I was recently asked by a new acquaintance what I like to read. I find this an exciting and slightly ominous question, because the truth, unhelpful as it is, is that I like to read mostly everything with words, a plot and interesting characters are a bonus. Yay for story! Part of my answer to this question is inevitably classics, those tried and true books that are bastions of the castle that is the written word. She expressed some surprise that I do this of my own volition and not because I have to for some course I’m taking. She is not the only one with this reaction over the years.
I love reading classics. Not because they’re all good, because some of them suck, but to explore the world of the classic. Why is something a classic, who decides? Mostly I like to witness the trickledown effect in reverse. When you read a classic, a lot of other random pieces snap into place. You understand references and asides in a whole new way, you see previously mysterious influences in books and movies, see how one writer’s words can launch an entire genre, world, or punchline. Some of my favorite books are classics. In what will no doubt be many highly unpopular opinions, I will randomly post reviews of them here. I’ll start with the last classic I read:
When I purchased this book, the dude checking me out let me know that the first part is narrated by a mentally handicapped man. GOOD TO KNOW. And thank you, book store guy, for telling me this, because William Faulkner doesn’t bother to until long after the book has landed in a frustrated heap on the floor. Thanks, bro!
The Sound and the Fury is about the Compson family, a southern aristocratic family in serious decline and spiralling into all kinds of tragedy. It’s told in a few different parts by a few different members of the family, all of whom are not really good or likeable people.
My biggest beef with this book is that you have no real idea what’s going on until you’re so far into the book that you’ve ceased to care. Stream of consciousness with no context. I get this book is all about ‘form’ and ‘style’ but to me, if I can’t figure out what’s going on, that’s a big fat writing fail. And before you’re like, “dude, it’s stream of consciousness, you’re just too stupid to know how to read that,” I would say, “but I’m not too stupid to know how to read that. Take Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, also stream of consciousness, also multiple perspectives, also all over the damn place, but you can figure out what’s going on.”
Once I googled it and read a detailed summary of what the book is about, I had a much easier time reading it. The part I did like was the last section from Dilsey’s perspective, who is the Compson’s aging servant. I found Dilsey the most well-rounded character in the whole book, unfortunately she’s last, and not first. Putting Dilsey first to set the scene would have made a huge difference, in my opinion, but hey, it’s a classic, right? What the hell do I know? I give The Sound and the Fury a resounding “meh.” If you do want to read it, do yourself a big favour and go through the Cliff’s Notes first.
I recently read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I read a lot of books and I don’t comment on very many of them on this blog, or even bother to update my Goodreads half the time unless I think I will have something to say about the book. I have something to say about this book.
I had heard of this book, knew of it for a very long time, but just never came across it in my travels and it was on my ‘books to acquire’ list for a while before I finally stumbled across it on a trip to Durham, North Carolina and an awesome little bookshop called Letters. It came all the way home to Canada with me and then sat on my ‘to read’ shelf. I finally cracked it open.
The Bell Jar isn’t a very long book, and it is the only novel Sylvia Plath, a poet, ever wrote. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t find it all that extraordinary, though I did find it very interesting. It is impossible to read this book without the looming shadow of Sylvia Plath’s suicide hovering over it. She committed suicide the month after the book was published, she was only thirty years old.
I found all of this incredibly sad. Her successes, failures, the fact that she had two small children and had just published her first novel. The dichotomy between that success and her death is intriguing and very sorrowful. It is incredible, and terrible, to me that someone could accomplish something so great and still end their own life. That for me really gave meaning to the word tragic.
The other thing that makes this book interesting is her ability to capture emotion in words: “I couldn’t get myself to react. (I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.) (pg.3)
This one I found very relatable: “After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should anymore. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.” (pg. 30)
And this one I identify with so much it makes me think I should seek professional help:
“The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly.
I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspective of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue.
It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
It made me tired just to think of it.
I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.” (pg. 128)
For the record, I do wash my clothes and hair, but I identify with how it seems pointless sometimes and she captures that beautifully.
The Bell Jar is a very sad book, but it is also entertaining, witty and brave. As someone who is prone to questioning the path society has laid out for them, I had no trouble at all boarding the main character Esther’s train of thought as the stifling bell jar slowly settled around her. For most people that distorted, encompassing feeling comes and goes at different times, but doesn’t take up permanent residence. For Sylvia Plath, it did, and when you read this book, you wonder if she always knew that it would.
* The edition cited in this blog is Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
This morning I read a blog about the worst book ever written. I wanted to comment, I’ve read some pretty awful books over the years, but I couldn’t remember the names of any of the books I wanted to suggest for title of worst book ever. I can think of some, I can describe them, but I don’t remember what they were called. I guess they were so bad that my brain chose not to store any of their pertinent information. Too bad.
What I did think of were books with terrible endings. These are not necessarily bad writers or bad books, and I don’t know if that makes it better or worse, but the endings are terrible. Let’s discuss.
As a reader, I make an investment in a book. A financial investment, an emotional investment, it’s a leap of faith. If I really get into a book then that investment becomes even deeper and more profound. I love the book, I am one with it, I will read it over and over again just to recapture the feeling that the book gives me.
As a writer I make an equal or greater investment than that of a reader. I am driven to write the story. The story is its own force, one I might not feel I really control. I completely inconvenience myself, torture myself and give up any semblance of a life or free time. I not only love my story and my characters, I sacrifice a lot to make sure they come spewing forth from myself in a truly fabulous way. I write for myself first, and most of the time I don’t care at all about my reader. That is a controversial attitude.
That said, let me present two books whose author’s completely let me down. Who am I to judge them? No one. This is just my opinion. Caution: bad endings will be spoiled by reading this post.
Son of Rosemary by Ira Levin – This is the sequel to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s actually not that bad of a book, until the end. I physically tossed this book across the room in a fit of profanity when I finished. Not only does Ira Levin ruin this book with his terrible, lazy ending, he also manages to ruin Rosemary’s Baby as well. I’m pretty sure in grade 10 english I learned to never, ever, EVER end anything with “it was all a dream.” If that’s the best you can do, don’t bother.
Hannibal by Thomas Harris – This one is not so awful, but also upsetting. I love Hannibal Lecter, I am a big fan of all of the books and movies. Hannibal is a great book, a wonderful read that gives us some solid insight in Hannibal and Clarice. My beef with the ending of this one is a little more complicated. At the end, Hannibal and Clarice run away together. When I read it I slammed it closed and said “oh, come on!” really loudly. I actually like this ending in theory. I think the thought of Hannibal and Clarice running off together at the end of this series is oddly engaging. Problem, then? She wouldn’t do it. Hannibal would, but Thomas Harris spent too much time building up Clarice and her sense of staunch morality for her to blow everything off for a crazy serial killer. It was out of character, too out of character for me to swallow it and for that reason I am hurt and saddened.
So how much do authors owe their readers, if anything? Were these endings always envisioned by these authors or were they just tacked on? Will people like the way my book ends, and more importantly, will I give a crap? I don’t know, but it’s something to think about. I guess I just hope that a terrible ending would be pointed out to me long before publication. Only time will tell.