The Classics Club Book List

55 Classics Review #15 – Middlemarch By George Eliot


I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.

It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.

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Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.

– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships

– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.

– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”

– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

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Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.

The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.

Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.

The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art

The Railway Children By Edith Nesbit

Neil Gaiman On The Value Of The Library

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55 Classics Review # 14 – Watership Downs by Richard Adams


Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.

Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.

Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.

The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.

This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.

Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.

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Further Reading

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary

55 Classics Review # 13 – The Peril At End House by Agatha Christie


At the risk of sounding like an old woman, I will tell you shamelessly that I love Agatha Christie’s work. I know many people who keep the Sherlock Holmes passion alive, but I don’t know many Christie fans and I honestly have no real idea of whether I fall into a normal demographic for current readers. I’m not generally a voracious reader of mysteries, but I am always eager to understand what is great in any fiction that has become classic in some way, so I long ago found myself dabbling in and delighted by the second best selling author of all time.

I chose Peril At End House for this list because it is one of the highest rates titles I hadn’t yet read. I have to admit that after I got a few chapters in I realized that I had seen the David Suchet adaptation, but it had been long enough that I was still completely without a clue throughout the story. I actually remembered just enough to further throw myself off the scent as the plot thickened.

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This story follows the famous Hercules Poirot, Belgian detective turned British private investigator. At the onset of a seaside vacation with his good friend Captain Hastings, Poirot announces that his is retiring entirely from the detecting business, sighting his age as sufficient reason for stepping out of the game. Within minutes he smells foul play, taking personal interest in preventing what he suspects is a murder in the making, and recanting his retirement. From here, the book quickly spins out a cast of versatile and interesting characters and events designed to completely baffle the reader. Christie is great for crisscrossing the tracks of an ensemble of possible perpetrators, motives, and incomplete events. It is up to the reader to beat the detective in piecing together what was sinister and what was circumstance.

Christie has a great style. She writes in a very simple, matter-of-fact way that seems almost effortless but actually brings out the genius of her work. Anyone who has tried their hand at writing fiction knows that writing something in a way that makes it impulsively readable is often the most difficult task to accomplish. Her simplistic style makes it easier for the reader to latch on to the ideas and emotions of the characters and overlook the important details dropped here and there. She writes to lull you away from critical thinking. That being said, her stories are written more to keep you on the edge of your seat than to make perfect sense. She will usually give you a twist ending that works, but one that leaves a few weak plot points. If you’re frustrated when you don’t have sufficient information to beat the sleuth to the conclusion, you might find this book, among her others, just a bit aggravating.

Overall, Christie makes for a great read. I once read an espionage thriller she wrote near the end of her career and found it horrible. The Mysterious Affair At Styles is still one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read, and it was her first. Overall, Christie does a remarkable job of writing extremely well, creating enjoyable characters, and finding a balance in plots that come back together well while maintaining a truly complex, twist endings. Anyone who likes a bit of mystery should enjoy The Peril At End House.

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Further Reading

“On Stories” by C.S. Lewis

“Heavy Weather” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton

55 Classics Review # 12 – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster


I found quickly that The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those books that defined many people’s youthful reading. When I started it I found that it started conversations for me. This is a book that true fans read over again and often. It can be tricky to read something like this for the first time as an adult, but I think my slow start to the text actually helped to prepare me for the unique content of the book.

The Phantom Tollbooth is unlike any text I’ve read before. It feels surreal like Alice In Wonderland, fast and expansive like A Wrinkle In Time, and allegorical like Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet somehow it works in a way I wouldn’t have expected if you had simply explained these elements to me. It fits into a space in literature that seems wholly unique. I read The Dot And The Line a few years ago and loved it. After that I began to learn more about Norton Juster, and I find him to be a fascinating creative. There is something wonderful about people who make great work in a field they don’t consider to be their career. Juster was a career architect who also happened to write a definitive children’s book. He is an author not because he thought it was his calling but because he knew he had to write a certain story. The story found him.

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The Phantom Tollbooth is a great story. It follows a bored little boy called Milo as he uses a mysterious gift to travel to a land filled with allegory and puns. Along the way he hears all kinds of non-sensical advice and learns that there is more to words, numbers, common sense, art, and logic than he ever imagined. He even helps bring a little order back to the lands that have lost their Rhyme and Reason.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book, though the nature of the book really keeps them shallowly depicted. The story moves so quickly through so much space that its a sensory overload for both the characters and the reader, which probably contributed to how slowly I read this relatively short book. I delighted in many of the puns, but I also found myself constantly wondering if I had totally missed some of them when I didn’t find one where I might have expected to. The main idea is simply that there are a thousand directions to explore knowledge of all sorts, and that’s one message that is always exciting to behold. The main thrust of the discovering in the book is of the use of words, numbers, and the sensory. I loved the idea of the colors in the world being brought out through the silent playing of an entire orchestra, and I personally would have enjoyed more of these artistic fantasies rather than the mathematic and scientific ones.

Overall, I was delighted by The Phantom Tollbooth. I realized from the first chapter that if this book exists as a quintessential classic to so many people, I can hold on to hope for my own creativity. Often I am dissatisfied with my own creative endeavors for the reasons I’m dissatisfied with some classics. There are things that I don’t enjoy about books like this one and Alice In Wonderland and A Wrinkle In Time, but I’m always delighted that there are people out there with different tastes that go beyond my simple appreciation for this type of work to outright passion and accolade. The Phantom Tollbooth wasn’t written for someone like me, but I can greatly appreciate how much people love it and why.

 

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Keep On Reading!

What I Learned From My First Book Review

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard Work

Wandlung, by M. Landers

55 Classics Review # 11 – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming


Like Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a book I was most interested in because of my enjoyment of the film adaptation and one I found absolutely and entirely different from the film adaptation. Unlike Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as superb a read as it is a film.

I loved the book and the film. That said, I am honestly at a loss for the bizarre variance of the film adaptation. The book was published the same year that Ian Fleming died. The film was produced only four years later by Albert Broccoli, the same man who contiually brought Fleming’s James Bond to the screen with such success. The prodigious Roald Dahl was one of the screenwriters who adapted wrote the film, which accounts for the spectacular and unique story. The only obvious similarities between these two film adaptations is that Dick Van Dyke stars in each and that those shifty geniuses the Sherman brothers wrote all the music for both films. “Me Ol’ Bamboo” stands firmly as my favorite choreographed number of all time. While there can’t be a correlation through their involvement, one does wonder at the willingness of such a creative duo to sign on with projects that trample on the writing of other great artists.

The book is short, and the story feels a little short. Perhaps this sensation is heightened by the contrast of the multiple plots in the Roald Dahl screenplay. The book, set about 50 years after the film adaptation, follows the Potts’ family (living mother included) as they pour effort and love into refurbishing an ancient and decaying car, which turns out to be magical. A day at the beach becomes a spirited and dangerous adventure at sea, which in turn leads to the discovery of a burglars’ hideout. Heroics ensue.

The story is a tidy tale of a stout-hearted little family, fearless adventurers and ingenuous everyone. The writing style is the extremely comforting narration style found in many of the best classic children’s chapter books. Oddly enough, Fleming’s voice in this book is reminiscent of much in Roald Dahl’s popular titles. Overall, the story is extremely original, full of likeable protagonists, and full of all sorts of danger in turns, with just a hint of the spooky here and there. Anyone looking for an original read aimed at kids will be pleased.

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Further Reading

“In The Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

 

55 Classics Review #10 – Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


Up to this point, I’ve been delighted by the books I’ve read for the 55 List. I mostly chose books for the list which I already hoped to love. This will be the first to break that streak of satisfaction. There are few books I expected to enjoy more than Mary Poppins, and not many have so greatly disappointed me.

I was disappointed on multiple levels by Mary Poppins. I grew up delighting in the Disney film and, like the multitudes, saw the recently released film Saving Mr. Banks which proposes a version of the history surrounding the author’s tumultuous relationship with Walt Disney. I found the Disney version of the history suspect from the start, but I was all the more eager to read the original text for myself. Reading with all this in mind further complicated the experience.

Mary Poppins is written as a series of short adventures in the world of Mary Poppins, the conceited, magical, aloof nursemaid who shows up and continually mesmerizes and criticizes the Banks’ children. Each chapter stands alone and some were really very wonderful. I especially loved a certain chapter concerning the language baby’s speak before they get their teeth. Travers alludes to a few mythological themes and lullaby-type fancies that were very original and which I really enjoyed.

Overall, if I had no previous knowledge of the concept, I would have thought the book was decent. If there was no movie and you asked for a quick thought, I would tell you that everything about the book was enjoyable except Mary Poppins herself. She is the wet blanket in every magical theme. She is aloof and self-obsessive at best and rude and condescending at worst. She steals from the children, does what she wants regardless of their petitions, and constantly tries to leave them out.

All of this wouldn’t be felt so harshly if Disney hadn’t made a film which constantly emphasizes whimsy that Mary Poppins is constantly attempting to stay stern against. In the film, she begrudgingly participates in the whimsy which constantly springs up at her magical heels. She is the exact hope a child might have for a magical adult who doesn’t prefer non-sense but accepts and appreciates joyful magical experiences. The movie sells a version of the unhappy and disconnected Banks’ family, relatively wealthy but without emotional ties until Mary Poppins tricks them and unites them. In the book, the Banks’ home is the poorest on their middle-class street and their father is a cheerful, optimistic sort who seems to take hardship in stride. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, but the idea of Mr. Banks being saved by Mary Poppins seems to come completely from the Disney rewrite, which makes the entire theme of Saving Mr. Banks, even its very name, a complete fabrication of the Disney brand.

So Mary Poppins is originally a less agreeable figure and Mr. Banks seems like a pretty ideal father figure. Then Disney turns the entire story on its head and douses it in heavy quantities of whimsy.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire debacle is that I can’t help but prefer the film version to the book. I actually think that Disney’s rewrite made the story more engaging and agreeable. I liked the book, but I love the movie. I’m sure that some of that is due to sentimentality, but I so strongly identify with a parenting and mentoring style that emphasizes respect of the minds and emotions of children that I found everything about Mary Poppins off-putting. She represents a harshness and stupidity toward children that you wouldn’t expect from someone who knows the stars as personal friends and receives birthday parties from zoos full of talking animals.

The book ends with Mary Poppins disappearing and every adult in the house complaining about her vanity and egotism and how much damage control they have to do. The children ignore these complains, more eagerly wondering if she will ever come back to grace them with her wonderful presence again. I couldn’t help closing the book agreeing with the adults, feeling that the fun times didn’t quite pay for the constant snubbing and threats.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On The Perils of Writing

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

55 Classics Review #9 – Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse


It took me a long time to finish this relatively short book, but don’t let that soil your impression of its merit. The past 6 weeks have included, among other things, the much-anticipated and long-belated birth of my son. I haven’t felt entirely comfortable going off to read while my wife attempts to fend off the violent affections of two young ladies set on wrestling out their love for mother and new baby brother. I also blame Middlemarch; reading any book in tandem with Middlemarch makes for demotivation by osmosis.

I have been excited to dig into Wodehouse for some time. Having heard many mirthful mentionings of his work, I watched some of the BBC adaptation Jeeves & Wooster, starring the wonderful duo of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. While Heavy Weather follows an entirely different cast of characters, the eases and difficulties of adapting his work for the screen are evident. Both pros and cons draw from his ability to approach all content with such an even and natural comic sensibility.

Heavy Weather follows a large cast of characters as they attempt to gain control of a manuscript of reminiscences which would prove to be very lucrative and excessively embarrassing to almost all existing British nobility if published. Miscommunication and dumb-luck continue to keep everyone fumbling for control of said manuscript throughout most of the book, with many awkward interactions and side stories. Move by move, each pawn finds something at stake on one side or the other and occasionally on both. It is like reading a season of Downton Abbey written like Arsenic And Old Lace or Harvey. This type of story does not urge one to find out what happens next. It reads like a walk in the country, taken in for the paced experience rather than the end result. There are plenty of unexpected moments, but the plot is convoluted rather than climactic.

As a writer of many plays and comic musicals, Wodehouse makes the actions and reactions at hand in this novel flow as if written for players on a stage. The book is full of fast-paced comic miscommunication, failing strategizing, and diplomatic family blundering. He writes visually and his evocative scenes, comic dialogue, and eccentric characters make ideal performance material.

It is this singular whimsical writing style which is so central to his work that also remains in many ways untranslatable. He describes thoughts, appearances, and concepts as well as he does visual experiences and often time these are the best bits. This means that at least half of what makes this work so remarkably enjoyable remains staunchly text-based. He also uses huge amounts of period-specific British slang, which may make trouble or hinder enjoyment for some readers.

Wodehouse was a consumate writer. He wrote almost as compulsion, continuing his career into his 90’s. He has a remarkable unique voice as a humorist that does not seem contrived or even niche. Reading his work quickly feels like listening to a hilarious old pal recount familiar stories. This is, in fact, a characteristic tendency for some member’s of his cast. These mannerisms, in the author and in his characters, helps make his writing universal yet unique.

Overall, I would suspect that most who enjoy period fiction and indulgent language-building will be able to appreciate this book. It may leave those hungry for significant plot a little empty-stomached, but one cannot help loving and loathing the characters and their antics, even if the last page makes you feel like you’ve been chasing your tail all this time.

Wodehouse is a light read for those who occasionally prefer to take reading lightly.

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Further Reading

“The Railway Children” by E. Nesbit

“On Stories” by C.S. Lewis

“Frankenstien” by Mary Shelley

55 Classics Review #8 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Slaughterhouse-Five is turmoil turned ’round on itself, ad infinitum. So it goes.

Before I started reading Slaughterhouse I knew that I liked Vonnegut. I listened to Welcome To The Monkey House on audio book a few years ago and I found his speculative fiction fascinating and his writing style thoroughly comforting. Vonnegut is equally enjoyable read as he was read aloud.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book of war. It tells you from the beginning that it has always been, even years before Vonnegut knew how to write it, a story of the Dresden fire-bombing of WWII. This bombing was the single most horrifying assault of the Second World War, targetting civilian populations and killing about twice as many as the atom bomb did in Hiroshima. The entire city of Dresden was razed to the ground and even after his widely acclaimed book it is little remembered. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden at the time and one of a very small number of survivors. Like many war veterans, Vonnegut didn’t know how to deal with what he has experienced, but as a writer he couldn’t let something so definitive to his worldview be left untouched. Thus, Slaughterhouse-Five.

The book feels like a mad rambling. It begins and ends with a lot of Vonnegut personally talkings about how and why he is writing this book so many years later, and it doesn’t always make complete sense. When he finally gets along to the story he means to tell, it is also disjointed. It makes sense that it is disjointed, because his world is ultimately disjointed.

Even though I was familiar with some of his science fiction, I was completely caught off guard to find it here. The book follows Billy Pilgrim, Dresden POW, alien zoo experiment, and man disloged from time. Feeling like a series of end-of-life flashbacks, we are actually supposed to be traveling through time over and over, re-experiencing aspects of Pilgrim’s life at all its various stages. As a man who no longer thinks about his history linearly, Pilgrim has found infinite peace in being able to detatch himself from being effected by the horrors around him.

Vonnegut’s goal is not simply to tell horror stories of war. He excercises great restraint in sharing the details of Dresden. A considerably small percentage of the text actually covers the war. Much of it is spent in subsequent life and on an alien planet. It would be easy to interpret Pilgrim’s later alien adventures and time-traveling as Vonnegut’s attempt to point out how the insanity of war drives men to a truer insanity, but I think we lose something in explaining the book under strictly realistic experiences. We are meant to believe in Pilgrim’s aliens and travels. They mean something if they are real which they do not if they are hallucinations.

You can easily see that Vonnegut associated organized religion very closely with politicking and war-making. He uses the aliens and time traveling as an opportunity to predicts a philosophical loophole. Religions of the world can be damned, but there is probably something else out there, some better way to live and view our existing that puts all of human history in a catagory of foolishness beyond comprehension. Vonnegut is sold on the idea that this ideal exists, but he doesn’t write hoping of it. Pilgrim proclaims it but humanity is incapable of joining in his new bliss.

I think that the juxtaposition of Vonnegut’s style against his attitudes adds a huge element of what draws people to his work. He writes straightforward and comical persons and scenes. When he describes a man, we invision a dopy, cartoon character that feels foolishly and warmly human. Then this character commits historically-accurate crimes against humanity. Or he stands by and becomes numb to his hurts, is mocked as a fool for being totally shaken, and lives on to inflict lesser hurts on his home in its future peace. Vonnegut warms us up and then gently affirms that existence is a train of horrors at the hands of humanity.

I think that Slaughterhouse-Five is valuable, important even. It displays just how enjoyable a book can been even in describing utter evil, which is a confusing and concerning reality. It points to every man as an open book with a broken spine. There is no good or bad man, there is only mankind, and it is gross and predicatable.

The books thesis, repeated over and over when referring flippantly to death and distruction, is, simply, “So It Goes.”

55 Classics Review #7 – The Giver by Lois Lowry


I expected to enjoy The Giver more than I did. Then I enjoy it more than I suspected I had.

Almost everyone else read this book in like 5th grade. I missed it. My impression has long been that most people hold a relatively positive memory of the book, so I have been looking forward to it for some time. All I really knew is that it was set in some type of dystopia; I always get excited to start a classic title whose plot is relatively unknown to me.

Although I wasn’t too discouraged, I was immediately put off by the writing style Lowry employs. I tend to have trouble reading dystopian stories because of their sterility and Lowry’s style felt more sterile than her fiction environments. It was easy and interesting reading though, so I had little trouble continuing. She really does a good job of keeping you guessing on a lot of the details of the future world she creates and of making you begin to wonder whether the characters will ever even grow discontent with the world they have been given. I caught myself nervously wondering if perhaps she was actually promoting this world when I reached the halfway point in the text and still no one was revolted by the strictly-governed world at hand. Then, in the blink of an eye, the book became a roller coaster of emotions, rebellion, and deep, impactful character decisions.

Eventually, I realized that Lowry had tricked me with her disturbingly sterile writing style. I expected her characters to revolt immediately. She made me understand them in their original state for so long that I was afraid I would be asked to approve of their world. She also forced me to approach the very old questions of death, war, beauty, art, and human relationships from an altogether new direction. I think about these issues constantly, yet I found myself looking at them from a different vantage point. I asked myself “If art and war require one another, would it be better to forgo both or accept both?”

Without giving away the plot, I will say that the end of the book is both jarringly abrupt and quite open to interpretation. I turned the page expecting the text to continue and read THE END. Then I flipped back again. Then I wet my fingers and tried to separate the pages. No, that’s just the way it ends. And it’s actually a great and important way to end the book.

I thought I would enjoy The Giver as a thoughtful and youthful read, but it turned out to be a bit trickier. As I read on, frustrated at every turn, I looked back and realized that all the things I didn’t enjoy made immense sense in retrospect.

Although it’s hard to find another category for it, I would argue that The Giver is not a dystopian story in the classic sense. Most dystopias are strife-filled quasi-allegories meant to highlight the extreme errors available to humanity if there is not a healthy political and technological balance. The Giver makes its new, relation-less world look, well, okay. Once we can begrudgingly agree to this, it asks us if okay is something we can settle for.

Then we wrestle.

55 Classics Review #6 – On Stories And Other Essays On Literature by C.S. Lewis


When it comes to popular spiritual epigrams, C. S. Lewis has G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and maybe Jesus himself beat in terms of popular quotability. It seems impossible to browse any social media outlet without coming across a line from Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. That is what intrigues me the most about Lewis. A huge quanitity of the most enlightening statements he ever made came from the mouths of characters in fiction, rather than from any articles of non-fiction.

On Stories is therefore one of the greatest resources for getting behind this veil. In it we discover bits of the frame of mind capable of creating such original and timeless stories that seamlessly imply his deepest ideas about being human.

The book is a simple collection of essays, author dedications, op-ed pieces, and even a transcript of a conversation between Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss about the nature and value of science fiction as a genre. Many of the articles were never published, some merely scraps, unedited and unfinished.

On Stories cover a lot of ground, seeing Lewis address concepts and wrestle with idea which many of his popular quoters might find questionable or reproachable. He expresses interest in seeing good science fiction proposing a third gender, proposed that children’s literature shouldn’t shy away from being frightening, and emphatically endorses a lot of literature which some people might prefer to be banned. Overall, you are getting a much more rounded picture of the author’s ideas than you ever can from any piece or body of fiction.

The themes that come through most clearly are his strong opinions about fantasy and science fiction being absolutely valuable endeavors for both children and adults and his general rebuttals against the overwhelming academic ideas on literature from his day. He proves himself extremely well-read in everything from the classics (no surprise here as he was a world-class medievalist) to the science fiction paperbacks which were just gaining a huge foothold. He holds firmly that each has its own place of legitimate value to the reader.

One of my personal favorites was A Reply To Professor Haldane. A posthumously discovered response to the multiple, brutal assaults on his intellect by a professor of theoretical biology, this essay is at once precisely factual and sterile of any character assassinations. A discovered rough draft like this only highlights the immensity of logical preparation he puts into his ideas. He explains himself theoretically and through example while completely tearing down his opponent’s ideas without ridiculing the man. Indeed, it is easy to feel that Lewis has no emotional response to those who continually abused his character. Like Chesterton, one cannot help but admire his ability to let accusations roll off his back while taking the ideas involved quite seriously.

Overall, I highly suggest this title to any Lewis fan or general fan of science fiction and fantasy. If you’ve ever felt frustrated at those who don’t get why fairy tales or space travel stories are legitimate, you will find a friend in Lewis. I would also highly recommend this book if you’re interested in reading the more obscure works that have influenced modern fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi writing. Lewis is constantly referring to what he considered the classics of these genres.

Though you may not always agree with his conclusions on the issues he tackles, it is hard to fault the man for lack of thorough contemplation or sincerity in wrestling with all forms of literature.

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I’ll leave you with this delightful transcribed dialogue between Lewis and Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss.

 

“Lewis: Would you describe Abbott’s Flatland as science-fiction? There’s so little effort to bring it into any sensuous–well, you couldn’t do it, and it remains an intellectual theorem. Are you looking for an ashtray? Use the carpet.

Amis: I was looking for the Scotch, actually.

Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

 

Related Reading

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C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic

C.S. Lewis On How Words Die

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien On Our Connection To The Land