Category Archives: American literature

Of Mice and Men: Meh; Or, How to Rate a Classic

Okay, okay, I’m not doing well at vacationing. Whatever. More guest posts to come and I’m not reading anything but magazines right now (!), so this is really and truly the last post from me for a few weeks. Plus Of Mice and Men is a novella and takes a couple of hours to read, so there.

Read it for book club and we had a decent discussion of the representation of women, the moral messages of the novel (life is suffering, individual ambition is foolish, mercy and justice are tricky) and the origins of the title (from the Burns poem, and not – as I thought – a message about the equivalence of mice and men in the order of the universe (OR IS IT…). And then the discussion turned to how you rate (or recommend) a ‘classic.’ (In our book club we each rate the novel on a scale from one to ten). Is a novel like this one – so tight, so well wrought, so contained and yet impactful – exempt from such reviews? Should we just take as stiuplated that if a novel has endured and continues to offer such rich readings that it is as a matter of course worth reading and recommending?  

I concluded that I wouldn’t recommend this one, not because it had any faults or was in any way objectionable to read (though the representation of women did raise some questions), but… why not? I guess for me it felt stodgy and slow and entirely concerned with being an impactful piece of literature (I’m loathe to consider it, but I suspect if I returned to my – once favourite – East of Eden I’d find the same to be true). It makes a great novel to teach literary ideas, or to strucutre a Unitarian sermon, but it falls short – for me – of inviting a novel perspective, or — and this is silly — being that much fun. 

That said, it does provoke unconsidered questions and is masterfully crafted. So I’m hardly going to say don’t read it. More I’m curious how you approach classic works: do you take for granted that they are excellent? Do you find yourself predisposed to a positive reading because you ‘ought’ to be? 

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

My Name Is Lucy Barton: In which I retract my claim about writers in New York.

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I deserved this book. After all my whinging about how all books set in New York about writers were/are terrible, I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and find myself retracting that outrageous and essentializing claim. Instead let’s agree that almost all books set in New York about writers are terrible – one exception is this one. Which is terrific. Really. Continue reading

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Lincoln in the Bardo: This book may be terrible, but it’s hard to tell because its author is George Saunders.

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You’ll probably read Lincoln in the Bardo because everyone is talking about it and because George Saunders is some kind of savant  of literary genius who writes sentences that are so particular in their detail and yet so vast in their evocation of feeling that while reading you sort of stumble between the narrative itself and the awareness that you are reading the work of a master of language-to-mean. Not unlike my own opening run-on-sentence, right? Right. Continue reading

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The People in the Trees: Reading While Anxious

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I’ve had some things going on in my life. Some major life things, or Life Events, or what-have-you. As a consequence I’ve been really, really good at not falling asleep, and fretting, and ruminating, and considering pro’s and con’s. I’ve been really, really poor at reading an entire novel. So between the start of March and now I’ve read things that made space for my fleeting focus (which isn’t to say these things don’t require focus, only that I was only able to muster focus for a fleeting period: half an hour in the bath, twenty minutes on the bus): Alice Munro short stories, re-reading for the hundred million-th time the Beverly Cleary Ramona series and starting and then dropping a sequence of novels that in another time would have had me captured (Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is the most unlucky in the lot – I made it a third of the way in, put it down for a week of fretting, and when I returned could. not. recall. what I had already read and so abandoned the whole project. Even though I recognized in the first third that it was an excellent novel. I digress). A side question for you then is what do you read when you’re anxious? Or unable to focus?  Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Fiction