Classic Lit Challenge: The Europeans

I’m back on my classics kick. Part of it is having read one too many contemporary novels that is way too formulaic. Same old tropes whipped out again and again. I don’t mean to knock them too hard. I’m guilty of the same sin. But sometimes you just want something different. And that involves going back a hundred years.

So here I am. With Henry James and The Europeans.

I’ve never read James before. I’ve heard of him (and his famous brother the psychologist William James). In my mind Henry was the stuffy writer of stuffy period slash costume pieces.

Not my thing.

But this book is short! Only a hundredish pages long, depending on what edition. I can handle a hundred pages. No problem.


Well, actually, yes.

The Europeans wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of interesting.

Damning with faint praise? Not quite. Like I said, costume dramas about manners are not my favorite. What The Europeans served up, though, was a clash of civilizations writ small. Who doesn’t love a little war? (And Europeans, after all, perfected war, right??)

The basics: Eugenia (a baroness) and her brother Felix come to America to grift their American cousins, the Wentworths, a goodly Puritanish people in the Boston area. They don’t say out-and-out grift, but that’s basically what they’re doing. Seems Eugenia and Felix’s mother was Mr. Wentworth’s older half sister. She met some European dude, converted to Catholicism, and ran off to Europe. And here we are, 30 plus years later. Like many immigrants before them (my ancestors included), Eugenia and Felix are seeking their fortune in the new world.

Much is left out of The Europeans. Why did their mother leave? What was their life like in Europe? None of that seems to matter to Henry James, because he never tells us. What he does tell us, though, is details about what the Americans, and the Europeans, are thinking. If there’s one thing that Henry does excellently, it’s hopping from head to head to reveal what each character is thinking at any given time. Sometimes it’s interesting. Other times, eh. (I’m looking at you, Clifford Wentworth).

I expected a bigger clash. I expected fireworks. I expected a little inadvertent comedy. There wasn’t much of that. Instead what I got was an awkward overuse of the phrase “making love to” — used in a way VERY different from modern times. And a lot of first cousin love. Seriously. I guess first cousins marrying each other was a thing in the late 1800s.

I got through this “comedy” of manners fairly quickly, maybe because I was expecting more. That more never arrived. Still, it was fun to slip into the heads of these lightly scheming characters. A hundred pages I could handle. Four hundred I would have felt cheated.

At least Felix got his happy ending.

Five for Friday

1. Mama Bruise by Jonathan Carroll

mama bruise is the home to free short speculative fiction, always great. This short story, Mama Bruise, by Jonathan Carroll not only features great writing–the prose is intimate and clean–it’s also not at all what I expected. It’s billed as a story about a dog with issues. I was expecting something Cujo-esque. Instead it was stealthily heartbreaking and thoroughly unsettling. Read it.

2. Vietnam by Jon Grant

“Your silence is a weapon. It’s like a nuclear bomb. It’s like the agent orange they used to use in Vietnam.”

Jon Grant is one of my favorites. His musical style isn’t easily classifiable, but his voice is honey and his lyrics are mostly about heartbreak. He’s got a talent for employing strange and sometimes awkward metaphors. They don’t always land but they’re fun to listen to. In this song, he equates a bad relationship to the Vietnam war. It sounds like a stretch but it works. The video does, too. It’s just him, there, being filmed. It’s awkward to look at, which is the point.

3. Villanelle and the knitting needles in Killing Eve

Killing Eve is addictive, over the top, and pure fun. I love watching Sandra Oh’s Eve chase and be chased by the psychopathic assassin Villanelle. Even more than that, I love watching Villanelle get in and out of trouble. A recent example is when she’s holed up with a creepy older dude who has an obsession with dolls. Of course she escapes, and of course creepy older dude doesn’t fare too well. Thanks to knitting needles.

4. The Modfather


5. The rustling hair in Game of Thrones

white walker
The Battle of Winterfell will go down as the second-best episode of Game of Thrones to date. Despite its darkness, both literal and figurative, it was a tour-de-force of writing, acting, and production. I could go on about how awesome a plotting job the writers did in getting Arya to the eventual place where it felt completely natural and earned that she would be the one to take down the Night King. I’m not. Instead I’ll focus on one brief moment of brilliance. Just before Arya stormed seemingly out of nowhere to attack the Night King, the hair of one of his minions is rustled. You think it’s the wind. It’s not. It’s Arya leaping in for the kill.

Five for Friday

My top raves of the week:

1. Quentin Coldwater in the Season 4 finale of The Magicians


The Magicians Quentin Coldwater a strange case. In the books he was meant to subvert the trope of the savior; instead of being super special, he was an average, depressed dude with a marginal talent for magic. In the show he always wanted to be the hero but kept getting outshined by the other characters. The season 4 finale of The Magicians was all his. He became the hero in every sense of the word, but most especially the tragic one.

2. Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone


I just finished Two Serpents Rise, Max Gladstone’s second book in his fantasy Craft Sequence series, about a world full of living and dead gods, and mortals who use a complex system of rules to keep both magic and gods in check. While no book is perfect, he did a great job of creating a wholly unique world very loosely based on Aztec and Mayan legends. His prose is intense (and intimidating from a writer’s standpoint) and his characterizations are effective. Most of all, this book was fun, which is what any reader really wants.

3. Karmacoma by Massive Attack

Once upon a time videos were close to art. I don’t know if I’d put this video in that category but what I love about this throwback is how it spins stories in the viewers mind. Welcome to the weirdest hotel outside of the one in The Shining. What the hell is going on? The guy hunting his tiny double? Why did that other guy get shot in the stomach? The kidnapped kid? The weird homeless dude? The random nosebleed woman? Plus the song holds up after a couple of decades. Hard to beat.

4. Florida Man Aggressively Eats Pasta

florida spaghetti

In Florida (of course), a crazed Jesus hipster looking man, looking beat to hell, was arrested at an Olive Garden for aggressively eating pasta (spoiler: he was drunk). I could eat this story up forever.

5. Dany Targaryen’s bloody coat in Game of Thrones

GoT Dany

I’m not much for fashion. but this coat? I couldn’t look away. Give the costumers an Oscar right now. Fur the color of pure snow, but hidden beneath were lines of red. Blood and snow mingling beautifully. Nothing subtle about this foreshadowing. I can’t wait for the blood!


Classic Lit Challenge 6: Saturday

This one was a test.

For my classic lit challenge I’ve been choosing novels that have weathered decades. As in at least five. My reasoning: among the ocean of books, only quality literature will survive the currents of time.

I deviated for Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. It was only published in 2005. Not enough time has passed to tell if it will be floating around used book sales a hundred years from now.

220px-SaturdayMy verdict: I don’t think so.

First, why I picked it up. I’d read Enduring Love by him a few years ago and I liked it a lot. I’d seen the movie Atonement, which is based on a book he wrote, and I liked it even more. I remember when Saturday came out and it got rave reviews. So, there it was, on the tables of Grace Van Vorst Church’s book sale, for just a buck.

The good: I read Saturday in a single day (a Sunday, not a Saturday). I was still in a wickedly off-kilter state of mind so I wandered into Manhattan and read chapters at various places along the Hudson riverfront, and I kept on doing so until Saturday (the book) had ended.

I NEVER read a book in a single day. Saturday, however, was fluid and seamless and kept me going.

So what’s it about? It follows a well-off and well-regarded middle-aged London neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, during the course of a single day: February 15, 2003. As Henry navigates his unimpressive Saturday routine he ponders such things as the love of his family (very devoted all around), fears about terrorism, the looming Iraq War and his general place in life. In a lot of ways it reminded me of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in that it focused intensely on one person’s life confined to a single day. But Joyce and Woolf pulled it off. McEwan fell short. I think I know why.

Henry Perowne has no memorable flaws. He’s skillful and dutiful and faithful and even tempered. He’s boring. There were opportunities to delve into his psyche, burrow into his past, but the earliest we get is adolescence, and one that is fine enough. I wished McEwan had used the Joyce/Woolf example and dug deep into Henry’s shit.

Nope. None of that.

Another problem hearkens back to why Saturday was so praised when it came out. Way back in 2005 the contentious Iraq War was underway. Saturday takes place during a massive British anti-war rally, and Henry spends many pages ruminating on the merits of the war. He gets into an impassioned argument with his daughter Daisy (most of the passion was on her side), which mirrors the arguments of the day, almost in a textbook fashion.

Topicality can be awesome. But what happens when, with the passage of time, that enormously world-changing event ends up not being such a big deal? A decade plus on, the Iraq War seems as consequential as the Boer War in popular culture, so the debate over its merits before the fact have zero tension. Time moves that fast. McEwan is one of today’s literary heavyweights, but I’m guessing if he wrote this same exact novel today, it wouldn’t get published.

There’s much to like about Saturday. The writing is great, and the action, especially toward the last quarter of the book, was unexpected and shocking (if not totally believable). Like I said, I read Saturday in one day.

Will it last a hundred hears on? I’m guessing McEwan’s Atonement will earn that honor.

Next up, a classic that made my skin crawl.


Classic Lit Challenge 5: As I Lay Dying

My history with William Faulkner isn’t a positive one. I remember having to read one of his books in high school — I can’t remember whether it was Light in August or The Sound and the Fury. It didn’t go well. Then again, what 16 year old can comprehend stream of coverconsciousness?

My second attempt came when I was living in upstate New York, a four-hour drive from my family in Jersey, and I’d gotten my hands on a Faulkner audiobook — one of the two aforementioned novels. I can’t recall which one, and again it doesn’t matter, since listening to Faulkner while driving along the New York Thruway is even more pointless than reading it.

Oh, and I’m not a fan of early 20th century southern gothic. It’s become a huge cliche.

Nevertheless, as part of my one dollar, 300 pages or less challenge, I boldly chose Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (not to be confused with the excellent thrash metal band of the same name, which I am listening to as i lay dyingas I write this).

Ok, a bit of a rewind — last year, my friends Sara and Stephen both convinced me to read their favorite book of all time: James Joyce’s Ulysses. So I did, chapter by chapter, and we’d get together over beers to discuss and dissect. It was a challenge, but I finished it. Ulysses is considered the blueprint of modern, stream-of-consciousness writing. Joyce was the pioneer, more or less. Once I slogged through Ulysses, I was at ease with stream of consciousness. Reading Faulkner was now much, much easier.

(Though I did cheat a little; wikipedia helped me sort out the large cast of characters.)

A quick summary of As I Lay Dying: Addie Bundren, the matriarch of the rural southern Bundren clan, is dying, and her last wish is to be buried miles away among her own people. A simple journey tale, right? No. Not so simple. Everything that can go wrong hauling her decaying corpse miles and miles and miles in the southern heat does go wrong. Almost comically.

What makes As I Lay Dying both effective and frustrating is the rotating cast. The book is told in a first person point of view. Not just one, though. Fifteen, including Addie’s toothless husband Anse, her oldest son Cash, another son, the insightful Darl, dutiful daughter Dewey Dell, the secretly illegitimate son Jewel, and the youngest boy Vardaman. Other POVs include neighbors, doctors, etc etc.

You can get whiplash from the constant stream of murmuring voices.

Faulkner does a great job of carrying the reader along, even in places where the reader (me) feels almost lost. That’s because he keeps things interesting throughout.

Given my history with Faulkner, I liked this book way more than I thought I would. One thing that stood out for me was the character of Darl. The story of carrying a decaying body clear across the state is batshit crazy. Darl realizes this. In fact Darl is the only character who can see through all the secrets and lies of the Bundren clan. This eventually becomes his undoing.

Or maybe he’s the one who is batshit crazy.

When you’re the sane one in a crazy world, does that make you crazy in comparison?

The other thing that stood out for me was the title character (well, title POV character). The book is called As I Lay Dying (which is an allusion to the Odyssey, which inspired Joyce to write Ulysses, which clearly inspired As I Lay Dying. Boom!). Addie is the one who is laying dying when the novel opens, so she’s pretty damn important.

But we only get a single chapter from Addie’s POV, which comes in the middle and is out of time with the sequence of events.

That doesn’t matter though. It’s one of the most powerful chapters of the book. We find out who Addie really is. Turns out she’s a mean, nasty, violent woman who has no faith in the world or her family or her marriage or herself. There’s been tons written about Addie, and some consider her a feminist of sorts. I think she’s the story’s villain. It’s because of her that all this madness occurs.

But if it wasn’t for her villainy, we’d have a boring short story about a loving matriarch being buried in the backyard. Who wants that?

Next up: a deviation from the “classic” challenge, where I tackle a more modern literary hit.


Classic Lit Challenge 4: Pride and Prejudice

After this post I’m expecting hordes of furious Jane Austen fans at my door.

So when I was at the used book sale I spied Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Of course I’m familiar with Austen. She’s one of the biggies. She basically invented the romance genre. And who doesn’t love the movie Clueless (which is loosely based on Austen’s Emma)?

prideprejudice423x630I’d never read anything by Austen, though I know many writers and readers who practically worship her. Romance isn’t my thing, but not wanting to consider myself a literary snob, I handed over the dollar and set to reading.

When I was younger I had it in my head that I had to finish every book I started. As I got older and time became more precious, I tossed that useless rule. With this literary challenge, though, I told myself I’d at least read until page 50. If I still couldn’t take the torture, I’d tap out then.

For Pride and Prejudice I made it to page 38.

I don’t know what it was exactly that made me quit this book.

Was it the ridiculous, over-the-top language?

Was it the horrible stage direction, which always had me confused as to who was saying what?

Was it the fact that the most interesting scenes were being described off-camera?

Was it that the only character I liked was Mr. Darcy, who is considered the villain (as far as romances go)?

Maybe it was all of those.

I’m guessing our hero Elizabeth Bennet blossoms into a character who is 1) interesting and 2) not annoying, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for her metamorphosis. I also didn’t have the patience for the wide cast of characters whose sole purpose was to gossip and pile on the unnecessary dialogue.

Call me overly proud. Call me prejudiced. But I couldn’t find the charm in Pride and Prejudice.

Maybe I should give Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a shot instead. Who doesn’t love zombies?

Next up: a book that’s the polar opposite of a romance, and one I actually finished.

Classic Lit Challenge 3: All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months after my father was killed, my mother purged a ton of his books, so when I was at her house searching for something to read, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the bookshelves were as bare as a Venezuelan supermarket. All I found were a few All Quietreligious books, some non-fiction war books and…All Quiet on the Western Front.

I probably grimaced when I pulled it off the shelf. Not only because it was a boring war novel that you’re assigned in high school, but also because on the cover was John Boy from The Waltons TV show. That show bored me to death, as did the character, so I can’t dissociate the actor from the character, or the show.

Nevertheless, I took it with me. It was short enough to meet my classic challenge standard, and I love the history of Germany during the pre-WWII era. So I figured I’d just try to not look too long at John Boy on the cover and give it a try.

I was expecting Erich Maria Remarque’s classic to be boring. It wasn’t. I was also expecting it to be staid and mannered. I was wrong again. All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of Paul, a battle-hardened German soldier fighting along the western front in France during World War One. In his preface, Remarque clearly states that the book is not meant to be anti war. While it could easily be mistaken for a pacifist plea, it’s not. It’s just a detailed account of life as a soldier.

At times the writing is bawdy. He’s not adverse to throwing in a few fart jokes, of all things. In other episodes, Remarque, through the narrator, clearly relays the intense camaraderie that develops among soldiers. This falls just short of romanticization, which makes it even more effective.

One thing that kept coming back to me (which was in contrast to the thirtysomething actor on the book’s cover) was Paul’s age. He and his friends enlist just after high school. He’s 19 during the course of the book. More than once he comments on how disillusioned he and his entire generation have become because of the war, how lost they are, how much they’ve aged. This was one of the most powerful themes for me.

All Quiet on the Western Front is bursting with rich description. Unlike most modern novels, it’s not told in a traditional three-act structure. That’s because it was serialized during the 1920s. I found the episodic nature of the chapters compelling.

All Quiet on the Western Front didn’t go over too well once the Nazis came into power. It was a target of book burnings, and Remarque fled the country. The Nazis are long gone, but his book still persists.

Next up, my first failure.

Classic Lit Challenge, Episode 2: Ethan Frome

Ethan Who??

As I write this I’m listening to Nine Inch Nails — The Day The World Went Away. It fits the mood I was in when I picked up Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, and the song’s constrained brutality fits the mood of the book.

I was in a “whole world went away” kind of mood when I rummaged through the stacks of books at the local protestant church’s used book pile (paperbacks for a dollar!). I’d just finished Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand oethan fromef Darkness, still haunted by that resonating line of hers: Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing? I was desperate for another book, one that had some words and meaning that would give me something (what “thing” I couldn’t say). On a shelf full of plays I found a few dozen classics. I sifted through them, and I chose Edith Wharton’s book for only one reason. It was short. Right now I can’t sit through anything longer than 300 pages, and this paperback version was about 100.


All I knew of Edith Wharton was that she was a highly regarded American writer from the turn of the last century, that she was rich, and that she wrote books about rich people. I expected Ethan Frome to be a novel about boring rich people and their fussy manners.

I was wrong.

It’s about poor people and their fussy manners. And their inability to set their hearts on a possible thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Ethan Frome. It’s a big story in a little book. It’s a focused narrative that mines deep emotions. It is restrained yet revealing.

The book is about the title character’s doomed, aborted love affair. Wharton does something interesting craft-wise. She opens with an unnamed narrator (who totally doesn’t matter) describing an older Ethan as a crippled man, both physically and emotionally. Eventually the narrator learns how Ethan became so wounded. Years earlier, Ethan, trapped in a loveless marriage with the shrewish Zeena, falls for her cousin Mattie, who is boarding with the Fromes to help Zeena, who is more or less a hypochondriac. Ethan falls in love with Mattie. Zeena, who only seems to love her mysterious malady, plans on sending Mattie away. Ethan grows desperate.

And then the trouble begins.

I won’t reveal what happened, but I was totally caught up in the story. Everyone is trapped in lives and a society that offer no escape. Their choices are severely constrained. Hope is hard to come by.

It fit my mood perfectly.

Ethan Frome is a book to wallow in. I don’t thing Edith Wharton thought highly of marriage, and she had no clue about struggling working class folk. but none of that mattered. She burrowed deep into the hearts of her characters. She churned a whirlpool of tension until the final shocking moments when she revealed exactly how Ethan’s body and spirit were broken.

Next in my literary challenge, another dark and stormy classic.