Back to the Classics 2012 Challenge Wrap-Up

With only two weeks to spare, I’ve finally finished the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much!

The challenge was to read nine classics, one in each of the following categories. The definition of a “classic” was kept pretty open, but I tried to limit myself to books that are widely acclaimed, frequently studied, and/or generally accepted as Western classics. Here’s what I read:

19th century classic: Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days
20th century classic: Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust
Reread a classic: Jane Austen, Emma
Classic play: Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
Classic mystery/horror/crime: Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Classic romance: Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn
Classic in translation: Aristotle, Poetics
Award-winning classic: Booth Tarkington, Alice Adams
Classic set in a country you’ll never visit: Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

My favorite book of the challenge was definitely Emma (is anyone really surprised by that?), but I also really enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days. My least favorites were The Maltese Falcon (sorry, Dashiell!) and Jamaica Inn. I’m glad I participated in this challenge, since it gave me the motivation I needed finally to pick up some of these books!

Review: The Poetics of Aristotle

Aristotle, Poetics (trans. Preston H. Epps)

In this slim treatise, Aristotle shares his philosophy of literature, including both tragedy and epic poetry. (There may at one point have been a section on comedy also, but if so, it has been lost.) He sets forth the various rules governing tragedy in some detail, including what subjects are appropriate for a tragedy, the best plot devices to use, the proper length, the best types of characters, and the primary goal of tragedy. He backs up his assertions with examples from the various poets and playwrights of his day, none of whom measure up to “the divine Homer.” With systematic deliberation (and occasional humor), Aristotle lays out his formula for creating great literature.

The thing about Aristotle is that he is hard — and the Poetics is harder than many of his other works, for several reasons. First of all, there’s no single definitive text, so translations can vary widely. (I read a cheap edition published by UNC Press in the 1940s. It seemed serviceable enough, and there were many footnotes explaining why the translator had chosen one word over another.) Also, many of Aristotle’s literary examples made no sense to me, since I’m not terribly familiar with ancient Greek drama. In fact, I think many of the plays he cites have been lost to the modern world! That said, I did find his general rules about literature to be interesting, and I’m glad I finally read this classic work.

N.B. — The version depicted in the picture is not the same as the version I read. I have no knowledge about the quality of the respective translations.

Review: The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee WilliamsTennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

This classic American play centers around the Wingfields, a lower-middle-class family living in the Midwest. The mother, Amanda, is a former Southern belle who is desperate to prevent the family from sinking into poverty. The daughter, Laura, is a fragile young woman with a slight physical deformity that has made her morbidly self-conscious and shy. The son, Tom, works in a warehouse but dreams of being a poet and living a life of adventure. When a “gentleman caller” comes to dinner, Amanda pressures Laura to make a good impression on him, but the evening doesn’t go according to plan.

I haven’t had much prior experience of Tennessee Williams, but I quite liked this play and can see why it’s considered a classic. I was definitely invested in the story and felt particularly sympathetic toward Laura. Amanda, on the other hand, drove me crazy; she reminded me of Mrs. Bennet in her pushy eagerness for Laura to attract an eligible husband. And Tom was actually the least interesting character for me, because it seemed like he was nothing more than a spokesman for the author. Though he’s fairly artistic about it, Williams definitely uses this play to express his views on the flaws in his society. I would be interested in seeing the work performed, as there are a lot of very specific stage directions, but it also “reads” well. Overall, I’d say it’s worth reading, even if it’s not destined to become one of my favorite plays.

Review: A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust

This novel, set mainly among the leisured class of 1930s England, follows a small group of social acquaintances and sheds light on their shallow approach to life. Brenda Last is married to Tony, a traditional English gentleman who is devoted to preserving his estate. Bored and lonely in the country, Brenda decides to spend more time in London. She soon enters into an affair with John Beaver, an idle young man with no job and not much money, whose greatest talent is lunching at other people’s expense. Tony is oblivious to what’s going on until a shocking tragedy forces his failing marriage into the limelight. As the Lasts try to cope with the fallout from Brenda’s infidelity, they both hope that striking out on their own will bring them happiness, but their efforts are ultimately doomed to failure.

I’m the kind of person who tends to enjoy books with happy endings and likable protagonists. I figure, why read a book that’s just going to depress you? But this book is the antithesis of the qualities I just mentioned, and I still thought it was excellent. Most of the main characters are horrible, odious people, but they’re like a train wreck that I couldn’t look away from. I did sympathize with Tony quite a bit, especially because of one truly heinous thing that Brenda said (don’t want to spoil, so unfortunately I can’t be specific). The whole time, I was hoping that things would somehow work out in the end, even though I knew it was extremely unlikely. I’m also a fan of Waugh’s writing style: he mocks his characters mercilessly, but you can’t really fault him for it because they truly deserve it! So I would definitely recommend this book to fans of classic literature, even those who prefer more lighthearted literature.

Review: Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du MaurierDaphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

Mary Yellan is a young woman who finds herself alone in the world when her mother dies. She decides to seek out her Aunt Patience, who lives not far away at Jamaica Inn. But as Mary travels to her new home, the coachman warns her that it’s not a respectable place and that it could be dangerous for a young woman like her. Nonetheless, Mary continues her journey, but she soon finds that the coachman was right. Her uncle, Joss Merlyn, is a brutish drunkard who completely dominates Aunt Patience with violence. Joss is also involved in some extremely unsavory business activities, which Mary does her best to ignore for her aunt’s sake. But eventually, Joss and his sinister confederates perpetrate an outrage that is too shocking to ignore, and Mary must decide whom she can trust to ask for help.

I’ve read several books by Daphne Du Maurier, and this is the first one that I really didn’t like. Honestly, my overall reaction was simply meh. The prose is too flowery, the plot is too melodramatic, and the whole thing is entirely too drawn-out and predictable. I knew immediately what Joss Merlyn’s mysterious business was, I knew whom Mary would end up with, and I knew who the bad guy was — all before the book was half over. In such a slow-paced book whose main entertainment value is the suspense, this much predictability just made the whole thing dull, in my opinion. So all in all, I wasn’t a fan. It’s one of Du Maurier’s earlier works, though, so presumably her writing style matured over the years. I would definitely recommend Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Frenchman’s Creek instead!

Review: The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell HammettDashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

Sam Spade is a private investigator operating in the seedy underbelly of early 20th-century San Francisco. His clients are usually shady types who don’t want to get mixed up with the police, so he knows right away that the beautiful Miss Wonderly, who comes into his office with a sob story about a missing sister, is trouble. Spade agrees to take the case, and his partner Archer shadows the girl in hopes of discovering more about her. When Archer ends up dead shortly thereafter, Spade must investigate Miss Wonderly (whose real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy) and the various shady characters with whom she is involved. But the case becomes even more dangerous than he imagined when he discovers a group of criminals on the trail of a priceless historical artifact known as the Maltese falcon.

I hate to say this about such a well-loved classic mystery, but I wasn’t a huge fan of this book. The writing style didn’t do anything for me, and the plot was only so-so. Now, I’m sure it was wildly creative at the time, as I believe Hammett was one of the pioneers of the noir genre. But in this day and age, the twists are all too familiar. I am glad I read the book, since it’s an influential part of pop culture, but it’s not something that I’d read again just for fun. I am curious to see the movie, though; I predict that this is one of those rare cases where the movie is better than the book! All in all, while I quite liked The Thin Man, this book was just not for me.

Review: Alice Adams

Booth Tarkington, Alice Adams

This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, tells the story of Alice Adams, a young woman who is determined to rise in society. Her father is kind-hearted and hardworking but content to be merely an employee at the factory of J.A. Lamb, the (unnamed) city’s most prominent businessman. He makes a decent salary, but it’s not enough for Alice to be able to mix in high society. Alice and her mother therefore continually badger her father to go into business for himself, which he eventually does — with disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, Alice meets the well-to-do Arthur Russell and immediately determines to marry him so that she can finally be the fine lady she’s always wanted to be.

I found this novel fascinating for several reasons. First, the plot manages to be suspenseful despite the ending’s inevitability; you know things are not going to end well for Alice, but you can’t help turning the pages in horrified fascination. Especially toward the end, when I could really see where things were heading, every terrible decision the Adamses made caused me to squirm. At the same time, I couldn’t help pitying Alice, her father and even her mother. They’re not bad people; they just think they’re entitled to a better lifestyle than they’re used to, and they don’t quite know how to get there. Alice is an especially interesting character. On the one hand, she’s basically a gold-digger, but she at least has enough self-awareness to realize that she’s being shallow. So I did enjoy this book, although in my opinion it’s not as good as Tarkington’s other Pulitzer-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

Reread: Emma

As some of you already know, I am a huge Jane Austen fan. I’ve read all six of her completed novels multiple times, and I’ve seen (and in fact own) most of the major film adaptations. I may or may not (ahem) be in love with Mr. Darcy. I also have a Jane Austen action figure, which is lovingly preserved in its original packaging. In short, I am a big Austen dork. Feel free to judge.

Yet I recently realized that, for some reason, I hadn’t read any Austen in at least a year. To rectify the situation, I decided to revisit Emma. It’s definitely been several years since I last read it, and even though it’s not my favorite Austen novel (that would be Pride and Prejudice, obviously), I was craving some Highbury action. Here are some things that I was thinking about during this reading (and guys, there will be SPOILERS, so be warned!):

  • Miss Bates is GENIUS. Her long monologues may seem pointless and boring, but they actually contain all the clues to the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax relationship. I love Miss Bates. She would undoubtedly be tedious in real life, but she’s definitely a wonderful comic character — and also the moral center of the novel. Other characters (Emma in particular) are often judged by how well or poorly they treat Miss Bates.
  • The romance between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is actually a lot more dramatic than the main action with Emma. In some ways, Jane Fairfax is actually a much more likely heroine for a novel: she’s an orphan raised in a wealthy environment but destined to become a governess. She’s beautiful and accomplished — much more so than Emma, we’re told. She meets the dashing Frank Churchill at Weymouth and is swept off her feet. They’re secretly engaged, unfairly separated by the class-conscious Churchills, and forced to hide their true feelings from everyone else. It’s practically Romeo and Juliet, if you think about it! Yet Austen interestingly decided to tell most of this story offstage, focusing instead on the more mundane dramas of Highbury.
  • I love the moment when Emma meets Mrs. Elton for the first time and is enraged that she casually refers to Mr. Knightley as “Knightley.” Methinks I see some foreshadowing there!
  • Speaking of Emma and Mrs. Elton, in some ways they are eerily similar. Emma judges Mrs. Elton harshly for trying to manage every aspect of Jane Fairfax’s life — yet Emma herself did essentially the same thing to Harriet Smith! Emma is a more sympathetic character than Mrs. Elton, but does she really deserve to be?

So anyway, I really enjoyed my reread of Emma, and now I have a craving to watch the 1996 movie version with Gwyneth Paltrow. Well, either that or “Clueless”!