So here I am, with more about the Classics Challenge my wife and I participated in this year. She read book after book she enjoyed, if not completely, at least enough to say she took something positive away from the experience. Me? I was like Charlie Brown at Halloween: “I got a rock.”
It’s my fault, I think I bit off more than I could chew, especially by limiting my choice to books I already owned. If I hadn’t been drawn to them by now, why would I suddenly think I would be because I challenged myself? (Don’t tell my wife, that’s her argument for me to get rid of those boxes of books and I’m starting to come around.) Click on the link above to read about the challenge and the first couple categories we read. Here are a few more, shorter, reviews.
Category 3: A book by an author we haven’t read before
In one of those basement boxes was a beaten up, paperback copy of John Dos Passos’ “Midcentury.” The reviews on the back called it “Dos Passos’ best work” and called the author “one of America’s best.” Why wouldn’t I pick it up at that used book sale so many years ago. This novel was, a history of the rise of labor unions, told in a series of short, somewhat connected, set pieces. I quite enjoyed this, but was put off by Dos Passos’ forays into biographies of real union organizers. His tart retelling of the lives of people like Jimmy Hoffa (this was written long before he disappeared) was great as background, but detracted from the through narrative, which was split into several long parts. I cheated and started reading the bigger narrative, skipping long sections in between, then going back and reading the parts I skipped. The novel still worked. The story of how unions were created to fight corrupt business practices then became corrupt themselves is, Dos Passos’ novel posits, the story of America itself in the 20th Century.
My wife read Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” coincidentally, about a corrupt businessman, but in another country (England) in another century (the 19th). Years ago we had seen a fantastic miniseries based on this book, and she was intrigued enough to read the long novel. Trollope wrote dozens of popular books in the 1800s and is now on my wife’s radar for future readings. From her response, he’s on mine, too.
Category 4: A classic adapted into a movie, play or television show
My selection: Carson McCullers’ “A Member of the Wedding.” Long on my bookshelf, I had started it before only to put it down. Again, that should have told me something. The story about a 12-year-old girl’s coming of age was sad, gothic, bizarre and frightening. I spent most of this novel waiting for the worst — a suicide, a rape, who knows what else. While I liked some parts of it, the girl, Frankie, had few redeeming qualities — like many prepubescents, but she just was too much of a mess for me to care too much. I’m putting off watching the movie: If it stays close to the book, it’s going to be a chore.
My wife chose “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” by Winifred Watson. Written in 1938, it tells the completely charming story of a down-on-her-luckgoverness whose agency sends her by mistake to take care of a spoiled actress. The actress lives a glamorous life, but it’s a complete mess. Miss Pettigrew proceeds to set everything right and ends up falling in love. The fun movie, starring Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as the actress, is also a sweet diversion and well worth your time to hunt it down and watch.
Category 5: A translation
My first selection was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude.” Then I discovered it wasn’t 50 years old quite yet, so I chose Georges Bernanos’ “Diary of a Country Priest.” Often cited as one of the most inspirational books ever written, it tells the tale of a young priest in a remote parish in France who grows closer to God as he succumbs to illness, all the while tending to a flock of the most ungrateful Catholics anyone ever wrote about. What could be bad about this? (I heard that.) What bothered me most about this book is that it is intended to be a diary, but the priest recounts, word for every freaking word, conversations that last for hours. The characters speak in paragraphs that go on for pages, then the other person in the conversation gets his or her turn to ramble on for pages. Not very realistic or, frankly, interesting in many parts. The book is humorless and bleak and death permeates every page and in the end I wasn’t moved by the (fairly trite) realization the priest comes to on his death bed. I was just annoyed it took him so long to get there.
Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” also of French origin, was on my wife’s wanna-read list for years so she used this challenge to dive in. She could not put it down. I would find her hiding in corners reading when she probably should have been doing other things. She loved it. It’s now on my wanna-read list.
Still to come in shorter (I promise) reviews: A 20th Century, a 19th Century, Written by a Woman, Written by an American and Historical Fiction. Plus, my views on reading classics.