Friday, August 28, 2009

August Reviews: The Fiction

My Tough & Cool Inner Bookworm's eyes are half-closed and she's wearing a lazy, self-satisfied grin. Every now and again she claws the air dreamily and lets out something between a purr and a playful growl. Did someone slip Tuffi some catnip, or is she still dazed by how we tripped the lit fantastic this month?

1. The Lightning Thief - Rick Riordan. This juvenile fantasy fiction was a nice surprise. I really wasn't expecting to be so thoroughly entertained by the adventures of Percy Jackson who discovers that he's the son of a Greek god and he's in trouble because other gods and monsters are out to get him. Further complicating his life, Zeus is mad because he thinks Percy stole his lightning bolt. Riordan obviously had a lot of fun casting the gods and goddesses in their modern-day guises. In addition, he test-drove this book with some middle school students before publication so it's got that authentic, slightly grubby tweenish feel to it. Did I say I had fun? Thanks so much to BOOKLEAVES for selecting this one for our August meeting.
2. The Best American Comics 2006 - Harvey Pekar, Guest Editor and Anne Elizabeth Moore, Series Editor. Many of my favorites -- Jaime Hernandez, Lynda Berry, Alison Bechdel, Rick Geary and Robert Crumb made appearances in this volume. Of the newbies, I enjoyed Lilli Carre's Adventures of Paul Bunyan & His Ox, Babe in which Paul and Babe are on a lunch break out there in the woods and Paul discusses Proust and broods about how his size encumbers his life -- he can't kiss a girl "without getting her all wet" and to get properly drunk costs more than his whole salary. Paul dreams of striding off with giant steps into a new life in the big city where he'll "be a regular guy." Babe patiently listens and occasionally gives Paul a reality check. My other favorite was Thirteen Cats Of My Childhood by Jesse Reklaw, which starts out being about these cats, but gradually, as Jesse gets older, becomes more about his strange and troubled father. Pekar and Moore put together a well-selected and organized compilation. At the back, there's a list of "100 Distinguished Comics" for further reading.
3. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne. There's plenty of sin to go around in this 1850 novel about 17th century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts. Hester Prynne has had a baby with no husband in sight -- he sent Hester on ahead from England and is missing and presumed dead. Jailed for her sin, she gives birth in prison and refuses to name the father of her child. After a public condemnation and a little more jail time, she's set free but must wear a scarlet A (for "Adultery") on the front of her dress.

A while back, I did a post about fictional characters whose ears I'd like to box. After a long interval, I have a new one and he has zoomed straight to the top of my list. Welcome, Arthur Dimmesdale...whack! What Hester saw in him, I can't imagine; he must have been hot beyond measure. If I had read this novel in high school like everyone else, I think I might have had sympathy for the poor guy, but now I have no patience and actually had bouts of sadistic glee when Roger Chillingworth and little Pearl would mess with his mind. Speaking of which, this is a great psychological novel. A little top-heavy with symbolism, but what would have felt deadly in high school now seems like pretty fun stuff. There's a cool, creepy aside in which Hawthorne lets readers know that the kids who torment Hester grow up to be part of the Salem community that held the infamous witch trials. I read this quickly and avidly and was completely engaged in a way I never expected to be by Hawthorne, of all people. While I'm in my dreamy Nat-Love state, I may give The Blithedale Romance another try.
I can't believe I just typed that.
Tuffi, get your mitts off the keyboard.

4. The Snows of Kilimanjaro And Other Stories - Ernest Hemingway. This is like Hemingway's The White Album; it's a collection of his short stories that he wrote over a period of 25-30 years. The title story is great and is bookended by another powerhouse story, The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Also included are The Killers, A Day's Wait and A Clean Well-Lighted Place. The other stories explore similar Hemingway themes, but don't seem to be as strong or memorable. Still, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a solid introduction to Hemingway's work.

5. The Moon And Sixpence - W. Somerset Maugham. In this 1919 novel, a young writer finds himself constantly crossing paths with Charles Strickland, a stockbroker who suddenly decides at the age of 40 to leave his job and his family and move to Paris to become a painter. After a few years in Paris, Strickland moves on to Tahiti. Loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin. I liked Maugham's technique of observing Strickland from the outside rather than going into his mind or having him do a big reveal -- it keeps the reader as frustrated as his family, friends and acquaintances would have been. Strangely enough, although Strickland is portrayed as a boor and a bastard, I don't find myself wanting to slap him very much at all.

6. Howards End - E.M. Forster. The story of 3 middle class families: the wealthy Wilcoxes, the comfortable Schlegel sisters and the struggling clerk Leonard Bast and his wife. "Only connect" is Forster's epigraph and Margaret's motto. Sure enough, in this novel, everyone and everything is connected. Margaret Schlegel can see this with great clarity, but her husband, Henry Wilcox stubbornly persists in his disconnect, especially where the lower classes are concerned. Not only is this a novel about people, it's a critical appraisal of English society as a whole in the years immediately preceding WWI. It took me a while to get into the book, but once I was there, well, I was connected. Not only that, but I achieved another level of connection with Alison Bechdel in the 2006 comics anthology listed above. That brief selection from Dykes To Watch Out For is entitled Only Disconnect.

7. Native Son - Richard Wright. A gritty and explosive novel about the life and crimes of Bigger Thomas. I both admired and was astounded by Wright's searing frankness about the choking fear and hatred Bigger has for white people. An excellent example of a novel from the school of naturalistic literature. Native Son reminded me so much of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.


Eva said...

I was pleasantly surprised by The Lightning Thief last month! :)

Have you read House of Seven Gables? There's this this delicious awesome chapter where the narrator basically taunts a corpse, hehe. It definitely made me want to read more Hawthorne! I remember enjoying The Scarlet Letter in high school, but being really creeped out by Pearl. That's about it.

Carrie K said...

The Lightening Thief sounds fun.

I'll have to reread The Scarlet Letter. I liked it but it's been ages since I've reread it.

Susan said...

Dang. Why did you have to make The Scarlet Letter sound so interesting???

Way to go, Tuffi. TCILB says hi. She is happy I read Persuasion recently but not quite sure about the recent crime spree I'm on!

Bybee said...

I read Seven Gables twice and don't remember this...since I'm feeling Nat-Love I might as well go for a third time. Pearl's supposed to be more of a symbol than anything, but there are a couple of times that I thought Hawthorne nailed how little kids can be so ornery!

Carrie K,
Oh yeah, Lightning Thief is really fun. Ruby Ramblings loaned me the sequel today. We're passing it around bookgroup.

Tell your Tough & Cool Inner Literary Booksnob that the crime novel has a long and rich literary tradition.