December’s Classic: Wuthering Heights #CBAM2017

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As we wrap-up November and our latest classic, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, it’s time to start planning for December! This time, I chose a popular classic that I have read just once before, many years ago, but that was due for a re-read and seemed “just right” for a winter read: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë!

This is the last month of the Classic Book-a-Month Club for 2017. I have not decided whether to bring this club back again in 2018. There didn’t seem to be much participation or interest this year, so at the moment it doesn’t seem like it would be worth it. That said, I am certainly open to doing this again next year if there’s enough interest. I have already thought of about 6 out of the 12 books I would like to have the club read, but would take suggestions for the other 6.

In addition, whether or not this Club returns, I am hosting The Official TBR Pile Challenge again in 2018, as well as a year-long Bible As Literature challenge, where we will read the Christian bible cover-to-cover and from a secular, literary perspective. 

About the December Selection:

Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine’s father.

After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine’s brother Hindley and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries.

The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

Schedule:

  • December 1st: Begin reading
  • December 15th: Mid-point Check-In
  • December 31st: Final Thoughts

Feel free to read at your own pace, post at your own pace (or not at all), and drop by to comment/chat about the book at any point. The schedule above is just the one I plan to use in order to keep myself organized and to provide some standard points and places for anyone who is reading along to get together and chat. Don’t forget: We have a Goodreads group! And we’re using #CBAM2017 to chat on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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A Book Lover’s Holiday Gift Guide and Giveaway!

Back in October, I shared that The Folio Society had at last completed their complete Jane Austen collection, with the publication of the illustrated Mansfield Park. As I mentioned at that time, my friends at The Folio Society were gearing up for a big holiday release and, as a “thank you” to the readers of my blog, who have always been big Folio Society fans, they wanted to return this week and offer you all something special. (More on that at the bottom of this post!)

First, though, I thought I would share with you some new treasures I discovered in the Holiday Catalog. If you are still thinking about gifts for the special bookworms in your life, I have to recommend these beautiful editions of classic literature (they also have texts from philosophy, science, religion, etc.) What is special about these editions is not just the fact that they are illustrated with stunning work by some of the most talented artists today, but they are beautifully bound in illustrated covers and come in sturdy slip-cases, which is important for protecting the look (and value) of these books, especially for long-time collectors. One of my favorite features, though, is that each edition comes with a new introduction. Take The Folio Society’s new edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, for example; it is introduced by the incomparable Margaret Atwood!

Anyway, my perusal of the holiday catalog led to my acquiring 4 (technically 5!) new editions from The Folio Society. (Side note: there is also a Children’s Gift Ideas guide, from which I was VERY TEMPTED to get a few more items, but I had to restrain myself). The texts I picked-up for myself are: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner & Three Other Poems; and a dual edition from Philip K. Dick, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly. I have to say, even though I have collected a fair number of Folio Society books over the years, I was absolutely stunned by these new editions. The  cover art, especially, is beyond beautiful. I keep my books in their slip-cases in order to protect them, but someday I hope to purchase a display cabinet where I can put all of these out, front cover forward, because they are so beautiful.

As for the interior illustrations, well, take a look for yourself:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

“I think that the book which I put down with the unqualified thought ‘I wish I had written that’ is Moby-Dick” -William Faulkner

Following the huge success of their 2009 limited edition, Folio has reproduced Moby-Dick in a new collector’s edition. Featuring Rockwell Kent’s illustrations and bound in rich cloth, this is a fine presentation of what is regarded by many as the greatest American novel.

Herman Melville’s tale of the hunt for the white whale, Moby-Dick, is a sublime work of the imagination, an American Odyssey. It is at once an adventure story of the high seas, and an exploration of the uncharted regions of the soul.

A Scanner Darkly and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It is difficult to measure the impact of Philip K. Dick’s work. Not only did his stories and novels win awards and influence an entire generation of science-fiction writers, many of his works have been adapted into film and continue to inspire directors to this day.

Alongside Ridley Scott’s genre-changing Blade Runner, inspired by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the films Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and the recent television series The Man in the High Castle all owe their existence to his imagination.

For this special edition, The Folio Society have brought together two classic titles in an appropriately mind-bending format: read one, then turn the book upside down to enter the altered reality of the next.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“It has everything I have been able to learn about my art or craft or profession in all these years,” wrote John Steinbeck of East of Eden, the novel he considered his magnum opus.

Coolly received when it was first published in 1952, it has grown in stature and popularity ever since, and is now recognized as the author’s most ambitious and accomplished work.

This magnificent edition, published to celebrate the winner of Folio’s 2017 Readers’ Choice Fiction Competition, and produced with the highest design and production values, is a fitting testament to Steinbeck’s remarkable achievement.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Three Other Poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the most innovative and influential of all the English Romantic poets. This beautiful edition emulates our popular limited edition, with four immortal poems superbly illustrated by Harry Brockway, one of the UK’s leading wood-engravers. A striking binding design by the artist and a blocked slipcase make this the perfect vessel for Coleridge’s fantastical journeys.

This supernatural ballad was conceived as Coleridge walked in the Quantock Hills with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. From this initial inspiration Coleridge labored for five months, changing a traditional ballad stanza into an astonishingly flexible and musical unit of varying length. Lyrical Ballads, his collaboration with Wordsworth, opened with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It became the keynote of the book, indeed of English Romanticism as a whole.

The poem is a gripping tale of death, damnation and expiation. But it is also an allegory of sin and repentance, a mystical account of man’s fall from Grace through the symbolic killing of an innocent creature. For some critics, the mariner represents the poet himself: Coleridge wrote of his “Mind shipwrecked by storms of doubt, now mastless, rudderless, shattered, – pulling in the dead swell of a dark and windless Sea.” Just like the wedding guest, halted by the mariner and unable to break away, the reader is entranced by this visionary poem.

Important Dates

  • The last day to order for holiday delivery is December 8 (midnight EST).
  • The last day for express delivery is December 14 (midnight EST).

Giveaway!

Now for the really fun part! The Folio Society is saying HAPPY THANKSGIVING, and wishing you all early luck in your holiday shopping season by offering up one copy of their new edition of MANSFIELD PARK to a lucky winner. What do you have to do to be entered to win?

  1. Be a WordPress or an e-mail subscriber of this blog (click the thingamajig in the side-menu).
  2. Leave a comment on this post, including your e-mail handle in case you win, sharing what you are most looking forward to this holiday season! And let me know how/where you subscribe to or follow this blog.
  3. Follow me on Twitter @RoofBeamReader. (1 bonus entry)

The giveaway will close on “Black Friday” (this Friday, November 24th) at 11:59pm Pacific Time. All valid entries will be counted and winner will be chosen randomly via Random.org. Winner will have 72-hours to respond to e-mail notification with request for shipping information before new winner is chosen. Roof Beam Reader is not responsible for items lost in the mail, damaged, etc. Item will be shipped from the publisher. Folio Society editions are available exclusively at http://www.foliosociety.com.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

Recommended Reading: Bending Boundaries

i4ndexWhat is the heart and soul of literature? What is the purpose of a reading-driven life? I believe people who read a lot, and with variety, are uniquely placed to learn more about the world, its history and its people, and to become more compassionate, tolerant, and patient because of their reading experiences.

These are the real reasons why I love to read the classics. Yes, they’re an escape; they can be beautifully written, exciting, scary, and emotionally charged. But, mostly, they teach me, and show me, more about the world and its people and places than anything else ever could.

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The books below are some of my favorites, and they’ve all helped me to experience the world in ways that I couldn’t possibly in my own life. They’ve transported me to a different world, taught me about different cultures, and helped me step into the shoes of people who are different from me. From the poverty and union movements of French miners to the experience of Jewish people during the Holocaust; from the lives of women, gay and straight, to the experience of black men and women, Latino immigrants, German philosophers, religious leaders and spiritual seekers, and the mentally and physically disabled. The books below can teach us so much about the world, past, present, and future.

Even dystopian fiction like A Handmaid’s Tale helps us to explore gender roles and the dangerous, complex, and unfair power structures established to keep women subservient. I am not going to write specific thoughts on these, and there are so many more I could have included, but I do highly recommend the list of books below. I’ve reviewed some of these here at Roof Beam Reader. Unfortunately, I read a number of them before I began blogging, so I don’t have reviews to share.

  1. Germinal by Emile Zola
  2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  3. The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes
  4. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  5. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
  6. Night by Elie Wiesel
  7. The Diary of Anne Frank
  8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  9. Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark
  10. Rain God by Arturo Islas
  11. Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas
  12. Wonder by RJ Palacio
  13. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  14. A Rasin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  15. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  16. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
  17. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  19. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  20. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Which books have allowed you to truly step into another’s shoes? To experience a completely different lifestyle? Please share your own recommendations!

Thoughts on 3 Classics

This year, I am hosting a “Classic Book-A-Month Club,” hosted on Goodreads. So far, we have read: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; the Oedipus Cycle (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) by Sophocles; The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Next month’s selection is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville. 

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

This is the third Wharton novel I’ve read, following The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome (read twice). Compared to these others, House of Mirth was a struggle. I didn’t feel invested in the story until about 3/4 of the way into it. I didn’t find the protagonist, Lily Bart, to be a compelling or sympathetic character, as I’m sure readers are meant to. I can certainly see what Wharton is trying to say about the “somber economics of marriage” and “the powerlessness of the unwed woman” at the turn of the twentieth century, but for the most part, I just wasn’t made to care. Normally, this is the kind of story I would empathize with, so I’m not sure what exactly left me feeling so ambivalent and detached. Certainly, personal circumstances may have gotten in the way (this is why I’m still a proponent of reader-response theory; you cannot convince me that one’s personal relationship with a book at a particular moment in time does not matter). I did begin to respond near the end of the novel, when Lily’s circumstances were most dire not necessarily because of her own poor decisions, but because of the pettiness and prejudices of her supposed friends and family. I’ll admit that, had Lily’s circumstances been entirely predicated upon others’ terrible personalities, I probably would have found the story a bit too pathetic and fatalistic (at least currently). The realism, then, is both appealing and off-putting. I found myself thinking Lily Bart had any number of opportunities to turn her situation around, but didn’t. Then, I realized I was becoming psychologically and emotionally attached to her despair because of the personal/professional situation in which I’ve found myself this past year; this perhaps intruded on my experience and prevented me from being able to sink into the story itself, to appreciate it for what it is. I’ll have to give this one a re-read, someday, when I can read it more carefully and from a more receptive/less sensitive position. I’m glad to have finished another title from my Classics Club list, though. 

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This was a re-read for me, and one that was a long time coming. I started reading it when I was about half-way into The House of Mirth and ultimately got to the end of each ’round about the same time. This was not a good thing. I had a very personal relationship with this book for a very long time. As a result, it colored my impression of it for years. Reading it again has been a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, I no longer feel as desperately attached to the doomed relationship Fitzgerald presents in Dick and Nicole Diver (fictionalized versions of Francis and Zelda). In a way, I suppose this means that enough time has passed, and I’ve changed enough, to let go of certain difficult memories and experiences. On the negative side, I did not find the story as interesting or beautifully written as I once imagined. I used to argue vehemently that this book is far superior to The Great Gatsby. Now, I’m not so sure. I think they’re close, but Gatsby may indeed be the masterpiece. I was reminded, however, that Fitzgerald deals with homosexuality in this novel; I had completely forgotten this. He includes homosexual innuendo in Gatsby, too, and he’s one of the very few major literary figures of the time to do this (in more than one work, I now realize). Of course, the portrayal here is not a glowing one, which makes one wonder at the more naturally incorporated moment in Gatsby. Was one of these pre-Hemingway and the other post? This would be interesting to explore. In any event, as a piece of expatriate American literature and a study of marriage, mental illness, incest, psychology, and the like, it’s still a damn fine book. It’s just, somehow, not at all what I remembered. The situation of reading this alongside House of Mirth, at this particular time of my life, also created some problems. The combined assault on my emotional connection to this story plus my closeness to Lily Bart’s circumstances left me feeling exhausted and despondent. Simply bad timing. 

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Honestly, what took me so long to read this? I haven’t “reviewed” a book in many, many months. I think it’s safe to say that Hansberry’s play is the reason I’m back at it. It’s always such a thrill to read a book that is so alive, so important, so visceral, that it rekindles my faith in the art of literature itself. I’ve never considered myself much of a drama aficionado. I’ve read a number of plays, seen some, and almost always find something to praise; yet, I also somehow think that reading drama is not quite an honest endeavor, because drama is meant for the stage. Still, I loved the characters in this book, their diversity and range of experiences, even while most of them were members of the same single-household family (there’s an opportunity for me to teach Intro to Drama next spring, an opportunity I was not really considering, but I think I’ve changed my mind completely). I loved the main plot and the minor sub-plots, the neighbors interventions and the “I’m not a racist, but…” moments. I loved that the play is set in Chicago, a liberal beacon of the north, and yet reveals the hypocritical racism on which neighborhoods were founded and that we have yet to overcome. I needed this play after my experiences with House of Mirth and Tender is the Night. While the story is still one of desperation, it has a much more hopeful ending. Of course, if I think too hard about it, I have to admit that the reality that probably found the Younger family was probably not a pleasant one. But Hansberry leaves this open, to be determined, which at least offers the possibility that these good people might make it, after all. And, in that way, so too might we all. I can’t think of a message more necessary right now than this. 

Classic Book Tag

I believe this originated at Dear diary…, but don’t quote me on that. Anyhow, I needed something fun to occupy my mind as  I struggle to stay above the Charybdis of despair that advances closer with each passing day (“I’ll think on it tomorrow”). So, why not think about the pleasantness that is my love for classic literature?

An over-hyped classic you never really liked: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I’ve really enjoyed some of Ray Bradbury’s stuff, but this is one of his most famous and, perhaps given the time in which it was published that makes sense. I really couldn’t get into it, though. I had a similar reaction to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Perhaps those original, pulp-esque sorts of science-fiction novels just aren’t for me. I might have too difficult a time suspending my present-day awareness of science to be so enthralled by texts which so predate our current understanding. That being said, I love Kurt Vonnegut & a lot of his stuff is science-fiction. Maybe it’s really about the style of writing. In fact, now that I think on it, that’s probably much more likely.

Favorite time period to read about: That’s a tough question. I really enjoy reading about the French Revolution, for some reason. There was a year not too long ago when I was absolutely obsessed with it and bought dozens of books (mostly histories, but some fiction) about it. I also enjoy reading about the Great Depression/Dust Bowl era of the United States. I suppose I’m inspired by stories about the power of humanity and our ability to come together in the worst of times, stare down adversity, and win. Right now, that sort of sentiment is both appealing and depressing, given the state of our politics. I wonder if we will be able to dig out of this hole we’ve gotten into. It seems the most precarious time in our nation’s short history, and that’s saying quite a bit given what we’ve been through (and put others through).

Favorite fairytale: I can’t say I’m necessarily a reader of fairytales. I guess I like a good fairytale movie, but do I actually ever read them? I can’t recall doing so, except for a collection of the Brothers Grimm. I do like adaptations, though, such as Robert Coover’s postmodernist take on Sleeping Beauty. In this case, Coover retells the classic story in a number of ways, including one in which it is a prince who becomes trapped in a briar patch. I think Briar Rose is a really fascinating piece of literary work and also a stimulating study of human desire. I don’t know (personally) anyone else who has read it, so I suppose this is a moment to encourage you all to do so.

Classic you’re most embarrassed not to have read: I don’t think I’m embarrassed not to have read anything. I know that my “to read” list is substantial, by which I mean, insanely large and ever-growing. I am annoyed, however, to have begun a few classics that I haven’t finished. These include Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (which I’m working on). At least three of these (Radcliffe, Eliot & Wharton) are on my Classics Club list, so I must finish. I can’t think of any others that I began but did not finish, so I suppose that’s some kind of accomplishment. But, I’m a “finish what you start” kind of person, so these “failures” will continue to irk me until I’ve completed them.

Top 5 classics you want to read: This is always an impossible question, so please take this with a grain of salt and know that, on any given day, this list could be entirely different. At the moment, though, here are five that I really hope to read sometime soon. None of these are re-reads, but I should note that there are plenty of classics I want to re-read at some point, either because I read them a long time ago and can’t be sure that I remember them and/or would respond to them the same way, now, or because I adore them and want to read them again and again and again. That should be another list. Maybe I’ll make that list. Hm. Anyway! Here are five that are on my mind right now:

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  • So Big by Edna Ferber
  • The Story of Avis by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Favorite modern book/series based on a classic: If I’m being honest, I think I have to go with any of the Rick Riordan children’s (middle grade) books based on classical mythologies (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse). If I had to rank them, I’d probably say: 1) Percy Jackson and the Olympians; 2) The Heroes of Olympus; 3) The Trials of Apollo; 4) The Kane Chronicles 5) Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. I also really enjoyed some other modern re-tellings, such as Wide Sargasso Sea (“prequel” to Jane Eyre), Jack Maggs (retelling of Great Expectations from the perspective of the criminal, Magwitch), and Speakers of the Dead (which isn’t really a modern retelling; it’s a new mystery series which casts a young Walt Whitman as its protagonist. So much fun!).

Favorite movie/television adaptation of a classic: Don’t crucify me for this, but I think I have to go with some of the more free adaptations, such as The Lion KingPride and Prejudice and Zombies10 Things I Hate About YouGet Over It, and Edward II directed by Derek Jarman. Huh. I just realized all of these are based on plays (mostly Shakespeare, plus one Marlowe) with a Jane Austen spin-off thrown in. I must like other classic-to-film adaptations, but I can’t think of any right now. (Was Ethan Frome good? I remember watching it, but I don’t remember whether or not I liked it. Of course, there’s Diary of Anne FrankCall of the Wild, and some of the Great Gatsby films.) See. Best not to think too long about this. I’d be here forever.

Worst classic-to-movie adaptation: I hated Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina adaptation. That’s all I have to say about it.

Favorite editions you would like to collect more of: I absolutely love the Penguin Deluxe Classics editions with the beveled edges. I also like the Penguin Clothbound editions, but if I started collecting those it would be just to have them, not to read them. The Puffin editions are cute, but I don’t have any of them and I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to collect them. I do love Folio edition and editions from The Easton Press. These are the more high-priced, leather-bound, “look at my fancy and expensive library” sorts of editions that you would want to insure and keep in a climate controlled case. So, naturally, I don’t have very many (my parents did get me the complete Sherlock Holmes from The Easton Press, though, which was unbelievably generous of them.) As for favorite editions that I like to collect and actually read, I go with the Penguin Classics and the Norton Critical editions, all the way.

An under-hyped classic: There are three books that I always think of whenever someone mentions this category or something like it. The first is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade and the second is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordan Pym of Nantucket. Melville’s Confidence-Man was his last completed novel and the last to be published during his lifetime (the rest of his publications were poetry and Billy Budd, which was unfinished, was published posthumously). This book is essentially an American response to Milton’s Paradise Lost. I plan to read both Paradise Lost and The Confidence-Man sometime this summer, as I’ve never read them together (but it’s something I think will be highly illuminating). One gets a sense of Melville’s loneliness and despair in this last novel. It was released 6 years after his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, which was not well-received and which left him both financially spent and critically dismissed. We know better now, of course, but the brilliance and pathos of The Confidence-Man, read in context, is not to be missed.

I also think Poe’s sole narrative, Arthur Gordon Pym, is well worth reading, even if it isn’t the most well-written piece. It further demonstrates Poe’s talent and range, though, and reminds us that Poe was not just a short story writer and poet, but also a brilliant literary critic who knew a great deal about literature and the novel, too. It very much feels like Poe and, if one remembers that what he was doing was being done first by him, it encourages a deep appreciation for the poor man.

The third novel I usually recommend is Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden. I think this is my favorite Hemingway work, despite the fact that it was never finished. Hemingway worked on it for many, many years, always refusing to finish it or to publish it, likely because it revealed too much of himself. Anyone who has read a lot of Hemingway will be surprised by this one, I think, because it is intensely emotional, sexually explorative, and psychologically complex; in short, everything Hemingway always tried to suppress, or at least hide, in his other works.  Garden of Eden left me breathless, so it’s hard not to recommend it, and yet I also kind of like keeping this one to myself.

Thoughts: The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy

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The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is loved by many with the same passion and intensity as books like The Catcher in the Rye are loved by others. And many readers find this one just as difficult to enjoy as The Catcher in the Rye, too. It is unlikely that one will get through a graduate program in American Literature without hearing this book mentioned at least a few (dozen) times. Yet, here I am, after four years of undergraduate study in English/American literature and another 5 years of graduate study in English/American literature, and I have just now read it.

The book won the National Book Award and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels. At the same time, it’s a darkly didactic, existential novel. Walker Percy was an enormous fan of Søren Kierkegaard, and that influence is recognizable in this work (although much more so in Percy’s later writing). Still, the heaviness is balanced, here, with a poetic narrative structure that gives some lightness to the rather despondent tone.

The Moviegoer is set in New Orleans not long after the Korean War. It tells the story of Binx Bolling, a stock-broker just about to turn 30 years old. Bolling is basically isolated from the world, though he holds a job and interacts with family and friends. Still, there is a willing distance brought on by family problems and his traumatic experiences in the war, but also by the general decline of southern tradition which is the underlying theme for the entire work.

To cope with his depression and anxiety, Bolling has taken to constant daydreaming. He enjoys routine and repetition, these are safe, and he finds meaning and comfort in movies and books rather than the real world, which is why he cannot manage to maintain any healthy or lasting relationships (even his most loving, meaningful relationship is rather disturbing).

At Mardi Gras, Bolling decides to break his routine and set out on a journey in search of his true self. This quest takes him on a rather directionless and ultimately pointless meandering around New Orleans’ French Quarter, down around the Gulf Coast, up to Chicago and back again. Although he interacts with people he meets along the way and has some insightful and poignant moments, these experiences essentially amount to little of substance. Bolling is making an effort, mostly unconscious, to maintain a vague existence. He wants to be open to life’s possibilities, or so he says, but he is basically unhappy, unsettled, and unfulfilled.

Still, though Binx is an oddball–mentally unstable, emotionally stunted, and intellectually uninspiring–he yet has a bizarre and unsettling charm, an eccentric and darkly humorous personality that is simultaneously off-putting and somehow familiar. His flaws, that he is homophobic, sexist, and racist, are not glossed; and yet, the honest depiction of this disturbed southern “gentleman” almost, almost, adds to the charm of his character.

In another place, at another time, it would be quite easy to fall head-over-heels in love with Binx and his story, for his disillusion and his complete willingness to admit that there’s just not a lot in the real world that is worth living for. We could fall for him as simply as teenage boys have, for decades, fallen for Holden Caufield’s antagonistic, self-indulgent cynicism. But, for me, I think that time has mostly passed – and for that, I am grateful. 

What is the nature of the search? Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: 21+

Interest: Southern Literature, New Orleans, American Existentialism, PTSD, Depression.