Classics Club Spin - The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow


I did not like this book. I did not finish this book.

I will never pick this book up again.

Besides not having enough story to keep me interested past page 60, Bellow describes every character in detail. In so much detail my mental snapshots were muddy, confusing and seemingly contradictory. These complex descriptions bogged down the narrative - what little narrative there was. So, I won't be checking this book off my 1001 Books list. I suppose it's in good company, with Moby Dick and Middlemarch.

In the good news department, I did learn something from what little I read:

In writing, less is more.

Classics Club Spin Book

The number selected for the Classics Club Spin is #4, which means I will be reading The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. augie

Description from Amazon:

As soon as it first appeared in 1953, this gem by the great Saul Bellow was hailed as an American classic. Bold, expansive, and keenly humorous, The Adventures of Augie March blends street language with literary elegance to tell the story of a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Great Depression. A "born recruit," Augie makes himself available for hire by plungers, schemers, risk takers, and operators, compiling a record of choices that is—to say the least—eccentric.

Doesn't tell me much about the book. Let's try Goodreads:

Augie comes on stage with one of literature’s most famous opening lines. “I am an American, Chicago born, and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.” It’s the “Call me Ishmael” of mid-20th-century American fiction. (For the record, Bellow was born in Canada.) Or it would be if Ishmael had been more like Tom Jones with a philosophical disposition. With this teeming book Bellow returned a Dickensian richness to the American novel. As he makes his way to a full brimming consciousness of himself, Augie careens through numberless occupations and countless mentors and exemplars, all the while enchanting us with the slapdash American music of his voice.

Hmm. The "Call me Ishmael" of mid-20th-century American fiction, as if there is an iconic opening line in every phase of American literature. Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis both call The Adventures of Augie March the "Great American Novel." Somehow, all of the accolades and hyperbole aren't exciting me. Still, I'll read it. I have it on my bookshelf, in fact. No idea why.

It's good, then, that the non-fiction book is one I've long wanted to read: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.


A phenomenal #1 bestseller that has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years, this memoir traces Maya Angelou's childhood in a small, rural community during the 1930s. Filled with images and recollections that point to the dignity and courage of black men and women, Angelou paints a sometimes disquieting, but always affecting picture of the people—and the times—that touched her life.

Since I'm reading two from the lists already, I've decided to choose my September reading from The Classics Club and Non-Fiction Challenge lists. I have two books left on my bedside table for August and I haven't bought one book this month. It's a record!

"Speech is sliver, but silence is golden." Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

  I picked these books because of their length. It is a sad fact I have to pad my reading stats with short books with my 100 books read goal for 2013. The good news is one of these books is also part of my 1001 Books/The Classics Club Challenge and the other is by an author I've heard of but have never read.  The bad news is, I didn't care for either book.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparkbrodie

Synopsis: Jean Brodie is a teacher with advanced and unconventional ideas that put her at odds with the other members of staff at the Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh, as she endeavours to shape the lives of the select group of girls who form her "set".

What saved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (★★★) from a two star rating was the writing. Spark has a unique style, omniscient narrator, jumping back and forth in time  between paragraphs. She so casually drops into the story who "betrayed" Miss Brodie I had to go back and read it a few times to make sure I read it right. I liked her writing style enough I will read more of her work, but the characters in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie were less than appealing. Thank God it was a short book.



Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano

bolanoSynopsis -Paris, 1938. The Peruvian poet César Vallejo is in the hospital, afflicted with an undiagnosed illness, and unable to stop hiccuping. His wife calls on an acquaintance of her friend Madame Reynaud: the Mesmerist Pierre Pain. Pain, a timid bachelor, is in love with the widow Reynaud, and agrees to help. But two mysterious Spanish men follow Pain and bribe him not to treat Vallejo, and Pain takes the money. Ravaged by guilt and anxiety, however, he does not intend to abandon his new patient, but then Pain's access to the hospital is barred and Madame Reynaud leaves Paris.... Another practioner of the occult sciences enters the story (working for Franco, using his Mesmeric expertise to interrogate prisoners)-as do Mme. Curie, tarot cards, an assassination, and nightmares. Meanwhile, Monsieur Pain, haunted and guilty, wanders the crepuscular, rainy streets of Paris...

On the other hand, there wasn't much of anything I enjoyed about Monsieur Pain (★★), except the Paris setting and recognizing streets I visited on my trip there last year. There was no plot to speak of (the above summary is technically accurate, but it makes the plot sound more interesting and cohesive than it was); it seemed to be mostly about Pain walking around Paris, getting drunk and having hallucinations and nightmares. I found it a rather difficult read, as if Bolano worked so hard to write deeply he ended up with a story without a point. At the very least, the point or theme was so camouflaged I didn't get it. Maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind for Monsieur Pain, or maybe I'm just not bright enough to "get" Bolano. It definitely didn't make me want to read his 1000 page posthumous novel, 2666.

The Classics Club/1001 Books - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

innocenceLast month, I cheated a little bit on my Young Adult read. Car sickness, boredom and my inability to think ahead meant I had to listen to audiobooks I had already downloaded from Audible on the 12 hour car ride through flat, featureless though starkly beautiful New Mexico and west Texas. Since I wanted to be able to finish the book on the ride, or soon after I got home, the 12 hour reading of The Age of Innocence was the choice. Though I haven't read much Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth years ago and Ethan Frome recently), I knew what I was getting into when I started. SPOILER ALERT: Wharton doesn't do happy endings. Laura Miller, book reviewer at Salon, wrote a great piece last year: The Tyranny of the Happy Ending. The whole post deserves a read, but this stuck out (emphasis mine):

Some aspects of the human experience can only be addressed in a tragic mode, and the truth of “Romeo and Juliet” — that the intransigence of elders often leads to the sacrifice of youth — is one of those aspects. The tragic Victorian novels of Eliot and Hardy deal with, among other subjects, the restrictions that class and gender roles impose on heroes and heroines who are capable of much more than their allotted place in society permits. Seeing the intellectual and spiritual yearnings of Maggie Tulliver (in “The Mill on the Floss”) and Jude Fawley (in “Jude the Obscure”) being crushed is agonizing, but providing either character with a miraculous escape from that fate would render the novels themselves pointless. Their point is precisely that sometimes the best people will fail, and fail utterly.

This sums up Edith Wharton's sensibilities to a 'T.' Reading Miller's critique should make me appreciate The Age of Innocence's ending and while it does take a bit of the sting out of it, my dislike for the main character, Leland Archer, keeps any sense of awe or loss at the resolution at bay. Yes, Archer was restrained by society and the time he lived, but in the end, when the restraints were lifted, he was a coward. His final act transformed him from a tragic and noble character (at least I think that's what Wharton was going for) into a spineless weakling.

Still, Wharton is a master as depicting upper middle class New York and illustrating the mores of a group that rarely gets the attention. Think about it. When you think of fiction set in the 1870s, what comes to mind? England in the Victorian Era.  There is a real dearth of fiction set in the US during that time (save The Civil War era which usually always deals with the war, slavery and politics instead of class), either contemporary (written during the time it is set) or modern (or what we would call historical fiction, now).  And, what fiction there is is always overshadowed by their British counterparts, even in modern times. (It is telling that in Miller's article linked to above, she uses only British works as examples when Wharton would work as well.) Though American history is littered with examples of us rejecting England's religion, political structure and class structure, we have always been enthralled with their society, and the fiction that depicts it, to the detriment of our own.

I don't mean to suggest you must read The Age of Innocence (★★★★) because of a jingoistic zeal to support American writers and setting. Or that my four star rating is a result of a fist pumping celebration of 'Merica. Rather, you should read The Age of Innocence - as you should read any and all Edith Wharton's novels - because she will show you an America many of us haven't bothered to learn about, as well as make you wonder how much has truly changed in the subsequent 140 years.


May Reading Review - Romance

cheesyMy month of reading romances turned out better than I thought. The quality of the writing was surprisingly good and I didn't end the month wishing my husband was an Irish bar owner in the middle of nowhere. If I have a complaint about romances is they are formulaic to a fault. But, the formula is part of the Romance Writers of America definition of the genre:

Novels in this genre place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Which means a good romance depends on a unique setting, characters and story. There are plenty of average romances that will leave you happy and satisfied. Finding an exceptional one is much more difficult. But, so is finding a horrible romance. They seem to hum along around three to four stars and, you know what? Sometimes the book you're reading doesn't need to change the world or make you ponder deep themes. It just needs to make you feel better when you finish than when you started. Most of the books I read in May did.

Top Pick of the Month

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand () by Helen Simondson - Major Pettigrew is the best kind of romance; great characters, believable conflict, sweet love story and uniqueness. I've wanted to read this novel for years and I'm so glad I did. Would recommend to anyone and will most likely re-read it in years to come.

You Can't Go Wrong With...

Jewels of the Sun () by Nora Roberts - Roberts is the quintessential romance author that will always deliver a reliably enjoyable read. Some complained on Goodreads about the ridiculous Irish stereotypes. To that I have this to say:  you don't read romance for veracity; you read it for fantasy. So what if the Ireland Roberts depicts is more Brigadoon and blarney stone than reality? It's fun, well written escapism. Also, don't talk to a Texan about stereotypes. In college I was able to convince two New Yorkers we all rode horses to school and had oil wells in our back yards. If a reader is stupid enough to believe the over the top stereotype, what do you care?  I stay away from Texas-based romances. I suggest easily offended Irish do the same for Ireland.

Georgette Heyer - I read two Heyer books this month (The Devil's Cub ; Lady of Quality ) because she is, far and away, my historical romance comfort read. The plots of her novels unfortunately share too many similarities, but I don't care.

This was shelved in Romance?

About a Boy () by Nick Hornby - There is nothing romancy about it, though I suppose Romance might have the widest definition of any literary genre. About a Boy could be considered romance, if you squint and turn your head a little, as if trying to catch sight of a shy fairy.

Good, not Great

Fall into You () by Roni Loren - My first full length erotica. Eh. Well-written but I'm not overly interested in reading about BDSM. I would read another if someone gave it to me but I wouldn't go out of my way to buy one.

With Just One Kiss () by Francis Ray - Thoroughly enjoyable. Will read another. Not as well written as Roberts but still lighthearted and fun. I liked it enough to seek out the next book in this series.

Bend in the Road () by Nicholas Sparks - I'm fairly certain this is the first Sparks novel I've read, and it will probably be the last. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. The sex scenes were sweet instead of sexy or erotic. I'm not going to complain about the lack of drama with the pair getting together - this is romance after all - though waiting for weeks of dating to kiss is totally unbelievable. The conflict after is good, but knocked down a star because the final scene was a fade to black. I wanted to see Miles grovel a bit and I wanted to see Sarah call him out for his behavior. Sarah turned out to be way too weak and Miles was too big of an ass. Overall good, not great; I won't waste my time with another Sparks.

Let's Get a Classic in Here...

Lady Chatterley's Lover () by DH Lawrence - For a book that is known more for being banned for thirty years, I expected something much more obscene. Though, of course, for 1928, all the talk about penises and orgasms would be quite shocking. It was pretty funny when Lawrence continued to call a woman's orgasm "coming to a crisis." I've only ever thought not coming to one is the crisis, but maybe that's just me. My reaction to Lady Chatterley is contradictory - I liked it overall but hated the characters. DH Lawrence is an excellent writer but he is repetitive, especially with his social commentary. I think all romance writers, especially ones that write erotica, should read Lady Chatterley, if only to honor the author that had the courage to take on the establishment in 1928 and pave the way for them.

Skimmed or Abandoned

The Man Who Loved Jane Austen () - writing wasn't good enough to carry a convoluted plot. Really, one of the worst books I've read this year.

The Typewriter Girl - besides having a horrible title, there were occasionally strangely structured sentences, not to mention an unlikable main character.

Fifty Shades of Grey - I tried.