Review: Life of Johnson

Life of JohnsonJames Boswell, Life of Johnson

James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were unlikely friends: Boswell was a young Scottish nobleman with a penchant for drinking and whoring, while Johnson was poorer, much more devout (in theory, at least), and a good 30 years older. Yet throughout the course of this monumental work, Boswell describes his reverence for Johnson’s intelligence, morality, and literary talents — a reverence so extreme that Boswell took notes on almost every conversation he ever had with the older man. As a result, this biography is stuffed full of Boswell’s personal anecdotes, letters both to and from Johnson, and first-person accounts of other contemporaries who knew him. Near the end of the book, Boswell states: “The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him.” And indeed, anyone who reads this book will come away with an extremely vivid picture of a remarkable man.

This book is so huge and deals with so many things that I don’t quite know what to say about it. At first I was very intimidated, both by its length and by Boswell’s flowery 18th-century prose. But even though it’s not a quick read, this book contains a wealth of fascinating details about Johnson and the age in which he lived. I was struck by how literary the 18th century was, in the sense that seemingly anyone with a claim to intelligence was churning out books and pamphlets. In that way, Johnson’s time is very similar to our own, where everybody can (and does) publish blogs, tweets, and other forms of instantaneous literature. I was also fascinated by Johnson’s unique character; though intelligent, he was often pompous, narrow-minded, and abrasive. I frequently found myself underlining various Johnsonian sayings that were wise, or funny, or both — but I would have hated to be forced to converse with him! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period or who enjoys very thorough biographies!

Review: True Grit

True GritCharles Portis, True Grit

In the postwar American West, Mattie Ross is a girl on a mission: her father has been killed by one of his drunken hired hands, and she’s determined to avenge his death. Despite being only 14 years old, Mattie has utter faith in her own ability to achieve her goal. As she arranges her father’s burial rites, she demands to know the name of a U.S. Marshal with “true grit” — someone who will be able to hunt down her father’s killer and exact retribution. Thus Mattie sets out with Rooster Cogburn, who is technically on the side of the law but whose own past is murky at best, and a Texan cowboy named LaBoeuf, who is hunting the same man for a different crime, on a quest for justice and revenge.

Though I don’t normally read Westerns, I’m very impressed with the ones I’ve been reading this year! The best part of this book is Mattie’s voice, which is completely distinctive and very funny, often unintentionally. For example, here’s a tidbit in which Mattie asks the sheriff about the various U.S. Marshals who could help her:

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “…The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. … Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” … I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?”

Another thing I found fascinating about this novel was its exploration of law in the Wild West. Near the beginning of the book, Mattie transcribes the trial of a man whom Rooster Cogburn had caught, complete with lawyers’ arguments and objections. It’s easy to see that, in the world of this novel, the law is largely ineffective and irrelevant to the men whose job is enforcing it. Perhaps that’s why Mattie feels such a strong urge to personally ensure that justice (as she sees it) is done. I’d definitely recommend this book as a quick, adventurous read that raises some thought-provoking questions.

Review: The Three Musketeers

The Three MusketeersAlexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers (trans. Richard Pevear)

This classic novel, whose title is somewhat misleading, follows a young solider named D’Artagnan who travels from his native Gascony to Paris in order to join the musketeers, an elite military force that serves the king. D’Artagnan naively believes that he will swiftly realize his dream and make his fortune, but his simple goal soon becomes much more complicated. Through a series of accidents he befriends the three most prestigious musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. He also becomes involved in the struggle between King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, the two most powerful men in France. As a would-be musketeer, D’Artagnan is the king’s man, but his loyalty wavers when he meets the beautiful Milady, one of the cardinal’s most influential spies. With the help of his three friends, D’Artagnan must foil Milady’s sinister plot while fighting his own attraction for her.

I actually read this book when I was 12 or so, but I’m very glad I read it again now that I have at least some knowledge of the historical context! I find it very interesting that Dumas, who was writing in the 19th century (shortly after the Napoleonic era), chose to set this story during the 17th-century wars of religion, a similarly tumultuous time for France. But even without the bigger picture, this book is quite simply a rollicking good read! It’s a long book, but the story is gripping and seems to fly by. The strength of the book is definitely its plot; by contrast, the characters aren’t developed very well. It’s fun to watch D’Artagnan and the musketeers interact with each other, but they’re essentially stock characters (Athos is the noble one, Porthos is the buffoon, etc.). And Milady is an extremely flat villain who is Pure Evil ™ through and through. In my opinion, the scheming cardinal is by far the most interesting character! Regardless, I really enjoyed this book and would love to read the rest of the series…one of these years!

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte CristoAlexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (trans. Robin Buss)

This classic novel tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a naïve young sailor who seems to be on the verge of getting everything he’s ever wanted: The owner of his ship wants to promote him to captain, and he’s about to marry his true love. But Edmond has jealous rivals, both professionally and romantically, who would like nothing more than to get rid of him and take his place. These men concoct a plan to accuse Edmond of being a Bonapartist — a deadly serious crime in a time when Napoleon has just been exiled to Elba and the French monarchy is still unstable. Although Edmond is innocent, he possesses a highly incriminating letter that seals his doom, and he is sent to France’s most notorious prison. With nothing to do but brood over the cruelty of his fate, Edmond becomes consumed by thoughts of vengeance. When he finally escapes from prison, he creates a new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo and sets out to destroy the men who ruined his life.

First of all, this novel is HUGE — the edition I read was over 1200 pages long — so I was surprised to discover how much of a page-turner it was! Although the plot is very slow-moving, Dumas cleverly builds suspense throughout the novel as Edmond’s plan of vengeance slowly reveals itself. The main thing that surprised me about this novel was how little time (comparatively speaking) it spends inside Edmond’s head. About the first quarter of the book is from his point of view, describing his feelings when he is arrested and imprisoned. But when he escapes and returns as the Count of Monte Cristo, the book barely ever relates his thoughts or feelings. Rather, the most developed characters turn out to be Edmond’s enemies (and a few friends), which makes Edmond’s actions more morally ambiguous. All in all, I’m very glad I finally took time to read this novel, whose status as a classic is well-deserved. I’ve been planning to read The Three Musketeers this year as well, and now I’m really looking forward to it!

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: The Westing Game

Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game

At the beginning of this novel, 16 people of all ages and walks of life are invited to live in a fancy new apartment building overlooking Lake Michigan. They all accept due to the luxurious accommodations and affordable rent, but it soon becomes apparent that they have been gathered for a purpose. Old Samuel Westing, who founded the town and employed many of its citizens, has just died. When the apartment dwellers are summoned to the reading of the will under the guise of being his heirs, they are shocked to hear that Mr. Westing has accused one of them of being his murderer. He proposes a game to the 16 heirs: The person who discovers Mr. Westing’s killer will inherit his vast fortune.

This is one of those books that I somehow missed in my childhood, and I decided to pick it up for the read-a-thon since I assumed it would be a fairly effortless read. But while I enjoyed the book a lot, it was definitely more complex than I thought it would be! There are a lot of characters to keep track of, which was hard at first, but they each had such distinctive qualities that I was soon able to tell who was who. The game itself was delightful to puzzle through, and I’ll admit that I didn’t see many of the twists coming! I think this would be a great read for bright children, especially those who love mysteries — but it can definitely be enjoyed by adults as well!

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.