Saturday, September 25th, 2010
I read Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage for my Fill in the Blanks project. (The project: in a nutshell, a bunch of us reader/writer types have committed to reading 100 classics (in 5 years) that we feel we should have read either in high school or college.
I copied someone else’s list to start myself off with and have been slipping books on and off the list as I’ve re-discovered them. My list has been fairly set in stone for the last year or so (until now: this book wasn’t on my original list.)
Visit the Fill in the Blanks blog to see lots of reviews by everyone on the project. Join if you’re so inclined. )
The story is about Henry Fleming, a recent recruit to the Union army during the Civil War. As his regiment waits to see warfare, he becomes increasingly obsessed with whether or not he has the courage to stand his ground. He doesn’t know if he’ll run.
As it turns out, when he first encounters a battle, he’s so surrounded by fellow solders and confronted by the enemy that he can do nothing but fight. The second time her faces battle, however, he flees. He convinces himself that he was right to save himself.
He later makes it back to his regiment and fights bravely. He’s deeply ashamed of his earlier behavior, but by the end of the book manages to make peace with himself.
For a classic, the book was pleasantly shorter than I thought it was going to be. Still, I was sometimes annoyed by all of Henry’s self pity and castigation. But if not for all that, I wouldn’t have gotten such a deep understanding of Henry’s feelings.
And, I’m glad to finally know that a “red badge” of courage is a wound received in battle, according to Henry.
Overall, it was a good read, with good characterization and excellent descriptions of battle, the poverty of war, and death.
Monday, July 6th, 2009
This is a review for my Project 100: Fill in the Gaps project.
The plot (from Wikipedia).
The rich landowner Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in the park of his manor, surrounded by the moorland of Dartmoor, in the county of Devon. He appears to have died from heart attack, but the victim’s close friend, Dr Mortimer, is convinced that the death was due to a supernatural creature, which haunts the moor in the shape of an enormous hound with blazing eyes and jaws. Fearing for the safety of Baskerville’s heir, his nephew Sir Henry, coming to London from Canada, Dr Mortimer appeals for help from Sherlock Holmes.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is the first thing I’ve read by Arthur Conan Doyle. I expected not to like this (very short) book for at least two reasons: 1) I usually don’t like to read mysteries, and 2) the antiquated style of writing was certain to turn me off. However, I enjoyed the tale so much that I believe I’ll be adding Arthur Conan Doyle to my reading list.
It’s funny that I don’t like to read mysteries. As a pre-teen I devoured those one-minute mystery books for kids…couldn’t get enough of them. Adult mysteries have usually felt contrived, and I lack the patience to figure out what is a clue and what is not. The Hound didn’t feel contrived at all to me…and when clues were slung in my direction, I knew it (even if I couldn’t figure out what they meant at the time). But knowing what they were increased my enjoyment of the story, because I could noodle over their significance at odd times – like when cooking dinner.
The first page or two of writing caused me some consternation. Doyle employs several, “As you know, Bobs,” (See the Turkey City Lexicon) in the opening dialogue which is openly contrived in order to deliver some necessary information. Beyond that, the writing smooths out, and although a bit wordy (IMHO), it includes many elegant passages.
Interestingly, the book begins in Dr. Watson’s point of view, and then changes to a letter format when Watson and Holmes split up (Watson to Devonshire, Holmes to remain in London). The letters are from Watson to Holmes – so still in his POV. There is also an instance of an “excerpt from Watson’s Diary” used to tell the tale. The style reverts back to Watson’s POV once Holmes joins him in Devonshire.
All of the loose ends are tidied up in meticulous detail via conversation of Watson and Holmes in the last chapter entitled, “A Retrospection.” The clues are explained and a tremendous amount of the back story is filled in by Holmes. For me, this was the hardest part of the book to read: it starts out with a long-winded description by Watson of why so much time has passed since the end of the case and now, when he and Holmes were discussing it. Per Watson, Holmes has solved two other cases in between. Why this is important – other than to show a passage of time (which I can’t figure out the importance of) – I don’t know. Further, Holmes’s dialogue is bloated in order to squeeze in as much detail as possible. I’m not sure this would work in a modern-day mystery.
Nonetheless, I found it to be an enjoyable read overall.
Sunday, June 14th, 2009
A review of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke for my Fill in the Gaps: Project 100 list.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is an alternate-history (or fantasy) that’s set in 19th-century England during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s based on the idea that magic once existed in England and that it will be brought back with the help of two practicing magicians: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. The story centers on their relationship (or lack there of) as they make England into a land where anyone can perform magic.
I looked forward to reading this book, particularly because it is a Hugo winner. In the end, I was disappointed. I could not finish the book fast enough. I found it completely intolerable.
Ms. Clarke writes in (my opinion) an archaic style akin to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, and, in fact has been criticized for writing a pastiche of them (and others). While I agree that her style mimics many of the old classics, I think I’d draw the line prior to pastiche. Although, like many of the classics, I feel that the book sufferers from extreme wordiness and could have benefited from some judicious trimming….probably 300-500 of the nearly 800 pages comprising this tome could have been deleted.
A good editor could have made this an outstanding read. I felt that there were so many words–such a lack of focus–that as I read, I continued to ask myself…so? So? SO!? Had I not committed to reading this for the Project 100, I’d have quit reading very early on. Very little held my attention. This is sad, because the story is such an interesting one.
Still, the book is not without its merits. There were occasions when Ms. Clarke created the perfect turn of phrase and wonderful lyrical description. Her world-building is superb. If only one didn’t have to plod slowly through the muck to get to the beauty.
As I complained while I read, one friend told me that the last 100 pages makes the entire book worthwhile. I disagree. The pacing did pick up toward the end, almost feeling as though the book raced to its conclusion. It did become more focused–loose strings were tied up–but it failed to provide me with the satisfying conclusion I’d longed for after investing so much time. I found it lacking.
If you like Dickins and Austin, you might like Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. For me, I won’t be picking up the sequel.
Post Script: I failed to mention one of the most annoying things about this book: fictitious footnotes. There were hundreds, printed in minute type at the bottom of the page, often spanning two or more pages. The most annoying of the annoying were the footnotes which referred to other footnotes in different chapters of the book.