Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women

Information

Goodreads: Excellent Women
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 1952

Official Summary

Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym’s richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman’s daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors–anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door–the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

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Review

I’d never heard of Barbara Pym before coming across this book, so the idea that Excellent Women is a classic was news to be, as well as the fact that Pym has been called the “20th century Jane Austen.” After finishing Excellent Women, however, I agree that Pym has a remarkable talent for capturing life and portraying characters, and I would love to read more of her work.

Excellent Women is interesting in the fact that it represents ordinary people. The protagonist Mildred is an unmarried “churchy” sort of person whose first big excitement in the novel is that an “unsuitable”couple has come to live in the flat below hers. Some of the beauty of the novel, however, is that these flashier, more educated people are not actually more important than Mildred in any way. At first I found this premise of the book a bit depressing, the idea that most of us don’t achieve anything in particular or make an impact in the world; even some of the anthropologists in the novel, who might be thought to be “contributing something,” muse whether it’s worth it. By the end, however, I found the story a bit more optimistic. Mildred has friends and work she enjoys, and she’s just about to embark on something a bit new to her. She helps others and is generally kind, and even if she frequently worries she comes across as a bit boring or plain (she balks at the idea one would find her just the sort of sensible person who would keep their oven mitt conveniently on a nail by the cooker), I think there’s something admirable in being dependable.

One question of the story is whether her helpfulness and reliability is seen as meddling (I had a debate with a friend who’s also read the book). I do think there’s an element of that. The “excellent women” of the parish, for instance, have particular ways about how things must be done and see themselves as having to “protect” their pastor from “unsuitable” marriages. One might think of them as sticking their noses into things. However, my interpretation is that Mildred is often being opposed upon by people who know she’s going to help them. She finds herself hemming other people’s curtains, tidying up their flats, cooking them dinner, making them tea, and even helping them sort out their marital problems. She could say “no,” I suppose, but in many instances I think she accidentally finds herself involved and feels it too impolite to back out, and often she’s a bit annoyed at having to be so helpful.

Aside from Milded’s superbly drawn character, I enjoyed the setting of the book. The introduction of the Penguin edition talks a lot about the post-war period (and particularly points out the food, which seemed depressing once I noticed it). I appreciated how much things have and have not changed since the 1950’s when this was published. It was the little things that often jumped out at me, such as when Mildred wakes up early to greet the movers at 8 am, and of course they don’t show up until nearly 10.

If you enjoy social commentary, books about ordinary people, stories about the role of women, or just well-written books that seem a bit different, I would recommend Excellent Women.

Briana
5 stars

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Little Lord Fauntelroy Cover

Information

Goodreads: Little Lord Fauntleroy
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1886

Summary

Seven-year-old Cedric Errol learns one day that his uncles have died and he is now the heir to the Earl of Dorincourt–all the way in England! His grandfather the earl is really a crotchety old man. But can the new little Lord Fauntleroy’s sweet nature transform him?

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Review

When Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s book Little Lord Fauntleroy was published from 1885-1886, it was an astounding success. The rags-to-riches story of a young boy living in New York who moves to England to be trained as the heir to an earl was indeed so popular that mothers dressed their little boys in the same type of suit worn by Fauntleroy in the novel. However, the sentimental novel has fallen somewhat out of fashion and, these days, most mentions of Burnett associate her with two of her other works: The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Still, Little Lord Fauntleroy has its charms. Readers who enjoy an old-fashioned tale that relies heavily on emotions may find themselves inadvertently drawn into little Cedric’s story, despite their best efforts to be above a book some might call “saccharine.”

Even though the sentimental novel has come in for its fair share of ridicule these days, I must admit that I still love the form. Little Lord Fauntleroy is a very charming example of it. Seven-year-old Cedric Errol is the “perfect” little boy–strong, handsome, and golden-haired, and possessed of the ability to find everyone interesting and to make everyone love him. Through his sheer sweet goodness he manages to transform his crotchety old grandfather from a tyrant earl who thinks only of himself to one who might, one day, actually be beloved by the poor tenants who used to hate and fear him. Simply by seeing goodness in the earl, Cedric puts it there. I understand that many a contemporary reader might find this unbelievable, even if they do not also feel some compulsion to gag over how “goody-goody” Fauntleroy is. But not me. I apparently have the tastes of a nineteenth-century audience.

There is just something incredibly soothing about the story. It feels comforting to read a book where the good and the kind are rewarded, and where even the wicked are capable of redemption. Yes, Burnett preaches a bit here and there, extolling the virtues of her young hero and his sweet, silver-toned mother–the epitome of perfect femininity of her time. But modern books do much the same–we simply have different values that we like to teach our children. And, really, lessons about thinking of others and helping the less fortunate are not to be despised. Why not read an uplifting story where good things happen to good people? Sometimes we all need reassurance that the world is not so bleak, after all.

Little Lord Fauntleroy may admittedly be an acquired taste. I can easily imagine many contemporary readers being turned off by how sweet the titular character is, and how he can do no wrong. To me, however, the book is a comfort read, a safe place to go where rags-to-riches stories are real and kindness really does change the world. It’s a book with a happy ending and that is nothing to sneer at.

4 stars

A Classic Picture Book with Beautiful Illustrations (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Tell us about a classic picture book you love for the illustrations.

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Illustrated by Cyndy Szekeres

I have never actually liked the story of Peter Rabbit. At best, it’s too obviously didactic with its lessons about listening to your mother and being a good little bunny (child), and at worst it’s pretty dark. Mrs. Rabbit flat out says that Mr. Rabbit “had an accident” in Mr. McGregor’s garden and “he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor!” This was nearly traumatizing to me as a young reader, but she throws it out so casually. Oh, don’t go into the garden next door–you might be murdered and eaten! I simply was not a big fan as a child, and rereading the story recently hasn’t suddenly made me think it’s the epitome of children’s literature.

However, my family had this Little Golden Book edition of the story when I was growing up, and the illustrations are adorable! I believe I read the book multiple times simply because the pictures are so cute, while also detailed and rather evocative. Just look at that plump fluffy bunny on the cover, wearing his stylish coat and shoes!

I loved looking at the pictures, and I still think they’re astounding. I still want to just pick up all the bunnies and hug them, and I still love looking at all the details in the background, like the mother mouse with her baby mice in a cradle or all the little furnishings in Peter’s home. I also love the expressions on Peter’s face during his adventures, the single tear on his face when he gets caught in a net in Mr. McGregor’s garden and his anguish when he’s lost and can’t find his way home. The story is often sad and dark, but the illustrator really works with that! You start to feel for Peter, even when he brought all his troubles on himself.

Beatrix Potter I can take or leave as an author in general, but I really do love Cyndy Szekeres’s illustrations for The Tale of Peter Rabbit!

Briana

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Information

Goodreads: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1884

Summary

When Wildfell Hall is let to a new tenant, Helen Graham, the neighbors wonder at her eccentricities, until one man gains her trust and the story of the painful past that led her to flee to this remote location.

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Review

When people discuss their favorite novels by the Brontë sisters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall rarely comes up (unless you’re my co-blogger, who explains why The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is her favorite Brontë novel here), and perhaps that is because the novel is not as romantic as Jane Eyre and, yes, even Wuthering Heights are considered. It’s not a love story, after all, but rather a story about a woman caught in a loveless and abusive marriage that she never imagined. The remarkable insight that Anne Brontë offers into protagonist Helen Graham’s psyche, however, as well as the unflinching portrayals of men giving into different temptations and debaucheries to the suffering of the women around them make The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a masterpiece I am sorry I did not read soon.

The novel does have a frame narrative, which is always something I’m conflicted about because so often I get absorbed in the frame only to be broken away to hear a story from the past, and it was no different for me here. Readers are introduced to Helen Graham, the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall, who is clearly trying to walk a line between being private but not so reclusive that neighbors think she’s weird…and failing, based on the mystery and gossip that begin to surround her. I was caught up in the mystery myself, even though the footnotes gave me more hints than I cared for about why Helen was at Wildfell Hall; I would have liked to know if I would have figured out her story based on the foreshadowing if the editor hadn’t kept telling me the plot.

Click to read more classic reviews!

However, the main story, the story of Helen’s courting and then marriage and its subsequent decline is incredibly compelling, more so than the frame narrative I had become so invested in. It’s a penetrating look into abusive marriages–how a young Helen, idealistic and certain she had found true love–fell into an ultimately loveless marriage with a man addicted to drinking and other women. It also gives a harsh reality check to those who think they might be able to reform bad men if they just do/say the right things or are good enough themselves. And, finally, it’s a compassionate look at why women in abusive relationships so often stay. (Yes, Helen had fewer options for leaving her husband due to the time period than she would today, but the psychological aspects of why she stays for so long seem timeless.)

I also enjoyed (if that’s the right word), the portrayals of Helen’s husbands friends–all of whom are heavy drinkers and generally terrible people, just in different ways. That is, Brontë doesn’t have a cardboard cutout “type” of a man who abuses his wife or just the people around him; she shows a whole range. Some drink more. Some drink less. Some get angry. Some lay hands on their wives, while some do not. One even tries his best to abstain from addictions like drinking and gambling but never has the strength to separate himself from his bad friends. Each is characterized with care, but the overall picture is not bleak because, rest assured, there are actually good men in the book, as well.

If you want a story about a strong woman or a story concerned with the inner lives of women and how they deal with bad relationships, check this out.

Briana
5 stars

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

Cakes and Ale

Information

Goodreads: Cakes and Ale
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1930

Official Summary

Cakes and Ale is a delicious satire of London literary society between the Wars. Social climber Alroy Kear is flattered when he is selected by Edward Driffield’s wife to pen the official biography of her lionized novelist husband, and determined to write a bestseller. But then Kear discovers the great novelist’s voluptuous muse (and unlikely first wife), Rosie. The lively, loving heroine once gave Driffield enough material to last a lifetime, but now her memory casts an embarrissing shadow over his career and respectable image. Wise, witty, deeply satisfying, Cakes and Ale is Maugham at his best. 

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Review

The more I reflect on this novel, the less I feel I have to say about it. It’s one of those books I admire because, to some degree, it doesn’t have a plot, and I am always a bit impressed when authors can just write about someone’s life without there being some main guiding point to the book. Here, the glue that holds it all together is just the narrator’s reflections on an author who just died and that author’s first wife, whom he and many others had an affair with. It’s just…a story about how the narrator met and knew these people. At times it’s interesting, but I can’t say I came away feeling much about it.

Click to read more classic reviews!

The most memorable parts of the book, for me, are not that the narrator was having an affair and not that the first wife was apparently vivacious and exciting in addition to being promiscuous. Instead, my attention was caught by random small details–the setting of the scenes rather than the plot. This a rare book where I felt like I actually could pop right into the time period of the past and have a sense of what it was like to live then. For instance, the narrator muses on how when he was a child, bicycles were rare, so when you saw someone on one, you stopped what you were doing, turned your head, and watched him ride until he was gone into the distance. That has nothing much to do with the story (except that the author and his wife helped teach the narrator to ride a bike of his own), but it did make me feel like the setting was coming alive and like the narrator was a real person.

Otherwise, I can’t say I immensely enjoyed Cakes and Ale. It’s a bit sarcastic; the narrator doesn’t seem to have a fond opinion of anyone except the woman he had an affair with, and he characterizes authors as insincere charlatans, most of whom don’t have actual talent backing up their success. (Though his observation that the surest way to authorial fame is knowing the right people and coming from privilege will likely ring true to many today.) There are some reflections on art and literature in general, such as what the nature of beauty is, but I guess I didn’t think the narrator quite as clever as he seems to think himself.

The book is short and…fine, I guess, but I find myself with little to say about it, whether about plot, characters, or even general philosophy, so I wouldn’t exactly recommend it to others.

Briana
3 Stars

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Great Gatsby cover

Information

Goodreads: The Great Gatsby
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1925

Summary

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story is of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his new love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.

The Great Gatsby is one of the great classics of twentieth-century literature.

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Review

In high school, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and decided I hated it. It was boring, all the characters were unlikable, and the symbolism my teacher was obsessed with discussing was way too obvious. (Fitzgerald literally says the billboard symbolizes the eyes of God, and the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolizes the thing Gatsby wants to obtain. Not exactly subtle!). For some reason, I have the habit of occasionally rereading books I hated to see if I still hate them. Usually I do. I’ve come around on The Great Gatsby, though. I still think the characters are obnoxious, and I’m not about to put the novel on a list of my favorite books or anything, but I do appreciate more–perhaps because I don’t just think Fitzgerald was writing about a bunch of rich jerks but because I can now see he was also writing about the complexity of humans. I don’t have to enjoy the characters to see that they’re more developed and more trapped in suffering than I previously gave them credit for.

The two characters I’ve most changed my mind on are Daisy and Nick (sort of surprising to me, since I always thought of Nick as the nice one, if I thought about him at all; he definitely is a major character, but high school me might have written him off too much as “just the narrator” and not worth paying as much attention to as the other characters).

I recently was speaking with Michael at My Comic Relief about Daisy and whether she’s to be read as shallow and vapid (high school me voted for this) or as a woman worthy of sympathy because she’s trapped in an unhappy marriage she won’t leave. It seems clear to me now that both are true. Yes, Daisy doesn’t seem to make an intelligent comment in the whole novel (besides her initial heart-to-heart with Nick when she bursts out with the wish he daughter will be a beautiful little fool to avoid suffering), and her frivolousness is accentuated by her tendency to repeat everything. Now, however, I wonder how much of this is affectation or a coping mechanism. She knows her husband has no respect for her and is cheating on her. Even Nick occasionally mocks her. Perhaps she tries to be charming and dumb and inoffensive to get by or give people what she thinks they expect from her. Readers have no real way of knowing since we know little about her past, before her marriage.

Yet while Daisy came off a little better to me this time around, Nick came off worse. As mentioned above, I do think he mocks Daisy sometimes, even though he also seems to like her well enough. He refers to past comments she has made with levity, for instance, and Daisy seems to have no idea what he’s talking about or what’s supposed to be funny. He also overexaggerates things that seem as if they might actually be important to her, such as when she asks him if her friends in Chicago miss her. There’s also the matter that Nick knows about everyone’s affairs and either ignores them or facilitates them. There’s definitely something to be said for minding your own business, but I’m not sure I think much of him for setting up Daisy and Gatsby when he knows Gatsby means to declare his love for her. Nick’s redeeming moment is, of course, the end when he sticks by Gatsby when no one else does and even goes through the trouble of trying to get other people to the funeral–who never come. He says himself he never really approved of Gatsby but he thought he owed him something, and that’s something that apparently didn’t occur to anyone else who was always enjoying Gatsby’s parties and hospitality.

The book, overall is rather depressing, not just because the characters are all generally horrible but also because there’s such a theme of emptiness that pervades it. Gatsby pursues a dream he can never realize and dies alone, all his wealth and the hard work (uh, illegal work) that he put in to obtain it. Daisy and Tom stay in their unhappy marriage because it seems comfortable. Wilson realizes his wife didn’t love him the way he loved her. Everything is just disappointing. Even Nick doesn’t seem to get what he wanted out of going East and just goes back home, judgmental of everyone.

It’s interesting and gives a lot to readers to think about, but this isn’t how I view the world or would even want to. So I think the novel is better as art this time around, but I still don’t find it personally compelling.

Briana
4 stars

Why Does Charlotte's Web Continue to Appeal to Readers? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

What Is Classic Remarks?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

How Can I Participate?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

This Week’s Prompt:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White took the number one spot on the School Library Journal’s 2012 list of Top 100 chapter books.  Why do you think this book continues to appeal to readers?

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Why Charlotte's Web continues to appeal to readers

This is an interesting question because a while ago I saw someone specifically call out Charlotte’s Web as a book that should no longer be taught in the classroom because today’s students aren’t white girls growing up on farms and have nothing to relate to in the novel.  This argument, of course, overlooks that Charlotte’s Web does not have Fern as a protagonist, and although the story is set on a farm, it’s not about growing up on one. The protagonist is Wilbur (a pig), and the story is about his friendship with Charlotte (a spider), his unwanted confrontation with death, and the lessons he learns about believing in himself and taking control of his destiny.

None of us are animals, and few of us live(d) on farms, but the themes addressed in the book are nearly universal.  All of us need friends, some of whom we may find in unlikely places, and all of us need will eventually need to deal with the question of death, whether its our own or that of a loved one or a pet (hopefully the latter types are more common for the young target audience of the novel).

The book is oftentimes silly and borders on the fanciful (animals who can read, spell, and communicate among themselves!), but overall I think it appeals to readers simply because it’s moving.  Wilbur’s fear and sense of betrayal at learning of his impending planned death are real and valid; readers feel with him that he’s too young to die and he has so much left to do, think, and experience.  And his friendship with Charlotte, who genuinely believes he is amazing even if he, in fact, does not do anything particularly noteworthy, is inspirational.  We all need friends who love as we are while motivating us to be better, who believe that we’re special simply because we are ourselves.  And when that friendship ends with Charlotte’s natural death, it’s understandable because it actually is her time to go, but it’s still tragic.  Charlotte’s Web is one of the few books that has made me cry every time I’ve read it.  The ending is tempered with hope and the renewal of life, of course, when Wilbur meets Charlotte’s children.

While I find the rural setting of the book charming, and it obviously provides the set-up for why someone would be planning to kill Wilbur (that happens on farms in ways it does not really happen elsewhere), the book clearly is not about farms or farmers.  In a short space, E. B. White manages to movingly address sweeping and universal themes, making readers confront their own questions and fears about death and how they spend their time on this earth.

Briana

A Classic I Loved As a Child but Love Less Now (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

What Is Classic Remarks?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

How Can I Participate?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

This Week’s Prompt:

What is a classic you loved when you were younger, but feel differently about now?

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Considering that we celebrate the works of C.S. Lewis frequently here at Pages Unbound, this may be a bit shocking, but I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia much more as a child than I did rereading them as an adult.

I first encountered Narnia with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in third grade, and I went on to read and reread the entirety of the series (besides The Last Battle, which I’ve only read twice) over the course of the next two years or so.  I was obsessed.  I loved the stories.  I was disappointed in the existing movies; I was excited when new movies were announced.  I basically wanted to be Lucy Pevensie or to somehow find myself suddenly in Narnia one day.

So I was very surprised when I reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as an adult and felt the story was a bit…sparse.  As a child, I felt as though I could open the pages, walk into Narnia, live the story and just live there.  As adult, I felt like nothing was happening and nothing was explained and there was just so much missing that I had apparently just imagined into the story when I was younger.  Sometimes I wonder if this says something sad about me (I’ve moved away from being able to take words and make them come alive with my own imagination to being rigidly fixated on exactly what is or is not written on the page?), but the end result is that I definitely found the story shorter and less detailed than I remembered it.  And it was disappointing.

I still have a lot of respect for C.S. Lewis and for The Chronicles of Narnia.  There is a lot of good scholarship on the series, so clearly adults are finding things that are interesting and complex about the books, enough so to fill their own books with discussion of them. However, the difference between my experience reading the books as an adult and as a child was so stark that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get over it, and sometimes I wish I still had the ability to read a short chapter book and make it come alive for myself, rather than thinking something is lacking.

Briana

Classics: Why Can't We Enjoy the Old and the New?

Classic books have proven an increasingly divisive topic in recent years. Questions about the canon (somewhat different from, but related to, classics) have been debated for decades in academia, with some advocating that the canon be overthrown, others advocating that the canon be expanded to include more women and more authors of color, and some arguing that the canon should be left as is–anything else is a part of a suspect political agenda. Only more recently have such questions become a hot topic in more general circles, however.

In more popular culture, in articles, on blogs, and on social media, the discussion tends to focus on classic books rather than canonical ones, but the debate follows similar lines. Some want the list of recognized classic books to remain the same one they were taught in high school. Suggesting that other people wrote books of worth is nonsensical to them. If they had, surely we would have heard about them, these critics argue. Clearly, these books are not worthy of being called classics or they would already be classics. Shoehorning them into classrooms is unnecessary and unwanted.

Others want to expand the idea of what a classic means. They extol the virtues of heretofore overlooked authors, but often at the expense of the formerly recognized classics. “White male author” becomes a curse word and somehow suggests that one’s whiteness or maleness automatically disqualifies an author from regard. Essentially, these critics want to swing the pendulum the other way, creating a new list that still excludes some authors based on their identities, a kind of reverse justice.

And some want the concept of classic to be eradicated altogether. They believe that the very concept of a classic creates an oppressive hierarchy. For true equality, there must simply be books without labels.

I admit all of the anger in the classics debate confuses me because it seems unnecessary. In debates, people tend to favor making arguments black and white, us vs. you. But there is no actual need to choose only one group of authors to support. It is very possible to like an author like William Shakespeare but also like an author such as Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. Why can’t readers appreciate the new diverse voices being uncovered and republished–and published today– and yet still enjoy the other classic authors they grew up loving? Why can’t we appreciate the talents of both?

This idea seems so radical that I feel very often my own reading tastes and perspectives are misread by individuals. Some have accused me of terrible things because I have said that I enjoy classic books. Others have accused me of saying dead white men have not written anything of value. The possibility that I might find things to appreciate in books written by all sorts of people is apparently incomprehensible–my reading must be shoved into one extreme box or the other.

Admittedly, not every book is perfect, nor is every author. And not every person will be able to appreciate every book. But there is room in the world for all sorts of stories and kinds of voices. We do not need to promote one type of book at the expense of another. We can celebrate them all.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial by Franz Kafka cover for review

Information

Goodreads: The Trial
Series: None
Source: DailyLit
Published: 1925

Official Summary

Vintage Edition Summary

Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.

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Review

The Trial is a discomfiting, surreal story about a man, Josef K., who finds himself accused of an unspecified crime by a court he has never heard of; where the authority of the court comes from and who is in charge is never explained, but their power seems absolute.  It’s a chilling commentary on the opaqueness of the law and a character’s inability to understand it (even an intelligent, privileged character who finds himself with access to a lawyer and other comments), while being completely subjected to it.

The brilliance of the story is that there is always just enough information provided to keep the reader reading (and the protagonist to keep trying to figure out the basics of his case).  The very premise of the book is that the court is unknowable—it’s in the summary and that’s no spoiler—but enough tidbits are dropped throughout the telling of the story that the reader can’t help but hope eventually they’re going to figure it out.  Or even if they don’t understand the big picture, perhaps they’ll figure something out.  The book should be maddening, and in some ways it is, but it’s also incredibly compelling and keeps the reader dangling by a thread.

I also enjoyed that Josef K. is, in many ways, unlikable, and there’s no particular reason I or any reader should really be interested in his case…and yet we are.  He’s an average man, completely unremarkable until he’s informed he’s been accused of a crime and will need to eventually stand trial—a bachelor with a middling position at a bank (though with a possibly bright future) who lives alone at a boarding house and seems to generically go about his life.  Reading further, we see he’s willing to use women, he’s often condescending towards people he thinks beneath him, and he’s not really willing to stick his neck out to help others—even if he would like them to stick their necks out for him.  I would not be friends or even acquaintances with such a man in real life, but I feel sympathy for him in the story over his complete uncertainty about his crime and the case.  After all, if he’s innocent, he deserves justice, even if he’s a bit of a jerk.

The whole book is something like a dreamlike puzzle.  One can never fully understand what’s happening or whether any of it makes sense, but there’s just enough forward momentum and confused “explanations” of processes of the court by people who claim to be (only a little, only about parts) “in the know” that reads want to find something to grasp onto and declare, “Yes, at least that makes sense! I can do something with that!”  Overall, a brilliant reading experience and not quite like anything else I’ve read.

Briana
4 stars