Classics Roundup: December 2017

In today's classics roundup, I'm sharing the rest of the classics that I read in 2017! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve finally finished reading all the classic books for my 2017 book challenge! It came down to the wire a bit (I struggled my way through a few of these), but I made it! Below are quick reviews of all the classics I’ve been reading lately. Before the end of the year, I’ll have a post up summarizing both of the book challenges I participated in this year. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Awakening

When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin’s daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the confines of her domestic situation.

This was an interesting classic in which Mrs. Pontellier has an “awakening” of her self and refuses to fall in line with societal expectations. She does this by having an affair and moving into her own home, so I can see how this would have been shocking to contemporary readers.

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Kate Chopin’s writing, but I had no idea what to expect from this book. I was pleasantly surprised by it, but it isn’t one of the classics that I’ll be mulling over for years to come.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Dracula

Jonathan Harker is travelling to Castle Dracula to see the Transylvanian noble, Count Dracula. He is begged by locals not to go there, because on the eve of St George’s Day, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will come full sway. But business must be done, so Jonathan makes his way to the Castle – and then his nightmare begins. His beloved wife Mina and other lost souls have fallen under the Count’s horrifying spell. Dracula must be destroyed . . .

Several years ago, I attempted to read Dracula and utterly failed. I got freaked out by the castle scenes and never made it into the rest of the book. So I was excited to read this one for real this time. I found that it was well written and not too scary, but oh, there was a lot of sexism. I get that the time period in which this book was written was sexist, but it made it difficult to sympathize with the male main characters. Still, I’m really glad I read this one all the way through this time.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Swallows and Amazons

The first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series, originally published in 1930: for children, for grownups, for anyone captivated by the world of adventure and imagination. Swallows and Amazons introduces the lovable Walker family, the camp on Wild Cat island, the able-bodied catboat Swallow, and the two intrepid Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett.

What a fun children’s book! It’s slow to get started, but I found the siblings’ adventures on Wild Cat Island really fun and quaint–it’s reminiscent of the Penderwicks series. I definitely recommend this book for adults who like old-fashioned adventures or children with the patience for the slower-paced action of a classic book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Raisin in the Sun

“Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, has so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” observed James Baldwin shortly before A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959.

Indeed Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning drama about the hopes and aspirations of a struggling, working-class family living on the South Side of Chicago connected profoundly with the psyche of black America–and changed American theater forever.  The play’s title comes from a line in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which warns that a dream deferred might “dry up/like a raisin in the sun.”

This play offers a powerful and painful look at a black family in the 1950s who receive a large insurance payment and each have different ideas of what to do with it (pay for the daughter to go through medical school, buy a house in a white neighborhood, get involved in a questionable investment). It hurts to watch the characters struggle because of racism as well as their own poor choices, but I’m glad I read it. I don’t generally enjoy reading plays, so I’m not likely to re-read this one, but I might go see it someday.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Outsiders

According to Ponyboy, there are two kinds of people in the world: greasers and socs. A soc (short for “social”) has money, can get away with just about anything, and has an attitude longer than a limousine. A greaser, on the other hand, always lives on the outside and needs to watch his back. Ponyboy is a greaser, and he’s always been proud of it, even willing to rumble against a gang of socs for the sake of his fellow greasers–until one terrible night when his friend Johnny kills a soc. The murder gets under Ponyboy’s skin, causing his bifurcated world to crumble and teaching him that pain feels the same whether a soc or a greaser.

Wow. I can see why this book is a classic that is still taught in high schools today. It’s hard to believe that the author was only 16 when she wrote The Outsiders–it is powerful, heart wrenching, and realistic. I loved the relationships between Ponyboy and his brothers, Soda and Darry, as well as their friendships with their group of greasers and their rivalry with the well-to-do Socs. Despite the fact that this book was written 50 years ago, it is still relatable for teenagers trying to fit in and find their group. The group names may have changed, but the teenage struggle has not.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The War of the Worlds

Even long before man had learned to fly, H.G. Wells wrote this story of the Martian attack on England. These unearthly creatures arrive in huge cylinders, from which they escape as soon as the metal is cool. The first falls near Woking and is regarded as a curiosity rather than a danger until the Martians climb out of it and kill many of the gaping crowd with a Heat-Ray. These unearthly creatures have heads four feet in diameter and colossal round bodies, and by manipulating two terrifying machines – the Handling Machine and the Fighting Machine – they are as versatile as humans and at the same time insuperable. They cause boundless destruction. The inhabitants of the Earth are powerless against them, and it looks as if the end of the World has come. But there is one factor which the Martians, in spite of their superior intelligence, have not reckoned on.

I was surprised at how enjoyable and interesting this book was. It offers a fairly short account of how London–and the world–was almost destroyed by Martians. This is the grandfather of alien invasion stories, and I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s worth a read.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

1984

Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life–the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language–and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell.

This was intense. It was slow to start, and I was worried that nothing would ever happen, plot-wise. But I was so wrong. I listened to the audio book, and I could barely listen to the descriptions of torture. The beginning was dark, the ending was dark, and I barely made it through because of the lack of hope that anything would ever get better (and I usually don’t mind dystopian fiction!). I won’t be re-reading this one.

Rating: Meh

Crime and Punishment

The poverty-stricken Raskolnikov, a talented student, devises a theory about extraordinary men being above the law, since in their brilliance they think “new thoughts” and so contribute to society. He then sets out to prove his theory by murdering a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. The act brings Raskolnikov into contact with his own buried conscience and with two characters — the deeply religious Sonia, who has endured great suffering, and Porfiry, the intelligent and discerning official who is charged with investigating the murder — both of whom compel Raskolnikov to feel the split in his nature. Dostoevsky provides readers with a suspenseful, penetrating psychological analysis that goes beyond the crime — which in the course of the novel demands drastic punishment — to reveal something about the human condition: The more we intellectualize, the more imprisoned we become.

As I was reading the Goodreads summary of this book (above), I felt a little guilty that as I read through this book, I wasn’t thinking about any of these deep themes. What I was mostly thinking about was, “Why is Raskolnikov so whiny?” Very few of the characters are truly sympathetic, least of all Raskolnikov, the murderer and main character. I was hoping to enjoy this book more, as the last great Russian novel I read (Anna Karenina) really captured my imagination, but I felt kind of bored with a lot of Crime and Punishment. The end, however, is surprisingly hopeful, which I actually enjoyed (perhaps a reaction against 1984 above!).

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classic Books Roundup

Quick reviews of my latest classic reads, including Arabian Nights, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Murder at the Vicarage. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This just a brief check-in to let you all know how I’m doing on reading the classics. Unfortunately, these books aren’t the ones that have been on my list for ages; they’re just books that happened to cross my path. Still, I’m glad I read them.

Arabian Nights

This collection offers some interesting and strange stories. I’m not sure if my edition has all the stories of the original (I read the Amazon freebie version), but I enjoyed many of the ones contained within. The expanded story of Aladdin was definitely my favorite. (Caution: There are a fair amount of racist remarks within this book.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Grimm’s Fairy Tales

For almost two centuries, the stories of magic and myth gathered by the Brothers Grimm have been part of the way children — and adults — learn about the vagaries of the real world.

Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow-White, Hänsel and Gretel, Little Red-Cap (a.k.a. Little Red Riding Hood), and Briar-Rose (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty) are only a few of the enchanting characters included. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’m pretty sure I’ve read this collection before–if not the whole thing, at least many of the stories within the collection. Grimm offers all the classic fairy tales you know (of course, with a darker twist than the Disney version), along with some very strange, lesser-known stories. I wouldn’t give this to a child, but if you’ve never read the original collection of German fairy tales, you should check it out.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Murder at the Vicarage

Murder at the Vicarage marks the debut of Agatha Christie’s unflappable and much beloved female detective, Miss Jane Marple. With her gift for sniffing out the malevolent side of human nature, Miss Marple is led on her first case to a crime scene at the local vicarage. Colonel Protheroe, the magistrate whom everyone in town hates, has been shot through the head. No one heard the shot. There are no leads. Yet, everyone surrounding the vicarage seems to have a reason to want the Colonel dead. It is a race against the clock as Miss Marple sets out on the twisted trail of the mysterious killer without so much as a bit of help from the local police. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

You know I love Agatha Christie, and while I don’t generally like Miss Marple, this first Miss Marple mystery was pretty fun. There are some great characters in this book–the vicar and his much younger and prettier wife, the artist and his lover, the disillusioned young woman searching for freedom, and of course nosy old Miss Marple. It’s not my favorite Agatha Christie, but I did enjoy it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classic Book Reviews: Lord of the Flies and The Little Prince

In which I review my latest classic reads: Lord of the Flies and The Little Prince. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing my journey of reading all the classics I never got around to in today’s post. These two books are very different from each other, and while I understood why they’re considered modern classics, I didn’t particularly enjoy either one.

Lord of the Flies

When a plane crashes on a remote island, a small group of schoolboys are the sole survivors. From the prophetic Simon and virtuous Ralph to the lovable Piggy and brutish Jack, each of the boys attempts to establish control as the reality – and brutal savagery – of their situation sets in.

The boys’ struggle to find a way of existing in a community with no fixed boundaries invites readers to evaluate the concepts involved in social and political constructs and moral frameworks. Ideas of community, leadership, and the rule of law are called into question as the reader has to consider who has a right to power, why, and what the consequences of the acquisition of power may be. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Lord of the Flies is a thought provoking, well written book, if a bit racist and sexist. I absolutely understand why they teach it in high schools–it introduces some controversial ideas about social contracts and the behavior of humans, but it’s not overly complex. Really, that’s the main reason I disliked this book. I found the behavior of the boys on the island pretty unrealistic and over the top. I get that kids are mean, and any humans are more likely to resort to violence when they are afraid and outside their normal social structures, but I don’t think things would have gone so far downhill so fast.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Little Prince

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is one of those books that makes me feel like I missed the “point.” What is this “moral allegory” you speak of, Goodreads? Still, it’s a sweet story about a little boy who travels the universe and discovers a great many adults acting in ways that make no sense to his innocent mind. Plus, there are great illustrations.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classics Link Up: Slaughterhouse-Five and A Room with a View

The latest classic books I've checked off my list: A Room with a View and Slaughterhouse-Five. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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You might remember the classic book challenge that I’m doing myself (and you are welcome to participate too! Just post your links in the comments below with your latest classic book reads). These two books are the latest on my list (I actually finished A Room with a View just before I created my list, which is why it doesn’t appear there).

A Room with a View

One of E. M. Forster’s most celebrated novels, A Room With a View is the story of a young English middle-class girl, Lucy Honeychurch. While vacationing in Italy, Lucy meets and is wooed by two gentlemen, George Emerson and Cecil Vyse. After turning down Cecil Vyse’s marriage proposals twice Lucy finally accepts. Upon hearing of the engagement George protests and confesses his true love for Lucy. Lucy is torn between the choice of marrying Cecil, who is a more socially acceptable mate, and George who she knows will bring her true happiness. A Room With a View is a tale of classic human struggles such as the choice between social acceptance or true love. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is sweet, reminiscent of Jane Austen. After a life-changing trip to Italy, Lucy has to decide which man to marry–Cecil, a protective and traditional man, or George, who refuses to live by society’s rules. I must say, I was confused about feminist overtones–I’ll admit, this is one of those classic books that I’m not sure I’m getting completely. Have any of you studied A Room with a View? I’d love your perspective on it!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

This is one of those classic books that I’m pretty sure everyone except me has already read. It’s actually an easy read, and the structure is interesting–Billy Pilgrim, the main character, thinks he has become “unstuck in time,” and his reminiscences shoot from one phase of his life to another, all centering on his experiences in Dresden during WWII.

Despite the ease of reading and the occasional humorous (or at least absurd) scene, the book tackles huge topics about the effects of war. It’s very reminiscent of Catch-22 (although it didn’t make me nearly as angry as that book did; Slaughterhouse-Five was more resigned and hopeless). It’s an unsettling look at the bombing of Dresden and its effects on the humanity of soldiers.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Have you read either of these books? What classics have you read lately? Don’t forget to leave your links in the comments!

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