Book reviews

I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez once before, but despite loving Love in the Time of Cholera, this time the author’s overblown, ornate style irritated me so much that I gave the book up. I think I struggled because this author’s books are such a big experience that they need some time in between reading them to fully appreciate the enormity of the stories. When I joined The Classics Club though, I added One Hundred Years of Solitude to my list of fifty classics to be read within five years of joining.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is the story of the multi-generational Beundia family. Confusingly, most of the men are named either Jose Arcadio or Aureliano or variations of these names. They also live for extraordinarily long times, meaning that at any one time, there is a multitude of characters getting around with the same or similar names. I struggled right up until the last page to work out which character the story was following at any particular time. Luckily the fantastical events in the story kept me wondering what on earth would happen next, regardless of who it was happening to. Magical events were mixed in to the everyday and since none of the characters questioned the outrageously ridiculous things that happened, after a few eyebrow-lifting events I decided to go with the flow too and from then on believed everything I read. If you are a reader who is unable to believe unbelievable things, then this story may not be for you.

The first Jose Arcadio founded the town of Maconda on the side of the river in a jungle. He and his wife Ursula Iguaran left their hometown to escape the ghost of a man Jose Arcadio killed after a cockfight, because the man insulted him by commenting on the rumour that Jose Arcadio and Ursula Iguaran had not consummated their marriage. (The man was right, they hadn’t. Jose Arcadio and his wife were cousins and she fought off his advances with the assistance of a pair of sailcloth drawers reinforced by leather belts which her mother made for her in the fear that any children they had would be born with the tail of a pig).

At first Maconda was so remote that the only visitors were gypsies, who introduced ice and magnets to the villagers. Jose Arcadio became obsessed by these seemingly magical items and withdrew from everyday life to study them, occasionally coming to scientific realisations that were already known in the world the reader knows. In later life, Jose Arcadio went mad and his family tied him to a chestnut tree for years.

As time went on, Maconda became less remote and Jose Arcadia and Ursula Iguaran’s son Aureliano went off to a civil war where he become a famous leader who survived multiple attempts on his life. When he got sick of war, Colonel Aureliano Beundia spent another year brokering peace (killing many more men in order to bring this about) then spent his old age making and re-making fish from gold.

Later, the railway and a banana plantation came to Maconda, exposing the younger generation to the American way of life, eventually leading to the massacre of thousands of plantation workers. The grandchild of the first Jose Arcadio, Jose Arcadio Segunda, was the only survivor and strangely, was also the only person who was aware of or who remembered the massacre. What this meant, I don’t know.

By the end of the story, Maconda was almost destroyed after years of rain. After generations of Beundias, there were only two left, another Aureliano and Amaranta who do not realise they are aunt and nephew. They fell in love and had a child, who was born with the tail of a pig.

There is so much happening in this story, with so many characters over seven generations that it often verges on being overwhelming. Every page has something different happening to what might have been expected and every sentence is so enormously descriptive that if anyone lesser than this author had written it, the story could have been buried. Because of this, the story must be read carefully. One Hundred Years of Solitude is probably a book which improves with a second or even a third read.

This is a book which would be a pleasure to read aloud, although who has time for that? From time to time, I read paragraphs aloud to myself (no, not on the train,) wishing I could roll my ‘Rrr’s.’

The sort of moral values and events which disturbed me in Love in the Time of Cholera are rampant throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude too. Incest, rape and relationships between older men and girls so young that in most cultures they would be thought children, are common. So many people are killed during everyday life, throughout the war and as a result of the massacre that I became unfeeling, much like the difference in the emotion felt when you hear about the death of 200 people in a country that you couldn’t pinpoint on a map compared to the death of someone you know and love. In addition, there are so many characters and the action changes so quickly that it is impossible to feel connected or to care about the characters.

However, the beauty and fullness of each sentence make this book worthwhile and thinking about the events of the story as if it is a fairy tale allowed me to read on without feeling upset about events which in real life would be abhorrent.

I preferred Love in the Time of Cholera (link below) to One Hundred Years of Solitude because it was a less convoluted story, following two people who were in love when they were young but unable to become a couple until their old age. I’ll give myself a break of a year or two from this author before reading whatever I can next find by him.

https://rosereadsnovels.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/love-in-the-time-of-cholera-by-gabriel-garcia-marquez/

One Hundred Years of Solitude was book eight for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

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The Classics Club have issued a challenge, Spin #20!

The idea is for members to select 20 books from their list of 50 classics which they have challenged themselves to read within five years, then read the selected book before 31 May 2019. The spin is taking place Monday 22 April 2019.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/cc-spin-20/

The book that I least wanted, Anton Chekhov’s Major Plays came up last time and it was even less enjoyable than I’d hoped! This time, I’ve tricked them (is my paranoia seeping through?) by only choosing books that I really want to read.

My book spin list is as follows:

  1. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
  2. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
  3. Complete Juvenilia – Jane Austen
  4. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  5. Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
  6. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  7. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  9. The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley
  10. The Iliad – Homer
  11. The Odyssey – Homer
  12. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
  13. The Wings of the Dove – Henry James
  14. The Call of the Wild – Jack London
  15. The Romance of the Forest – Ann Radcliffe
  16. Pamela – Samuel Richardson
  17. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  18. The Buccaneers – Edith Warton
  19. The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde
  20. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolfe

I was vaguely aware that the song, To Sir, With Love was from a movie of the same name, but had no idea that both were based on a book written by E.R. Braithwaite, and were based on the author’s actual experiences of teaching in a London school during the late 1950s.

The author, who was from British Guiana in the Caribbean was in the RAF during World War Two but found it impossible to get a job in engineering in London after the war due to racial prejudice. Out of options, Rick was sent by an agency to teach school in a poor socio-economic area in East London. His teenage students were in their last year of school but were uncouth, dirty and unwilling to take his lessons seriously after a succession of male teachers who left the school after very brief spells of teaching.

At first, Rick was in danger of being as unsuccessful with his students as his predecessors, but when a nasty event in the classroom angered him, he lost his temper and spoke severely to his students, clearly telling them how they were expected to behave in his classroom in future.

The children took a while to adjust to calling him ‘Sir’ consistently, but eventually they begin to treat each him and each other in more adult and respectful ways, and in doing so, began to gain more from their lessons than ever before.

Rick was encouraged in his method of treating the students as young adults by several of his fellow staff members and as a sideline to the main plot, he fell in love with another teacher.

There were plenty of difficulties for Rick and his students to overcome. These included racial prejudices towards Rick and to other students, the extreme poverty which the children lived in and the expectations from their own and other communities. The book glided superficially over the events of a year, giving a taste of the character’s difficulties but not dwelling for long on any, although it left the reader with a clear understanding of the life lessons the author is giving.

The story is told quite formally, which I think reflected the author’s own manners and style. The author’s voice was occasionally proud of his achievements, which was slightly grating because the reader could see his achievements without having to have them pointed out so obviously. However, I enjoyed watching the children become young adults and seeing their behaviour change with their teacher’s good example, respect and trust. 

Interestingly, my copy of To Sir, With Love came from an Op-Shop and was stamped with the logo of a High School library from a low-socio economic area of Melbourne, where most of the children who would have read and studied this book thirty and forty years ago were from immigrant families themselves. They would have identified with the issues the author and the students faced in the book better than most.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is the story of a middle-aged English widow who decided to open a bookshop in the small, remote town where she had lived for the past ten years.

The main character was Florence Green. She bought the Old House, a damp property which had been abandoned for years, to live in as well as to house her bookshop. Eleven-year old Christine Gipping, with her two broken front teeth and tactlessly voiced opinions, became Florence’s assistant after school and during holidays. Their other companion in the Old House was a ‘rapper,’ a form of poltergeist.

The bookshop was successful in the beginning, particularly after Florence decided to sell Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, (the book is set in the late 1950s)until Mrs Gamart, a local big noise who wanted the Old House for an Arts Centre ruthlessly set out to wrest the property from Florence.

The tagline on the cover says “A town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.” This resonated with me. When I first moved to Melbourne it was to a suburb that didn’t have a bookshop, an omission which horrified me. It took me a few years to realise that a bookshop there would not have made its’ owner any money. Nail bars, on the other hand, are very successful…

The Bookshop is a very quiet novel. The dramas in this small town with its many small-minded occupants are downplayed. Florence is gentle and kind, and although she is also brave and clever, she was outnumbered and outwitted by Mrs Gamart and her followers.

I was left feeling quite sad after finishing the story, but also keen to see the recent movie of this book and to read other books by this author, of whom I’d never heard of before.

The Best of O. Henry was book eight for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

O .jpg

In my quest to get through the collection which is made up of over one hundred of William Sydney Porter’s short stories, I’ve read a story each night for what feels like forever, starting with the collection that makes up Cabbages and Kings.

The stories in Cabbages and Kings are about the mostly American inhabitants of Coralio, a town in the Republic of Anchuria, a fictitious Central American country whose main export is bananas.

cabbages

I loved the plots and conversational writing style in this collection, although I was surprised by the level of racism towards anyone who wasn’t white. I hadn’t expected this and found it to be offensive. Even taking into account that these stories were written in a different time, I think most modern reader would struggle with this element in this collection.

The characters include the runaway President of the Republic with his misbegotten bag of cash and his opera singer, various American diplomats, a detective and handfuls of business people in Anchuria to make their fortunes. The characters come and go, wheel and deal, and involve themselves in intrigue, secrets, politics and lies. The stories felt very loosely linked until the last chapter, when they were cleverly pulled together with a very funny twist.

The next collection of stories was Roads of Destiny. The theme of this collection is luck and the part it plays in our lives. This collection were mostly set all over America, although the title story was set in France. All of the main characters were men who had set off to achieve something and their stories leave the reader wondering if there is any point in trying to change our destinies.

roads

The title story of Roads of Destiny tells us that if something is meant to happen, then it probably will. The plot has a runaway poet coming to a fork in the road which gives him three choices; this way, that way, or return. We learn how things would have worked out for him had he taken each road, similar to the plot of the movie, Sliding Doors.

Many of the stories in this collection were funny and had a twist in the tail, but like Cabbages and Kings, most also included examples of the racism of the author and his times which don’t stand up to a modern read.

I enjoyed The Discounters of Money, which was a romance and The Enchanted Profile, the story of a miser who had a fondness for a young woman whose profile was similar to that of a woman’s head on a coin, but my favourite story in the collection was Friends in Rosario. Who would have thought that the old-time owners of banks in the wild west would have done anything dodgy? Not me, that’s for sure.

By the time I got to the last story in this collection, The Lonesome Road, I was ready for a break from O. Henry. Although the stories are well-told, humorous and about all sorts of people and their lives, I was beginning to feel as if I was never going to finish this book which is big enough to be a doorstop, so I put it aside for a few months before coming back to it.

The next collection of stories was from Whirlygigs. I enjoyed this collection all the better for having had a break and found the stories to be quirkier, funnier and more clever than those in the previous collections.

whirl

The Whirligig of Life was one of my favourite stories in this collection. A married couple who wanted to divorce paid $5 to be free, but soon realised they wanted to be married to each other again. Luckily, the judge who charged them $5 for the divorce was prepared to marry them again for another $5.

I also enjoyed Tommy’s Burglar, where the main characters are aware that they are fictional and are fed up with the cliched lives they live within their 2000-word story. This story is very, very cleverly done.

As a wife who hides how much chocolate she eats from her husband, I thoroughly enjoyed Suite Homes and Their Romance, where ice-cream eating is a secretive and illegal pleasure which wives hide from their husbands who wonder what they are dropping their coin on…

Madame Bo-Peep of the Ranches was another favourite of mine from this collection. This is a longer story of a romance between a likeable young woman from the city, who moves to a sheep ranch in Texas due to poverty and a young man-about-town she used to know. O Henry’s stories often have a way of things working out for the best for the characters and this one left me feeling happy.

The next collection was Heart of the West which had romance and their Texan locations in common. Again, most of the stories have a surprise at the end.

heart

Hearts and Crosses tells of a husband and wife who both want to wear the pants on their ranch, a problem which confuses their ranch-hands and took time, a happy event and new ways of thinking to resolve. I enjoyed seeing a capable heroine in this story, as many of the women in previous stories were only tokens, in the manner of the ‘little lady.’

The Ransom of Mack was an amusing story of a gold-miner who was prepared to pay big money to save his friend from matrimony.  I also enjoyed The Pimienta Pancakes, a story where the most devious would-be lover won the girl.

Other stories in this collection tell of friends falling out over the same woman and in others of hardened men finding their hearts.

The language in this collection is as funny as anything I’ve read before. The Handbook of Hymen tells of two gold miners who were caught in the mountains over winter.

If you want to instigate the art of manslaughter just shut two men up in a eighteen-by-twenty foot cabin for a month. Human nature won’t stand it.

Luckily, they had a book each which by the end of winter, they’d learned by heart. However, once they returned to civilisation the pair of them became enamoured of the same widow, and which of the men do you think won her heart, the one who had the book of poetry or the one who had Herkimer’s Handbook of Indispensable Information?

One thing about O. Henry, he wasn’t particular with his racism. In this collection it was mostly the Mexicans who copped it, although black people and Native Americans were also added to the mix.

The last short story collection was The Four Million and Other Stories. This collection is set in New York  and I believe ‘The Four Million’ refer to the population of New York at the time the stories were written, and was in response to someone who had said there were only about forty people in New York at the time worth knowing. Many of the characters in this collection are from the working poor and their lives were hard. Some of the stories in this collection have a touch of the unexplainable about them. Unlike most of the stories in the previous collections, there are suicides and other unhappy endings in this collection, although there is also joy, love and happiness amongst them.

The most famous stories from this collection are The Gift of the Magi and The Furnished Room.

My favourite story was Sisters of the Golden Circle, where a bride did a favour for another bride as they ride a Rubberneck Coach around the city. I was surprised to find a lump in my throat when I finished this story. There aren’t too many writers who have the ability to make the reader feel a strong emotion from a four page story. As a romantic, I also enjoyed Mammon and the Archer and The Green Door, both of which also had happy endings.

In The Cop and the Anthem a homeless man does his best to be sent to jail for the winter. An Unfinished Story tells of a poor and starving  shop-girl who the reader knows will eventually choose a good meal with a man she despises and whatever comes next rather than starve.

This collection had all the usual twists in the tail, however this time, the racism was expanded to include Italians.

O. Henry’s own story is fascinating. The introduction in my edition says he headed off to Texas at the age of twenty where he married a rich young woman who had tuberculosis. There, he took a job in a bank in Auston but was dismissed because of an unexplained discrepancy of $1000 in his accounts. The family then moved to Houston where he became a journalist, but when he was charged with embezzlement his father-in-law posted bail and he took off for New Orleans and Honduras, leaving his wife and daughter with his in-laws. When his wife became seriously ill O Henry returned to America but she died and he went to jail. While in prison, he worked as a druggist and wrote short stories. His daughter was told he was away on business. Once he was released, he married his childhood sweetheart but by this time he was an alcoholic and she later left him. He died at the age of 47 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Putting aside the racism, sexism and stereotyping in O. Henry’s writing, I loved the playfulness of his plots, the amusing language and the often ironic twists in his short stories.

The Best of O. Henry was book eight for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

The Wasp Factory was Iain Banks’ first novel. I couldn’t say that I enjoyed this story of a psychopathic teenager who had killed three people by the age of ten, but the story certainly kept me turning the pages.

Frank is sixteen and lives on a remote island with his father. He was bitten in the groin by a dog as a small child and suffered horrible injuries, which may partly explain why he spent his days carrying out bizarre rituals using the heads of dead animals – be warned, this book contains plenty of cruelty towards animals… and reminiscing about how he killed two of his cousin and a younger brother without anyone ever suspecting he had murdered them.

Frank’s birth was never recorded, so he never attended school or mixed with other children – apart from his brothers and cousins and you already know what happened to them… His only social activity was going to the local pub with his friend Jamie, a dwarf. Frank’s father was also reclusive and spent most of his time locked into his study, a room Frank was not allowed to enter. Frank also had a locked room which no one else was allowed into, and this is where he kept his wasp factory, a torturous device he built using a clock face where captured wasps died a particular death depending on which number of the o’clock they crawled into. To further complicate the insight into Frank’s mind, he used the wasp’s ‘chosen’ death style to tell the future.

Frank also had a terrifying array of weapons, both home-made and bought, including catapults, bombs, flame-throwers and an air rifle. It’s probably a wonder there weren’t more unexplained deaths in his community, since he’d almost run out of family.

Frank’s older brother Eric had recently escaped from a mental asylum, phoning occasionally as he made his way back to the island. Eric’s reputation for setting dogs on fire and forcing children to eat maggots and worms was well known to the family’s neighbours.

It goes without saying that The Wasp Factory is a nasty book. I probably wouldn’t have finished it, except that 1. it was short and 2. some parts are funny, in a very black way and 3. I’ve read other books by this author which are very good. If this had been the first book I’d read by Iain Banks, I probably wouldn’t ever have read another, but since it wasn’t, I’ll continue to read through his books chronologically to watch how his style developed.

I read the last bit of Me Before You by Jojo Moyes at home with a box of tissues by my side. I had been reading the book on the train all week, but knew that the only way I could enjoy a proper cry at the end would be to finish the story at home where I wouldn’t have to worry about making a spectacle of myself in front of my fellow passengers.

Me Before You is a romance, the story of Lou and Will. Lou was from a poor family and took on the job of caring for Will in preference to working in a chicken factory. Will was a paraplegic who, before his injury, had been a ruthless and successful businessman who rode a motorbike, traveled all over the world and took part in extreme sports.

Two years after his accident Will was in constant physical pain, unable to move any part of his body below his chest and worst of all, in emotional misery.

Lou was employed by Will’s mother, who stressed to her that the job was only for six months although she did not tell Lou that Will was suicidal.

Lou and Will were complete opposites. Will was moody, bossy and sarcastic, but Lou treated him with honesty and humour, calling out his bad behaviour with empathy. When Lou learned that Will intended to die at the end of the six months he promised his parents, she set about trying to make him see that his new life could be worth living.

As a couple, Lou and Will would never have met in ordinary circumstances but as they got to know each other they learned from each other and were inspired by each other. Lou, who already had a boyfriend, found herself falling in love with Will.

This is a book with a terrible moral dilemma and I have to admit, I struggled enormously with the idea of Will not wanting to live. I would have liked to see some of Lou’s focus to have been on what Will could do mentally, rather than only providing him with physical experiences in her quest to change his mind about the value of his life.

I’ve previously read Paris for One and Other Stories by this author, which I found to be enjoyable but completely forgettable. I’ll probably think about the plot of Me Before You for a little longer as it was so much more substantial than the short stories. I’ve got plans to watch the movie too, with Miss S, chocolates and that hard-working box of tissues.

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