Farewell, Classics Club List!

I had every intention of completing my Classics Club list, but my self-imposed deadline of the 31st of December 2015 has come and gone, and realistically, I have no idea as to when I will get to the remaining books on my list.  The project was wonderful whilst it lasted, and it certainly helped to focus my reading a little more.  Below are a list of the books which I did read, along with a rating and a link to the appropriate review.

1. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin **** – thoughts
2. The World That Was Ours – Hilda Bernstein **** – thoughts
3. The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck *** – thoughts
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey **** – thoughts
5. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote ***** – thoughts // thoughts (BookTube)
8. The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky **** – thoughts
9. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas **** – thoughts
11. Medea – Euripides **** – thoughts
12. The Sound and The Fury – William Faulkner ** – thoughts
13. War and Peace (Volume One) – Leo Tolstoy **** – thoughts
15. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy **** – thoughts (BookTube)
16. The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy **** – thoughts
19. Death in Venice – Thomas Mann **** – thoughts
20. Suddenly Last Summer – Tennessee Williams **** – thoughts
21. A View From the Bridge – Arthur Miller – thoughts
22. Rilla of Ingleside – L.M. Montgomery ** – thoughts
23. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery **** – thoughts
25. Night and Day – Virginia Woolf **** – thoughts (BookTube)
26. Poetry – Sappho **** – thoughts
27. Antigone – Sophocles **** – thoughts
28. East of Eden – John Steinbeck ***** – thoughts (BookTube)
29. The Pearl – John Steinbeck *** – thoughts
30. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck *** – thoughts
31. Cannery Row – John Steinbeck **** – thoughts
32. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien ***** – thoughts
33. Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple ***** – thoughts
35. Nana – Emile Zola **** – thoughts
36. The Rainbow – D.H. Lawrence **** – thoughts
38. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle ** – thoughts
40. Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin **** – thoughts
41. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie **** – thoughts
49. A Sicilian Romance – Ann Radcliffe *** – thoughts
50. Babylon Revisited – F. Scott Fitzgerald **** – thoughts
51. The Beetle – Richard Marsh ** – thoughts
52. Disturbing the Peace – Richard Yates *** – thoughts
53. Living – Henry Green **** – thoughts
54. Cold Spring Harbor – Richard Yates **** – thoughts
55. The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald **** – thoughts
56. Save Me the Waltz – Zelda Fitzgerald **** – thoughts
57. The Mystery of the Yellow Room – Gaston Leroux *** – thoughts
58. Sunflower – Rebecca West **** – thoughts
59. Novel on Yellow Paper – Stevie Smith *** – thoughts
61. Maude – Christina Rossetti *** – thoughts
62. Saplings – Noel Streatfeild ***** – thoughts
63. Maus – Art Spiegelman **** – thoughts (BookTube)
64. Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke **** – thoughts
65. Poetry – Rainer Maria Rilke **** – thoughts
66. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar – Edgar Allan Poe **** – thoughts
68. Young Hearts Crying – Richard Yates **** – thoughts
71. Ann Veronica – H.G. Wells ** – thoughts
72. Mary Olivier: A Life – May Sinclair ****
73. Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther – Elizabeth von Arnim ***
74. Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon **** – thoughts
75. The Group – Mary McCarthy **** – thoughts
76. The Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy ** – thoughts
77. The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolstoy **** – thoughts
80. Heidi – Johanna Spyri ** – thoughts
81. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew – Margaret Sidney *** – thoughts
84. The Histories – Herodotus – thoughts
87. The Bell Family – Noel Streatfeild **** – thoughts
88. Black Mischief – Evelyn Waugh ** – thoughts
89. The Giver – Lois Lowry ** – thoughts
90. Midwinter – John Buchan ** – thoughts
91. The Machine Stops – E.M. Forster **** – thoughts
92. Stoner – John Williams ***** – thoughts

93. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte ***** – thoughts
95. Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka ** – thoughts
96. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott **** – thoughts
97. Collected Poems – Alfred Lord Tennyson ***** – thoughts
99. Daisy Miller – Henry James **** – thoughts
100. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte *****

The following are those books which I didn’t manage to get to in the allotted time.  Have you read any of them, and are they worth squeezing in to this year’s list if I am able to?

6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
7. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
10. Romola – George Eliot
14. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
18. What Maisie Knew – Henry James
24. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
34. We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
37. Watership Down – Richard Adams
39. The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough
42. Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset
43. The Kalevala – Elias Lonnrott
44. Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane
45. Crome Yellow – Aldous Huxley
46. Blindness – Henry Green
47. Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Doblin
48. Independent People – Halldor Laxness
60. The Life of Charlotte Bronte – Elizabeth Gaskell
67. The Clergyman’s Daughter – George Orwell
69. Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol
70. Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov
78. Resurrection – Leo Tolstoy
79. Mother – Maxim Gorky
85. Octavia – Seneca
86. Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens


All in all, I must say that as the Classics Club was not my sole focus of reading over the thirteen months in which I decided to undertake it, I feel I have done rather well with it.  Are you taking part in the Classics Club at present?  Has this list inspired you to do so?


Classics Club #64: ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rainer Maria Rilke ****

I borrowed the sixty-fourth book on my Classics Club list from the wonderful Poetry Library in London’s Southbank Centre.  The Harvard University Press edition which I was fortunate enough to borrow is a slim volume, running to just 87 relatively small pages, and was both translated and introduced by Mark Harman.

I am sure that the majority of you will already know the premise of Letters to a Young Poet, and if not, will be able to guess at it from the title alone.  To clarify, however, in 1902, ‘a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Kappus wrote to Rilke, then twenty-six, seeking advice on his poetry’.  The two had similar backgrounds and, ‘touched by the innocence and forthrightness of the student, Rilke responded to Kappus’ letter and began an intermittent correspondence that would last until 1908′.  This volume collects the ten letters which Rilke penned.  The letters which were written from Kappus to Rilke have sadly never appeared in print, and there is speculation as to whether they were lost in Rilke’s many moves between France, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Throughout, says the blurb, ‘Rilke offers unguarded thoughts on such diverse subjects as creativity, solitude, self-reliance, living with uncertainty, the shallowness of irony, the uselessness of criticism, career choices, sex, love, God, and art.  Letters to a Young Poet is, finally, a life manual.  Art, Rilke tells the young poet in his final letter to him, is only another way of living’.  Harman reiterates this sentiment within his introduction, writing: ‘The voice we overhear [in Rilke’s letters] is by turns confident, self-questioning, concerned, self-absorbed, open-minded, didactic, genuine, and affected’.

In 1929, Kappus wrote a lovely little introduction to the volume: ‘What is important are the ten letters which follow, important for learning about the world in which Rainer Maria Rilke lived and created, and important also for many of those growing and changing today and tomorrow.  And whenever one who is great and unique speaks, those who are inferior should fall silent’.  Rilke’s beautiful correspondence ensues.  In the first letter, he writes the following about the importance of personal art: ‘There’s only one way to proceed.  Go inside yourself.  Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you’.

Letters to a Young Poet is rather profound, and such thought has been given to its translation.  Rilke’s letters present such interesting ideas, particularly about creativity, and those whom we perceive to be the judges of our art.  His replies to Kappus’ original letters are kind, measured, and honest, and there is a strong sense of contemplation which runs through them all.  If you have any inclination whatsoever toward poetry, Letters to a Young Poet is a must.

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Classics Club #62: ‘Saplings’ by Noel Streatfeild *****

As with most of the books which I blog about, it seems, I have wanted to read Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings for a very long time indeed.  I have heard only excellent things about it, and the fact that it is published by Persephone was another huge selling point as far as I was concerned.  I rather adored Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes when I read it a couple of years ago, and thought that Saplings would be the perfect summertime read.  (I can only apologise, therefore, that this post is going out in Autumn.)

Saplings, originally published in 1945, tells of the Wiltshires, a middle class London family whom, at the outset, are taking their annual summer holiday in Eastbourne.  As a unit, they are largely incredibly contented, and war seems like a proposition which is very far away.  Streatfeild thrusts us right into the heart of the family.  We meet the six almost simultaneously; parents Alex and Lena, and the four children – Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Thursday.  Streatfeild’s aim, says Dr Jeremy Holmes, the author of the book’s introduction, was to take a happy pre-war familial unit, and then track, ‘in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to thousands of such families’.

The novel’s beginning captivated me entirely: ‘As the outgoing tide uncovered the little stretch of sand amongst the pebbles, the children took possession of it, marking it as their own with their spades, pails, shrimping nets and their mother’s camp stool’.  Throughout, one of Streatfeild’s many strengths is the way in which she captures emotions so deftly: ‘The cool air, the fresh smell of the sea, the knowledge that it was another lovely day and there were no lessons and few restrictions, filled the children with that sort of happiness that starts in the solar plexus and rises to the throat, and then, before it can reach the top of the head, has to be given an outlet: anything will do, violent action, shouting or just silliness’.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, particularly with regard to the portrayal of her younger protagonists: ‘Laurel, back on the raft, attempted some more backward dives.  Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something.  She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else’.

To continue with this theme, Streatfeild views many of her scenes from every possible angle, taking into account the thoughts and feelings of all involved at any given time.  Of Laurel, for example, her father thinks the following: ‘It was in his mind to tell her how proud he was.  How he loved her comic small face and her fair pig-tails, and her earnestness, and her elder sister ways which were such an endearing part of the family set-up; but he held back his thoughts.  No good going in for a lot of chat, making her self-conscious’.  Turning to Lena, the matriarch, Streatfeild writes the following: ‘Lena could see herself, fair and slim, little Tuesday lolling against her and exquisite Kim playing around, and she knew what a picture she must look, and the thought amused rather than pleased her.  There was nothing she liked better than to be envied and admired…  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just these things’.

Everything changes for the Wiltshires as soon as they return to their London home.  The children are split up, some going off to school, and others being sent to live with relatives in the country: ‘Laurel had alternated between tears and a kind of hectic pseudo-gaiety ever since the move to Gran’s and Grandfather’s was certain and her school uniform purchased.  She was scared. At eleven she understood what was going on around her. She had watched the hasty evacuation of other children.  She had heard scraps of conversation…  As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions’.

Streatfeild’s descriptions are gorgeous, particularly in those instances where she takes the hopes, thoughts and feelings of her characters into account.  A particularly striking example of this is as follows: ‘Now and again, when the sky was blue, and the trees glittered, incredibly green, and the scent of young bracken filled his nostrils, he forgot everything except the glory of the day and the fun of being alive’.  Incredibly well crafted, and utterly beautiful, Saplings is a novel which really gets into the psychology of wartime, and demonstrates just how much of a knock-on affect it had from the beginning.

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Classics Club #92: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams *****

Many of you, I am sure, will remember the enormous hype which surrounded the republication of John Williams’ forgotten classic Stoner in 2013.  (If not, I refer you to this Guardian article.)  I, of course – as a self-confessed fan of American literature, and with the dream of becoming a lecturer myself – wanted to read the novel as soon as I heard about it.  I decided, though, to let the hype die down a little, so that I could get to it in my own time and make up my own mind – hopefully untinged by Times Literary Supplement reviews and the like – about it.

The plot of Stoner put me in mind of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed.  Stoner – as one inevitably comes to expect with such a popular book – has been incredibly well reviewed over the last couple of years; Colum McCann writes that it ‘deserves the status of a classic’, and The New Yorker believes that it is a ‘perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving that it takes your breath away’.

The novel focuses upon William Stoner, who enters the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture and improve his father’s farm.  Rather than return to the family homestead once he has finished his degree, Stoner decides to remain in academia, studying first for a Master’s, and then for a PhD.  He marries the ‘wrong woman’, and has a relatively quiet life, to the extent that ‘after his death his colleagues remember him rarely’.  The blurb of the beautiful Vintage edition pictured writes, ‘Yet with truthfulness, compassion and intense power, this novel uncovers a story of universal value.  Stoner tells of the conflicts, defeats and victories of the human race that pass unrecorded by history, and reclaims the significance of an individual life’.

Stoner begins in the following manner, in which Williams gently sets the tone for the whole: ‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.  Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same university, where he taught until his death in 1956.  He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses…  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers’.

The introduction to this particular edition has been written by John McGahern.  Whilst I did read the majority of it, McGahern’s introspective does give away several major plot points, and is perhaps best left until last.  I personally found those elements which included deeper analysis about the work far more useful than his recounting of the plot.  McGahern does, however, reference the following statement which Williams made about Stoner, in a rare interview which he gave towards the end of his life: ‘I think he’s a real hero.  A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life.  I think he had a very good life.  He had a better life than most people do, certainly.  He was doing what he wanted to do…  His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was…  It’s the love of the thing that’s essential.  And if you love something, you’re going to understand it.  And if you understand it, you’re going to learn a lot’.

Williams won the National Book Award for his novel Augustus in 1973; it is shameful that he is neither more widely read, nor better known.  Of his four novels, McGahern believes that ‘Stoner is the most personal, in that it is closely linked to John Williams’s own life and career, without in any way being autobiographical’.  He goes on to say that, ‘The small world of the university opens out to war and politics, to the years of the Depression and the millions who once walked erect in their own identities; and then to the whole of life’.

I was reminded of Richard Yates’ novels in places, particularly due to the control which Williams holds over his vocabulary and characters.  The psychology which he perceptively depicts here is often startling, and the entire novel is incredibly profound.  The historical and social contexts which have been drawn as backdrops for Stoner to live his life against are well wrought, and used to good effect.

Before I began to read Stoner, I must admit that I was expecting it to be incredible, and thought that I would more than likely adore it.  I am so pleased to be able to report that in this instance, my expectations were not set too high; the novel astounded me throughout, and was even better than I had been led to believe it would be.  I found myself reading at a far slower pace than usual in order to savour every single word.

Go now, readers; run to your local bookshop, pick up a copy of Stoner, clutch it to your body like a precious child, and read it from cover to cover without stopping.  It is a decision which you will not regret.  Stoner is admirable, stunning, beautiful, and rather perfect to boot.

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Classics Club #57: ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Room’ by Gaston Leroux ***

The premise of the 57th entry upon my Classics Club list intrigued me immediately: ‘The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) is Gaston Leroux’s masterpiece and during his lifetime his most successful book. It is one of the classics of early 20th-century detective fiction. At the heart of the novel is the enigma: how could a murder take place in a locked room, which shows no sign of being entered? The novel is also about the rivalry to solve the case between the detective Frederick Larson, and a young investigative journalist, Rouletabille. Larson finds a suspect who is put on trial, only to have him cleared by Rouletabille, who reveals in the most dramatic fashion the identity of the real murderer.’

Unsurprisingly, the only book of Leroux’s which I had read before picking up The Mystery of the Yellow Room was The Phantom of the Opera, which I enjoyed.  I remember admiring his prose style, so I am unsure as to why it has taken me so long to get around to reading any of his other work.  Despite this, I felt that slotting this novel in to a French holiday was a fitting idea, and so I therefore ensured that I got to it in August.

The novel begins in the following manner: ‘It is not without a certain emotion that I begin to recount here the extraordinary adventures of Joseph Rouletabille.  Down to the present time he had so firmly opposed my doing it that I had come to despair of ever publishing the most curious of police stories of the past fifteen years’.  Our narrator goes on to write, ‘The Yellow Room: who now remembers this affair which caused so much ink to flow fifteen years ago?  Events are so quickly forgotten in Paris…  In truth, I do not know that, in the domain of reality or imagination, one can discover or recall to mind anything comparable, in its mystery, with the natural mystery of The Yellow Room…  You are going to know all; and, without further preamble, I am going to place before your eyes the problem of The Yellow Room as it was placed before the eyes of the entire world on the day following the enactment of the drama at the chateau du Glandier’.

The mystery is recounted as follows; in October 1892, Mathilde Stangerson, the daughter of a respected scientist, is attacked: ‘a desperate clamour broke out in The Yellow Room.  It was the voice of Mademoiselle, crying “murder! -murder! – help!”‘.  The woman is badly wounded, but no other body is found in the room with her: ‘For the problem is this: we know by what way the assassin gained admission, – he entered by the door and hid himself under the bed…  But how did he leave?  How did he escape?  If no trap, no secret door, no hiding place, no opening of any sort is found…  if the ceiling shows no crack, if the floor hides no underground passage, one must really believe in the Devil…’.

Rouletabille is a reporter, who engages our narrator, Sainclair, to help him solve the mystery.  The ‘clues’ which are left behind are traces of large footprints and a bloodied handprint; these are quickly disregarded, ‘for murderers don’t leave traces behind them which tell the truth’.

The Mystery of the Yellow Room is one of the first original locked-room mysteries and, of course, has shades of Sherlock Holmes about it in places.  The first person narrative perspective which Leroux has crafted is engaging from the very beginning, and his writing is often perfectly measured.  Of the now thirty five-year-old Mathilde’s past, for example, he writes the following: ‘twenty years of age, a charming blonde, with blue eyes, milk-white complexion, and radiant with divine health…  One of the most beautiful marriageable girls in either the old or the new world’.

The novel is relatively well plotted, and the story carries through the entirety well; nothing within it feels too drawn out.  The Mystery of the Yellow Room is neither the best, nor the most clever mystery which I have read, but it did hold my interest for the most part.  A few of the sections toward and after the midpoint did feel a little slow to me, and were partially superfluous; these instances did detract from the main intrigue of the tale.  Still, The Mystery of the Yellow Room holds definite appeal for fans of Holmesian mysteries and the like, although it perhaps goes without saying that the protagonists of the novel are nowhere near as memorable, nor as well drawn, as those in the aforementioned.

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Finding Reading Challenges… Well… Challenging!

I have been an awful reader of late.  Rather than getting through tomes at my usual pace, I have been rather busy, and have let my reading slide in consequence.  I was away for half of August, first in France and Belgium with my parents, and then in Oslo with my boyfriend – and reading was, understandably, not my main priority.

Perhaps predictably, then, I have failed with my 20 Books of Summer challenge.  I am also struggling to keep up with my Virago and Persephone lists; I had not set myself numeric goals to get through a prescribed number each month, but I have not been purchasing books, and have fallen behind somewhat.  The same can be said for mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Challenge.  I have had to reschedule some old posts to keep up with the aforementioned, and there is no way that I will meet the target by the end of the year.  I am fully resigned to the fact that I probably will not meet my Classics Club target either, as University reading obviously has to take priority.

From now on, then, I am not going to be subscribing to any reading challenges.  Whilst I love creating the initial lists, and beginning to read from them, I never find that I am entirely satisfied with my reading pace.  I am going to be completing my Classics Club list, but may need more time in which to do so.  I will also be finishing my Virago and Persephone lists, but these are evidently longterm goals, rather than those which I will be able to complete soon.

Here ends this rather depressing post; I can only cross my fingers that my reading picks up a little in future.


The Gregory Peck-a-Long: ‘The Beautiful and Damned’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald **** (Classics Club #55)

Book number 55 on my Classics Club list is another by the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned.  It slotted in with my reading plans with the lovely Belinda, and is thus part of this week’s Gregory Peck-a-long spectacular.

The heir to his grandfather’s relatively large fortune, protagonist Anthony Patch is ‘led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations of the 1920s Jazz Age.  His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery’.  The gorgeous Alma Classics edition which I read heralds The Beautiful and Damned ‘a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty’.

The novel, Fitzgerald’s second, was published in 1922, and is split into three separate books.  It takes place in New York City, and paints rather a ‘satirical portrait of the Jazz Age’.  As with much of his fiction, The Beautiful and Damned contains parallels to the fascinating and rather heartbreaking lives of F. Scott and his wife, Zelda.  It is possible to see certain characteristics of Fitzgerald himself in his initial description of Anthony, for instance: ‘As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honour and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment and somewhat more significant than anyone else he knows’.

The writing is beautiful, as one might expect, and those sentences and paragraphs which focus upon the young couple are sublime.  One could easily imagine scenes such as the following featuring F. Scott and Zelda: ‘They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two: the passion of their pretence created the actuality.  Here, finally, was the quintessence of self-expression – yet it was probable that for the most part their love expressed Gloria rather than Anthony.  He often felt like a scarcely tolerated guest at a party she was giving’.

The Beautiful and Damned does feel quite different to some of Fitzgerald’s later work, but it is possible – and rather enjoyable, too – to view the progression from one work to the next, and also to pinpoint those aspects of his writing which he bettered over time.  Whilst the prose itself is stylish, it does not always have the feel to it of a Fitzgerald novel, and perhaps lacks a little of the sparkle which I have come to expect from his stories.  There is something a little less tight about its feel than in his later novels, but it is certainly worth reading, and is a most enjoyable novel nonetheless.

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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote *****

It will come as no surprise, I am sure, to say that I have wanted to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences for such a long time, and my longing to do so was even higher after the Capote Readathon which Lizzi and I created last summer.  In Cold Blood is the fifth book upon my Classics Club list, and a fitting final read for my American Literature month. A lot of the information within this stunning piece of non-fiction was included in ‘Capote’, a film which I very much enjoyed.  The Spectator describes the book as ‘The American dream turning into the American nightmare…  a remarkable book’, and its blurb heralds it ‘a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative’.

Published in 1966 and dedicated to Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee with Capote’s ‘love and gratitude’, In Cold Blood is ‘controversial and compelling’.  It ‘reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and children.  Truman Capote’s comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime, as well as the effects which it had on those involved.  At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who, vividly drawn by Capote, are shown to be reprehensible, yet entirely and frighteningly human’.  All of the material which Capote says is ‘not derived from my own observation’ is taken from official records and interviews ‘conducted over a considerable period of time’.9780141182575

Capote masterfully sets the scene and tone of the whole from the outset: ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there”.  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang…  and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes’.  Holcomb itself is described as ‘an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the centre by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad…  After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the driest mud’.

As in his fiction, his depiction and control of every single scene is gripping and vivid.  This is particularly true when he describes the event which was to shake the entire community: ‘But then, in the earliest hours of the morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises – on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles.  At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.  But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy recreating them over and again – those sombre explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, and as strangers’.

The Clutter family – Herbert and Bonnie, and the youngest of their four children, sixteen-year-old Nancy and fourteen-year-old Kenyon – are the victims, all of whom were tied up and shot at close range in their home in 1959.  Descended from German immigrants who moved to Kansas in 1880, they were a prominent and well-respected family in the area, and all were profoundly shocked at their murder: ‘Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters.  Anyone less admired.  Prosperous.  Secure.  But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God.  It makes life seem pointless.  I don’t think people are so much frightened as they are deeply depressed’.  The peripheral characters which Capote makes use of, both in terms of testimony and as part of his beautifully prosaic telling of the murders, are wonderfully and strikingly described.  Local postmistress Myrtle Clare, for example, is ‘a gaunt trouser-wearing, woollen-shirted, cowboy-booted, ginger-coloured, gingery-tempered woman of unrevealed age… but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration’.

The rendering of the Clutters’ story is incredibly powerful and resonant, and has been so well sculpted.  Capote has been incredibly clever in that he follows both the victims and the perpetrators, explaining their pasts and the motives of the killers.  He is almost compassionate towards Perry Smith, and this gives an interesting and memorable slant to the whole.  In Cold Blood is distinctly Capote’s work; it rings with such understanding of those involved, without exception.  Real depth has been given to the whole, and it feels as though the reader is watching events unfold when they happen, rather from the position of retrospect.  In Cold Blood is a compelling and important piece of non-fiction, and it has made its way straight onto my favourites list.

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‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck *** (Classics Club #3)

The third entry upon my Classics Club list was a novel which I had been meaning to read since I first started taking adult literature seriously, at around the age of nine or so.  Perhaps rather predictably, I waited for quite some years before purchasing a copy, but I made myself read it sooner rather than later.  To say that I was disappointed with the novel is fair; I believe that the setting and story had been put on a pedestal of sorts in my mind, and almost as soon as I began to read The Good Earth whilst on a relatively long train journey, I knew that I wouldn’t love it. 

Its premise – as I find with many classic or ‘modern classic’ novels – is fascinating: “In The Good Earth Pearl S. Buck paints an indelible portrait of China in the 1920s, when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that have occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during the last century. Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck traces the whole cycle of life: its terrors, its passions, its ambitions and rewards. Her brilliant novel–beloved by millions of readers–is a universal tale of an ordinary family caught in the tide of history.”

Whilst The Good Earth was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, a year after its publication, I could not help but feel that the prose which had been used was rather too simplistic to build the levels of emotion which should have been present in such a novel.  I expected that Buck’s writing would veer toward the poetic, but in places it felt incredibly flat, largely due to its matter-of-fact third person narrative.  Some of her descriptions were rather nice; however, it did not seem as though the same amount of care had been taken throughout to make the prose feel consistent.

Buck’s perception of the Chinese culture was interesting, but I had the feeling that she was merely scratching at the surface for the most part.  One would think that as a resident of China herself, she could perhaps have included several details which are – or were – not that commonplace, but there was no real sense of her delving deeply into the history and social aspects of the country.  Due to the detached way in which the novel was both told – and, it could be said, constructed – I did not feel much sympathy at all for any of the protagonists, and did not often find myself agreeing with their actions either.

To conclude, whilst I have given The Good Earth three stars, I feel that my rating is rather generous.  Whilst I was relatively interested in the novel up until around the halfway point, and it did largely keep my attention, the second half of the story was rather bland.  Rather than rushing out to read more of Buck’s work, as I had half-expected I would when I added The Good Earth to my Classics Club list, I do not feel at all enthused to pick up any more of her novels.

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Classics Club #21: ‘A View from the Bridge’ by Arthur Miller ****

I received the gorgeous little Penguin edition of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for my birthday.  Despite only having read two of his plays to date (rather predictably Death of a Salesman and The Crucible), I count Miller amongst my list of favourite playwrights.  The foreword in this volume was penned by the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman, and an introduction written by Miller himself has also been included.  Of A View from the Bridge, Nicholas Hynter, director of the Royal National Theatre, says: ‘[it] will always stand with the masterpieces of Ibsen, Shakespeare and Sophocles’.

Written in 1955, the play, which was based upon a tale Miller was once told, tells of Italian Eddie Carbone, and is a ‘tragic masterpiece of the inexorable unravelling of a man’.  Miller speaks the way in which A View from the Bridge was ‘generally regarded as rather cold’ at first, and failed to find a large audience upon its initial Broadway run.  The version of the play which is currently in print has been revised by its author, who writes, ‘I was tired of mere sympathy in the theater.  The spectacle of still another misunderstood victim left me impatient…  I wanted to write in a way that would call up the faculties of knowing as well as feeling’.

In his foreword, Hoffman writes engagingly of Miller’s work: ‘Here we find the true compassion and catharsis that are as essential to our society as water and fire and babies and air…  Miller awakened in me the taste for all that must be – the empathy and love for the least of us, out of which bursts a gratitude for the poetry of these characters and the greatness of their creator’.

In A View from the Bridge, immigrant Eddie Carbone is living in a tattered Brooklyn tenement in a rundown neighbourhood with his wife, Beatrice, and niece, Catherine.  In and around this location is where all of the action takes place.  Eddie is a longshoreman, ‘working the docks from Brooklyn Bridge to the breakwater where the open sea begins’.  Beatrice is thrilled when her Italian cousins make it off the boat in New York; Eddie less so.  Miller has captured Beatrice’s reaction perfectly: ‘I’m – I just – I can’t believe it!  I didn’t even buy a new tablecloth; I was gonna wash the walls -‘.  A nice subplot regarding Catherine’s intention to leave school early and take up a position as a stenographer has also been inwoven.  The play opens with a long monologue spoken by Alfieri, a lawyer.  He talks directly to the audience, giving the context of the scene which he is both a part of and separate from.  Alfieri is essentially used in place of a Greek chorus; he serves much the same function.

I very much admired the way in which Miller simply yet thoroughly set his scenes; his stage directions are precise, and immediately begin to build realistic pictures in the reader’s mind.  As with Death of a Salesman, the very notion of the American Dream and its failures are brought to prominence.  Thematically, A View from the Bridge is fascinating.  The dialogue between the more minor characters does tend to be a little repetitive at times, but the entire play is so measured and precise.

Miller’s main aim in translating the original story to the stage, and the way in which he interpreted the action, were for the following purpose: ‘by knowing more than the hero, the audience would rather automatically see his [Eddie Carbone’s] life through conceptualized feelings’.  Of his revision, he rather insightfully states that ‘Eddie is still not a man to weep over; the play does not attempt to swamp our audience in tears.  But it is more possible now to relate his actions to our own and thus to understand ourselves a little better not only as isolated psychological entities, but as we connect to our fellows and our long past together’.  For all of these reasons, and arguably for many more, A View from the Bridge is an incredibly powerful play, which I would highly recommend.

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