The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride by William Goldman9780156035217

publication date: 1973
pages: 353
ISBN: 978-0-15-603521-7

William Goldman’s classic story, adapted to a movie by the same name in 1987, was generally tedious, often annoying, and sometimes even insulting.

The book took the classic genre of adventure story and attempted to modernize it by creating quirky and easily mock-able characters, then framed it all with much discussion from an irritating narrator called – William Goldman.

The concept of the book is that William Goldman’s father read him the story “The Princess Bride,” by a fictional S. Morgenstern, when he was a kid, and Goldman wanted to present the story to his son. However, it turned out Goldman’s father had only read the good parts to Goldman so he decided to transcribe Morgenstern’s story into an abridged book that included only the “good parts” and notes by Goldman. Here was a long example of the style of the Goldman narrator:

When I said at the start that I’d never read this book, that’s true. My father read it to me, and I just quick skimmed along, crossing out whole sections when I did the abridging, leaving everything just as it was in the original Morgenstern.

This chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses . . . Either Morgenstern meant them seriously or he didn’t. Or maybe he meant some of them seriously and some others he didn’t. But he never said which were the spurious ones . . . All I can suggest to you is, if the parentheses bug you, don’t read them.

What Goldman was referring to was tiresome asides in the narrative of “The Princess Bride” made by Morgenstern. Like this as an example:

The Countess was considerably younger than her husband. All of her clothes came from Paris (This was after Paris) and she had superb taste. (This was after taste too, but only just. And since it was such a new thing, and since the Countess was the only lady in all Florin to possess it, is it any wonder she was the leading hostess of the land?)

I usually found all these asides and meta posturing to be unfunny and dreary. Also, the characters in the book, including Goldman himself, were generally just mouthpieces for Goldman’s style of humor, which did not work for me.

Although the writing and characters were unimpressive, sometimes the action was compelling, especially any scenes involving Westley the farm boy. Additionally, there were a few parts that I thought were funny, including these lines:

He was seventy-five minutes away from his first female murder, and he wondered if he could get his fingers to her throat before even the start of a scream. He had been practicing on giant sausages all the afternoon and had the movements down pretty pat, but then, giant sausages weren’t necks and all the wishing in the world wouldn’t make them so.

Although the book was a quick read, with a few funny parts and some effective action scenes, I would say you can just skip it.

2/6: many problems

other reviews of this classic:

The Daily Beast
SF Site
Fantasy Book Review

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne9781338099133

publication date: 2016
pages: 308
ISBN: 978-1-338-09913-3

I’m sure this review was too late for most of you readers. Either you were planning on reading this new play and you’ve done so, or you had no interest in reading it and my review would not sway you. Just for fun, though, and because I love Harry Potter, I’m putting this review out there.

This book – it’s actually a script – returned to the story of hero wizard Harry Potter nineteen years after the seventh book ended. Harry was now a father to three young children who were experiencing their own adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Cursed Child focused on Harry’s middle son, Albus, as he encountered his own brand of troubles at Hogwarts. The book included much about Harry. However, there was definitely an emphasis on the next generation.

Obviously, this little play was surrounded by anticipation. Harry Potter was one of the most cherished and endlessly examined book series of all time. As I was reading, I tried to keep my expectations in check because it would be impossible for something to live up to the original series. However, I thought this book was a lot of fun.

I liked the plot: it had a low point and an emotional climax and there was a twist that took me by surprise. I also liked the characters, both old and new. There was continuity with the characters I was familiar with from the original book series. This scene was a great example, where the main characters were unexpectedly gathering in Professor McGonagall’s office:

PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: Right. Very sensible. I expect . . . there will be quite a few [volunteers].
RON bursts in. Covered in soot. Wearing a gravy-stained dinner napkin.
RON: Have I missed anything – I couldn’t work out which Floo to travel to. Ended up in the kitchen somehow. (HERMIONE glares as he pulls the napkin off himself.) What?
Suddenly there is another rumble in the chimney and DRACO comes down hard, surrounded by cascading soot and dust.
Everyone looks at him, surprised. He stands and brushes the soot off himself.
DRACO: Sorry about your floor, Minerva.
PROFESSOR McGONAGALL: I dare say it’s my fault for owning a chimney.
HARRY: Quite a surprise to see you, Draco. I thought you didn’t believe in my dreams.
DRACO: I don’t, but I do trust your luck. Harry Potter is always where the action is at. And I need my son back with me and safe.
GINNY: Then let’s get to the Forbidden Forest and find them both.

That was simply classic Harry Potter. McGonagall’s dry chiding. Ron constantly doing slightly the wrong thing. Draco being the only polite one. A Weasley sounding a call to action.

I liked the new characters, as well – especially Albus Potter’s best friend Scorpius. He was a sensitive, intelligent kid with a great sense of humor. Here was some fun dialogue between Scorpius and Albus, on top of the Hogwarts Express:

SCORPIUS: Okay, now we’re on the roof of a train, it’s fast, it’s scary, this has been great, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about me, something about you, but –
ALBUS: As I calculate it we should be approaching the viaduct soon and then it’ll be a short hike to St. Oswald’s Home for Old Witches and Wizards . . .
SCORPIUS: The what? The where? Look, I am as excited as you are to be a rebel for the first time in my life – yay – train roof – fun – but now – oh.

Although I liked a lot about Cursed Child, the writing was not as captivating as the book series. I think most of that was because this was a play and not a book. Because this was a play, I couldn’t read about the rich inner lives and monologues of any of the characters. As a play, this story would be more visually compelling than a book, but it does not create the same immediate and long-lasting connections with the characters.

Also, Cursed Child had some of the same flaws as the original series. People were always getting outraged for seemingly no good reason. And these people weren’t kids anymore; now they were adults! There were little riddles and adventures that didn’t actually make a lot of sense but did provide good fun. And many of the small plot points were just a little too convenient.

My mind cannot fathom separating this book from the original series, so, if you have never experienced the Harry Potter series, I have no idea whether you would like this book or if it would even be understandable. However, if you were a fan of the original series, I thought this play was a likable continuation, as long as the constraints of a play are kept in mind.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Independent (this review quotes a 10-year-old kid’s review)
Read at Midnight

Roots

Roots by Alex Haley9780440174646

publication date: 1976
pages: 688

Roots is a classic and for good reason.

The book followed an entire family’s ancestral line, from 17-year-old Kunta Kinte being snatched from a Gambian forest by slave traders in the late 1700s, to the author, Alex Haley, who was born into freedom in 1921. The first half of the book was devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life, as a young man in Africa and then in adulthood as a slave in America. The second half of the book focused on the descendants of Kinte, from Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, through several generations down to Haley.

My favorite part of the book was the first 150 pages, which described Kinte’s life as a member of the Mandinka tribe in Africa. Haley’s text captured the specific details of a culture very different from our modern-day Western culture, but he always considered the shared humanness that existed between Kinte’s Mandinka culture and our American one. For example, here was a passage describing when Kinte graduated from school:

One by one now, the arafang asked each graduate to stand. Finally came Kunta’s turn. “Kunta Kinte!” With all eyes upon him, Kunta felt the great pride of his family in the front row, even of his ancestors in the burying ground beyond the village – most especially of his beloved Grandma Yaisa. Standing up, he read aloud a verse from the Koran’s last page; finishing, he pressed it to his forehead and said, “Amen!” When the readings were done, the teacher shook each boy’s hand and announced loudly that as their eduction was complete, these boys were now of the third kafo, and everyone broke out into a loud cheering.

Although I loved reading about Kinte’s life in Africa, the most powerful part of the book was after his capture, when he was shackled in the slave transport ship from the African coast to America. In very concrete terms, Haley portrayed the horrific conditions of the months-long forced voyage that Kinte, and thousands of other Africans, took during the transatlantic crossing to slavery. Here was a passage:

Occasionally, down in the hold, Kunta would hear a little murmuring here and there, and he wondered what they could find to talk about. And what was the point? His Wolof shacklemate was gone, and death had taken some of those who had translated for the others. Besides, it took too much strength to talk any more. Each day Kunta felt a little worse, and it didn’t help to see what was happening to some of the other men. Their bowels had begun to drain out a mixture of clotted blood and thick, grayish-yellow, horribly foul-smelling mucus.

The ending of the book, with Haley investigating Kinte’s life in Africa, was also very emotionally moving, although I discovered in my research that there was controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Haley’s story.

Throughout the book, there was nothing very special or interesting about Haley’s writing. He didn’t create many memorable phrases or passages and there were timing and pace issues in the second half of the book. What made the book so memorable was Haley’s subject matter and his intricate characters.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book

Good Books and Good Wine
An Improbable Life
goodreads

Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

publication date: 1985
pages: 857
ISBN: 978-0-684-87122-6

It is rare to find a book that makes you race along reading it because the plot is so spirited, while also pressing you to stop and ponder humanity and mortality because of its scope and language. A book that introduces you to characters so complex and whole that it doesn’t matter if you find them “likable” or “relatable;” instead, they just exist. A book that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you question, worry, wonder, remember, approve. Lonesome Dove is that book.

In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry crafted an epic Western that was sweeping, but never pretentious; long, but perfectly paced. The book followed the Hat Creek Cattle Company as it moved cattle from newly-settled Texas to the unsettled territory of Montana in the late 1800s. The Company consisted of two former Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae and Captain Call; young Newt; Bolivar the Mexican cook; unthinking Pea Eye; and steadfast Deets.

As these characters rode through the American West, McMurtry used description so expertly that a sense of atmosphere was evoked in almost every scene. Here was an example:

Jake looked off across the scrubby pastures. There were tufts of grass here and there, but mostly the ground looked hard as flint. Heat waves were rising off it like fumes off kerosene. Something moved in his line of vision, and for a moment he thought he saw some strange brown animal under a chaparral bush.

As mentioned above, McMurtry was also deft at crafting characters. Because of the encompassing nature of the book, McMurtry introduced dozens of characters. However, I can picture almost all of them distinctly. One of my favorites was Lorena, a tough prostitute who showed little affection but was the unrequited Manic Pixie Dream Girl of almost every man who met her. Here’s a cowboy’s description of her:

Looking at her, though, was like looking at the hills. The hills stayed as they were. You could go to them, if you had the means, but they extended no greeting.

One of my favorite things about the book was how the characters were so realistic that they were not merely reflections of the author’s message or plot. Instead, all the narratives were slightly biased toward that particular narrator and were subtly false. It was nothing blunt or confusing, but the dialogues and the narratives wove together to create a picture of the character, not necessarily a picture of the world in the book.

As I was reading the book, I was struck by how alien these characters’ lives were. No electricity, no refrigerators, riding on horseback all day – usually voluntarily. However, much was the same. Some people sought adventure, some just wished to stay at home. Some people were lazy, some would work until you stopped them. Some people would do almost anything to get laid or have any kind of companionship, others would be content to see another person once every few years. Although the setting was foreign, the book itself never stopped being understandable.

6/6: instant classic

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
World’s Strongest Librarian
Wendy Reads Books

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë 

publication date: 1847
pages: 207
ISBN: 978-0-307-95780-1

Anne Brontë – in the tradition of her sisters and other writers from her time, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot – used novels and language to satirize contemporary culture and mores. In Agnes Grey, Brontë satirized the upper class and employment opportunities for women.

The book followed Agnes Grey, a young poor woman who loved and cherished her family but wanted to see more of the world and be financially independent. To that end, she became a governess.  The bulk of the book was Agnes’s encounters with members of the upper class – most of whom were morally depraved or downright psychopaths. For example, there was this young man, who trapped birds and tortured them:

“Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.”
“But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?”
“Oh, that’s nothing! I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.”

Beyond being mildly disturbing in parts, Brontë’s portrayal of the English gentry could be very funny. This was a conversation between husband and wife at lunch, beginning with the husband asking what is for dinner:

“Turkey and grouse,” was the concise reply.
“And what besides?”
“Fish.”
“What kind of fish?”
“I don’t know.”
You don’t know?” cried he, looking solemnly up from his plate, and suspending his knife and fork in astonishment.

There were also a few times where Brontë presented brilliant insight:

We are naturally disposed to love what gives us pleasure, and what is more pleasing that a beautiful face . . . when we know no harm of the possessor at least? A little girl loves her bird . . . Why? . . . Because it lives and feels, because it is helpless and harmless. A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt the toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes.

However, the book in its entirety didn’t thrill me. It was good, but not great. There was a lot of pontificating and moralizing by the author, as she instructed the reader on how to raise children, how to be a governess, how to grieve, how to be a good neighbor, and on and on. It was also somewhat boring and predictable. I knew who the “good” characters were, and who the “bad,” almost immediately, and what comeuppance they would all receive.

In the interest of completeness, and because it is slim, and interesting, Agnes Grey was certainly a worthwhile read. However, there are more exemplary books from that period that I would recommend.

4/6: worth reading

The Guardian
Books Please
She Reads Novels

From the Terrace

From the Terrace by John O’Hara

pages: 897
publication date: 1958
ISBN: 978-0394425801

I’m surprised John O’Hara isn’t more well-known as an American author. He takes the epic nature of a Steinbeck novel and combines it with the sharp social observation of a Fitzgerald novel, or he did in From the Terrace, anyway.

Although the beginning of From the Terrace was slow, and there was certainly a lot of text to get through (897 pages!), it was an absorbing and rewarding read. The book presented the life of Alfred Eaton, from his birth in a small Pennsylvania town to a wealthy and indifferent father in the early 1890s, to his ascent up the New York City society ladder, and through the 1950s, when the book was published.

O’Hara wonderfully captured so many aspects of America in the first half of the twentieth century, through the experiences of Alfred. For example, after Alfred returned stateside from World War I, he had this realization:

And here [Alfred] was learning through his father and mother a great truth that would be applicable to everyone else that had not been in the war. The mud-and-bayonet men would feel it more intensely, but to some degree all men who had been in uniform, under discipline, undergoing inconvenience, hardship and pain, treated like schoolchildren even in the matter of rewards – ice cream, cigarettes, chocolate, medals, small amounts of money, vacations measured by the hour or the day – were wanting or were going to want things to be different, and the first things were their people, and the difference was they should be the same but better. And it was too much to ask.

On a more personal note, Alfred Eaton was maybe the first literary character I was in the love with. I literally fell in love with Alfred Eaton. Sure, I’ve found characters cute or funny or sexy or intriguing before, but I really feel like I left a piece of my heart in this novel. O’Hara did such an incredible job of shaping and revealing Alfred to be this hateable, likable, lovable three-dimensional person. I’m not saying Alfred was all great. He was patronizing toward women, a hothead, and was not particularly hospitable toward his family. However, he was sexy, hilarious, and, even at his worst, I wanted to find the good in him.

The book certainly had its flaws. Like many books from that period, it only included the white, upper-class, straight viewpoint. O’Hara’s treatment of women wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great, either. Also, as mentioned above, it is very long. Perhaps the density of the book contributed to its greatness; perhaps, however, a more adept writer could have captured the mood and characters in fewer words.

For anyone interested in American literature, this book is a must-read.

5/6: seek this book out

I could not find many reviews online, so here is the book’s goodreads page and a 1960 New York Times review of the movie adaption, which discussed parts of the book:

goodreads
New York Times

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

publication date: 1980
pages: 405
ISBN: 0-8071-0657-7

Writing the review for this book was difficult: I understand why A Confederacy of Dunces, an absurd New Orleans version of Catch-22 with a little scatological James Joyce thrown in, is lauded and highly-praised; however, I did not care for it.

A Confederacy of Dunces introduces us to Ignatius Reilly, a pretentious, bumbling, philosophizing, arrogant sophist. Nearly everything about Reilly, from his explicitly gaseous constitution to his disdain for modern humanity, made me vaguely uneasy. A passage illustrating this is Ignatius’s reaction to his mother’s command that he get a job:

Ignatius was beginning to feel worse and worse. His [pyloric] valve seemed to be glued, and no amount of bouncing was opening it. Great belches ripped out of gas pockets of his stomach and tore through his digestive tract. Some escaped noisily. Others, weaning belches, lodged in his chest and caused massive heartburn.

The physical cause for this health decline was, he knew, the too strenuous consuming of Paradise [hotdogs]. But there were other, subtler reasons. His mother was becoming increasingly bold and overtly antagonistic; it was becoming impossible to control her.

Reilly was foolish, mean-spirited, high-handed, selfish, paranoid, and a host of other undesirable qualities. I wasn’t only revolted by Reilly, however. There were times when I pitied him, and even times when I found him enlightening. Reilly’s statements to his mother when she suggested he be put in a mental hospital demonstrate this:

“Do you think I have a problem?” Ignatius bellowed. “The only problem that [mental patients] have anyway is that they don’t like new cars and hair sprays. That’s why they are put away. They make the other members of society fearful. Every asylum in this nation is filled with poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television, and subdivisions.”

Moments like these, when I somewhat agreed with Reilly were bewildering because he really was a terrible person. He lied, got people fired, subjugated women, and betrayed any friends he had. Further, beyond any accurate or profound comments Reilly made he was hard to hate because I always thought of him as less of a villain and more of a mirror. It is easy to imagine any of us becoming Ignatius Reilly.

Notwithstanding the dislike or unease I felt toward the protagonist, the greatest sin of the book was its tedium. Because the book was basically just absurd characters bouncing into other absurd characters, I didn’t really care about anything that was happening. This often made it a slog to read.

However, I understand why it is a classic. It provided a detailed and uncompromising portrait of 1960s New Orleans. Additionally, absurdist books that expose the futility and stupidity of modern man will always be popular, especially with young people.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book, both current and contemporary:

Curled Up With a Good Book
Illiterarty
New York Times