a bit of a break with this one.  Although it certainly doesn't qualify as a favorite, it was a fun respite from some of the denser books on the List.

Jim Hawkins, the son of an innkeeper, recently lost his father.  An old sailor, Billy Bones, arrives at his family's inn and warns Jim about a one-legged pirate.  After Billy suffers a stroke, he tells Jim that his creepy shipmates want the contents of his sea chest.  Jim discovers that the sea chest contains a treasure map and well, adventures ensue.

Obviously, this is one of the most iconic novels of all time and it was interesting to check out such a famous story.  Clearly it is not the most contemplative book I have ever read, but it was exciting and short.  We don't get a lot of junky books on this List, so I would recommend this after reading something particularly grueling.

RATING: ***--


RATING: ***--

Interesting Facts:

Robert Louis Stevenson said that this was a book for boys, and that women were excluded.  Makes sense, consider our cooties.

Invented the concept of "X marks the spot" and a pirate with a parrot on his shoulder.

UP NEXT: A Woman's Life by Guy de Maupassant.  Sounds cheerful.

Friday, March 3, 2017

170. Bouvard et Pecuchet

Bouvard et Pecuchet
Gustave Flaubert
1881
Around 350 pages












Oh, Flaubert.  What a disappointment.  I really thought after all his betrayals he would at least end on a high note.  We should have just stopped after Madame Bovary and A Sentimental Education.  I hesitate to be too hard on this one, as it was unfinished.  Who knows, maybe he was planning on scrapping most of it or rewriting chapters.  One would hope.

Bouvard and Pecuchet are two Parisian copy clerks.  They are basically the same, the only difference being that Pecuchet is a virgin.  After meeting once, they instantly become "close friends" (I guess it's too early to discuss the homosexual undertones here).  When Bouvard inherits a sizable fortune from his uncle/dad, he and Pecuchet decide to move to the countryside together (again, I think at this point we are just supposed to call them "dandies").  While there, they explore almost every academic pursuit they can think of, including medicine, botany, history, writing, literature, education...the list goes on and on.

I am sick of dealing with men who think they know everything in my real life; I really don't want to have to read about them too.  I appreciate that Flaubert was paying homage to picaresque novels, but the joke got old pretty quickly.  Personally, I was pleased when Pecuchet contracted an STD; couldn't he have written more about that?

I have no idea why this was included on The List, so I will have to check my copy for an explanation when I get home.   In any case, I highly recommend skipping this.

RATING: **---

Interesting Facts:

Flaubert claimed to have read over 1500 books in preparation for writing this novel.  Well...did he have a blog about it?

Received lukewarm reviews.  Ahem...what?  That's...shocking.

UP NEXT: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I have read this one already so expect another review shortly!

Friday, January 27, 2017

169. The House by the Medlar Tree

The House by the Medlar Tree
Giovanni Verga
1881
Around 250 pages












I have been "reading" this novel for a month now.  It is only 250 pages, but I found it to be so dull that I kept putting off finishing it.  Today I was finally able to check this one off.

Basically, the novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Toscano family.  The head of the family, Padron Ntoni, buys a large amount of lupins.  His son, Bastian, is entrusted with the lupins and sets sail to Riposto to sell them. Tragically, both he and the merchandise are lost in a storm.  I kind of lost interest after that.

Where to begin with my complaints on this one...Let's start with the treatment of women.  They are given zero interesting characteristics and are either referred to as sluts or property.  I know this is a product of the time, but having just reviewed Nana and Portrait of a Lady, it was a bit of a step backward.  I just couldn't relate to a single character in this novel.  They just didn't seem real to me.  When they were upset they would beat their breasts, rip their hair out, and screech for hours.  I am no stranger to the Italian temper (having seen every episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey), but it didn't really strike me as relatable.

Of course, Verga isn't trying to relate to me.  I'm afraid the culture gap was just a bit too wide for me to enjoy this one.

RATING: **---

Interesting Facts:

Takes place in Aci Trezza, a Sicilian village near Catania.

UP NEXT: Bouvard and Pecuchet by Gustave Flaubert.  I'm in need of some Flaubert after this.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

168. The Portrait of A Lady

The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James
1881
Around 600 pages











This is my first and only experience with Henry James, although he is represented on the List five more times.  We are off to a good start but I don't want to get my hopes up too high.  I have been hurt before (looking at you, Zola).

Isabel Archer is a young, beautiful American who is eager to experience life and maintain her liberty.  After the death of her father, she visits her rich uncle at his estate near London.  She receives two proposals of marriage but declines both, as she doesn't want to lose her independence.  Isabel receives a large legacy from her uncle, making her an even more desirable target for unscrupulous men, including the odious Gilbert Osmond.

I know Henry James has a bit of a reputation as being a drone.  Maybe this will come up more his later work, but I actually found his writing to be quite entertaining.  I did find the characterization of Isabel to be a bit off.  In the first half of the novel, she was independent and spirited.  In the second half, she shifted to a Clarissa-esque martyr and I couldn't figure out why.  Perhaps Henry James believed that women are, in the end, submissive beings.  I also found the ending to be annoyingly ambiguous.

In any case, I thought the first half of the novel was nearly perfect and I look forward to future Henry James novels.

RATING: ****-

Interesting Facts:

Henry James has said that Isabel was inspired by several of George Eliot's heroines.

UP NEXT: The House by the Medlar Tree by Giovanni Verga.  I have never heard of this one, which makes me a little nervous...

Trailer for 1996 film version.  From YouTube:

Friday, January 6, 2017

167. Nana

Nana
Emile Zola
1880
Around 500 pages












A little awhile ago I read L'Assomoir, the somewhat forgettable Zola novel about a couple being ruined by drink.  Nana was introduced as their daughter who turned to streetwalking to get by.  I wasn't exactly eager for a L'Assomoir sequel, but I suppose this was somewhat of an improvement.

Nana has been cast as the lead in the opera La blonde Venus.  While she is not very talented, she has a certain "je ne sais quoi" that makes her the toast of Paris.  The rest of the novel details the demise of every single man that pursues her.

Nana had the potential to be a great villainess, like Milady de Winter.  Unfortunately, she was just kind of bland.  Zola never really went into detail about what made Nana so special.  Perhaps he wanted to the reader to be able to project their fantasies on the character, although I think this gives Zola a tad too much credit.   In the end, the novel was just as sanctimonious as L'Assomoir, making this kind of a chore for me to get through.  We sure have had a lot of preachy novels lately.

Two more Zola novels to go!  Why did Therese Raquin have to be so good?  Now everything else is a disappointment.


RATING: ***--

Interesting Facts:

Emile Zola used Blanche d'Antigny, a famous prostitute and actress, as his inspiration for Nana.

UP NEXT: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  This is another one I have read already, so you can expect another post shortly!