Carson McCullers must have been a fairly prodigious child, to have read so widely and developed such a profound literary voice by the age...more4.5/5 stars
Carson McCullers must have been a fairly prodigious child, to have read so widely and developed such a profound literary voice by the age of twenty three. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was McCullers' first novel and has become one of the Great American Novels in the years since its publication in 1940. The book tells the stories of four separate protagonists all linked by their uncanny relationship with the local deaf-mute, John Singer. The lives of these four characters are emblematic of Southern small town life in the late 1930s: the early struggles for recognition and dignity in the Civil Rights movement; the poverty and squalor of cheap mill labour; the beginnings of the (Hollywood) American Dream. At the centre of all this is the catalytic Singer, isolated by his disability, seized upon by four frustrated and lonely souls who fill his silences with the mirror of their own hopes, dreams and fears.
It would be hard to make it through The Heart is a Lonely Hunter without being conceptually alert to the political, philosophical and psychological ideas that are proliferate in McCullers' writing. She does not flinch from contentious issues and faces the brutality of poverty head on. The themes and concepts are neatly highlighted by motifs and narrative symmetries- and there, for me, is the books' literary strength and also its main flaw. At times I felt the neatness and schematic nature of the plot was just a little too contrived and it seemed to prevent me from wholly 'believing' in the characters, even though they are in all other ways wonderfully realised. Still, a great novel and well worth your reading time.(less)
I suspect this will be one of my favourites reads of the year, and I can't believe I let it sit on my shelf as long as I did.
I've loved William Faulkn...moreI suspect this will be one of my favourites reads of the year, and I can't believe I let it sit on my shelf as long as I did.
I've loved William Faulkner's writing ever since I first read The Sound and the Fury as a teen, and nothing about As I Lay Dying was disappointing. This is one of the genre defining instances of southern gothic writing: tense with familial dysfunction, eerie and at times macabre, and rich in the sounds and words of the Deep South. To be honest, when I read the description on the back of the binding, the story of an impoverished country family taking their mother's body for burial in Jefferson, Mississippi didn't strike me as especially interesting but the drama is consistent and I found it difficult to put down once I was gripped.(less)
Despite being only 60-something pages, this is a curiously complex book with a lot of very fine detail jammed between its flyleaves. The quality of th...moreDespite being only 60-something pages, this is a curiously complex book with a lot of very fine detail jammed between its flyleaves. The quality of the prose is incredible, especially considering English was Conrad's third language, and layered with metaphors. The symbolism that runs through the narrative is so pervasive I suspect I could read this many times over and still be discovering new facets to Conrad's recreation of the Belgian Congo.
The narrative structure of the story is at times difficult, and I can understand how it might put some off. The reader 'hears' the story via an unnamed sailor, who listens to another sailor's, Marlow, reminiscences of his experiences in the Congo. Because the narrative is essentially a dictation of Marlow's tale, in the beginning there's a bit of slippage between the two narrators, and the ubiquitous speech marks around every paragraph can get confusing. It's a very similar structure to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which may not be mere coincidence, given the subject matter Conrad and Coleridge were both dealing with.
The themes Conrad develops in Heart of Darkness are, as the title suggests, bleak, violent and somewhat terrifying. The novella is largely informed by Conrad's personal experiences as captain of a steamer plying the Congo river and his horror at the atrocities perpetrated in the name of colonialism clearly shows through. As Marlow journeys deeper into the unmapped jungles of Africa, he descends deeper into the psyche of man and finds there brutality, greed and ultimately, one's fear of the savagery lurking within themselves.
And the preceding are all reasons why Conrad is considered one of the greatest writers in the English language- but I just can't bring myself to give this five stars because there are certain elements of the book which have not aged well and feel out of step with 21st century sentiments. Firstly, like many white men writing (even sympathetically) of black victims of colonisation, there seems to be a subtle but significant failure to recognise fellow humanity in the victims of colonialism. Secondly, there's a definite teleolgical agenda in Conrad's juxtaposition of the European 'civilisation' versus African 'savagery'. Chinua Achebe wrote about racism and Heart of Darkness far more eloquently than I, so if you're interested have a read of his essay An Image of Africa. Lastly, a few of Conrad's comments about women will raise feminists' eyebrows. Nevertheless, if you keep in mind the ways in which Heart of Darkness is quite an extraordinary book for its time, there's still a wealth to enjoy and ponder over.(less)
Ignatius J. O'Reilly is disgusting- on so many levels. He's slovenly, crude, pompous, conceited, lazy, obese, manipulative, sneaky and pathetic. And y...moreIgnatius J. O'Reilly is disgusting- on so many levels. He's slovenly, crude, pompous, conceited, lazy, obese, manipulative, sneaky and pathetic. And yet his adventures in French Quarter New Orleans and his encounters with its many eccentric inhabitants are hilarious.
Almost every character in the book is a parody of themselves and ridiculed hard by John Kennedy Toole, but there's enough of a grain of truth in their neurotic histrionics that you can't help but be fascinated by them and sympathise with them. Ignatius's scathing observations of a world he finds utterly lacking in 'theology and geometry' are simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny in their absurdity and ever so slightly tragic, because you cant help but suspect that this ridiculous man just might be onto something.(less)
This novel wholeheartedly explores one of my favourite literary themes: the struggle for freedom in an oppressive, stifling society. In Wharton's New...moreThis novel wholeheartedly explores one of my favourite literary themes: the struggle for freedom in an oppressive, stifling society. In Wharton's New York of the 1870s we are introduced to the small exclusive set that dominate Fifth Ave society and whose narrow-mindedness and unwillingess to countenance 'unpleasantness' sets the protagonist down a tragic and unfulfilled path. Archer begins the novel thoroughly inculcated with the strict social code of his peers and is engaged to marry the darling of 'good' Manhattan society, May Welland. His perspective is widened by his intereactions with the Countess Olenska, a Welland relation, who has returned to Manhattan in social disgrace after a disastrous (and impliedly abusive) marriage in Europe. Her disdain for social niceities and the confines of all that is 'proper' awakens in Archer dissatisfaction with his own narrow existence.
The Age of Innocence could be described as a 19th century romance, but that would be an oversimplification that does a great disservice to it. The real heart of the novel is the search for a more fulfilling life against the rigors of a society that demands strict conformity to its rules. Wharton's depiction of the Manhattan establishment is brilliant, especially in the way she shows the underhanded social machinations used to enforce conformity and punish those who dare to break the mould.(less)
The Good Soldier is an amazing feat of plot construction. This is the best example of how an unreliable narrator (John Dowell) and fragmentary plot ca...moreThe Good Soldier is an amazing feat of plot construction. This is the best example of how an unreliable narrator (John Dowell) and fragmentary plot can be used to reveal intricacies of character that could never be as effectively expressed through simple description. Not only is this brilliantly done, but I was amazed to realise how early a piece of modernist work The Good Soldier is- published in 1915. It must have created quite a stir when it was published as its main interest is the destructive potential of manipulation and infidelity.
It's definitely not a book you should pick up if you're looking for a quick, easy read. The narrator's constant unconscious revisions of plot and characterisation had me flicking back and forth quite a bit and I'll probably need to reread in order to properly digest the complicated tangle of relationships. But the pay off for your hard work is a really thorough examination of the protagonist's psyche and cognitive dissonance. In a paradoxical way, Ford makes his narrative and characteristion wholly unclear in order that Dowell's state of mind be more fully revealed.
When I was starting the book, I was quite annoyed because it seemed like the Dowell had given the game away and spoiled the ending by jumping too far forward in time. However- be not disheartened!- there are two rather excellent plot developments unfolded right at the end which are the real source of dramatic tension in the novel and make for a very poignant conclusion.(less)
I loved the theoretical, philosophical content of this novel. It tells the story of a Bolshevik revolutionary leader who finds himself imprisoned and...moreI loved the theoretical, philosophical content of this novel. It tells the story of a Bolshevik revolutionary leader who finds himself imprisoned and accused of 'counter-revolutionary activities' in the power plays of the Stalanist regime.
Koestler poses many intractable and troubling questions on the nature of subjective/objective guilt, the role of the individual in history, consequentialism, power, redemption... and the list goes on. The protagonist mulls them over from all angles within the confines of his prison cell, and yet I never felt bored by a lack of dramatic action. On the contrary, Darkness at Noon is structured around a taut plot with the question of Rubashov's execution hanging over every page. It's remarkable that Koestler is able to generate so much tension in a plot that never actually moves beyond the prison walls; he does so through the unfolding stream-of-consciousness memory of Rubashov's Bolshevik years, secret prisoner comminications tapped through the walls of solitary confinement and a keen insight into the workings and motivations of the communist totalitarian apparatus.
The ideas with which Rubashov wrestles are big and have no definitive answers beyond those offered by political belief systems, and Koestler pays due respect to their intractable nature, giving both sides of the argument a good hearing. In fact he is so articulate in his representation of the self-assured conviction of Rubashov's interrogators that I am told some readers actually converted to communism after reading the novel, quite contrary to Koestler's intentions!
Despite the very bleak political and physical surroundings, there is a lot of pathos and beauty in the novel. Although Rubashov is, from one perspective, guilty of serious crimes, he is also a small well-past-middle-aged man whose only respite is sleep and the tiny scrap of blue sky that he sees through his cell window. There is a real poignancy to a character who cannot help but spend his final days wrangling with his choices and guilt/innocence, but whose life is ultimately no more than a mere 'shrug of eternity'.(less)
Maugham's epic coming of age tale is, at times, as trying as it is wonderful. The course of the novel sees protagonist Philip Carey grow from a timoro...moreMaugham's epic coming of age tale is, at times, as trying as it is wonderful. The course of the novel sees protagonist Philip Carey grow from a timorous and withdrawn ten year-old crippled orphan to a far wiser and happier London doctor, and chronicles his various travels and tribulations along the way. The scope of Philip Carey's world is vast, ranging from well to do middle class country society to the dingiest, most impoverished of London's back alleys; from Kent, to Paris, to Heidelberg. The cross-section of London society is impressively built up with Maugham's keen eye for detail and interest in social issues.
Similarly well-layered are Maugham's characters- both central and peripheral. Philip is at times a painful character through whom to view the world, self-absorbed and self-pitying, but never fails to be interesting and becomes increasingly capable of profound and beautiful meditations upon aesthetics, the human condition and the search for meaning. Although I found Philip infuriating from time to time, by the of the end of the book I was wholly sympathetic to him and felt that he had redeemed himself admirably. Even minor characters are richly painted miniatures with complex motivations and faults- Cronshaw, Athelny, and Fanny Price are particular treats.
Philip's ugly relationship with waitress Mildred is both tortuous and torturous. It makes for uncomfortable reading because of the neurotic and desperate manipulations that both engage in, and the utterly unfathomable attraction Mildred holds over Philip- but you can't help cheering for him as he gradually extricates himself. Philip's obsession with Mildred becomes the primary prism through which we measure his growth and it reflects his struggle to assert his will over his own destiny.
I would strongly recommend Of Human Bondage for those who enjoy a thoughtful and detailed examination of life and how one might best live it. Maugham's ability to uncover the richness of human existence in spite of (or perhaps because of) misfortune and futility is stunning.(less)
A Handful of Dust surprised me- a lot. For the first 3/4 of the book I found exactly what I was expecting: a witty British social satire in the same s...moreA Handful of Dust surprised me- a lot. For the first 3/4 of the book I found exactly what I was expecting: a witty British social satire in the same sort of tradition as Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, where most, if not all, of the characters are equally unlikable as one another. The last quarter of the book, however, takes off in quite an unexpected direction and leaves you with one of the best endings I've encountered in a novel. It takes a (sinister) genius to come up with something that eccentric and bizarre!(less)
I read this fantastically imaginative novel while backpacking through India and it served me well, through long hot train trips, late nights in dodgy...moreI read this fantastically imaginative novel while backpacking through India and it served me well, through long hot train trips, late nights in dodgy Kolkata hotels and disgustingly muggy weather when all I wanted to do was find an airconditioned building and an ice-cold lime tonic water.
Midnight's Children is an immense undertaking. It's spans a massive 50+ years of turbulent history, has a huge cast of characters and magical-realism that stretches the limits of the imagination. Every iota of the story is necessary though, because the life of the novel's narcissistic protagonist, Saleem, serves as a parallel tale and metaphor for the nation India itself. Saleem's story becomes the lens through which Rushdie explores all of the tragic, wonderful, violent, colourful history of modern India- from Ghandi's walk, the upheaval of Partition, independence, the East Pakistan War, Indira's State of Emergency and beyond.
Much as superstition and the divine permeate every aspect of modern Indian life, Rushdie's plot is suffused with the extraordinary. There are powerful noses capable of augring the future, a pair of knees that can kill, and Saleem, able to communicate with other children all over India born like himself on the stroke of midnight August 14 1947, on the cusp of India's independence.(less)
I liked the themes Salinger developed through the book, but failed to be emotionally gripped by the protagonist. Holden Caulfield is very cleverly and...moreI liked the themes Salinger developed through the book, but failed to be emotionally gripped by the protagonist. Holden Caulfield is very cleverly and presicely drawn as a character, but ultimately I found his perspective frustratingly, unrelentingly myopic and that really alienated me as a reader. The only part of the story I thought particularly redeeming was from Phoebe's entrance onwards. Holden's desire to protect his kid sister was rather poignant, if bleak, and I recall the scene at the carousel vividly.
Had Salinger explored greater character growth for Holden, I might have enjoyed the book substantially more. As it is, I tend to think of Catcher as a very detailed portrait of the arrogant but anxious, disaffected teen, but lacking any progression through those faults. For me the much more interesting question is, how does someone who finds the adult world a dissatisfactory place learn to live in it and engage with it on their own terms?(less)