Tara Calaby

writer & editor

Tag: 100 books (page 1 of 2)

Review: Lord of the Flies

lordfliesI found this pretty disappointing, to be honest, and I’m not sure how much of that is due to it being a bit dated in the modern era of more explicit violence and horror and how much of it is just my own tastes. The thing is, I generally really appreciate it when things are left up to the reader to read between the lines and to understand, instead of be told, but here it felt more like unfinished plots and ideas. I needed to know more about why exactly the boys were on the island to accept it as the basic premise, I needed Simon’s story to be related in a clearer manner and I needed there to be more consistency when it came to the narrative. At times, there were chunks of purple prose thrust into the story as description, but at other times there was a coarseness to the narrative that indicated it was being told with the voices of its characters. To me, that meant that neither style entirely rang true.

I do believe, though, that part of the reason Lord of the Flies didn’t work for me was that its depiction of violence and the “beast” inside humankind just doesn’t scare the modern reader. It shies away from description when it talks of violence against humans, which is particularly interesting when the pig hunting is narrated with great relish. (I personally skipped those scenes, because I can’t deal with cruelty to animals, even in fiction.) We know the twins have been hurt, but we’re given no hint of how. I understand the boys’ unwillingness to think about what happened during the ‘dance’ after the fact but, for a modern reader, accustomed to graphic depictions of violence on the news, let alone in fiction, the dance itself is powerless. As for the inner beast, I wasn’t fully convinced by the book’s depiction of it. I personally needed a greater attention to the changing psychology of the characters. I wanted more of a journey, and I think that could have been achieved by narrowing the focus to fewer boys. (Also, when you have a large cast, naming characters Ralph, Roger and Robert is just plain confusing.)

I’m sad that Lord of the Flies was a bit ‘meh’ for me, because I’d always thought it sounded right up my alley – both as a reader and as a writer. Perhaps the true glimpse of human nature can be found in the fact that I needed it to be darker and more messed-up for it to work.

Review: Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence

Sons and Lovers book coverI picked up Sons and Lovers as the next book to read from my 100 Books list, simply because I’m trying to cull my book collection at the moment, and years of hearing how much people dislike D.H. Lawrence – and this book in particular – led me to assume that I’d have a similar reaction. Really, I should’ve known better. After all, I like Conrad!

I find it fascinating that so many people have been bored senseless by Sons and Lovers, because I was interested and entertained from start to finish. It’s true that there is not a great deal of plot here. Rather, it’s a book that focuses on character and on family relationships. It’s slow-moving and slightly dreamy tale, and Lawrence holds his characters at something of a distance from the reader, but I was nonetheless ensnared very quickly in the piece.

Most of the characters here are awful. There are no genuinely likeable people amongst them. Annie is quite inoffensive and I found myself rather sympathetic to Walter Morel, despite his faults, possibly because of how keenly he was judged by his family for his lack of pseudo-middle-class airs. Or perhaps it’s just that Gertrude and Paul are just so utterly detestable that I feel a kind of solidarity with anyone they disdain. I feel a bit cruel saying so, given that Sons and Lovers is highly autobiographical, but Lawrence certainly didn’t represent himself in his best light when he took on the guise of Paul Morel. And I feel utterly sorry for Jessie Chambers, upon whom Miriam was based, because Miriam is portrayed with such disgust. Clara, too, is sneered at and the reader is left to wonder whether it is merely Paul Morel who has such a Madonna/Whore complex (to go with his Oedipus Complex), or whether that stemmed from Lawrence himself.

Despite the ghastly characters, however, I found Sons and Lovers itself thoroughly likeable. The writing is lovely – elegant but not overwrought – and I’m a big fan of these kinds of slow, intimate stories of family and human nature. I shall be very interested to see whether my enjoyment of Sons and Lovers extends to all of Lawrence’s work. In the meantime, this will not be joining the pile of books to give away!

Review: Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island book coverThis is not going to be a proper review, because WOW did I struggle to finish this book. I’ve been liking or loving most of the books on my 100 Books To Read Before I Die list so far, but I just couldn’t stand Treasure Island. I had to force myself to sit down and read a mere ten pages every night, because otherwise I was never going to finish it. The most amusing part is that a children’s story was the novel that almost spelled doom for my list!

It’s only fair to say that I was biased against Treasure Island from the beginning, because I am just not a piratey person. I can’t stand it when they’re raised up as wonderful, fun-loving characters for kids, because it goes in the face of the actual reality of piracy but, more relevantly to this novel, I also find them really dull when they’re playing the baddies.

I took exactly six months to read Treasure Island, which says it all when it’s only 160 pages long. I found the dialogue grating and convoluted, the action not very active and the backstory far too long compared to the actual journey and time on the island. What’s more, I didn’t like the protagonist at all. My favourite part of the book was when the ship’s doctor took over as narrator for a while.

Treasure Island is a much-loved classic, so obviously there are a lot of people out there who hold very different opinions about this book to my own. I’m interested to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde later in my 100 Books journey, to see whether I’m more fond of Robert Louis Stevenson’s style when pirates are not involved.

Review: Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca book coverRebecca is one of those classic novels that somehow invade your consciousness long before you pick them up for the first time. There are allusions to it in all manner of modern books and television programs and I, personally, saw the Comic Strip’s “Consuela” well over a decade before I finally read the original. None of this, however, dulls the power of Daphne du Maurier’s rich prose and the overwhelming feeling of discomfort that catches hold of you the moment you start turning the pages of this book.

Anger, sadness and joy are all familiar emotions to feel while reading, but never before have I felt so intensely uncomfortable as I made my way through a book. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to read Rebecca, so enormous are the sensations of inadequacy, ineptitude and uncertainty that flood from du Maurier’s text. Anyone who has experienced being second best or a rebound partner will find that the thoughts and emotions of the second Mrs. de Winter resonate far too clearly. There were times that it almost hurt to read this novel – times that were reminiscent of burying my head in a pillow to avoid someone else’s embarrassment on TV. But even when the uncomfortable truth of the text is at its most painful, the suspense of the plot ensures that the reader can’t quite turn away.

There are few likeable characters in Rebecca. Maxim de Winter is appallingly paternalistic by today’s standards, and it is hard to understand his place in literature as a fictional heart-throb when he treats his second wife so very much like a child (and wishes to keep her forever in that childlike state). She herself is too weak to be admired, particularly if the reader is able to see anything of their own weakness in her! It somehow doesn’t matter, though. The book is just so artfully constructed and written that one is able to adore it even while caring little for its main characters.

And adore it I did. It’s clever and engrossing and so prettily written that it’s no surprise that it’s considered a modern classic. A wonderful read.

Review: The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he has changed into an insect-like creature. Initially determined to make it into work anyway, he gradually accepts his new existence, becoming more bestial as his contact with humans is greatly lessened due to his abhorrent appearance. His family accept the responsibility for his care, but struggle with the burden of his changed presence in their lives.

The opening paragraph of The Metamorphosis is one of the most famous of all literary beginnings. I have read it many times in this guise, but have somehow neglected to read the story in its entirety up until now.

It’s hard to review a book that can be read in so many ways. Is The Metamorphosis simply a surreal or fantasy story that provides entertainment on a shallow level? Or is it a complex allegory, commenting on human relationships and the nature of disability and long-term physical or mental illness? The Metamorphosis works brilliantly on either level, which is something that few literary works manage to do.

Franz Kafka expertly depicts Gregor’s metamorphosis as a descent into something less than humanity. Gregor’s changes are juxtaposed with the more subtle changes that are experienced by his family members and the reader is left wondering whether it is Gregor or his family who are the true monsters in this story.

Kafka’s language (in translation) is elegant and unadorned. His matter-of-fact style and the dry humour that infuses The Metamorphosis lighten what might otherwise have been an overly-depressing read. As it is, the book remains sad in a quiet sort of way, its impact lingering long after the final page is turned.

The Metamorphosis is an excellent piece of writing that deserves its reputation as one of the most important works of twentieth century literature.

Review: The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.

Review: Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

I’m very unsure how to review this, as it is the sort of play that doesn’t read particularly well (in my opinion), but I can see that it would be fantastic on stage, with the right people playing the parts.

I have a feeling that I would give the writing four or five stars after having seen it live, but the quick back-and-forth of conversation and the featured nothingness mean that I would probably only give it two stars if it were just a book to read.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

If only all Dickens was so easy to read. Normally, reading his work is like chewing on language – lovely, wonderful language, yes, but time consuming nonetheless. A Tale of Two Cities is very different. There is still the elegance of writing that one expects from Dickens, but it’s tied in with what I like to call a Ripping Yarn, along with his usual, brilliant social commentary.

I picked this book up, expecting it to be a challenge. Instead, I couldn’t put it down.

Review: Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Loved it.

It’s funny, really. I adore books like this, when if they were modernised, I wouldn’t even dream of reading them. Essentially, Jane Eyre is a melodramatic romance novel, complete with implausible turns of fortune and a love interest who’s so obviously written by a woman for women. But the language and the artistry make it so much more than that.

Review: Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome

I think my expectations for this were a little too high, simply because both of my parents adore it. It was an easy, entertaining read, but not exactly as life-changingly incredible as I had been led to expect 😉

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