We’re in the homestretch of the Classics Challenge 2014. Only five categories to go, so let’s get right to it.
In the spirit of Esquire magazine, who put John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” on its list of 80 Books Every Man Should Read because, I kid you not, “It’s all about the titty,” (and without a spoiler alert!) I’m going to shorten my reviews so I can get through it and so can you.
Category 6: Historical Fiction
This category was tough because it had to have been written by someone a long time ago writing about a time even longer ago. I chose Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” It was better than I thought it would be and, in the end, was really quite moving. Plus, it has this sentence that could easily have been written for “The Simpsons,” said by one townsperson to another when they see Hester and her bastard daughter, Pearl, out enjoying a nice walk: “Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!”
My loving wife chose Willa Cather’s last novel, “Sapphira and the Slave Girl.” It’s about a slave owner’s wife’s irrational jealousy of a slave that leads to a tragic end. Again, while I struggled with my choice (“Letter” was not an easy book to read), my wife zipped through this choice, enjoying it all the way.
Category 7: Written by a Woman
I chose a book that had been in my boxes in the basement for probably 20 years, given to me by its translator when I wrote a story about her. It’s called “Star Children” and is about the effect of the Holocaust on Jewish children in Denmark. It’s a must-read in Denmark, but clearly not in the U.S. because it took me a long time to find the author’s name on the Interwebs. Try it, you’ll find a listing for “Star Children: The True Story of Alien Offspring Among Us” but only after pages and pages of hits will you find this book. (The author is Ida Voss, by the way.) Anyway, it’s a series of short stories, some of them little more than snapshots about life in Denmark during the Nazi occupation, all through the eyes of children. One that really stuck with me is about a little girl who can’t wait to turn six so she can finally wear the yellow star like a big girl. The last part of the book is a long piece about families waiting in an old theater to be taken to work camps. While easily read, it’s, sadly, not very compelling.
My wife read Daphne DuMaurier’s “My Cousin Rachel.” I love this book and so did she. People don’t seem to read DuMaurier much these days. That’s too bad, she can really spin a story.
8: Written by an American
“The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. My eyes also close. I could not have been more bored. I wanted to kill myself, just so I could put myself out of my misery. Then I wanted to kill Hemingway, but remembered he took care of that for me and anyone else who slogged through existential tale of not-very-likable American expats between the world wars.
My wife read “East of Eden,” enjoying it, though somewhat baffled by the mixture of reality (a history of Hemingway’s family) and the tragic fictional story of two brothers. She liked it, but “It was so bleak.” I told her to read Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” if she really wanted bleak. It’s about much more than a titty.
9: Written in the 19th Century
I read “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which, much to my surprise after choosing dog after dog, I really enjoyed. The only novel written by Oscar Wilde is compelling, though his characters tend to pontificate in long, uninterrupted paragraphs. These paragraphs are made lighter by Wilde’s trademark aphorisms. He, apparently, found them so witty he poached them for his later plays. Hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Still, it makes one wonder whether Wilde was a bore at a party, repeating his jokes ad nauseam, forgetting he’d said the same things before to the same crowd.
My wife read a bunch of Edgar Allan Poe short stories. She didn’t talk much about them, but enjoyed getting to know the master of the macabre.
10: Written in the 20th Century
Finally, the last category!
Let’s start with my wife this time. She read Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” which her father had been pressing on her for years. I don’t know that he ever read it, but he says it’s a book everyone should read, even if he won’t. We watched the movie a few weeks ago, and she says it’s quite a bit different from the book. The film and the novel were the same in that the plot is convoluted and often confusing.
It was about this time that I realized I didn’t read a 20th Century classic. Or maybe I did. Was “The Sun Also Rises” my American classic or my 20th Century classic? I decided I goofed and this category somehow slipped through the cracks. I was willing to live with my mistake, but then, I remembered: After my wife raved about “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” I read it (mostly because it was short). A light, enjoyable novel, and from the 20th Century. Boom I’m done.
In Part 4, read my thoughts on the importance of classics, and the 10 categories my wife and I agreed to read next year to continue the Classics Challenge.