Category Archives: Literature

Let’s Get Literal – Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 50/100Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
Year: 1759-1767
Country: UK

I am getting the sneaking suspicion that, when it comes to books written in the 1700s, I am going to have a bad time of it. Tristram Shandy is one of those novels that I can imagine putting me off reading for life should it have been part of my school curriculum. Sure, I didn’t find it as off-putting as Tom Jones or as racist as Robinson Crusoe, but it committed two cardinal sins when it comes to reading: Tristram Shandy both annoyed and bored me.

Like with Tom Jones I have seen so many people praise this book for being funny… but I honestly could not find a single thing in this book to make me remotely chuckle. Even the bit about his accidental circumcision failed to raise too much of a reaction out of me more than a simple ‘huh’.

Whilst I am not one for always getting to the main point on things (to which this blog stands as testament) I really abhorred the ridiculous amount of digressions in this book. I know that kinda the whole point of this novel, to the point that it’s a number of volumes between his conception and his actual birth, but I just found it aggravating. Smug as well, interminably smug and keen to show just how learned he was (both as an author and as a central character).

Considering how I felt bout this book, it’s a bit of an anti-climax that this is the book that this marks the halfway point through this particular list. I’m in two minds as to whether I should try and clear out this list of the rest of the pre-1800s books (if there are any left at this point) or pick a book I have more of an assurance that I’ll enjoy. Guess I’ll see where the commute takes me.

 

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Let’s Get Literal – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 49/100Title: Invisible Man
Author: Ralph Ellison
Year: 1952
Country: USA

Right, so I inadvertently read two pieces of a American literature from 1952 in a row. Two incredibly different pieces of American literature from this year too. Where The Old Man and the Sea had an almost meditative feel to the action, Invisible Man was a heady mix of visceral and, ultimately, philosophical.

I am not sure I have ever quite had a book where each sitting (especially in the first half) delivered such different experiences. For a book that is telling the life story of a black man living in the 1940s and 1950s there is so much variety and yet a well-hewn line of continuity keeps everything from feeling too episodic. Reading this feels like reading the life of an incredible man.

Much like in Rebecca, we never learn the name of the lead character of Invisible Man. Then again, this is the whole point. We begin with him detailing how, due to his race and background, he has experienced invisibility throughout his life. Hell, the Brotherhood (a group he joins who are meant to be leading a path to equality… which takes a turn) strip him of his name and give him a new one.

There are so many things to unpack about this book, especially given that it was written before the civil rights movement really gathered force. The awful experiences that the lead character is subjected to because of race or circumstance (including his incredibly unfair expulsion from college), and the fact that there isn’t too much hope to hang your hat on by the book’s end, should make reading Invisible Man a real drag.

However, Ellison’s writing style prevents this. It’s never straight forward, in fact it is downright lyrical at times. Some of the images that he conveys, like the ending showdown between the narrator and black nationalist Rahs the Exhorter, are things that are going to stay with me for a long while.

It’s also worth noting that, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, there were large sections of the African-American literary community who took umbridge with Invisible Man and the portrayal of non-white characters. Then again, no race or group is free of criticism. Also, I cannot imagine many black nationalist characters had appeared in major works of literature… so that may have been a factor.

I realise that, before this list, I hadn’t read many novels written by non-white authors. That is partially because, apart from The Color Purple, all the books I read at school were very very white. Add to that, the only reason that I even read The Color Purple was because it was on a list of twenty books we were given for the summer holidays one year, of which we were expected to read three.

With Invisible Man, Their Eyes Were Watching God and other books on this list (as well as entries on the comics list), I am beginning to widen my literary outlook and be inspired to seek out classics outside of the white and English-language world.

Let’s Get Literal – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 48/100Title: The Old Man and the Sea
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Year: 1952
Country: USA

It’s been so long since I was last able to finish a book in one day. In fact, I believe that book was Animal Farm which I read some three and a half years ago. Considering how I have read most of the longest books on the list it was high time that I read The Old Man and the Sea, which is the second shortest entry.

Due to cultural osmosis and a wonderful short animated film, I knew this story quite well. This modern day Moby Dickesque parable is a classic man vs. nature story that packs a whole lot of symbolism and emotions into it’s 127 pages.

Usually I find books like this to be a bit twee, but there was something genuinely affecting in Hemingway’s storytelling. At times I did find myself switching allegiances between the old man and the marlin because, in the end, it’s life or death. I didn’t feel bad for the sharks though, until it turned into a shark massacre…then I felt slightly sorry for them (mainly because I would also be curious of how blue marlin tasted).

The idea of this old man wrestling with a massive fish for multiple days and being able to show so much respect towards his catch is enough to properly pull at your heartstrings, and yet the struggle itself makes for incredibly captivating reading. I mean this was a book where I was itching to get back to reading it once the work day was over… which is a rarity for me.

There are a number of other works by Ernest Hemingway on the list and, thanks to this, I find myself looking forward to seeing more of his works. That won’t be my next book though, I think I need to do one of the longer ones again to properly balance this out.

Let’s Get Literal – The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 47/100Title: The Golden Notebook
Author: Doris Lessing
Year: 1962
Country: UK

Every now and then you come across a book that’s quite unlike anything you have ever read before. I had that not too long ago with The Sound and the Fury, but that truly pales in comparison with what Doris Lessing did with The Golden Notebook. This is one of those books that works on so many levels and, in many ways, is so clever.

At the centre of the novel is writer Anna who, after the success of her first novel, has come down with an extreme bout of writer’s block. As an aid to this, and because she feels the need to compartmentalise everything about her, she keeps a number of colour-coded notebooks (which are essentially her journals). The idea therefore of The Golden Notebook is her trying to bring these disparate parts of herself back together… with the requisite amount of psychological shock that would occur because of this.

So, in reading this book, you are reading all four of these notebooks mixed in with Free Women which is a short novel that Anna has been able to write because of her bringing herself back together and ending her writer’s block. That premise alone is interesting, but let’s not forget when this was written.

This book is not only an interesting look into the fragmentation of the psyche, but also serves as an interesting time capsule of where feminism was in the 1960s – including men’s reaction to it, women who seem to resist the breaking of gender roles and how it can all be linked back to sex. The Golden Notebook also provides a look at the decline of communism in the UK – with Anna herself being a former communist (surprise, that’s the red notebook).

However, this book isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, this is quite homophobic in many places with Anna’s derisive comments about gay men being hard to read at times. She makes a few comments negatively about lesbianism, but it’s mainly men who receive her ire (maybe because, as a highly sexual being, homosexuality is just one thing she can’t understand).

Then there is the topic of race (dealt with in, you guessed it, the black notebook) which is done during the sections where Anna describes her time living in Africa. There are some ‘interesting’ overtones in this section (i.e. racist) where she is derisive of pretty much everyone involved. The whites that she is with are drunk, privileged, completely self-absorbed and regularly ridicule the citizens of the country they’re camped out in. The African inhabitants don’t get a whole lot of fleshing out, but she is very much against racial mixing.

Ultimately The Golden Notebook is interesting because it’s one of those works where the writer takes absolutely no prisoners. Then again, that’s the character she has created. It’s incredibly complex and one of those novels that really needs to be properly digested and thought about once finished. I just wish I knew someone who’s actually read this so I could talk with them about it!

Let’s Get Literal – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 46/100Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Year: 1847
Country: UK

Thanks to increasingly busy trains it took me about a month to finish this book, which sucked because I was joyfully devouring this whenever a had a chance in the morning (not on the return commute… because I usually end up taking an ill-advised nap). This is one of only four books that managed to have me tear up whilst reading; the first to do so because of joy rather than sadness.

Jane Eyre is one of those books where, thanks to watching the excellent BBC adaptation, I thought I knew all that I needed to know. Of course this is not true as there is so much more to the book than there is to the adaptation (although it was impossible to not picture Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens as Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester respectively), especially the earlier chapters about her childhood that were barely covered.

What strikes me most about Jane Eyre is the point-of-view of Jane herself. When I think of the contemporary books I’ve read (including Wuthering Heights) this is unusual in being a first-person narrative that is more than just a person recollecting the events of their life. In reading this book we get to know Jane’s own moral beliefs, thought processes and her emotional state. When I think of the last book I read and all the different minds that Faulkner let us be privy to – there is a lot to be said of the influence of Jane Eyre.

Like Little WomenJane Eyre is described by many as being an example of an early feminist novel. With Little Women I was inclined to disagree because of where all the characters end up at the end of the journey. In contrast, I can actually see how Jane Eyre is feminist (especially in the context of Victorian England). Sure she ends up on the marriage train by the close of the story, but everything she achieves is because (as Kacey Musgraves would say) follows her arrow.

Call me romantic, but even if I did not know the ending – I would be shipping Jane and Mr Rochester and would have been devastated if they had not ended up together. Given the times of the book, I can see why Jane walks way – but I’m so glad she comes back. Some have said that this ending shows her compromising her morals, but I think this ending is a way for us to have the romantic ending whilst she keeps her morals untainted. Maybe that’s just me, but it was this ending that just made me get a bit misty on the train.

It’s time for me to get back to comics for a little while – a perfect time to do so as I’m not sure what novel could top my experience with Jane Eyre.

Let’s Get Literal – The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 45/100Title: The Sound And The Fury
Author: William Faulkner
Year: 1929
Country: USA

With three entries on the book list, it was about time that I got around to my first William Faulkner. This book also continues me along my adventures in the world of the literature of the American South. Seriously, there are an awful lot of books on this list that delve into this area of the world after the American Civil War. I guess it shows how much can be mined from this period in time and, equally, how US focused this list is in places.

For The Sound And The Fury we spend four chapters (each with their own viewpoint) examining the lives of the white Compson family as they fall further into ruin and disrepute. It’s not an easy read and, for the first half of the novel, it’s a bit difficult to untangle what is happening. Things do come together with the final two (more straightforward) chapters as we move from the less mentally stable characters to the more put together ones.

What makes this an interesting (and sometimes confusing) read is how the first two viewpoints are written as a stream-of-consciousness. The first viewpoint (Benji) is the most confusing as this is a man who has some sort of mental disability (think Lenny in Of Mice and Men) which means that his thoughts are all out of order. It gives an interesting look at what live might be like inside his head, but I did need assurance from people online that this was a book really worth finishing.

The answer is that, yes, it is. Faulkner uses four very different personalities to paint how this family fell into ruin. The second chapter demonstrates extreme stress and the encroaching darkness of depression; the third takes on greed and anger whereas the final one (narrated by one of the black servants) is the most grounded and focuses on family, duty and endurance.

It’s difficult to say that I enjoyed this book, but I definitely got something out of it that I had never really read before in a book. I do wish there had been an additional point of view chapter from the daughter (or granddaughter) in the place of the appendix, but I think that would need to be the penultimate one as Dilsey’s really is the chapter worth ending on.

Whilst I am not even half way through this list, I am looking to the future. Will I add a new book list to my blog after completing this Top 100? Or will I take the time to get really far ahead on the comics list? Not sure, but for now I am going back into the world of written fiction and choose one of the many remaining books that were written by a female author.

Let’s Get Literal – Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 44/100Title: Gulliver’s Travels
Author: Jonathan Swift
Year: 1726
Country: Ireland

It’s a bit bad that it’s been over two months since I last read an actual book. I guess that a mixture of post-Middlemarch fatigue and a lot of manga reading helped to fill in this gap… but it just shows how quickly time passes.

Like most people going into Gulliver’s Travels, I have seen pictures of the lead character being trapped by the little people of Lilliput. Honestly I thought that the entire book would be him shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe style, but on an island of little people. Turns out that this was just a quarter of the book and, in fact, Gulliver’s Travels is about his encountering of four very different societies as he finds increasingly violent ways to find himself abandoned on remote islands.

In order, he visits Lilliput (full of little people), Brobdingnag (full of giants), the various islands overseen by the floating castle of Laputa and, finally, an island full of talking horses that have enslaved primitive humans. All this makes for a really varied series of tales, all told through the somewhat gullible and subservient eyes of Gulliver.

The whole point of this novel is to act as social commentary and satire. Some of it is pretty obvious (like the horses and humans in the final section being a critique on the British Empire enslaving humans) whilst others have become less obvious seeing how this book is nearly 300 years old.

What is still evident, however, is how cutting he could be towards the leaders of the day. Also, it shows a lot of what prevailing opinion was at the time in terms of philosophy and social attitudes. There’s a whole wealth of literature out there about the misogyny of Gulliver’s Travels which pretty much boils down to this book being an example of how men treated women at the time.

The social criticism aside, Gulliver’s Travels is interesting because it is both a time capsule of the early 1700s and a very imaginative piece of literature. I mean, in this book we find one of the earliest descriptions of a machine that we would later identify as a computer. Similarly, he is able to really paint a picture of the scale of these places (the best of these being in the first Lilliput section), which is no mean feat seeing just how alien these far flung islands are.

Whilst a lot of the bit has been lost to time, the weirdness hasn’t. In fact I think the final chapter with the talking horses has probably become more bizarre over time. Just goes to show that books needn’t be discounted just because they’re very old.

Let’s Get Literal – Middlemarch by George Eliot

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 43/100Title: Middlemarch
Author: George Eliot
Year: 1871-72
Country: UK

There are books that you start reading because it reminds you of books you’ve read in the past that you’ve enjoyed. For Middlemarch, I thought that I would enjoy it because of books like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women, i.e. an older book written about women which have since been adapted into a “bonnet drama”.

However, there was one thing that I didn’t quite think abut. Where I enjoyed the other books for being a female-centric dramas, Middlemarch touches the entire community… with a majority of the time being spent on the men in the town of Middlemarch. So yes, this wasn’t quite what I expected.

Whilst there are a lot of story threads involving most members of the village, there are 4 main threads… one of which just bored me. It was this storyline (about the downfall of the local town banker) that made me fall asleep on the train home. Now, I know I am someone who has trouble staying awake when I’m being transported – but I nearly dropped my Kindle. There is also the rather sad storyline of Doctor Lydgate and Rosamond… which failed to interest me.

The best of the stories is the one surrounding Dorothy (known as Dodo) and her two marriages. From the first few chapters this is not what I expected to be reading… although the moment she meets Will on her honeymoon it suddenly all became clear what might end up happening (although when I think of Anna Karenina you can never be sure of what will happen to your heroines).

As much as I like a  big world in my books (I mean just think how big War and Peace and Lord of the Rings are) I do wonder if I would have enjoyed Middlemarch more if it had focused more on the Dorothy/Will and Fred/Mary storylines. It would have been a shorter book, but we could just excise a lot of the business talk that failed to engage me.

This is yet another of the really long books taken care of. An interesting one and slightly frustrating in that there was a lot here that should have made me love it, but too many flaws. Well at least for me, some people think this is the best British book every written.

I might be taking some time to catch up on a bit of the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga so I can finish off the final anime season. I can’t wait.

Let’s Get Literal – The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 42/100Title: The Tin Drum 
Author: Günter Grass
Year: 1959
Country: Germany

So… how do you talk about The Tin Drum? It’s not like any novel that I have read before and, given the challenge I have set myself here, that’s really saying something. I picked up this book for the simple reason that I wanted to read this before I got around to the film adaptation for my 1001 movie watchthrough.

We begin the book in a psychiatric facility where Oskar is writing his memoirs of his life in Danzig (modern-day Gdansk). He has a drum fixation, to the point that he can completely destroy a drum in about a week because of how often and how fervently he drums. With the exception of this and the names of key people in Oskar’s life it is best to take everything you read with a pinch of salt. You see, Oskar is an incredible liar.

As a book The Tin Drum meanders around Oskar’s life as he regales us with various and conflicting episodes in his life. At the age of 3 he supposedly decided to stop growing and instead focus on his drumming. As such he lives his life as a midget… who can shatter glass with his voice and has achieved all matter of weird success because of his superior intellect.

This is also a man where there is a high chance that he has played a large part in the deaths of many people around him who have filled in roles as parental figures. Then again, it’s hard to know this for sure as the story keeps changing all the time.

It is the unreliability of the narrator that really keeps you on your toes and make sure that there is always an interesting yarn in each chapter. I mean, there’s a chapter where the conclusion is a man who is seemingly killed by a haunted ship’s figurehead after trying to have sex with it. We also have a nightclub where people cut onions in order to get through their PTSD and all-seeing and all-knowing dwarves.

The issue I had with this, ultimately, is that it takes Oskar an awfully long time to get to any point. Also, the reason for him ending up in the mental institution feels, ultimately unsatisfying. I was hoping for there to be some sort of murder spree or something at least on that level, but instead it’s a false murder charge with Oskar pretending to be Jesus in order to escape prison.

I can’t imagine that I’ll ever read another book quite like this one and, on that alone, it’s a book that should at least be attempted. Or maybe watch the movie to get a flavour. I don’t know when I’ll get around to it, but hopefully it won’t be too far in the future. Feels like I have some unfinished business with this book.

Let’s Get Literal – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 41/100Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1969
Country: USA

Right, so I ended up for a completely different book after finishing David Copperfield. It got to a point where I had a few days between finishing my last volume of Great Teacher Onizuka and jetting off to Sweden (eek so excited) so I needed a shorter book. I picked this book nearly at random to plug a hole and was left with something that ranks as one of the best novels I have ever read.

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books that appears to defy genre. It’s part sci-fi, part war, part irreverent comedy and all a bit off kilter. Also, it plays with the concept of time travel with the central character, Billy Pilgrim, veering between different points in his own timeline. Did I mention the aliens or the Dresden firebombing? Yes, all of this in one coherent book.

The main thing I was thinking about when reading Slaughterhouse-Five is how impressive it was that Vonnegut managed to construct a proper narrative like this whilst also flitting about in time. Yet he does. Within the book there are some clear through-lines with all the different timelines working with each other. At one time there are probably 7-8 different points in time that we could suddenly be transported to – which is where so much of the fun lays.

This whole novel would just fall apart if it wasn’t for it being written as this irreverent black comedy. There is a point of view present about life and death which is very disarming, that everything is as it is and will always be in the fullness of time. The phrase ‘so it goes’ becomes both a punchline and a piece of punctuation which occurs within the book with incredible frequency due to the constant presence of death.

I can see why some people might be against this book as it comes off as a bit flippant at times. Then again, if you buy into Billy Pilgrim actually believing his philosophy and this is just how he sees the world… well you can breeze past that and enjoy the book. However, it is finding humour in an uncomfortable place at times. Then again, if you can’t try to make someone chuckle to alleviate the tension then what’s the point.

Honestly, I find it hard to put this book into words since it is such an unusual book. The particular brand of unusual, however, is what made me love this book and will be driver to my eventual re-reading of it within the next decade. Similarly, I now have a bunch of his other books on my wishlist as I want to know if this is someone who’ll one day overtake Douglas Coupland as my favourite author of fiction.