In the Woods

I'm not giving this book five stars because it's a classic. It's enjoyable, but I won't read it again. I'm not giving it five stars because it's the perfect mystery. I figured it out well over a hundred pages before the reveal. And I'm not giving it five stars because it's one of those books that changed my life. It's really not.

I'm giving this five stars because I could not put it down! French's little mystery may have just hit me at the perfect time (I've been on an "American canon" kick lately, and this was not), but I burned through the pages not out of a sense of responsibility but out of a burning desire to keep reading. I stayed up late at night, I turned off the tv, I even (gasp) read during work--don't tell those kids who were working on worksheets all through World Lit. French's writing is concise, psychological, and figurative all at the same time. She strikes a good balance, and it works.

In some ways the story is like a deeper, more interesting Law and Order: SVU set in Ireland. As a child, Rob Ryan and two of his friends disappeared in the woods. He later reappeared shaken, leaning against a tree, and unable to remember anything that happened. When he grew up, Rob became a detective, and when a child is killed at the site of his disappearance, his past and his present begin to meet in unsettling ways.

French introduces an interesting--sometimes too interesting--cast of characters, at least one of whom will return in her next novel. I don't want to say who the character is--good or bad, past or present, dead or alive--because I don't want to spoil anything, but I do know that I plan to read her second book.

In all, this is a good read. I can't promise it will be five stars for everyone, but for me, now, it was just right. Click to buy. And this one I recommend.


Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

This book took me about an hour to read, and you know what? It was an hour more than I should have spent with this book.

Yeah, yeah, Stephen Crane is an important realist, and his vernacular and depiction of life in the slums is important--not only from a literary but from a historic point of view.

But holy cow this was boring. No one is developed enough to be interesting, it's predictably melodramatic, and it's done better and more interestingly a few years (decades?) later by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle and probably other authors I can't recall.

The book does have some unintended comedy based on its out-of-datedness, but still. Skip it, unless there's a pressing reason not to. Is The Red Badge of Courage any better?


For Whom the Bell Tolls

This book took me a while to get through. Partly because it's long. Partly because of psychology (this was one of two books assigned to me that I didn't finish as an undergrad. The other was Daniel Martin by John Fowles, which I will never pick up again, because life is too short.) Anyway, this time I liked it.

Of course, at times Hemingway still is a little dull. Robert Jordan thinks himself in circles and Hemingway gives the full thought process every time. Sometimes it works and sometimes I think "OK already, I get it about the dead man" or whatever. Plus, the Spanish formality at times gets a little awkward.

Still, how can you not like this story? It's tragic and epic and personal and profound and all that kind of stuff, and some of the twists are pretty good.

There is something a little off-putting about the way Robert treats Maria, and the whole love story is a little melodramatic for my tastes ("Did the earth move for thee also?" type of stuff) but those complaints are minor. On the whole it was long but readable and enjoyable. And the last 100 pages flew by.

Hemingway is still hit and miss for me, but this was a hit. Click to buy as always


King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table

I've been trying to find a good King Arthur to use in the Brit Lit class I teach. I tried this one this year, and while it has plenty of classic Arthur stories, it's not written in a particularly informative, interesting, or entertaining way. Green has a few mildly understated (and therefore funny) lines--most of which involve people being surprisingly decapitated--but overall it's a pretty dry retelling of what could and should be exciting material. Arthur stories have inspired and entertained for literally centuries, but if they were always told as dully as Green tells these tales I think they'd be about as familiar as Cuchulain tales--known to small groups, but generally ignored.

I'm definitely interested still in finding a good version of the stories, so if you know of one, include it in the comments. Next up (well, in a month or two) is TH White's The Once and Future King, which I hear good things about. I'll let you know how it turns out. Click to buy, but I'm not recommending it really.


The Bell Jar

I'm not sure how I feel about this book. The first, more sane half, I enjoyed. The second, post-breakdown half I wasn't as intrigued by, and I'm really not sure why. The character still interested me, and the story still intrigued me, I just didn't feel as motivated to keep reading. So three stars, instead of four.

That said, Plath's presentation is engaging and easy to read--at times very funny, at times devastating. The introduction to the novel points out comparisons made by reviewers of the time to Catcher in the Rye, and it makes sense--not only the content, but especially in tone. Esther is older than Holden and certainly more mature, but both novels involve the brokenness of the world in which the protagonist functions, as well as the protagonist's inability to integrate with the world. But Plath seems to emphasize the problems with the narrator--Esther is trapped in a bell jar while the world around continues on--while Salinger points the finger at the corrupt world. And of course the difference in the narrators' genders has huge implications as well, since the pressures of wife and motherhood are such a big part of Esther's life and breakdown.

It's an all right book, but I think it's more important given Plath's fate after publication than necessarily being a truly great novel on its own. It feels imcomplete to me (says the never-published-aspiring-novelist), and I would be curious to see what other novels she might have written had she not died. Click to buy as always.


Wise Blood

I love me some Flannery O'Connor short stories, but this took a while for me to get into. Her characters are so skewed, so not-quite-right, that it's tough to relate to them in any way. Enoch Emory is crazy, Hazel Motes is obsessed and fanatical, and Sabbath Hawks is nasty and twisted in her own right.
But that's kind of the point. O'Connor's grotesque characters are both inexorably tied to and alienated from their Christianity--in fact, from any moral center at all. That disconnect makes them strangely physical characters, and O'Connor details each action carefully, even the seemingly minute ones. Yet her simple style is effective in showing men (and a couple of women) who are lost--in need of some sort of affirmation or connection. Hazel, for examples, starts out hating the woman across the seat for him but also sure the black porter on the train grew up in the same tiny town as he did. He needs to be recognized, he needs his worldview validated. But it's empty, and barren, and corrupt.

The book really picked up in its last three chapters, as all three characters make choices and commit actions that are terrible and, again, grotesque. It's shocking and it's compelling, and ultimately it's pretty interesting.

If you like O'Connor's short stories, the novel is worth a read. And if you haven't read O'Connor's short stories, then go start with those.

The Color Purple

I made the mistake of putting this on an optional student reading list without reading it. Then I read the first page: rape, incest, and some non-high-school-appropriate language right away. A few chapters in we have a lesbian sexual awakening and a few semi-graphic sex scenes. Whoops! I took it off immediately and had a student who had selected it choose something else.

Which isn't to say this is a bad book. In fact, I really enjoyed it. Celie's voice is so strong and unique and powerful (uneducated or not) and her journey of self-discovery is so uplifting that it's still a great story. It's just not a high school appropriate book--or at least not one I feel comfortable teaching.

Still, it didn't win the Pulitzer for nothing. Walker's themes of individuality and community, of forgiveness and healing, are all wrapped together so well that I really found myself enjoying it. Her writing is undeniably powerful, and her characters are likable and recognizable, even though the cultures discussed (both African and African American) are very different from my own. I guess if you can handle the more graphic bits, the payoff is worthwhile.