Category Archives: Literature

Let’s Get Literal – The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 66/100Title: The Wind in the Willows
Author: Kenneth Grahame
Year: 1908
Country: UK

The Wind in the Willows is the first book that I have read completely at home in ten years. Ever since then there’s been a commute or a plane journey – instead of what this strange new normal of forever being in the flat and commuting across the living room to the dining table. As someone who has seen numerous adaptations (including the pretty pants Disney one) this is a story I know well, so chose the book to lift the spirits.

What I find the most interesting about The Wind in the Willows, being a children’s book, is how there two very different speeds and types of genre at play. On the one hand you have the quick-paced story around Toad and his shenanigans around stealing card and escaping prison dressed as a washer-woman. On the other, a slower paced tale of life on the riverbank where we see how Rat and Mole live together and interact with their environs and their good friend badger. This latter slower section deals more in mysticism and features a relationship that feels so much like queer romance disguised as two animals… well you can see which half I have always been drawn to.

Honestly, even as a child watching adaptations – the animated one with Michael Palin and Rik Mayall – I was always more of a fan of the Mole/Rat sections. Toad, on the other hand, just irritated me and this is even more apparent when reading the book. At least in the different adaptations you don’t read Toad’s innermost thoughts, in the book you do and he is absolutely awful! I guess this shows the power of a “lovable” rogue for most people, but I just wanted him to suffer a bit more. I know he kinda comes good in the end – but his sections were so far and away from the thoughtful chapters with Rat and Mole that I adored.

It’s at times like this where I wish there were more of these sorts of books on the horizon for me in the books list. Everything else on the horizon feels so heavy and that’s not exactly the right kind of material for me right now…


Let’s Get Literal – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 65/100Title: Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley
Year: 1932
Country: UK

At school I studied Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Clockwork Orange, the latter as part of my AS Level coursework. In both instances, Brave New World was mentioned as another exemplar of dystopian literature and yet, despite liking both of those books, I never felt the urge to read it until this week. Well, better late than never I suppose because I devoured this book incredibly quickly.

When the initial chapters are read out, I bet they sound like a precursor to all those science podcasts that I should be listening to. In order to get us invested in this world of his creation, Huxley needs to do a lot of set up right from the get go. He does this and yet makes it incredibly engaging – even if he uses a bunch of words to describe the shapes of the heads of the different classes of people that I had no idea even existed. Same to for the word ‘freemartin’ which I am unlikely to hear ever again.

What Huxley also manages to do expertly is create a world where not only is the path from now to then feel possible in terms of history and how crap human nature can be, but you can also see how humans would end up incrementally agreeing to these things. Hell, so much of what he wrote about was in reaction to fears at the time of the society that we’ve ended up becoming. In some ways we are still on track to become this society reliant on dopamine hits, but are luckily not far enough that we have no desire to read books. Well, some of us anyway.

I’ll be honest, the thing I loved most about this book wasn’t the story. I mean the story was good and all, but it works because it helps further flesh out the world and hold that mirror up. Honestly, I don’t think I ended up caring about a single character in this book – but I don’t think that really matters. In the end, everyone in this book is various shades of messed whether that be through their conditioning, their zealousness or their enjoyment of their own sense of superiority.

Let’s Get Literal – The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 64/100Title: The Portrait of a Lady
Author: Henry James
Year: 1881
Country: UK/USA

Why can I not just get a large number of wins in a row on this reading list. Going from one of the best novels I have read in a while to one that became such a chore to read. The synopsis of the novel seemed interesting enough, but it took to long to get anywhere – an issue I keep having with novels from before the 20th century. Also, what is it with all these novels built in the narrative in which women who go outside societal expectations are unreasonably punished?

I know that this makes me sound incredibly uncultured, but this is one of those novels that could do with an abridgement. I know they do it for audiobooks (and I would give an abridged audiobook of this a go) but why couldn’t I find that for the printed version. Its quite frustrating. Also, it’s not that I can’t get into longer books,but more needs to happen than continued talking in the rooms of the higher classes. Not necessarily an explosion or a civil war, but even the change of venue to Italy wasn’t enough to get my interest back.

Honestly, I find It difficult to write about something that ended up leaving me so disinterested, so I guess this is where I’ll leave it.

Well, I picked The Portrait of a Lady for one reason – because Henry James appears more than once on my list. This now leaves me feeling mildly annoyed that I am going to be spending my commuting time on another novel by them. It’s at times like this that make me question whether, once I finish this 100, whether I want to add in a new book list of not.

Let’s Get Literal – To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 63/100Title: To The Lighthouse
Author: Virginia Woolf
Year: 1927
Country: UK

My last book was a trial, but instead of diving into a comic for solace I’ve come to a new author for help and was given an excellent book in return. Going into this, the only things I knew about Virginia Woolf were cleaned from other pieces of pop culture – such as how she ended her life and the titles of some books. I didn’t know anything about her writing style, but I took the gamble that she knew how to finish a sentence.

With Into The Lighthouse, which I think is meant to be her most acclaimed work, I think I have found a new author whose writing style I can really enjoy. It’s a bit train of thought, which I appreciate as that’s kinda how conversations with me tend to go, and it is so in the heads of all the various characters that it feels like your an invisible and telepathic presence in their world. Like, without being explicit and over the top, this book has all the voyeurism of a excellent melodrama. All the more interesting as the story told here is actually quite small and, ultimately, not that significant.

In the end, by reading this book, you are peering into the life of a family as they visit their Scottish holiday home on two occasions many years apart. In the first part, this is a young family with children and, by the third part, family members have died and we have also had World War One in between. Comments made and relationships displayed in the first part have palpable effects on how the children have grown up and how other characters outside the family, like Lily who is still haunted by a throwaway comment about women not being able to paint, have since developed.

As I said before, it’s a small story, but it’s also an incredibly human one. There’s no real airs and graces here in he style of writing, although the family are extremely privileged. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book by an author and immediately wanted to dive into another one by them. I’m going to hold off though and try someone else for the first time. Who knows, it might work out as well as this did.

Let’s Get Literal – Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 62/100Title: Absalom, Absalom!
Author: William Faulkner
Year: 1936
Country: USA

A few weeks ago, I played a game of ‘bivalve literature’ with my favourite work colleague and I ended up coming out with Crabsalom, Crabsalom! It is only for this reason that I chose this as my next book. It helps that there was still multiple Faulkner books that I had to get to for this list, but I just wanted to read the book that I now associated with crabs. Sadly, there wasn’t a single crustacean in this book.

More sadly, I began this and suddenly remembered what had kinda put me off about The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner has good stories, I can’t deny that. What he also has, however, is The power to create such long sentences that it feels like a punishment. Truly, I have never known a writer able to make a sentence more than two pages long that can be so hard to follow. There were times where I had to go back and start again because my eyes inadvertently skipped a line and I was lost forever in his sea of words.

The story itself is interesting as its this sort of Russian nesting doll feel of truth as you get to know the family history of the Sutpen’s as seen through the eyes of one of the characters from The Sound and the Fury. Hell, at one point I was enjoying some queer interpreting of my own. Then it took a turn and rather than fact, the story changed into how the narrator and his friend at university extrapolated the facts and made a story of their own. I don’t know, but after slaving away at this book for a week and on the flights to and from my in-laws, this felt like such a cheat that I got unreasonably angry.

I hope my next book goes better than this one. Almost felt like time for The Wind and the Willows to be trotted out, but I’m going to go for one of the Virginia Woolfs instead. It’d be nice to try out one of the few remaining female-written books on my list.

Let’s Get Literal – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 61/100Title: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Author: Mark Twain
Year: 1884
Country: USA

There’s a certain genre of book out there that is basically “here is your hero and here are the loosely linked adventures they go on”. These are the kinds of books that I tend to have a very low pain tolerance for, if the adventures feel removable or interchangeable, then I tend to wonder whether I have just wasted my time – especially if the book is written in an style that can be labour intensive to read. You can probably see where I am going here.

Much like Gulliver’s Travels before, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a book that I got on particularly well with. There were times, like the sections where Huck escapes from his father by faking his own depth, where I thought this could turn out to be more in my wheelhouse despite the liberal use of the n-word. But then we got a bunch of unrelated adventures, very thought to read inner turmoil moments over how the escaped slave Jim was someone else’s rightful property and the eventual dens ex machine resolution involving Tom Sawyer and some insufferable hijinks.

Reading this I did not expect something like War and Peace or that I would particularly fall for the characters (due to the expectation of some questionable moments regarding slavery) but I was hoping for something that wouldn’t be as tough to read as the Joseph passages in Wuthering Heights. Whilst I do laud Mark Twain for trying to capture some of the more natural speech patterns in his writings, these moments just became a quagmire to traverse only to end up realising you’ve spent this long trying to read a section where Huck is recapping his previous adventures to a new character.

I won’t be picking up a new book until I am back from Hong Kong, but I think I’ve earned a comic after this. Maybe after that I’ll finally give myself the gift of reading The Wind in the Willows so I can feel all cosy as Christmas approaches.

Let’s Get Literal – The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 60/100Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Year: 1850
Country: USA

It’s been over a month since I last read a book from this list, so to get back into it I figured why not go for the entry right at the bottom. After all, there are a number of books high up in the list that did very little for me so placement means very little. Also this is one of those stories where I know next to nothing despite it being fairly big in US pop culture, so it’d be good for me to get to know The Scarlet Letter a little bit better.

Well get to know it I did and, ultimately, I enjoyed it. It’s one of those rare books that, when you read it, you can really understand how the the core idea became so instantly iconic. I mean, the image of a woman being shamed in public with a scarlet letter stitched in gold, that’s something that evokes a very specific and somewhat original image.

It’s pretty impressive that the rest of the book is able to live up to this initial sequence.  This is one of those books that’s part historical novel, part doomed romance and part magic. The last of the three doesn’t really come in until the latter half, but the build up of omens do make for a rather fantastical ending that makes good on the overall themes of stigma, shaming and the idea of a person’s outsides reflecting the interior turmoil.

I want to stick with the literary train for a while, so I don’t think this is the right time to pull out Finnegans Wake as that will likely put me off the written word for the next 12 years. Given that I am in the midst of listening to You Must Remember This where the topic is Song of the South – I think that I am going to finally start on Huck Finn. I really hope I can shield my Kindle every time I come across the n-word…

Let’s Get Literal – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 59/100Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Year: 1856
Country: France

I said after finishing reading Song of Solomon that I wanted to read something a bit lighter. Granted, that would leave me with most things in the wider world of literature, but I’m not entirely sure I really got that much lighter in tone with Madame Bovary. I think I misinterpreted the blurb for this book and expected something a little less… tragic than what I ended up with. Still, we’re here now and this is another book crossed off.

To start with, Madame Bovary is the story of Charles Bovary – a decidedly average man from a decent background who scrapes his way through a form of medical school to become something just shy of a doctor. He feels more like a medicine man than a proper general practitioner… which is why he never should have done the club foot operation later in the novel, but I’m not going into that as those passages left me feeling nauseated.

The book then pivots a few chapters in, after the death of his first wife, to be about Charles’ second wife Emma. The bulk of the book then becomes about the misery and the boredom of being married to a simple small town not-quite doctor and then, having been invited to one party held by some local aristocrats, the yearning for a more exciting and more decadent life.

Emma Bovary is one of those characters who you end up both feeling incredibly sorry for and also want to shake very hard for what she ends up doing. The whole book is this downward spiral of affairs and getting into debt that leads to a tragic and foregone conclusion. Few people come out of this book alive or not permanently damaged in some way. There’s gruesome deaths and a lot of, what we’d now see as, depression. As a book it didn’t grab me as much as I had hoped and, by the end, I was getting a bit tired of some of the more repetitive elements of her behaviour – but over the last few weeks I have kept thinking about it – so Flaubert did a good job in that department.

After some quite heavy books I think I need to read something truly of a different tone that won’t end with me getting to work and having my brain feeling exhausted. So, it’ll be a return to the comics list for a little while as I start reading a manga that I have been meaning to get into for a while. As long as I get a seat on the train that is…

Let’s Get Literal – Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 58/100Title: Song of Solomon
Author: Toni Morrison
Year: 1977
Country: USA

 It’s sad that it can take the death of an director, musician or writer to give you the impetus to actually give some of their work a go. It prevents you from feeling the weight of that person’s death and instead makes them and their work feel less contemporary and more historical. At least through it means that you finally pay attention and now, having read Song of Solomon, it feels like I am finally beginning to understand the importance of Toni Morrison.

I know that this is not her magnum opus, which I will get to eventually, but I just wanted to read the earliest of her books that appeared on my list. When I first started in it, I did wonder what on Earth I was letting myself in for. It was dense, I found it difficult to understand what was going on and, honestly, I had this pit of dread that I was going to end up being bored the entire way through.

Then, I don’t know, it felt like the book finally started with the birth of the main character and I got so engrossed in the story of his growing up that I forgot how impenetrable the beginning was. Suddenly I was able to see the poetry in Morrison’s slightly dense way of wording and was able to greatly appreciate the rich family histories that she began and continued to describe for the bulk of the book.

It was towards the end of reading it, where Milkman (the main character) had travelled across America to find out about his grandmother, that I realised that I never studied a book at school that wasn’t by a white man. Meant I missed out on reading something so brutal and yet oddly mythical (I mean, how else do you describe the characters of Hagar and Pilate) as this.

After quite an intense book, I think it might be time to read one of the less intense books that I have saving. Either that, or get an easy win with one of the shorter ones. I’ll get to Beloved soon enough, but I can already tell from the synopsis that I’m going to need time in between Toni Morrison books before I’m ready to start in on another.

Let’s Get Literal – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 57/100Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Year: 1929
Country: USA

I know that I’ve crossed off a lot of comics in recent weeks, but I have to admit that it’s a little bit ridiculous that it has been over two months since I crossed off my last book… And time wasn’t necessarily because I was read a massive War and Peace length tome. So this week I just picked a book at random from the list and wanted to see where the chips fell.

Randomness really worked in my favour this time, as it gave me a book that I really fell for. It managed to show me two things – that I really should not write off novels set during World War One and that I might be growing into a bit of a Hemingway fan. I mean, this is the second novel of his that I have read (the other being The Old Man and the Sea) and both have affected me deeply as I devoured them.

As wartime novels go, A Farewell to Arms has a major facet that make it an incredibly interesting read. This is told from the perspective of a man who has enlisted in the forces of a foreign nation (In this instance, an American enlisted as a driver for the Italian army). Now, this is not an everyday perspective for a wartime novel and is only because it matches with Hemingway’s experience. This makes for a lot of interesting observations from an outsider’s point of view about the cultures and landscapes of Italy and, later on in the novel, Switzerland.

You also have a deeply human and weirdly gripping story not only about the love between the main character and a British nurse. We see him in action, get injured, go through recovery (with a lot of humorous back and forth) and then his eventual fleeing to Switzerland in order to escape arrest and implied execution. It all marches allow thanks to an engaging and very well-written main character. Sure, at times he can do things we may not agree with, but you are with him all the way to the final moments of the novel where he walking back to his hotel in the rain.

At the time of writing this, the news has come out about the death of iconic authoress Toni Morrison. Since I have still not read one of her books, and there are two of them in this list, I think it is only right that I choose one of these for my next pick. Whether I go for Beloved or Song of Solomon will likely depend on my whim when I am next able to get a seat on my commute.