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

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

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