Lord of the Flies by William Golding

61jpccsraxlLord of the Flies

by William Golding

Believe it or not, I never read this book until now, and the only reason I did finally read it is that my son is currently in his high school’s production of Lord of the Flies.

Set during some fictional wartime in the mid-twentieth century, this classic novel is about a group of British school boys who end up on an uninhabited, remote island when the plane that is evacuating them from home crashes.  That a plane happened to crash so conveniently close to an island, that no adults survived the crash but a significant number of boys did, and that none of those surviving boys seem to have suffered any injuries from the crash all require a degree of suspension of disbelief, but this passes quickly as the novel unfolds.

The story opens after the plane crash has already happened, and the surviving boys have made it safely onto the island.  As they converge on the beach, they quickly choose a boy to be in charge, or “chief,” by a show of hands.  A sensible, fun loving boy named Ralph, who is prone to spontaneous handstands is chosen.  However, another boy, Jack, sees himself as chief, and his resentment at not being chosen manifests in a bitter rivalry with Ralph soon after.  As a consolation, Ralph appoints Jack and the rest of the school choir to which Jack belongs hunters; it will be their job to hunt the wild pigs on the island to feed the crash survivors until they are rescued.  Ralph also determines very quickly that their only hope of rescue is to start a fire and keep it going night and day so that any passing ship or plane might see the smoke.

Everything starts out pretty orderly and cooperative.  The boys agree to certain rules to maintain civility.  One of the central rules is that meetings are called by Ralph by blowing into a conch shell found on the beach.  The conch has a significant role in the story; it represents a certain amount of power, for not only is it used to call meetings, it’s also agreed that whoever holds the conch gets to speak while everyone else listens.

Gradually, civility disintegrates and the rivalry between Jack and his gang and Ralph and his more underdog group, which includes an asthmatic, obese outcast of a boy cruelly called Piggy grows until the two groups are basically at war with one another.

It’s a pretty grim, and even gruesome story, and a fascinating exploration of human nature as these young boys descend into savagery.

A good read.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Audiobook-anna-karenina-B002V8HN40 Anna Karenina

by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve meant to read this for years and years.  I actually started it more than a decade ago when I was pregnant with my twins, and just never got very far with it.  Earlier this year I decided to listen to it on audio, since my Audible membership mostly goes to waste and I’ve acquired a lot of credits.  It took me about eight months to listen to; no only is it quite a tome, I tend to do audio books in fits and starts.

There is no possible way that I can write a worthy analysis or summary of this historical epic masterpiece; many scholarly papers have been written about it.  At its heart, it’s the story of the fall of Anna Karenina, a woman who, at the start of the novel, is the beautiful, charming, self-possessed wife of Karenin, a respected statesman.  As the story opens, Anna convinces Dolly, here sister-in-law, to forgive Stepan, her brother and Dolly’s husband, for his infidelities.  This scene foreshadows Anna’s own downfall; soon thereafter, she meets and falls in love with Vronsky, an affluent military man.  They begin an affair which results in Anna becoming pregnant.  She ends up leaving both her husband and young son in order to be with Vronsky.  But alas, this is not the twenty-first century we are talking about – it’s the mid-nineteenth century, and Anna’s infidelity and abandonment of her husband and son make her a social pariah, although her lover, Vronsky, being a man, is not held in lower esteem and is still well accepted and welcomed in the best circles.  It’s a stunning illustration of sexism and female oppression for sure.

Anna’s status as an outcast who is no longer received by polite society takes a toll on her; by the end of the novel, she is a broken woman prone to weeping and jealous tirades, and finally, seeing no way out of her situation … well, you probably know how it ends, but I won’t spoil it in case you don’t.

If Anna’s story is the heart of the novel, there are plenty of characters and scenarios circling her story.  Courtships, marriages, births, deaths, ruminations on life, religion, relationships, and social and political issues abound.

I enjoyed Anna Karenina very much and am glad I finally “read” it.  I’m interested in seeing a film adaptation now; I know several have been made.  Do you have a recommendation on the best one to watch?

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

51U9ALbZXjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Color Purple

by Alice Walker

I thought I had read this many years ago, but rereading it recently seemed like reading it for the first time.  Maybe I’m remembering the movie and thinking I had read the book before.

In any case, I’m glad I picked it up and read it recently.  The Color Purple, so titled because the color purple, according to one of the novel’s characters, is representative of the beauty in the world in the midst of horrible circumstances, is the story of Celie, a black woman living in rural Georgia in the early part of the twentieth century.  The story spans several decades; it opens when Celie is fourteen and describes her rape and impregnation by her father.  The opening scene and subsequent scenes depicting repeated rapes and another impregnation at the hands of her father called to mind Sapphire’s novel Push.

After giving birth to two children by her father and believing them both to have been drowned by him, Celie is sold by her father to a local farmer – a man much older than Celie whose wife has recently died.  He is looking for a mother for his children.  However, as it turns out, he is an abusive, lazy man who beats Celie, treats her like a servant, and allows his children to do the same.  At some point shortly after Celie is married off to “Mister,” her younger sister Nettie runs away from their father and goes to Celie, but when Nettie refuses the advances of Celie’s husband, he kicks her out.  Celie is heartbroken and spends the next several decades pining for her beloved sister.

Meanwhile, Mister’s mistress Shug shows up.  Shug is a singer and lives by her own rules.  Celie falls in love with her, and the two women begin an affair and a deep friendship that lasts many years.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel addresses numerous issues, including racism, poverty, incest, domestic abuse, feminism, and homosexuality to name a few.  It’s probably not surprising that it’s one of the most banned or challenged novels of all time.  Despite its grim subject matter, the story manages to not be despairing.  In fact, it’s beautifully told and full of hope.  The characters come to life on the pages, and you can’t help but be deeply moved – and to cheer for Celie.

Highly recommend.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

image Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

This novel, considered a classic and an important social commentary of the time, was originally published in 1958, during a time of political turmoil in Nigeria.  The story takes place in late nineteenth century Nigeria, and centers around Okwonko, an affluent and respected man in his Ibo tribe.  Okwonko is driven by a desire to be nothing like his own father, a hapless lay about who died deeply in debt, and in his determination to be the man his father never was, tends towards harshness and even cruelty towards his three wives and numerous children.  After years of hard work and determination, Okwonko has achieved and accumulated almost more than he dreamed of, and is on the verge of becoming a titled member of the tribe, when a terrible accident occurs, sending him and his family into exile for seven years.  During that time, European missionaries arrive in Nigeria and bring with them Christianity and their own form of government, which they are determined to see adopted by the barbarian natives.  By the time Okwonko comes out of exile, everything in his village has changed – and most alarming, his eldest son has converted to Christianity.

Achebe unflinchingly describes tribal life at the time, and it’s easy to see it as archaic and barbaric, its superstitious beliefs and rituals ridiculous.  But that’s the way it was, and they held their beliefs as dearly and as sacred as any Christian (and can we really fail to see many Christian rituals and beliefs as superstitious and ridiculous?).  At its heart, the novel is about a man who unwittingly drives his own downfall, and its a harsh criticism of European colonialism.

Very readable.  It’s not a book that I would have chosen on my own to read, but it was chosen by my book club.  My oldest son was assigned this novel in his senior high school English class this past year, so he and I had some good discussions about it.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

61OX2ZRLqYL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Signature Performance by Elijah Wood
by Mark Twain

I attempted reading Huckleberry Finn probably fifteen years ago, and what I remember is that I had so much trouble stumbling over the dialect that I abandoned it.  I’ve wanted to pick it up again for years, but never did until recently when I received an Audible newsletter announcing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn read by Elijah Wood.  “That’s the ticket,” I thought.  “If I listen to someone else read it, I won’t have any trouble with the dialect.”  Plus, we were headed out on a family road trip, so it seemed like the perfect driving companion.

I wasn’t disappointed.  I am vastly underqualified to offer any analysis or critique of a classic great work such as this, so I’ll just say that I loved it.  If you haven’t ever read it yourself (and I know it’s required reading for many a high school student; my own son will be reading it for his high school senior English class this year.  I was required to read Tom Sawyer in school, but not Huckleberry Finn), it tells the story, as narrated by Huck Finn himself, of his adventures escaping his abusive, drunken, no good “Pap” and hooking up with a runaway slave by the name of Jim.  Full of danger, high adventure, and colorful characters, it’s a story for the ages.

Elijah Wood does a fabulous job performing the story.  His reading of it is fluid and seamless, and he does the backwoods, southern dialect beautifully.  I discovered after I finished it that he had actually played Huck Finn in a Disney production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1993, and I wonder if this allowed him an intimacy with the story that he might otherwise not have had.

I really loved this story and am sorry I waited so long to read it.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

77013 As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner

I have it in my head that I need, or at least want, to try to read more classics.  This novel actually grabbed my attention last year when I was listening to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; she mentioned a number of books that kept her company on her trek up the Pacific Crest Trail, and As I Lay Dying was one of them, so I added it to my to-read list.

What a strange and provocative story.

As I Lay Dying takes place in a fictional county in early twentieth century Mississippi.  The central cast of characters is a poor farm family: the father, a hapless, ne’er-do-well who will get out of working any way he can and is apt to cheat his own children; a motley crew of five children which includes four boys ranging from adult to the youngest who is around ten, and a teenage girl who is pregnant as a result of a clandestine liaison with a local farm hand.  At the heart of the story is Addie Bundren, the wife and mother of this ragtag bunch.  The story opens as Addie is on her deathbed, dying of an unspecified illness – but you get the idea later that she likely just lost the will to live.  As she lays dying over a period of several days, her eldest son, Cash, builds her coffin right outside her bedroom window as she watches.  That’s the first hint of macabre, and the story only grows more macabre and gruesome.

When she finally dies, her husband Anse is determined to fulfill her wish proclaimed years before that she be buried with her own people in Jefferson, about forty miles away.  It’s a foolhardy journey made via wagon pulled by mules that takes several days.  Along the way, they attempt to cross a river whose bridge has been destroyed by a recent storm, only to have the wagon capsize, dumping the coffin carrying Addie’s body (which is already a few days gone due to delays in getting started on their journey), the mules drown, and Cash re-break his previously broken and only recently healed leg.  They manage to rescue the wagon, the coffin, and Cash (but not the mules).  Over the next several days as they make their way to Jefferson, Anse acquires a new team of decrepid mules to pull the wagon by mortgaging his farm equipment and selling his son Jewel’s beloved horse (only Jewel isn’t really his son, but rather the product of an affair Addie had with the local minister – but that’s a secret held only by the now dead Addie and said minister, who comforted the family in the wake of her death), they attempt to set Cash’s broken leg with cement (cement!), which is disastrous, Dewey Dell, the daughter who is secretly pregnant attempts and fails to obtain an abortion with the ten dollars given to her for that purpose by the dude who knocked her up, Darl, another of the sons, sets fire to a barn belonging to a local farmer in an attempt to incinerate his mother’s remains which are there for the night – oh, and then he loses his marbles and the family has him committed to a mental institution.  And as the days pass, Addie’s corpse decomposes within the homemade coffin, giving off a stench that outrages passersby and townspeople, and attracts buzzards.

The whole thing seems like the folly of a clueless Anse Bundren, but the one chapter told from Addie’s perspective alludes to getting revenge on him (for the loveless life she’s had with him, presumably) without his knowing that she’s getting revenge.  This undertaking would seem like the perfect act of revenge from the grave, so to speak.

Well, I’ve already given away too much, so I’ll stop there.  If you haven’t read it, you’ll have to pick it up to see how the story ends.

In any case, I guess what made this book so special in its time (it was originally published in 1930) was the stream of conscious narrative style Faulkner used, as told from numerous points of view.  This was apparently a pretty revolutionary way to write back then.  And it does allow the reader into each character’s head, telling the story from varying perspectives.

I’m still going, “Hmm . . .”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

the-great-gatsby-original-dustjacket The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I wish I could say I liked this book, or at least that I appreciated it, because this is one of those books – a classic, one of the Great American Novels – that, I guess, we’re all supposed to enjoy or at least appreciate.  But the truth is, I didn’t much enjoy it or appreciate it.  Which makes me wonder if I’m just missing something – good taste?  An affinity for what is regarded as good literature?  I don’t know.

In any case, The Great Gatsby was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s crowing achievement, apparently.  Fitzgerald is evidently among the ranks of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner.  Set in the 1920s, the story is narrated by Nick Carraway who is a sort of supporting character/observer of the story of Jay Gatsby, millionaire, who loves Daisy Buchanan, married to Tom, who is having an affair with one Myrtle Wilson.  Gatsby is a mysterious character; he throws lavish parties at his Long Island mansion, and hundreds of people attend, while guessing in hushed conversations about Gatsby’s shady past.  Daisy once loved Gatsby but married Tom when Gatsby went to war, and now their affair is rekindled.  The love triangle – actually square – culminates in a dramatic and tragic ending.

While Fitzgerald had a gift for prose, I didn’t find any of the characters populating this short novel likable.  Everyone is rich, conceited, unscrupulous, and, despite the world being their oyster, boring.  I could not figure out for the life of me what what so enchanting about Daisy that a young man by the name of Jimmy Gatz would change his name and attain a fortune by illegal means just to impress her and win her over, and I never was able to figure out what was so great about “the great Gatsby” himself.  I thought for a while that maybe I wasn’t enjoying the story because I was listening to an audio version and I didn’t particularly care for the narrator, but then I tried reading the hard copy version of the book and still didn’t care for it.

But at least now I can say I read The Great Gatsby, right?

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

41aPJUef+UL._SL500_SS500_Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Having loved In Cold Blood – a tragic story, beautifully written – so much, as well as Truman Capote’s short story, A Christmas Memory, I wanted to read more of his work.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a “novella” and thus a quick read.  I know it’s a classic, but after reading it, I’m not sure I get what all the hoopla is (was?) about?  Or maybe it was more about the movie – which I’ve never seen, but gather from different online sources that it differs quite a bit from the book?  I don’t know.

The story is narrated by a struggling writer, whose name we never learn.  He lives one floor up from protagonist Holly Golightly in an old brownstone in New York City during WWII.  his first encounter with her occurs when she comes in through his bedroom window one night via the fire escape in order to elude a violent lover upstairs.  From there, Holly and the unnamed narrator (whom she calls Fred, though that is not his name) forge a somewhat strange, year-long friendship which includes both mundane and melodramatic events.  He’s clearly at least a little bit in love with Holly, but their relationship remains platonic, though strangely intimate, and Holly is known for her promiscuity.  The relationship comes to a dramatic end when Holly is busted for her involvement in a drug trafficking operation but manages to jump bail when she’s hospitalized for a miscarriage.

I didn’t find Holly to be an especially likable character.  A child bride, she runs away from her much older husband and his children when she’s only 14.  At the time the story takes place, she’s 19, so has been making her way in the world for a few years.  Her first stop was Hollywood where she made a half-hearted attempt at breaking into movie stardom, and from there she made her way to NYC, where it isn’t clear how she makes her living – she might or might not be a prostitute.  She has an eclectic collection of colorful friends, throws wild parties, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks.  She’s also prone to depression and racism.  I honestly found her annoying and tiresome.

Capote’s gift for writing is clear here, but I wasn’t crazy about the story.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

This book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, and I was finally motivated to move it to the top of the list when Kevin announced that it’s been assigned as required reading for his ninth-grade English class.

Originally published in 1931 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, this enduring classic was written by an American-born woman who grew up the daughter of missionaries, mostly in China; so although she was not herself Chinese, her knowledge of China and its customs were authentic.

The Good Earth tells the sweeping tale of Wang Lung, a humble peasant farmer in pre-revolutionary China.  When the story opens, Wang Lung is a young man, living alone with his aging father on a meager farm, about to wed a slave girl from the great House of Hwang – a slave being the only sort of wife his station and position affords him.  O-lan is a loyal and dutiful wife who works beside her husband in the fields, bears his children, cares for his house and his elderly father, and stoically and silently makes hard decisions for the well-being of the family, even at great cost to herself.  Covering more than fifty years, the family survives famine, flood, and drought, always coming back to the land as the one thing that will never cease to be.

Obviously, as the title describes, “the good earth” is the main thread that runs throughout the story.  A man who can acquire land becomes prosperous (as Wang Lung does); in times of hardship the land may temporarily fail, but it will always come back; all good things come from the earth: sustenance in the form of what can be reaped from the land, prosperity in the form of profits from the harvests that can be sold, as well as status and respect in the community for one’s land holdings, and in the end, the earth is where a man returns in death.

The book has some very adult themes: marriage and subservience, drug addiction, violence, reproduction and childbearing, and most notably, lust.  Lust for land, lust for money, and sexual lust for the sake of its own pleasures.  These themes are mostly allusions and not graphically depicted, but still clear.  I am a little surprised that this book has been assigned to a ninth-grade English class, as some of the subject matter may be a little too mature for some kids in that age group.  Not that I object to Kevin’s reading it, but I do think it warrants discussion with him, and I am very curious as to how the material will be handled as a class assignment: what types of discussions will the class have, what themes will the students be asked to explore and write about?

The story ends more than fifty years after it starts: Wang Lung has borne children and grandchildren, he has buried loved ones, acquired hundreds of acres of land as well as the great House of Hwang, he has taken on young wives to satisfy his lust, and he has become a rich and well-respected man – a far cry from the peasant farmer he started out as.  But what of happiness and peace?  And has he succeeded in passing on his love for the land on to his sons?

I really enjoyed reading this.  The lilting, almost poetic prose was very pleasing, and the story itself extremely satisfying.

Review: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At the beginning of summer break this year, I decided to endeavor to read the Little House series to my three daughters.  I have such fond memories of reading these books when I was growing up, and I’ve been waiting for a while, actually, for my girls to get to an age where I thought they could appreciate the adventures of a frontier girl that I so loved as a girl.

This undertaking, it turns out, is taking quite a bit longer than I had anticipated – given that it took us me from June until the end of October to get through the first two books.  Two of my three girls lost interest quite a while back; it’s possible they’re still too young to appreciate Laura Ingalls Wilder, I suppose.  Or maybe its’ not their age, but their general interests; maybe girls nowadays, in the age of all things technologically advanced, are just not interested in the quaintness of frontier living.  I don’t know.  In any event, only one of my daughters (age 7) has stuck with me on this.

So we curl up in a cozy chair and I read aloud to her, a chapter at a time.  But not every night, because life is full and busy and I often just fail to make the time for simple pleasures like this.  Which is the main reason it’s taking so long to get through these books.

Anyway, Farmer Boy is the second of nine books in the series, and the only one devoted to telling of Almanzo Wilder’s (Laura’s future husband) childhood.  Growing up on a well-to-do farm in upstate New York, young Almanzo pines for a colt of his own, but Father doesn’t think he’s old enough or responsible enough.  Throughout the book Almanzo tries to prove himself, and along the way we get a window into his life: going to school part of the year, helping plant and harvest crops, hauling timber, and caring for livestock.  Even for a well-to-do family, there is much manual labor to be done, and everyone must pitch in.

I have to say that the thing that probably intrigues me the most are the frank descriptions about discipline and how children were expected to behave back then.  Such a departure from what is expected of kids nowadays!  Imagine a child knowing they must behave and not whine or complain for fear of getting their hide tanned!  I kind of think tanning of hides needs to make a comeback!

A lot of it was tedious reading, I’m sad to say.  Some of it reads almost like an instruction manual; I swear I could build my own bobsled from the ground up with the detailed descriptions outlined in Farmer Boy.  This made it feel like somewhat of a chore to read.

Still, at the end when Almanzo finally gets his colt, I had trouble reading aloud because of the hitch in my throat.

We’re moving on to the next book now, Little House on the Prairie, and hoping for a little more excitement.