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

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

publication date: 1927
pages: 310
ISBN: 0-15-690738-0

Wow. I was reading this book for forever. And I am still trying to untangle its meaning. To the Lighthouse was a challenge, although it was worth the time. Part of the challenge was Woolf didn’t provide much help concerning the meaning and purpose of the book. Although that could be my failing because I am not acquainted with modernist writing; the only similar author I’d read before this was Joyce.

To the Lighthouse involved the Ramsay family and their beach house on the English countryside. At the beach house were Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and various guests. The Ramsay children and their father attempt to get to the lighthouse across the bay. Not much of a plot, but it’s safe to say the plot is not the point.

Although I’m comfortable saying that the plot is not the point, I don’t quite know what the point was. Several things jumped out at me, however. First, I think some of Woolf’s purpose was showcasing the English language. She created many intriguing phrases, with unusual word choice, interesting tense, and changing viewpoints. The following passage, which was seemingly a mundane conversation between Mrs. Ramsay and a friend, is a long example:

“Let’s go,” he said, repeating her words, clicking them out, however, with a self-consciousness that made her wince. “Let us go to the circus.” No. He could not say it right. He could not feel it right. But why not? she wondered. What was wrong with him then? She liked him warmly, at the moment. Had they not been taken, she asked, to circuses when they were children? Never, he answered, as if she asked the very thing he wanted; had been longing all these days to say, how they did not go to the circuses. It was a large family, nine brothers and sisters, and his father was a working man.

A second aspect of the book that jumped out at me was Woolf’s focus on her characters’ inner monologues. The external aspects of her characters did not seem important to Woolf. Accordingly, her characters did not do much; they mostly walked, ate, sat, and painted. However, although the characters were not involved in much action, they still created drama as expressed through their inner thoughts. Another long passage illustrated this (this is only one fraction of a very long paragraph):

Only she thought life – and a little strip of time presented itself to her eyes – her fifty years. There it was before her – life. Life, she thought – but she did not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance. There were the eternal problems: suffering, death, the poor. There was always a woman dying of cancer even here. And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through it all.

I wanted to include these long passages in this review because that is basically what the book is: long passages that don’t really move forward a plot or define a character. It is a bit of a slog. However, Woolf rewards the reader by creating beauty out of the English language and reminding us that so much of the human experience occurs in reflection and introspection.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book:

New York Times
Medieval Bookworm
The Blue Bookcase

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

publication date: 1937
pages: 227
ISBN: 0-06-093141-8

Their Eyes Were Watching God starts with a woman walking through a town. She’s familiar to the town, but unexpected. It’s Janie, the main character, who left the town with a man years earlier and now returns alone and unexplained. Janie simply walks right past the town square and returns to her former, empty house. Janie’s friend Pheoby, who has the strength of the whole town’s curiosity behind her, approaches Janie’s house to find out the story. Janie is happy to oblige and Zora Neale Hurston starts her story off like this: “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.”

And Hurston proceeds to beautifully chronicle Janie’s life. Janie’s life isn’t extraordinary, but it is described by Hurston with feeling and intensity. Janie was raised by her grandmother, a slave on a plantation before the Civil War. When Janie was young, she had an epiphany and felt herself capable of great love. However, after she married, she felt unfulfilled and unloved. As explained by Hurston, “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

Throughout the book, Hurston peppers her prose with wonderfully written passages that at first seem eccentric but upon closer examination are completely perfect. Here’s a fun one: when Hurston is describing one of the sexiest women in town, she explains that the woman has “negro hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor. Like the piece of string out of a ham. It’s not ham at all, but it’s been around ham and got the flavor.” Explaining how something is similar but not the same by comparing it to ham string was utterly surprising, yet effective.

Hurston also captures the striving of Janie in several passages. For example, in a passage where Janie is considering leaving the husband she doesn’t love, Janie cautions herself that, although she doesn’t love him, he does provide for her and maybe that is enough. Hurston responds that Janie “didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop. Man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.” Another example of Hurston’s wonderfully-crafted passages describing the human endeavor:

When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each on over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.

There was one aspect of Hurston’s writing I found problematic: the dialect. All Hurston’s dialogue is written in heavy dialect. Here is an example of a random bit of dialogue from the book: “Ah don’t blame yuh but it wasn’t lak you think.” Dialect is my second greatest literary pet peeve, behind foreshadowing. Dialect is cumbersome, alienating, and sometimes offensive. But even with all that in mind, let me tell you something: by the end of the book, I enjoyed the dialect! Hurston’s use of dialect was the most effective example I have ever encountered. Maybe it’s because it was so consistent. Or maybe it’s because Hurston was not ashamed of it. I don’t know what it was, but it worked.

Overall, Their Eyes Were Watching God was a stirring and important book about one woman’s effort to live a full life. But Janie’s striving was not unique; it was universal. Because Hurston captured that, she was able to craft a remarkable book.

4/6: worth reading

Some other reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Between the Covers
Book Stove
goodreads

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

pages (including back matter): 346
publication date: 1811

By most accounts, Sense and Sensibility was the first novel written by Jane Austen. In my opinion, it is also her wittiest and her most biting.

Sense and Sensibility begins after Mr. Henry Dashwood has died and left his three daughters and wife with little inheritance. Elinor, the eldest daughter, maintains a keen sense of proprietary and practicality. Marianne, the middle daughter, is spirited and fervent. The youngest daughter, Margaret, is too young to be married off. Consequently, Austen does not bestow on her a personality. The novel follows Elinor and Marianne as they move to a new home and fall into, and out of, love.

Elinor is arguably Austen’s most sarcastic heroine., which leads to many humorous passages. One example is when Elinor and Marianne are speaking with Edward Ferrars after the sisters have moved away from their birth home, Norland. Elinor asks Edward if he has recently been near Norland and this exchange ensues:

“I was at Norland about a month ago.”
“And how does dear, dear Norland look?” cried Marianne.
“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”
“Oh!” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall!”

I love how charming Marianne is in that passage, but she is absolutely ridiculous, too. And Elinor calls her out on it.

As hinted at in the above passage, Marianne and Elinor are fully-realized characters. They have flaws and virtues, just like anyone else. Austen makes them utterly likable, however, and you root for them. Most of the other dozen or so characters in the book are likewise fully-formed. The plot of the book is also intricate and, for the most part, convincing. There are credible plot twists, and even some well-crafted suspense, especially toward the end of the book.

Austen additionally sprinkles delicious satire throughout the book, most of which still applies today. For example, this passage, in which the Dashwoods meet Sir and Lady Middleton:

On every formal visit, a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case, it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and everybody was astonished at each other’s opinion.

How many times have we all gone through that conversation with parents? Well it turns out we’ve been part of a time-honored tradition of feigning interest and stifling boredom.

I hadn’t read Sense and Sensibility since high school. I’m glad I revisited it, because it is Jane Austen at her finest.

6/6: instant classic

Here are some other reviews of the book:

Notes from the North
Torch under the Blanket Books
Russ Allberry

Mrs. Bridge

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

publication date: 1959
pages: 246
ISBN: 0-86547-056-1

I was just reading an article about authors writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. The author generally believed that men had a difficult time writing women characters. I was reminded of this article as I was reading Mrs. Bridge because, contrary to what had been said in the article, Evan S. Connell created a complex and realistic female narrator.

Mrs. Bridge follows the life of India Bridge, from her engagement until her children are grown and have left the house. And the portrait of Mrs. Bridge provided by Connell is possibly the most accurate rendering of an individual’s life I have ever read. Intriguingly, although the portrait of Mrs. Bridge is complete, the book is not long. Instead, Mrs. Bridge is composed of many short chapters with names like “Voting” and “One Summer Morning.” These vignettes portray Mrs. Bridge completely because they emulate life’s moments: many are seemingly irrelevant, some are frightening, others are routine or exciting.

Not only is Connell’s depiction of Mrs. Bridge’s life complete in its arbitrariness, it is accurate in its tragedy and absurdity. Connell gets underneath the sheen of Mrs. Bridge’s upper-middle-class American life in the 1940s and shows how rigid and isolating such a life could be for a woman. Connell describes Mrs. Bridge’s feelings of malaise and aimlessness as those “moments when this anonymous evil had erupted and left as its only cicatrice a sour taste in the mouth and a wild, wild desire.” Although the book devastatingly describes the tedium and seeming insignificance experienced by Mrs. Bridge, her life is not a tedious or insignificant one. The book is punctuated by humor and times of love and affection.

The other characters in Mrs. Bridge are realistic, penetrating, and often endearing. For example, the workaholic Mr. Bridge, sensing that his family misses him “would redouble his efforts at the office in order to give them everything they wanted.” Connell also creates authentic portraits of the Bridge children: Ruth, Carolyn, and Douglas. Connell especially captures the complicated nature of parent-child relationships. For example, when Ruth is leaving for New York City to live on her own Mrs. Bridge is worrying about her and reflecting on their own contentious relationship. However, Mrs. Bridge, for the first time, notices the relationship between Ruth and her father and is “struck by their easy companionship, as though they had gotten to know each other quite well when she was not around.” In just one scene, Connell so effortlessly lays bare a common, yet heartbreaking, occurrence that happens in families everywhere.

In Mrs. Bridge, Connell captures what it is to be human, with all its attendant absurdity, tragedy, humor, loneliness, happiness, and everyday sorrow.

5/6: seek this book out

More reviews of Mrs. Bridge:

npr
the guardian
Asylum

Cannery Row

Powell’s Books

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

publication date: 1945
pages: 196
ISBN-10: 0140177388

I am in a book club with some co-workers and Cannery Row was our latest book club selection. It was a fun choice because I could feel literary, but without having to read Grapes of Wrath. I generally enjoy the Steinbeck novels I have read in the past, especially The Pearl and The Winter of Our Discontent.

I can add Cannery Row to the list of Steinbeck novels I enjoyed. (Although now that I’m thinking about it, I will probably never read any of them again. Oh well!) Cannery Row was not an “epic Steinbeck,” like Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden. Instead, it was a collection of related vignettes presented in novel form. The plot is almost non-existent. The main story arc revolves around the preparations for a party. However, the strength of this book does not come from the plot but from the characters and Steinbeck’s punchy writing style.

The relationship I had with the characters in this book was odd. I did not find any of them believable. No one I know or have ever meet spoke or thought like any of the characters. For example, two characters, Hazel and Doc, are at the beach and they notice some stink bugs. Hazel asks Doc what he thinks the reason stink bugs have “their asses up in the air for.” The rest of the dialogue goes like this:

“I think they’re praying.”
“What!”
“The remarkable thing isn’t that they put their tails up in the air – the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying – so maybe they’re praying.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Who talks like that?! No one. I did find it endearing, though. Even though I didn’t understand what in the heck Hazel and Doc were talking about, I liked them. And I wanted to know what would happen to them and make sure they would be alright. Steinbeck presents many characters just like that. I can’t say that I relate to them, but each of them does have a humanness that makes them likable.

Additionally, Steinbeck clearly has a love for his characters and for the setting. Cannery Row is set in a poor California coastal town. The book includes several passages earnestly describing the buildings, topography, and inhabitants of the town. The most effective of these passages are those that describe the sea. For example: “Then the creeping murderer, the octopus, steals out, slowly, softly, moving like a gray mist, pretending now to be a bit of weed, now a rock, now a lump of decaying meat while its evil goat eyes watch coldly.”

Like much of Steinbeck’s work, the book is also peppered with what my high school English teacher called “everyman chapters.” These are the chapters that are related to what is happening in the book but don’t actually involve any of the characters or move the plot along. The everyman chapters showcase Steinbeck’s ability to present the human experience. In one such passage, Steinbeck discusses how no one believes in omens or superstitions. “But it doesn’t do any good to take chances with them and no one takes chances. Cannery Row, like every place else, is not superstitious but will not walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house . . . . most people in Cannery Row simply do not believe in such things and then live by them.” That passage shows Steinbeck at his finest: the ability to get to the very center of something that normally escapes our notice.

In conclusion, the characters weren’t identifiable but I liked them. And the plot was trivial but I was interested. And the chapters didn’t have much to do with the rest of the book but seemed relevant. I guess that’s the magic of Steinbeck!

4/6: worth reading

Some other reviews of the book:

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
Doug Brown at Powell’s Books
A Boy and His Books