Tag Archives: great reads

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.

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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.

Let’s Get Literal – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 40/100Title: David Copperfield
Author: Charles Dickens
Year: 1849-50
Country: UK

Here we are again Mr. Dickens. Of the three books of his on the list David Copperfield is the only one where I haven’t seen any sort of adaptation. It made for a different read since, with Bleak HouseI could retreat into thinking of Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson or Burn Gorman. It was a different experience to try and do my own internal world-building with a Dickens novel.

Now what do I want to say about David Copperfield? One thing that I read before I started on this book is that it is partially autobiographical. It becomes apparent very quickly that David is Dickens.

I know this is a classic and all that jazz, but David Copperfield really does fall into that autobiographical trap of making the character of David Copperfield whiter than white. I mean, Dickens can create some amazing characters but David is too honourable, too nice and just a bit of a wet blanket. Honestly, when I got to long passages of David’s train of thought I just skim read in order to get to something a bit more interesting.

And here’s the thing, David Copperfield is an incredibly interesting and varied book. It takes a look at the life of a man who overcame quite a lot (albeit not as much as the average Victorian) and ends up with true love, true friends and a good position in life.

It just bugs me that one of the main reasons for him finally making his way through is down to having a relative with money. Sure, some of the big leaps are down to Copperfield’s attention and social skills, but the only reason he doesn’t end up dying in a workhouse is thanks to his aunt. Don’t get me wrong I love his aunt; she’s spunky, outspoken and very defensive when donkeys attack her patch of green…  but it rang false that he was able to walk to her house in Kent despite never actually meeting her. Artistic license I guess.

Being a Dickens novel he really does deal with the societal darkness of his time. People going to prison to debt, domestic abuse, drownings, all types of death and major characters emigrating to Australia because that’s all they can hope for.  And yes despite the incredible darkness at the hands of Mr Murdstone and Uriah Heep, David Copperfield is ultimately an uplifting read. It’s hard not to smile when characters like Mr Dick and Miss Mowcher are around.

So yea, with David Copperfield crossed off I have now read the 10 longest books of this list. I am in two minds as to whether I should continue going down the line from longest to shortest or to give myself license to jump around a bit more. I guess the question is: do I read Middlemarch, To Kill A Mockingbird or The Handmaid’s Tale next?

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.

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.