Category Archives: Literature

Let’s Get Literal – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 39/100Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year: 1878
Country: Russia

Well that was a step up from UlyssesI mean, you would get pages and pages of text that didn’t deviate completely from the main plot line. Okay so that isn’t the highest bar to set when reading a book – but try reading a large tome of Russian fiction between hospital visits and unsuccessful job interviews.

Having read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina I am in the rather cool position of covering both of the big Leo Tolstoy books. Doing a rudimentary comparison between the two books I have to say that I preferred War and Peace. Why would that be?

Simply – it’s the plot lines. For a book called Anna Karenina I was surprised the more of the book wasn’t about her and her story. So much of the book gets bogged down in Levin (who is the Tolstoy surrogate) and his relationship with Kitty that my interest started to wain. In War and Peace all the main threads kept me interested – not so much here.

The thing is, this book would have worked with just the Anna and Vronsky sections – which is what I imagine most of the cinematic adaptations have done. These are the best sections, but even then the whole thing is shrouded by the spectre of punishing the woman who loses her virtue.

It’s one of those tropes that you can spot a mile off in these older books – a woman loses her virtue and she must be punished. It is infuriating. She has an affair because, much like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, she is bored with her life to the point that she can no longer feel anything.

In the case of both Bleak House and Anna Karenina it’s not like the women have married mean or abusive husbands. It’s just that there is no passion in their lives because the men are more concerned with station and reputation. Both husbands love their wives, but the age gap is so great that the life of the still youthful wife is being wasted.

The love triangle is more sad than romantic in this book. No one ends up happy and no one gets anything they really want. You can see it coming a mile off (especially if you know about that ending), which is what made the Levin and Kitty story rankle with me.

With Levin and Kitty it is meant to be a story of marrying for love despite initial obstacles. However, their relationship isn’t that interesting despite the fact that they have their issues. We also end up with Levin going away from his atheism/agnosticism and reverting to his Christian values because of this relationship – which I know is of it’s time, but that also left a bad taste.

I think I missed something with this book and that is likely because I have not been in the right frame of mind to read something so heavy and, in places, tragic. Then again there aren’t a lot of light reads on this list, so if I want to complete this list I will need to find a way around all that.

For now it’s back to the world of comics as I follow up Hajime no Ippo with a boxing manga from the 1960s.

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Let’s Get Literal – Ulysses by James Joyce

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 38/100Title: Ulysses
Author: James Joyce
Year: 1922
Country: Ireland

Remember what it was like being in a literature class and talking about books in a way that you never would as an adult. Symbolism, interpretations, allusions – all things that the average person doesn’t think about when reading a book, all things that have put thousands of people off of reading fiction when they leave school.

However, there are a good number of books where discussing things like that would help. There are fewer books that have been deliberately written in a such a way as to encourage critics and literary experts to paw over them for years to follow. Then there is Ulysses – which I think defies description.

I could say that it is meant to be the definitive modernist novel, but that doesn’t mean much and I honestly enjoyed In Search of Lost Time a whole lot more. At least that had more of a story than just the day in the life of a pretty normal man.

This isn’t to say that Ulysses wasn’t an interesting read. I do wonder, however, if I should have had my Kindle in one hand and a Lett’s Guide in the other. Would have been awkward on the train, but at least I would have understood more than 3% of the references Joyce and his characters make.

However, the genre hopping and the extreme amount of the streams of consciousness in this book really did turn me off. Call me an old-fashioned troglodyte, but I kinda like to know what is happening in the book I am reading. Instead of, you know, one that veers off into a play for 10% of the book and then packs that time with hallucinations so you don’t know which way is up. Oh and then we finish with a long section of block text that has no punctuation.

So yea, the phrase ‘what was that’ comes to mind. Might have to go to some manga for a while for a bit of a reset.

Let’s Get Literal – The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 37/100Title: The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
Author: Daniel Defoe
Year: 1719
Country: UK

When reading a book that is nearly 300 years old it is very hard not to see it through our more modern frame of reference. I felt this problem when reading the soppy sexism in Clarissa and I just could not stop cringing when I read this book.

I’ve said it before that a lot of these earlier books require editors. I mean Tom Jones certainly did. This is the first time where I have felt this way about a book that is less than 400 pages. It’s the sheer amount of exhaustive detail that Daniel Defoe goes into about pretty inane things. Then again it doesn’t help that this is written as a fictional autobiography and the character of Robinson Crusoe is awful.

At the time this was written – when the slave trade was booming and colonialism was in vogue – the character of Robinson Crusoe was very much an idealised man. He was a man of means, a religious zealot, the king of his castle and actively engaged in the slave trade.

Yes, he gets shipwrecked because he is looking for slaves to work on his plantation in the Brazils. His punishment for this is 28 years marooned on an island in the Caribbean where he somehow is able to work out a lot of things he shouldn’t be able to do such as making pottery, general agricultural practices and folk medicine. I say folk medicine… he comes down with a case of something similar to malaria and makes a weird cure by soaking tobacco leaves in rum. I might have gagged at this when reading on the train.

In all his alone time he makes no mention of missing the carnal pleasures. In fact he comments on how his new strengthened belief in God and Providence means he doesn’t miss it. Absolute crap. But hey, at least he finds a native man to tame, convert to Christianity and pretty much enslave and insult. Seriously this man is the worst.

There was a part of me that hoped the cannibals would get him, but that would not have made any sense from the point of view of this being an autobiography with a sequel.

Still, this is one of those books that has truly permeated our culture. I didn’t realise the idea of a boy or girl Friday came from this book… and I really wish I didn’t know that now. Hopefully the next thing I read will be less racist.

Let’s Get Literal – Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 36/100Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Author: John Steinbeck
Year: 1939
Country: USA

Well that was depressing. Not depressing in the same way The Diary of a Young Girl was (since that was an actual first-hand account) but depressing nonetheless.

Like most people in the UK of a certain age I studied John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for my GCSE English Literature exam. Unlike most people of my age I actually read and enjoyed Of Mice and Men to the point of it being one of the few books that actually made me cry at the end. So I do know, firsthand, how dark Steinbeck can go.

Similarly I watched the excellent cinematic adaptation many a year ago so I pretty much knew the basic storyline. I say basic because the latter half of the book and film differ rather substantially. I cannot think of another time where the film adaptation of a novel came out within a year of the novel being released. Talk about band wagon.

The thing is The Grapes of Wrath in the novel does not end on a hopeful note. Rather, it ends in a stillbirth and an act of Roman Charity. I can imagine that not playing well when World War II started and, also, the Hays Code would probably have not looked kindly on a finale where a grown man is breast-fed by a teenage girl.

So how do we end up reaching the point where this act makes sense narratively? We start off when the Joad family lose their farm due to the dual effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Like many people in their situation this family decide to make their way to California in the hopes of being able to scrape out a living as migrant workers.

The tragic thing is how true this was for so many people. I know that since the recession of 2008 people have had it bad in the USA, but it cannot have been on this scale. This widespread movement of Americans in the hope of 25 cents an hour… only to be faced with discrimination, police brutality and corruption. It’s horrendous. And timely, when you think about the current mass migrations still occurring.

When you read this it is very clear to see where Steinbeck’s political leanings are. He paints the antagonistic groups of this novel as utterly unsympathetic and, in many ways, the ultimate corrupt capitalists. This book is, in some ways, an arguement for socialism over capitalism. The people are forced to move not because of their own mistakes, but because of the world around them changing the goal posts and causing their crops to fail.

There was no safety net, no clemancy and no way for them to ever survive this with a shred of their original pride intact.  This is what makes the character of Tom and Ma Joad so interesting.

The central character, Tom Joad, is recently out of prison and he fights for what he believes in – to the point where he ends up killing someone who is threatening the “Okies”. He takes on de facto leadership of the family, despite the fact that his father is still alive, mainly because he seems to be the most socially aware and intelligent. His big flaw, however, is his temper. Something that has lead him to kill more than one person.

Compare Tom to his mother Ma Joad. She is, by far, the strongest person in the family as you would expect in most units such as this. She makes a comment that stuck with me and, I think, shows her character:

“Woman can change better’n a man,” Ma tells Pa.“Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head”

Without both Tom and Ma the family would have sunk a long time ago. Possibly even died on the road to California. They are both able to provide the strength and heart that carries them through deaths, stillbirths, starvation and their near constant flight.

Thinking about it again as I write this The Grapes of Wrath is actually a remarkable novel. It still has lessons to teach us since, if you believe Buddhaas long as their are humans there is suffering and injustice. As long as either of those exist, The Grapes of Wrath will remain relevant.

Let’s Get Literal – The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 35/100Title: The Diary of a Young Girl
Author: Anne Frank
Year: 1947
Country: The Netherlands

Right, so I am going to have to start off this write up with a sentence I thought I would never have to write: I am not a Holocaust denier. I am not entirely sure how or why Anne Frank’s diary ended up on this list of fictional books, but since I have been using this list for most of my blog I am keeping it until I finish it (heaven knows how long that will take seeing how I am unlikely to get a seat on my train into work for the next year).

One of the reasons that I chose to pick this up as my next read is because I am planning to visit the Anne Frank house when I am next in the Netherlands. After all, there are a few Dutch entries on the Lonely Planet list that I have yet to hit up. Last time we were in Amsterdam we were put off by the queues, but seeing how I have now read this and found out all about the Annex and the people that lived within it.

Reading this book was an odd experience to be honest. Every time I was parsing a sentence or a paragraph I kept having two concurrent thoughts: ‘this is someone’s life’ and ‘the more you read, the closer you get to her real life death’. I think I got to 85% when it suddenly dawned on me that within a few months this girl whose life I have been given such an insight into will be sent to death. If you think about it too long it’s horrifying.

For the diary of a young person this is remarkably coherent and she seems very aware during  the writing of it that it might be of some importance one day (little did she know, right?) What gets me, however, is a lot of the post-release reaction to it – and I am not talking about the reactions of Holocaust deniers.

The thing that keeps you reading this is the sheer honesty and humanity that you are reading. Anne is a teenage girl. This means she will talk about arguing with her mother, having her period and her feelings towards boys. She’s a teenager so this is par for the course.

So… how on earth can you think about censoring this to the point that children of Anne’s age would not be reading this? We live in the age of Snapchat and web porn. It is arguable that 14 year olds know far more about certain things that Anne would have back then. Yet we still have people getting angry about having this read in schools. Fine if they are younger than Anne (I can sympathise there).

However, if they are the same age or older? Let them read this and find something else to direct your anger at. If your 14 year old child has to learn about periods from the diary of a Jewish girl from the 1940s then there is something seriously wrong with your education system.

Let’s Get Literal – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 34/100Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Year: 1868-9
Country: USA

I hate spoilers. I know that this is rich from someone who ends up writing them in their blog, but I (as a rule) hate spoilers. Why mention this now? Well, Friends ended up spoiling one of the central plot lines in this book. It actually meant I shed a few tears before it happened… but still the impact was lost. Bah!

Anyway. Little Women is one of those books that I think is read far more often in its native United States than over here. As in, I don’t think I know many (if any) people that have read it. When I mentioned at work I was reading this the look I got seemed to say “but you’re a grown man”. The phrase “so what” comes to mind considering that this appears at #38 on my top 100 list.

So what is it about? Well, Little Women is a coming of age story about the four March sisters: Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy. We start the series with all four sisters as children and we finish it 10 years later as some of them start to have children of their own (and so the circle becomes complete).

At the heart of this book are the relationships between the four sisters and their mother. Some male character so appear, such as their father and neighbour Laurie, but they feel somewhat peripheral to the central five women – especially in the first of this two volume book.

Due to the complexity in some of the sisters characterisations in comparison to others in the book it is rather apparent these are based on real people – namely Louisa May Alcott and her own three sisters. The character of Jo (who is easily the best character) is the author’s proxy within this world.

I say complexity because these girls do feel like real people. Amy, for example, really embodies that youngest sibling feel due to her being the more selfish of the bunch, but she is also the one who is most keen to perfect her artistic talents and is easily humbled when seeing the genius of others.

Jo is the archetypal tomboy of the sisters. She has a gift for writing and actually carves out a living for herself by selling her stories to journals and newspapers. She is ambitious and doesn’t want to conform with what society says a woman should be. Which leads me to the question I was asking myself as I was reading this: is Little Woman a feminist novel?

The answer: yes and no. For the time these strong and independently minded girls would have been incredibly inspirational. Two of them turn down marriage proposals from rich beaus, you have characters like Jo trying to make their own living and, on average, these girls are as tough as nails. In this way, yes these are fantastic role models for teenage girls.

The problem I had, however, was when marriage happened. Specifically many of the later chapters involving Meg and her husband John. So much of what made her a March sister is lost in this marriage and the advice that her mother gives her about looking after her husband (keep in mind Meg has twins to look after all day) made me cringe.

The thing I had to keep in mind is that this book was written in the mid-19th century. There is this pull towards feminism and independence that has to be filtered through what society expected of women at the time. What can, at times, feel like a rather shallow book has layers of depth (until that chapter about Meg’s kids… that made me roll my eyes on the train).

It’s a really good read and one that I would encourage young girls to read. It’s not a romantic book, but one about actually trying to make the best choices for you and being happy despite not having much or marrying into wealth. It’s like the anti-Kardashians and don’t we need more of that?

Let’s Get Literal – The Trial by Franz Kafka

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 33/100Title: The Trial
Author: Franz Kafka
Year: 1925
Country: Austria or Czechoslovakia or Germany (help please)

Every now and then you hear the phrase ‘kafkaezque’ to refer to refer to something that defies logic or is overwhelming beyond all reason. It’s one of those words that I know and choose not to use for fear of using it wrong. I mean how could I use it without actually reading any of his works (before reading The Trial the extent of my knowledge was a brief summary of The Metamorphosis and the fictional Kafka’s Motorbike in the first Bridget Jones movie.

As indicated in the word ‘kafkaesque’ the entire story of The Trial just oozes helplessness in the face of a large an unseen government bureaucracy. In essence it is about a man who is under arrest (but never sees a prison) and has to deal with weird dusty attic courts and ill lawyers… and never finds out the reason for his arrest.

In the first chapter where the main character (Josef K.) is arrested and the policemen get all narky with him for asking why he was being arrested. I actually felt my hands becoming a fist as I read this on the train. Just the sheer injustice of it all! I mean, sure, Josef K. is actually a colossal dick but he doesn’t deserve any of what he got here.

I can’t even imagine the world that Kafka grew up in. The fact of the matter is that being a Czech Jew that spoke German living in Prague cannot have made his life too easy. Even a cursory Google into the history of The Trial brings up links between the victimised character and himself.

As you get further into the novel (and have a very large time jump) you begin to realise that this novel was left unfinished due to Kafka’s death. The big sign post is that the third from last chapter just ends. It makes you wonder just how much thicker he was planning to lay on the complete injustice of the novel. Also… just how many more women he was going to jump into bed with.

At the end of it all I am left without knowing how I really felt about this book. Since, like Clarissa, it is just this unrelenting downward spiral this was rather hard to read. By having Josef K. being a bit of an arsehole it isn’t as depressing than if he had been a normal person or a complete innocent (I know he is innocent… but he is still guilty of being an arsehole).

It’s an interesting book that makes me want to try out The Metamorphosis at some point. For now, I still have 77 books to go!

Let’s Get Literal – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 32/100Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miguel de Cervantes
Year: 1605-1615
Country: Spain

It took me a month to finish both parts of Don Quixote. Seeing how I am now in the midst of weight loss (21 pounds down so far) I decided part way through to tackle this nearly 1000 page novel through the means of my first audiobook. That way I could go on long walks and still power through the crazy world of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.

For the uninitiated the plot of Don Quixote is remarkably simple. A well to do Castillian man loses his sanity after reading too many books on the history of chivalry and decides to become a knight errant by the name of Don Quixote (it would be like someone believing they are a superhero after consuming too many comic books). In this state he mortgages his estate and goes on a series of adventures with local farmer Sancho Panza acting as his squire (who, for whatever reason) believes that this will earn him the governorship of an island.

Many literary historians label Don Quixote as one of the earliest example of the modern novel. The fact that it engages in a glut of meta-fiction in the second part is somewhat amazing considering that this is well over 400 years old. By glut I mean there are actual chapters in the early sections of part two where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss the in world novel of Don Quixote (some of this, rather interestingly, is related to consistencies in the first part that was published a decade earlier).

As much as this is a seed from which modern novels have grown from it still does not feel quite there yet. In essence, Don Quixote is more a collection of short stories (or adventures as Cervantes called it) that are connected by a framing narrative and the same characters.

There is a general decline in the fantastical nature of these adventures as the novel progresses too. In the beginning Don Quixote attacks windmills when he sees them as giants and envisages all inns as castles, but by the end of it he is being tricked by those who know of him and seek a quick laugh.

In a similar way, the novel also becomes less and less funny and, at the same time, becomes more and more self aware. It’s a weird balancing act that Cervantes chose to walk. I just feel that some editing could have made this book so much editor as the writer, much like his characters, has the tendency to ramble on a bit.

It’s actually quite hard to talk specifics about the ‘plot’ of Don Quixote because of its slightly disjointed nature. One thing I can say, however, is that a lot of the characters are jerks. I know that Don Quixote is mentally ill, but he is an absolute arse towards Sancho. I mean I understand that in his knight errant persona he is devoted to the (fictional) Dulcinea… but on very little evidence at all he just will not stop hassling Sancho to whip himself 3,300 times in order to reverse her enchantment (long story). Sancho does not want to whip himself, so Don Quixote’s first instinct is to threaten Sancho until he does it.

Sancho is no angel himself though. He is clearly the funny character, and made me chuckle on a number of occasions, but it is sometimes easy to read him as someone just taking advantage of Don Quixote to make a few hundred escudos out of him.

Obviously the biggest jerks are the Duke and Duchess from the second third of the second part. I’ll leave that there… but they are just the worst.

As a history lesson and as a lesson in which animals possess foresight and chastity (ants and elephants respectively) this has been an enlightening read. I would really recommend this as an audiobook as there are times where you can go pages without a paragraph break. Still, an interesting insight into literary history.

Let’s Get Literal – Lord of the Flies by William Golding

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 31/100Title: Lord of the Flies
Author: William Golding
Year: 1954
Country: UK

Lord of the Flies is another one of those books/comics that I’ve managed finish due to waiting in doctors’ offices. Since this is one of the shortest books that I have on the list I guess I can let that slide.

When I was 12 (Jesus Christ that was 14 years ago) I tried and failed to read this book. It wasn’t anything against the book, I just hadn’t found the joy of reading at that time. I mean most kids of my age got into Harry Potter around that time, but after book three I just wasn’t interested in that either. It was actually thanks to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I properly got into reading.

In a way, I am quite glad that I did not finish this book. You see, in many ways, I was Piggy. Even the reading this now I can see that if I was dumped onto an island with members of my Year 6 class I would have been Piggy. I think it also helps that I have teaching experience because it helps me appreciate how terrifying of a look at humanity this is. I mean, given all the circumstances this probably could happen the way that he played out.

Now I appreciated this book as an allegorical tale and in terms of character building, but I actually found the style of writing to be fairly laboured at times. I just wanted him to get on with it towards the end because it was very clear how of this book would finish. It isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that the kids are rescued in the end. It’s fairly obvious if you know anything about pop culture. What I loved about the exchange between Ralph and the naval officer is how perplexed the grown up and is. I mean and how could British children resort to such savagery? I may have snorted at that line.

At times it is preachy, but man some of those tragedies sure pack a punch. I thought I knew pretty much everything in this book thanks to cultural osmosis. I’m so glad to say I was wrong. Even if the talking pig took me a bit off guard what it represents is chilling. I also loved how Golding was able to link the conch shell to the goings on in camp. Definitely food for thought this book is.

Let’s Get Literal: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Still writing through dictation only. God, I want my wrist to get better.

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 30/100Title: War and Peace
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year: 1869
Country: Russia

It has taken me 30 days, but I actually finished War and Peace! Sure finishing off the us Proust epic novel is probably a far greater achievement since it is four times as long, however this was not a slog at all. Actually I think I might have found a book that will rank among my favourites.

This is not in any way, shape or form due to the philosophy or the detailed battle sequences that Tolstoy peppers the novel with. Oh no. I actually did a bit of speedreading to get through some of those sequences. To be honest I did not particularly enjoy Napoleon as a character. So why did I love this? Five words: Pierre, Natasha, Andrei, Mary and Denisov. These five characters will now rank as some of my favourite characters in literature. In particular, and I know that this is common, I adore Pierre.

It pained me to not watch the BBC adaptation of this since I did not want to be spoiled at all. Now that I finished I’ll definitely be watching this. Especially because I think their choice for Pierre was inspired. I have been a fan of Paul Dano since seeing him in Little Miss Sunshine and L.I.E. so I’m keen to see his interpretation.

The great thing about war and peace is that it took the parts of in search of lost time that kept me going and just magnified it. No character is flawless and by a similar token no character is completely flawed. Even Anatole, who is a despicable playboy, is someone you can’t help but pity.

If I were to describe this book as being about how the Russian high society was rocked to its very core by Napoleon’s invasion it would be accurate but miss the point completely. It is so much more than that. In every way is really just about the human condition. I think that is the point. You really do not know the make of a person until they are thrown into crisis. An example of this would be Natasha: she starts off as a giddy and beautiful debutante but by the end she has grown up into a kind and sensitive woman. She becomes a stark contrast to her mother the countess who is easily upset at the prospect of living her life in less comfort, but does nothing to remedy the situation. There is a section where she would rather take a few more rugs than spare a cart to save the lives of Russian soldiers.

The central figure of this is undoubtedly Pierre. I fell for him almost immediately as I guess I could identify with him as being the oddball and finding it hard to relate to those around him. The best thing about him is that he tries. He is very opinionated, rather lustful and enjoys his fair share of alcohol, but there is always that part of him who wants to be better. This leads to his fleeting and membership of the Freemasons after his marriage collapses on itself (not his fault completely as she was a bit too close to her brother). As characters go he goes on one hell of a journey in terms of physical, emotional, spiritual and geographic. The man he is on the other side is still very much him, but maybe one who is a bit closer to the truth.

The version that I read Anglicised some of the names. For example Nikolai became Nicholas and Andrei became Andrew. So when I was talking about this with my mum who was watching the TV show there was a bit miscommunication going on. I adored his translation because of all the helpful footnotes and yet I felt a bit cheapened because of these English names.

I’ve yet to read Anna Karenina. However, I know about how it ends. So I was reading this book with an incredible amount of trepidation. The body count is high since this is war, but apart from a few exceptions I was very happy with how this book ended. Scratch that I was bloody relieved. There is a scene where Pierre is on the brink of being executed and I was so desperate for this not to be the way ended for him. I should have known better as he is the Tolstoy surrogate, but I kept thinking of that damned train.

I know that this is a book where a lot of people get put off because of the ridiculous length. This is not feel like one of the longest books ever written. I regret that I was able to finish it so quickly. There is a scene nearly halfway through that describes how this book made me feel. It is winter and the Rostov family are having a party where Natasha, Andrei, Sonya and Petya are dressing up. It felt like such a warm slice of life that you could just nuzzle down into. That was this book. Sure there was tragedy and heartbreak, but that is life. I just felt that over the course of the month I got to know some truly spectacular people and now, for the time being, they’re out of my life again. Maybe one day I will get around to reading this again.