The Classics Club have issued their latest challenge, Spin #21!
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 October 2019. The spin is taking place Monday 23 October 2019.
So far I’ve participated in two spins, with very different results. The first time, I spun the book that I least wanted, Anton Chekhov’s Major Plays. For my second spin, I got the book I most wanted, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Is it wrong of me to have chosen The Pearl by John Steinbeck for my list of fifty books to read for The Classics Club because it is short?
In my defence, having struggled through The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden when I was far too young to appreciate either, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to such a long story by this author again.
The Pearl is the story of what happens to a poor young Mexican couple, Kino and Juana, after their baby is stung by a scorpion. They rushed the baby off to a doctor, who refused to see them because all Kino could offer in payment for his services were a handful of oddly-shaped, and nearly worthless seed pearls.
On returning home, Kino, a fisherman, went diving for oysters in the hope of finding a pearl of sufficient value to pay the doctor for the baby’s treatment. He found a pearl so big and beautiful that by the time news of the find reached the doctor, it had become known as ‘The Pearl of the World.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, Kino’s find brought out the very worst of human nature. Initially Kino dreamed of sending his child to school and marrying Juana with the money from the pearl’s sale, but it didn’t take long for his dreams to expand significantly. Worse, the actions caused by other people’s greed for the pearl changed Kino and his family’s lives forever.
I found The Pearl to be a sad story, but well told. While it is a very short story, the length is also exactly right, as any more would have been padding and any less would have meant that important components of the story weren’t told. I’m fairly sure I’ll read more of Steinbeck’s short stories in future and who knows? I might even work my way up to re-reading his larger novels eventually.
The Pearl was book eleven in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.
I have to admit to not knowing what to expect from Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie when I added this book to my Classics Club list. I hadn’t read anything by this author previously and only knew that another of his books, The Satanic Verses, had provoked an enormous amount of angry attention from Muslim people.
The story of Midnight’s Children is told by Saleem Sinai, a Muslim boy who was born at the exact moment when India became an independent country. Saleem story is entwined with that of India’s, and also with 1001 other children who were born in the same midnight hour. All of the children were born with a different telepathic power.
The story started with Saleem’s grandparents, who fell in love bit-by-bit, unable to see the whole of each other through the modesty sheet with a viewing hole which separated them. Not surprisingly perhaps, once they did see more of each other, they weren’t as enamoured as they had been previously. Saleem’s grandparents story is told against the background of India working towards independence in 1947.
Saleem’s own parents had their trials but hoped for great things after Saleem was born at such an important time in their country’s history. Saleem’s telepathic power was the ability to see into other people’s minds and to commune with his fellow Children inside his own mind. Later, when Saleem learned that he had been swapped at birth with Shiva, another of the Children, he closed off part of his mind to the other children who by then had began to resent and distrust Saleem, and they drifted away. After an accident, Saleem lost this power but gained another, the ability to smell the truth.
The next section of Saleem’s life tells of his family’s exile from India, and of him becoming a soldier in Pakistan. This part of the story is dreamy and confused, as Saleem has lost his memory and his ability to feel emotion or connect with anyone else. I was very interested in this part of the story having worked with a man some years ago who had been a soldier in the Indian Army during this time and in this place. Having heard some of my workmate’s war stories I feel sure that he would appreciate Saleem’s story, even though he and Saleem fought on opposite sides.
In the third section of the story Saleem returned to India with the assistance of one of his fellow Children, Parvati-the-witch, who used her power of invisibility to make the journey. Back in India, Saleem and Parvati-the-witch lived together in a slum, with the terrible tragedies they experienced being told beside that of India’s 19-month period called the Emergency. This event was declared by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s and during this time slum-dwellers were sterilised and their slums razed.
Midnight’s Children is a massive story which I’ve only skimmed over in this review. Saleem’s narration style is to tell his stories in great detail, with intricate layers laid upon intricate layer which he rambles through. Initially Saleem’s meandering style annoyed me enormously but eventually I relaxed into it and allowed him to get to the point in his own good time. The book took me ages to read.
Midnight’s Children fantastical style reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books. Mad things happen but the characters take them for granted and so as a reader, I accepted them too. In places I felt almost overwhelmed by the story which seemed to swirl around me, barely controlled, faster and faster. Sometimes the story was funny, with toilet humour that made me laugh aloud.
I read parts of the book aloud to myself (at home, not on the train) and think that a narrated version of this book would be a treat to listen to. I would also advise other readers to allow themselves plenty of time to read this book, because it is a complicated story which deserves to be concentrated on fully, as well as allowing yourself the time to research and learn about the real people, places and events which the story is told against.
A reader who has a better knowledge of India’s history during this period would have appreciated this story far better than I did, but I still found the book rewarding without having nearly enough background knowledge. I definitely didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.
Midnight’s Children was book ten in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.
I was delighted when I spun The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde for The Classics Club’s most recent spin. I expected fun and frivolity and that’s what I got.
Straight up, I’m going to expose my ignorance by admitting that I was surprised to learn that this story was written as a play. I had expected it to be a short story.
I expect that most people are familiar with the story of Jack Worthing, an orphan who was adopted as a baby by a wealthy man after being found in a handbag at a train station. For those of you who aren’t, picture Jack as a young Colin Firth.
Jack is mad about a pretty young thing, Gwendolen, who feels as if she could only love a man named Ernest, so of course Jack calls himself Ernest to win her heart. When Gwendolen’s cousin Algernon wants to know why ‘Ernest’ also goes by the name of Jack, Jack admits that he is called Jack by his young ward, Cecily, in the country. Cecily, on the other hand, believes that Jack has a good-for-nothing brother called Ernest, who lives in London.
Gwendolen accepted Jack’s proposal, believing that his name was Ernest, but Gwendolen’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, refused to give her permission because Jack has no known relations.
Filled with curiosity about Jack/Ernest, Algernon went to Jack’s country estate and met Jack’s ward, Cecily, with whom he fell in love. She believed him to be her Uncle Jack’s brother Ernest and fell in love with him, much to Jack’s irritation. To further complicate things, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell also turn up at Jack’s estate, where Jack and Algernon are both planning to be christened later that day as ‘Ernest.’
The story is untangled to everyone’s satisfaction by the end of the story, which finishes with three very happy couples. Read this for yourself to find out who the third happy couple are!
The Importance of Being Earnest was book nine for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In my quest to get through the collectionwhich 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.