Category Archives: classics

reviews of classic literature

“The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin*

I just finished reading A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s classic novella, written in memoir style. The thing is, I was disappointed with it. This was my first time reading it, but I had high hopes because of how much I love the movie. I grew up watching that movie over and over, and I still watch it over and over. It’s such a wonderfully told, wonderfully woven coming-of-age story of love and loss, addiction and gambling, family and fishing and faith (those last two – fishing and faith – being treated as interchangeable in this particular narrative). And if you can’t relate to any of those themes, then hopefully you can at least appreciate a young Brad Pitt early in his career!

Naturally, being the bookworm I am, I started wondering why I liked the movie so much better, and I even felt a little guilty for admitting it at first. It can’t be purely about childhood nostalgia or celebrity crushing. In my brief review of the book on my Goodreads account, I recommended that any readers who love the movie and/or aren’t familiar with fly fishing skip the first hundred pages (the copy I read paginated to 160). I don’t know if I’d stick to this recommendation exactly because, to be sure, there are details (perhaps even necessary ones) in the first hundred pages that the reader might appreciate having access to. That being said, though, reading this book gave me a whole new respect for screenplay adapters and script writers. The makers of this movie took a beautiful concept that, in print, translates as piecemeal, extremely personal, and even a bit amateur, and made it into one of the most profound, complex, touching, and universal stories I have ever experienced. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

For starters, the movie’s plot line is more linear than the book’s. Book Norman jumps back and forth, in and out of various stages of his life from childhood to young adulthood to marriage to old age, and it can be difficult to tell what’s happening and in which stage it’s happening. (This is something we certainly would’ve focused revision efforts on had I been his editor.) The movie, on the other hand, moves pretty much chronologically from start to finish in a way that makes complete sense. The movie script also skillfully cuts out certain digressions detailing the technical aspects of fly fishing, the substance of which are what so bogged me down in the first half of the book.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of pulling out the best lines from the book and freeing them from their tangential entanglements so that they provoke the maximum amount of thought and reflective ahhhs. Don’t get me wrong; the book has some great one liners that are certainly thought provoking and deserve to be quoted. But it also has several trains of thought that are absurdly abstract; the kind of abstract that, like certain works of art [most notably the ones that appear to be just errant splatters on canvas, no more impressive than a first grader’s work], make me feel as if I’m missing something for not being awe inspired or driven into reverent and somber silence.

My disappointment with this book and rare (almost shameful) admission that the movie is actually better got me thinking about the other times I have experienced this anomaly. It hasn’t been often, but it has certainly been noticeable each time.

The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the most memorable. I inadvertently bought the abridged version of the book. I had already seen the movie and knew the story and, even with the abridgement, still found the book long, boring, and so tortuous that I couldn’t even finish it (notice that’s tortuous, not torturous; there is a difference). My disappointment was considerable, given that I considered Alexandre Dumas to be one of my favorite authors and I highly revere The Three Musketeers. 

The other main fault I found with The Count of Monte Cristo is that there are too many supposedly important characters and too much time between pickups of their story lines for any reasonable person to be able to remember their pertinent details. In that sense, reading the book felt like the print version of the TV show Heroes. (Remember that show? How awesome was season 1? And even season 2, and then it just got awful after that!)

Brokeback Mountain is my third example of a movie that surpasses its printed counterpart. If you know me at all (or if you’re a faithful reader), you know that I love this movie to pieces. Naturally, I assumed I would also love the short story, but I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I fell in love with the characters as portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Film Ennis and Film Jack are excellent and skilled enhancements of Annie Proulx’s Ink Ennis and Ink Jack. Proulx, like Norman Maclean, spins a tale layered with intricacy and a depth that seems almost too much to be adequately unraveled without visual aid or an outsider’s objective interpretation.

It is not a criticism of these beautiful pieces of literature to say that their visual companions did the job better. In fact, better is probably not even the right word. I posit that it’s even a credit to the authors that their works are so layered, so complex, so profound, that they require something more than just black and white words on a page. The fault lies with consumers, perhaps, rather than the authors of these fine works of prose. We consumers have become so detached from the sacred experience of literature that we need the visual stimulation, the third-party, more objective interpretations, to help us connect and engage and receive in the ways these themes deserve and are meant to be received.

That being said, would I take it well if I were told that my masterpiece was better represented, understood, and received in its butchered, doctored cinematic version instead of my own, lovingly crafted original? Likely not. But that’s a hypocritical post for another day.

*If I’m not careful, this could become a post series. I blogged about the 8th deadly sin just over a year ago.
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Classic #5: FRANNY AND ZOOEY, by J.D. Salinger

Even though I wasn’t able to get 12 classics read in 12 months, I liked my original idea of reviewing each classic I read, and I still want to record my thoughts on any I happen to read from here on out. So perhaps this will simply become my first blog-post series: reviews of classics. I can live with it if you can. (PS – This might be my shortest review yet!)

My experience with Salinger is limited. I hated The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect I would still dislike it if I read it again, though I don’t know that I would hate it. A few years have passed since my first reading, and I have experienced different parts of life, so there might be portions of the book I can better understand or more readily identify with. On the whole, however, after finishing Franny and Zooey, it seems that existential crises are Salinger’s specialty and not mine at all. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to have an existential crisis (but we’ll get to that).

In any case, for those who aren’t aware (I wasn’t), this book is comprised of a short story (“Franny”) and a novella (Zooey). The two pieces were actually published two years apart originally, but in the fictional timeline of the characters, they take place within just one or two days of each other. I rather enjoyed (and flew through) “Franny” and was therefore excited to dig into Zooey, but I was less enamored of the novella, even though it did make me laugh a few more times.

F&Z is an excerpt from the life of the Glass family, a family Salinger apparently wrote about a lot, in numerous other short stories and (possibly?) novellas. This family, as seems to the be the case with most large families, is dysfunctional to the highest degree. (Why does it seem that, the more family members you add to the pot, the higher the level of dysfunctionality rises?) The Glass children are a product of a wealthy, privileged, even spoiled existence. They were all radio stars through their childhood years, and now two of the seven siblings are dead; one by suicide, one from war.

The primary focus of the story is Franny’s internal crisis that seems to cover three different dimensions: existentialism, spirituality, and identity. The secondary focus is Franny’s and Zooey’s relationship to each other and to the rest of their family. Zooey and Franny are the youngest of the Glass children, with Franny being five years behind her brother. Both pieces are almost entirely dialogue, and the entire arc of the story begins and resolves over the course of four scenes. There is a lunch, a bath, a living room discussion, and a phone conversation. This aspect is what LF says makes the work brilliant. I disagree because it was exactly this aspect that made it borderline boring for me. Dialogue does propel a story, but so does action. As with everything, there should be a balance.

However, that being said, even though the constant dialogue creates a stream-of-consciousness style that I usually hate, I somehow found it less hateful in this instance than in others. When it’s Faulkner, for instance, you just get this exhausted feeling, drained further by a need to follow a train of thought that isn’t even following itself. The effort it takes to connect the beginning of a Faulkner sentence to the end of one is so tiring and completely infuriating once you finally realize it can’t even be done. However, that’s Faulkner narrating. In Salinger’s work, the stream of consciousness comes directly from the characters, so that makes it somehow excusable. When Salinger does narrate, it’s either to provide some character context that is either enlightening or funny (or both, in the case of almost all descriptions of Mrs. Glass), or to poke fun at himself as an author, which is also funny, but also respect engendering. I can get on board with any author willing to make fun of himself or his craft.

Overall, I didn’t love Franny and Zooey, but neither did I hate it. I didn’t even come close to hating it, in fact. But it left me with the feeling at the end that I had missed something huge, something important and significant, something deeply intelligent. So, even though I can’t say I disliked it, neither can I say I loved it because I feel so unsettled in its wake. And that is why I haven’t ventured a more complicated analysis than I have, as I usually do in my reviews. I just feel so ill equipped to address the complexities of the work that I’d rather not attempt it at all.

A non-surprising fact is that LF loves this book. I say it’s non-surprising because he always seems to love literature that I find to be too smart for me. When he asked me if I had anything to say about the book as a whole, I said no. And then I talked to him for a good 20 minutes about various parts I liked or didn’t like or appreciated or didn’t understand. So I guess I had plenty to say, but I’m not sure much of it was coherent. Suffice it to say, I would recommend the book to pretty much anyone but mostly because it just seems like one of those books that it feels good to have experienced. I will probably read it again someday, since it is so digestible, and I hope I will understand and enjoy more of it when I do.

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Classic #4: THE STRANGER, by Albert Camus

Wow, I’m zipping through these classics. Getting through eight more in three months should be a cinch.

The Stranger I was familiar with in name only before picking it up. And my only familiarity with Camus was with the pronunciation of his name (which I’ve always found to be fun). So I felt a little intimidated at the prospect of reading this book that is so well respected and yet so foreign to me. However, even though the matter of whether Camus is a true existentialist seems to be one of some debate, it cannot be denied that he is often linked to existentialism, so I felt it was only appropriate that I read something of his, since my dog (Soren) is the namesake of one of the world’s leading existentialist philosophers.

When I was close to being halfway through the book, someone happened to ask me what I was currently reading. When he asked how I was liking it, I said it was okay but that I was mainly frustrated by the main character (Mersault)’s ability to experience or express emotion of any kind. This is so completely opposite of how I operate that I just couldn’t help but be irritated with his passivity and lack of ambition. On one page, in short succession, there are two things he refuses to do out of dislike for them. One is call the cops, and the other is go to a whorehouse. In the margin, I wrote a note expressing appreciation for him finally having some solid opinions.

I continued to be irritated by his passive attitude through the rest of the book, although, given the circumstances and plot twists, I noticed it less often in Part 2 than I had in Part 1. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, The Stranger is set in French-colonized Algeria and follows Mersault, who doesn’t so much intentionally live his life as follow a course he may or may not deem pre-plotted but that he definitely seems unable to veer from, nor does he appear to possess the desire to veer from it. A series of fairly unrelated events leads him to murder a complete stranger on a beach for no reason other than that, to loosely paraphrase the narrative, he either could pull the trigger or not; it didn’t mean anything either way.

There is the obvious connection of the title to the narrative – Mersault kills a stranger. However, I have been trying to figure out what other meaning I could glean from the title, and I came up with a couple of things that are far more abstract than him simply killing someone he doesn’t know. In a way, that is such a small part of the larger story that I have trouble seeing it as the significance behind the title. Initially I was trying to figure out who exactly the stranger in the story is. I am fairly comfortable saying that the reader doesn’t get to know anyone too intimately, so in essence, everyone remains a stranger to some degree.

But I think Mersault himself – as a result of his passivity, his complete lack of ambition, his ironically intentional avoidance of being intentional about anything – is the stranger. He is as much a stranger to himself as he is to anyone else. He is a stranger to his mother; to his mother’s fiancé, Perez; to the girl he expects to marry, Marie; to his boss; to the owner of the restaurant he patronizes regularly, Céleste; to his neighbor Salamano; and to his “pal” Raymond.

During his murder trial, all these people whom he has kept at arm’s length (even Marie) are interviewed as witnesses of some kind, and all of them are only able to give vague answers that merely drive the nails further into his coffin. (What is the appropriate metaphor when the method of execution is beheading? “Vague answers that merely serve to sharpen the blade of the guillotine”? Rhetorical speculation only.)

To venture slightly deeper into the realm of the abstract, I also want to assert that, beyond being a literal stranger in relational ways, he’s a stranger to emotion; to life; to love; to all the pursuits that most of humankind deems worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for. What is Mersault dying for? Certainly nothing noble. He’s headed for execution simply because it doesn’t make any difference to him whether he lives or dies or whether anyone else lives or dies. He is a stranger to everything the rest of us get so violently passionate about.

Part of me wants to be on his side. Part of me thinks he’s uncovered something absurdly poetic and calming in his relative non-participation in the vivacity of life. Part of me wants to think there isn’t actually another component – one of void, of loneliness, of depressing isolation – to make his non-choices (which end up being choices in themselves) not negative. But only part of me. All of me cannot quite get there yet. Maybe I’ll read it again in another fifteen years and see where I’m at then.

There was one place, however, where I found myself able to identify wholly with Mersault. It was the place where he says, “after a while, you could get used to anything.” I say this all the time. So often, in fact, that I have a representation of the very idea tattooed on my arm. Of course, he says this after experiencing prison life, so it’s somewhat absurd that I felt able to relate to him in that place, since I have certainly never had my belief in that adage tested by anything so extreme.

But the fact that it’s absurd is so appropriately Camus. I did not realize, until I did some reading up on him after I finished the book, that one of the principal traits of Camus’s writing is an exploration of the absurd. I’m glad I didn’t know this beforehand because I would’ve been on the lookout for it and might have found it in places that were really sort of a stretch to make fit. As it was, I wrote “this is absurd” in more than one margin on my journey through The Stranger. And, in fact, my response to the very last line of the book was, “how absurdly depressing.” So, if absurdity was one of Camus’s goals, he certainly accomplished it here and assuredly with much more dramatic effect in Part 2 than in Part 1.

My last specific comment is that I wish I knew enough of the language to be able to read it in the original French (L’Étranger). On a cognitive level, I know I missed some nuanced detail and linguistic touches simply as a result of reading a translated work (even if I don’t know exactly what I missed or where), and I also recognized a few details that seem to have been Americanized for a U.S. reader’s benefit, which is theoretically disappointing. And there was one specific instance when I felt that knowing French would’ve been infinitely beneficial.

In one scene, the judge calls Mersault “Antichrist,” but it doesn’t quite seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the passage and seems unnecessarily cruel. So I wondered if perhaps whatever word was used in the original French that got translated to Antichrist – if perhaps that word sounds strikingly similar to Mersault’s name so that, if hearing it in French, it could be passed off as a clever pun. However, wondering is of course as far as I got.

On the whole, I made my way through the book slower than I would have liked, I think for the same reason I have had trouble getting into Crime & Punishment – that being, there is so much psychological action and so little stepping outside the main character, that it was difficult to maintain interest. Part 2 did go much faster than Part 1, so keep that in mind, if you’re thinking of picking up the book yourself. If you can make it to Part 2, you’ll want to finish. In the end, I’m glad I exposed myself to it and would recommend it to pretty much anyone, with the aforementioned qualifiers. It’s good to step out of your literary comfort zones, and I certainly did that with this book.

Am I going to read The Plague next? Likely not. But maybe someday. I’m more open to it now than I would’ve probably been otherwise.

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Classic #3: A CHRISTMAS CAROL, by Charles Dickens

I finished this one a few weeks ago but have been avoiding the review because I have felt inadequately equipped to do justice to such a well-known, well-loved, and well-respected work – especially since I claim to dislike Dickens so much. For once, I don’t want to offend anyone who may (like me) harbor fond childhood memories of hearing, reading, or even watching this story each year at Christmas and maybe each summer too. Furthermore, it’s just such a short piece that it’s difficult to find much at all to say.

However, I will begin by saying that I’m glad I read it. I know I was able to identify one or two differences between the original and the Muppet rendition, which is the version I am of course the most familiar with. (Without Gonzo narrating, it really is a different experience. And it was difficult to imagine Tiny Tim as a human and not a mini-sized Kermit the Frog.)

In hindsight, as I look back through my written comments in the margins of the book, I find that what I wrote most often, by a long shot, was “haha.” Comments that come in a close second, at least as far as their frequency of appearance, include “well written” and “I like this.” Beyond these, I made notes on the progression of the story and truly seem to have enjoyed myself and the read.

I discovered a newfound respect for Dickens and his skill that I didn’t know I could possess. I think I am willing to concede at least that he’s a good writer and had a pretty good sense of humor. However, prevalent in this narrative too are the telltale descriptions of poverty and brokenness that are so characteristic of Dickens, so I did have a proper measure of sorrow and depression through the read as well. (Thanks, Charlie. Wouldn’t have recognized it as your work without that stuff.)

My one complaint is actually double sided. On one hand, I like that the book is so short. It makes Dickens digestible and manageable for the first time ever. On the other hand, I’m not sure the progression of character development and Scrooge’s extreme maturation are entirely believable. After all, we’re merely glimpsing snapshots of his life but are also getting the impression that he has been angry, grouchy, and miserly for many, many years now. And for all that to change in one measly night? Stretching it. But again, since it is such a beloved story, I’ll say only that and hold my tongue against further lashings.

One surprise I encountered is in the portion of Christmas Future, when we witness the looters going through Scrooge’s stuff. I wrote in the margin, “I don’t think I’ve ever known this part of the story.” I’m not sure if it’s been left out of the re-tellings I’m familiar with or if I have just ignored it every time and somehow blocked it from my memory. In any case, it was certainly nice to be confronted with a detail I didn’t feel like I already knew backwards and forwards.

Other than these things, my final three notable margin comments were as follows:
“I had no idea Dickens could be so funny.”
“I know the dang story, yet I find tears in my eyes still! That blasted Dickens…”
[upon finding a word in all caps]: “All caps! Good. I need something to keep hating Dickens for.”

That last comment was written in the margin of the very last page, after I had filled the rest of the book with praise, laughter, and warm words about the story, the style of the narrative, and the author’s skill. So even in my final, defiant stand of hatred, I find myself admiring and feeling grateful to Dickens for throwing me one last bone so I can continue my persistent effort to dislike him. It’s noble and rather old world of him. Which I guess makes sense.

To sum up – read A Christmas Carol. It’s short and it’s great.

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Classic #2: THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, by Ernest Hemingway

For the last ten years, Hemingway and I have had a complicated relationship. That is to say, I disliked the first work of his that I read (A Farewell to Arms) and vowed from that point forward never to open the pages of something he’d written ever again. I was disconcertingly stubborn in this resolution, despite positive reports over the years about his superb literary skill. I know I should probably give A Farewell to Arms another chance because I was only sixteen when I read it, and is it fair to keep a decade-long resolution based on a teenage whim? Perhaps; perhaps not.

I suppose it depends on the maturity of the teenager, and while I can’t speak volumes about my teenage maturity, I will say that, as a buddingly independent young woman trying out the world for the first time, the misogyny I perceived to be dripping from the pages of that book really rubbed me the wrong way. I’m no feminist, to be sure, and I can even be said to be a bit on the traditional side now and then when it comes to male-female interaction, but the overt anti-feminist vibe I got in 2001 from A Farewell to Arms left me with a lingering lack of respect for Hemingway. My disdain extended so far and so long that I even spurned an opportunity to take a Hemingway tour of the city while I was in Paris one summer – a tour I now, of course, wish I’d taken.

And I will admit, the main reason I chose to read The Old Man and the Sea is that it’s short (well, that and, I have a boyfriend who is determined to see me succeed in my resolution and has therefore embarked on a quest to find the shortest books possible that can still count as classics). The Old Man and the Sea was the first in a stack of three he sent me home with a couple weeks ago, and I’m pleased to say that I finished it a few days ago within twenty-four hours of picking it up.

It is the story of an elderly fisherman who sets out for a regular day of fishing and ends up attempting the biggest catch of his life. As the story progresses, so does the old man’s frailty, not to mention his resolve, and the reader is pulled irrevocably in to a slow-moving yet suspenseful and endearing narrative that turns the pages surprisingly quickly.

It’s man versus nature, the ultimate test of willpower and strength of both body and mind. I think what I probably liked most about the book was its introspective quality. I sit around and think a lot about my actions and motivations and personality and goals, etc., etc. So I like that the old man pretty much has nothing to do other than sit around in his boat and think about stuff while he waits for the giant fish on his line to get tired of swimming. One thing I found interesting is that, even though the old man spends most of the book alone, either talking to himself or thinking, there is an implicit but strong focus on relationship throughout the entire narrative.

First, there is the relationship between the old man and the boy. The reader is not given a lot of information about their relationship or why they are so close, other than that they have gone out fishing together several times. Their closeness is revealed mostly through dialogue, most notably when the boy says, “‘I remember everything from when we first went [fishing] together.'” To me, this speaks to the deep and long-standing friendship they have shared over the years. Other dialogue and interaction they share serve to provide the reader with a fuzzy feeling that there is a mutual respect between them, each offering and being willing to care for the other, each maintaining a humble independence, and each respecting the other’s right to that independence. This is, in short, my relationship utopia (boyfriend, I hope you’re taking notes).

From the time the old man hooks the giant marlin to the time that he gets back to shore in his boat with the catch, he repeats over and over this sentiment of wishing the boy were with him. It seems a double desire to have the extra strength, help, and fresh ideas (and perhaps even someone to talk to) as well as a pure longing just for the boy to have the experience of being involved in such a monumental catch. He seems to know that none other than the boy would appreciate the adventure itself and understand what it means to the old man so that, by the time the old man gets back to shore with the tale of a lifetime, the reader searches for the boy on the horizon and cannot wait until the old man gets to see him and recount the adventure in such excruciating detail that eventually the boy will almost feel as if he had really been there.

The second notable relationship explored in the book is the one between the old man and the fish he catches. He speaks to the fish often during his great endurance struggle. Two of the more amusing statements he makes are:

“‘Fish,’ he said softly, aloud, ‘I’ll stay with you until I am dead.'”
“‘Fish,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.'”

There are other instances when he calls the fish a brother and his equal. He often laments his resolve to kill the fish, solely because the fish has proved itself such a worthy nemesis. The old man eventually apologizes to the dead carcass of the fish on the journey home because he is unable to pull it into the boat (because of its size) to keep it from being mangled and eaten by the scavenging sharks they meet along the way. The old man feels this is a disgraceful destiny for a fish that fought as valiantly as this one did, and he regrets that he cannot prevent it from happening.

It seems to me like this is the type of dominion God intended man to have over the natural world when he put Adam in charge all those years ago. Killing for the purpose of eating and surviving rather than for sport. Respecting the qualities that make each component of creation what it is rather than assuming inherent superiority. But the old man really gets it. He considers it a privilege to be towed along, farther out into the ocean, in the wake of this enormous marlin; a privilege to have the chance to participate in what turns into a battle of sheer will with the fish.

The third relationship Hemingway invites the reader to explore with him may not be evident in everyone’s reading, but it was certainly so in mine. It is the relationship between the old man and the reader himself, a connection I was surprised to find existed between the pages of this book. I did not expect to be able to identify so easily with a character who is so different from me, but there are so many universal truths in the book that it was nearly impossible not to. For instance, the way that the old man eats only because he knows it’s necessary and not really because he enjoys it anymore. “For a long time now eating had bored him.” I tend to feel this way about sleep from time to time, and I’ve noticed that my feeling only gets stronger with age. It seems like sleeping only serves to get in the way and waste my time and efforts toward realizing my dream of experiencing as much of the world as possible before I die.

“He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.” I especially resonate with this idea, though I think here it is more of a nod to superstition than anything else, whereas for me, it is a conscious attempt to guard my heart from becoming too hopeful about its deeply rooted desires. And even though, for the old man, this is purely about fishing and for me, it’s almost exclusively about love, I still find that there is something beautifully common about these beliefs – something that bonds the old man and me in our shared caution.

On page 84, the old man asserts, “…Pain does not matter to a man.” After reading this, I wrote my reflection thus: Perhaps not in the moment, but it might later. At least, that’s how it is with me. Then, near the end on page 117, the narration says, “…From his pain he knew he was not dead.” With this idea, the old man’s experience merges with my reflection from several pages earlier – later, rather than in the moment. And I love the latter quote here. There is something morbidly raw about needing to feel pain to be sure that life goes on. It reminded me of that lyric from the popular Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris,” from back in the ’90s: “You bleed just to know you’re alive.”

As a fourteen- and fifteen-year-old singing along to that song, I had no idea what pain was or what it meant to need such a paradoxical assurance of life. But something about the honest exposure of those words spoke to me, if only for the fact that I was your stereotypical, angst-filled teenager, awed by the idea of emotive pain and all-consuming brokenness.

And now, as an almost-twenty-seven-year-old, I still don’t know that I could claim true solidarity in having experienced such intensity of feeling as Hemingway’s old man – at least, not physically. But I do know that I have been broken, and I have reached into my brokenness and my deep wounds and have juxtaposed seemingly opposing words in attempts to describe my pain – the kinds of phrases that only make sense to others who have experienced the same, irrational-feeling levels of pain and have tried themselves to make sense of it. I can honestly say that I have willingly poured (metaphorical) salt into my numbed wounds in an attempt to stir things up and convince myself that my heart is still beating and that good days will surely come again. Haven’t we all done this at some point? If you haven’t, I dare say you will. And when you do, you’ll be able to identify with Hemingway, with his old man, and with John Reznik.

Finally, I can’t end a review of my first-Hemingway-since-2001 without some mention of his attention to women in this particular work. The first time a woman is mentioned is near the beginning, and it is a reference to the old man’s late wife. “Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.” Besides the obvious indication of affection, there is something even more poignant underlying this glimpse of the old man’s former life and love. I love the seemingly insignificant detail that it is kept “under his clean shirt.” To me, this implies it is not forgotten in a box somewhere. It’s not collecting dust, and it is not under a pile of his dirty clothes. The picture (and the woman in it) are still worth remembering, but the memory is also still painful, so it stays hidden but in a respectful place. There is also the suggestion that he would see the picture every time he removes or replaces his clean shirt. I was encouraged by this one detail, this one sentence. It made me think, Maybe Hemingway isn’t the misogynistic old codger I thought he was.

A few pages later, I reached this description of the sea: “Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman.” It seems to me like men tend to anthropomorphize in feminine ways the things they love and the things they find unpredictable or unexplainable or indescribable and the things they cannot give up or live without. Again, I have to give Hemingway some credit for this comparison because it does, in fact, feel like a rather high compliment. It acknowledges and respects this strange sort of power that women seem to be able to wield over men and have done since the beginning of time. I know many would argue that the power has sexual roots, but I am unwilling to give men such little credit because, speaking from experience, they have certain power over us too. Perhaps, in a perfect world, it is the mere manifestation of pure equality – a perfect give and take, a perfect partnership and likely what God intended all along. But we don’t live in a perfect world; we live in a broken world, where this supposed-to-be-beautiful relationship gets reduced to a psycho-sexual power struggle because we are all just helpless idiots. And maybe, deep down, Hemingway knew that too.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good about the lack of anti-feminism in the book and was willing to reconsider my opinion of its author. And then, just a few lines after this mature insight about the sea, I encountered: “…If she did wild or wicked things, it was because she could not help them.” Excuse me? This is not nearly as flattering! This is the type of line that hearkens back to my old argument a decade ago about how poorly Hemingway understood women. This makes women out to be helpless, inanimate, unable to choose our own actions, and not to be held responsible for reckless decisions. This removes an enormous amount of credit conceded in the previous description, almost as if Hemingway felt he had to have some sort of antipathetic balance, lest any female readers’ egos get too puffed up by his perceived generosity.

But then, after I calm down a little from my rant, I find that I am willing to concede that perhaps Hemingway held these opinions of women because these are the only kinds of women he knew. After all, he did have four wives. Any jerk who can convince that many women to marry him is either an impressive charmer or choosing incredibly daft women. I suppose both are likely. However, if this is the case (not that he didn’t understand women but that he kept the company of silly, unintelligent, ridiculous women who perpetuate all the stereotypes the rest of us are desperately trying to shed), then I still must admit that I have trouble respecting a man who avoids the company of independent women. I have a pretty strong personality myself, and I prefer to deal with secure men who are neither threatened by my confidence nor too weak to handle it; men who let me do my own thing but know when (and how) to stand up to me. I don’t think I would’ve gotten along with Hemingway. Then again, I don’t know the circumstances of why he was married four times. Maybe he married four confident women who all left him (though I don’t think that was the case).

All in all, I can honestly say that The Old Man and the Sea did not leave me with as bitter a taste in my mouth about Hemingway as A Farewell to Arms did. And when I look at publication dates, I can see why. A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 and Old Man and the Sea in 1951, and I could feel a maturity in his writing and perspective that is consistent with this timeline. There is still some chauvinism (after all, would he be Hemingway otherwise?), but it also feels like there is less naivete and a subtle (very subtle) respect for women, and I can dig that.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea, would recommend it to anyone, and am glad I decided to give Hemingway another chance. My only regret was that I had to take notes and keep my reflections in a notebook. I would’ve preferred immensely to write in the margins of the book, but considering whom the book belongs to and our historical disagreement on how books should be treated, it seemed like a no-brainer to keep my indiscriminate and irreverent ink markings outside the book’s pages.

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Classic #1: EMMA, by Jane Austen

The first classic up to bat in my project for 2011 was Emma.

I haven’t read a ton of Jane Austen. I haven’t read the big ones. I’ve read Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park. I remember gushing about MP and saying that even though I hadn’t read Austen’s other works, this particular one was probably her best. I don’t know what gave me the idea that I could say that since I hadn’t read anything other than P&P. I guess it was just that much better than the one book. However, even though I now don’t remember in detail the plot of Mansfield Park or the individual nuances that made me gush about it after I read it a few years ago, I can safely say that Emma didn’t make me feel the same way. In short, Emma is a book I enjoyed but not a book I loved.

For those who haven’t read it (and/or haven’t seen the 1995 movie Clueless), Emma is the story of a spoiled debutante shamelessly intent upon matchmaking her acquaintances and friends, even to the point of humiliating disaster.

Luckily, Emma is not a flat character, so my progressive reactions to her throughout the novel were interesting to experience. First I was awed by her overtly pretentious nature; then amused by her ignorance of reality; then saddened by her stubborn refusal to be more inclusive of others (mentally and otherwise); then annoyed with her petulant attitudes, mentalities, and ceaseless attempts to make romantic matches despite the fact that she broke her “friend” Harriet’s heart more than once. Then I was embarrassed to notice similarities between Emma’s immature personality and my own. Finally, I was relieved and proud to see that she is redeemable and that she ultimately comes around to be a rather pleasing character in the end – which, of course, made it much easier for me to be happy for her when she and Mr. Knightley finally get their ducks in a row and decide they want to get married (an event I am proud to say I predicted on page 112 [of 387]).

Not all pieces of the plot are as predictable as Emma’s eventual marriage to Mr. Knightley, though. There are a few intrigues and twists that keep things interesting along the way (and which would certainly benefit from a second read), although I have to say that Austen has a knack for increasing the yawn factor right in the middle of her books. Though I don’t remember specific nuances and details, I do remember particularly feeling this way in both my reads of P&P and Mansfield Park.

This is a surefire indication that she was in need of a good editor. Of course, my friend Katie unearthed an article awhile back (wish I could find a link to the actual article, but I can’t) that discussed some early manuscripts of Jane Austen’s that had been found and which indicated – by their being riddled with errors and poorly fleshed-out ideas and being vastly different from her published works – that Austen did indeed have a good editor. So I suppose I merely conjecture that she needed a better one – one who wouldn’t have made bones about cutting text, perhaps. (What is it, by the way, with authors of “classics” needing to be so long winded? This is why I haven’t read your books, you dummies! And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of my criticisms in light of the fact that I write such long blog posts.)

The reason I kept reading until the end, then, was twofold: 1) Emma matures and changes throughout the novel; 2) I find pieces of myself in Emma that, while sometimes embarrassing, are also identifying and understandable. And I think these two reasons are as good as any to finish a novel. After all, isn’t connecting with an author via a tangible character one of the highest pleasures of reading in the first place?

One comment further in relation to character development: One thing (among many) that Jane Austen does well is develop her principal characters in a way that, as I wrote in the margin of my copy of Emma, “is logical and consistent. Their actions make sense in conjunction with who they have been presented to be.” Austen expertly balances her characters’ level of humanity (a reader’s ability to relate to them and identify with them) and predictability (their actions are not surprising based on what the reader knows to be true about them), while also leaving room for a believable amount of maturation and redemption. She also does a good job of showing the progression of said maturation so it feels natural to the reader (maybe this is why the boring middle parts of her novels are necessary; the character progression would perhaps feel too sudden otherwise).

Predicting the end of the book wasn’t difficult, so it’s lucky that my reason for reading any book has never been “to see how it ends.” Otherwise I would’ve been disappointed to be right. My disappointment with the ending did come, however, for the same reason that Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park disappointed me. We spend so much time falling in love with these men alongside the principal characters (Mr. Darcy and Edmund in P&P and MP and of course Mr. Knightley in Emma), and then we are finally rewarded with marriages, but then the books end.

I know this is “normal” and formulaic, but I guess I’m waiting for something to come along that doesn’t end at happily ever after. I like to know how things worked out once the sought-for conclusion does arrive, but I guess nobody writes about that because nobody truly believes in happily ever after, and perhaps marital spats and trouble with disciplining children and financial troubles and identity crises and crises of faith – maybe nobody wants to hear about any of these things because they are too real, and we read to “escape,” right? Not to be reminded that life is life and that sometimes it sucks.

However (and maybe I’m merely going through a phase right now), the realness of these struggles and truths is exactly why I do want to hear about them. It gives me more of a reason to identify with the characters and more of an opportunity to. I can’t identify with someone who has never experienced hardship or heartbreak or struggle because I myself am and have been broken.

In any case, I don’t regret having read Jane Austen’s Emma (not sure if I could say I regret having read any piece of literature, even those I didn’t like – being exposed to variety is the spice of life, after all). And I’d like to leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the book because, as any seasoned Austen reader knows, Jane has mastered sarcasm, almost to a fault:

“Highbury, the large and populous village, almost amounting to a town…”

Mr Knightley to Emma: “Better to be without sense, than misapply it as you do.”

Emma to herself: “Humph—Harriet’s ready wit! …A man must be very much in love, indeed, to describe her so.”

Emma, explaining why it’s better to forget about the poor rather than dwell on thoughts of their plight: “If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, the rest is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves.”

“She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr. Weston’s good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense.”

Miss Bates about Mrs. Bates: “My mothers [sic] deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying anything two or three times over, she is sure to hear.”

“Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person who either marries or dies is sure of being kindly spoken of.”

“It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind.”

“…Curiosity could not be satisfied by a bride in a pew, and it must be left for visits in form which were then to be paid, to settle whether she were very pretty indeed, or only rather pretty, or not pretty at all.”

“…How peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry.”

Jane Fairfax: “The post office is a wonderful establishment! The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!” [This quote only included because it reminds me of my good friend Reese, who feels this way both about the post office and about airline travel.]

“It was well that he took everybody’s joy for granted, or he might not have thought either Mr. Woodhouse or Mr. Knightley particularly delighted.”

“Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty upon Mrs. Elton’s beginning to talk to him.”

“Emma perceived that her taste was not the only taste on which Mr. Weston depended, and felt, that to be the favourite and intimate of a man who had so many intimates and confidantes, was not the very first distinction in the scale of vanity.”

“Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private.”

“Indeed, the truth was, that poor dear Jane could not bear to see anybody—anybody at all—Mrs. Elton, indeed, could not be denied—and Mrs. Cole had made such a point—and Mrs. Perry had said so much—but, except them, Jane would really see nobody.”

“…It was really too much to hope even of Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one year.”

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