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review 2017-06-01 20:27
Babbitt (Lewis)
Babbitt - Sinclair Lewis

I was wary of this novel of 1920s America, given what very little I knew of it, which was only that its title has become a metaphor, now fairly little-used, for an entirely conventional and complacent middle-class man. I thought that it would be very satirical, and very much of its time and place, and both of these things are true. However, though some of the zing may have gone out of particular references, there is a clear and universally comprehensible movement of the spirit of the central character into attempts towards more liberal attitudes both personal and socio-political, and then back into his cage, but with more self-awareness. It is that self-awareness that helps him in the last chapter to deal with his (mildly) non-conformist son.

At first I found the plan of the novel a little too methodical. At least up to the 60% mark, the chapters seemed just to be ticking off satirical bullet points: Babbitt's conservatism and conformity at home; Babbitt's conformity at his real estate workplace; Babbitt's conformity with his "Booster Club" associates; Babbitt's conformity at church; Babbitt's conformity with the rough fraternity of commercial travellers on the train, etc. etc. However, seeds were planted: Babbitt's best friend Paul is given the role of foil, a man profoundly unhappy in those same circles - and it is a violent incident involving Paul that sets Babbitt off on his hesitant journeys into self-determination.

A man is at the centre of this novel, and its women, although not unsympathetically portrayed (except for obvious caricatures) will not give any great joy to the modern female reader's heart. The wife and the mistress are both essentially mirrors for particular aspects of Babbitt's character and aspirations; indeed most of their value to him appears to be in how well they listen to and mirror him. One minor character actually calls herself a feminist, but she is given no platform. To be fair, most of the supporting male cast are there to reflect back aspects of Babbitt too (or, fitter-in that he is, to provide something for him to reflect), so I didn't find the novel misogynistic in any way.

I was a little startled by the sudden end of the novel (Babbitt's eldest son elopes with his girlfriend and drops out of college in favour of a manual job - and in the very last sentence Babbitt is about to support him in the face of conservative family wrath). But actually I think Lewis was right to stop there, point made. A Babbitt may not be able to change himself, but at least he can learn a little and support the next generation.

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review 2017-05-12 23:12
The Awakening, and selected stories (Chopin)
The Awakening and Selected Stories - Kate Chopin

I read this in the edition that's free from Kindle, which unfortunately omitted the scholarly introduction advertised on the cover, probably for copyright reasons. Though I would have read it afterwards, it would have been nice to have a single essay to situate the importance of "The Awakening" instead of my inevitable after the fact googling.


The fact that I was unaware of this novel suggests either that my degrees in literature were deficient in American and feminist works (possible) or, more likely, that Chopin's work has been "found" and celebrated as proto-feminist since I ceased my active studies. That said, I found it both well-written and enjoyable in a sad sort of way. I did feel the unhappy ending - I should hope I am not spoiling anyone by mentioning that a nineteenth century story about an adulterous woman doesn't have a happy ending - was in some way imposed upon the novel by an author who saw no hope of its critical survival with any other outcome. Adulterous women pretty much had to be doomed in the 19th century, just like their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters a few decades later. Even so, the samples of contemporary critical reaction I found are rife with phrases like "not a healthy book" and "sad and mad and bad." It's really the only false step in an otherwise very well-depicted psychological journey: from an adolescent crush on a performer to a loveless marriage, to an attraction that "awakens" her romantically/sensually during a Louisiana beach summer, to a sexual liaison (the contemporary critics, used to decoding 19th century language, found this unambiguous, and so did I) with a substitute love object, and finally to a feeling of despair in the face of indubitable responsibility to her children after her romantic lover returns and pushes her away. But this last, the despair, was the least convincing and least fleshed-out aspect of the progression.


The little group of short stories added in with the novel are fairly insubstantial but interesting in their depiction of race and gender issues in that place (Louisiana) and time (the Civil War and just after). There's one story that was clearly picked just because it depicts - not in nearly so much detail of course - a woman making the opposite choice to Edna's in The Awakening, namely deciding to preserve her marriage rather than give in to a romantic attraction to another man. Another one that sticks in the mind is a rather nasty tale of a marriage between an aristocrat and a woman of unknown origin; he throws her out when her baby's skin tone appears to demonstrate that she is part Black, which he cannot under any circumstances accept. The last sentence of the story (it's a revelation about him and his own parentage) is quite a telling twist.


Reading fiction about "the woman question" in other centuries never fails to put me in a grateful frame of mind for the freedom of action and thought I enjoy.

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review 2017-01-02 19:48
Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain

This is another one of those classics where some of the plot points and characters are so familiar that you have to read well into the book before you're sure whether you've read it before. In this case, I was well past the entrepreneurial fence-painting and into Tom's nocturnal adventures with Huck Finn before I decided I had not. And I'm very glad to have read it now.


Twain doesn't condescend to his juvenile readers: not in language, not by softening the very real dangers of Tom's adventures, and not by explicit moralizing (though there's plenty that's implicit, particularly in Tom's relationship with the maternal Aunt Polly). His narrator, insofar as he comments on the action at all, is very much of the "boys will be boys" school, but also very much attuned to Tom's immature but childishly logical (and childishly malleable) view of the world. In short, he does a wonderful job of letting us understand what Aunt Polly cannot, why Tom does the things he does.


There is plenty to make the modern reader uncomfortable in this story, of course; even laying aside the now forbidden word for the Black people. Most of this discomfort clusters around the depiction of the Black characters, and, of course, the troubling villain, Injun Joe. It's hard for me to tell, without having a much better knowledge of Twain in general, how much if any was also intended to be uncomfortable for his contemporary readers. As a humourist and humanist, Twain doubtless had a certain amount of awareness beyond the normal, but did he intend his outcast poor white Huck Finn's assertions about "having to" sit down with the generous ex-slave who was feeding him to strike his contemporary readers (the adult ones anyway) as it does today's readers, or was he merely pandering to and reinforcing the social order of his day? As I say I am too far removed from, and not knowledgeable enough about, the author to be certain.


Injun Joe is a villain in a nineteenth-century boys' story. The significance of his being not just "Injun" but a "half-breed" is that it places him outside the societal norms altogether, and he is thus irredeemable. He is given a motive - revenge - but it is not a motive the story is interested in: like Iago, his vindictiveness exists to make him bad, not to excuse or explain him. The use of this particular literary convention - racializing the villain -is something that has become impermissible only within my lifetime; indeed, I'd say only in the last couple of decades. So I do not fault Twain for it - I merely have to read with that same historical filter that screens out the noxiousness of other class, race and gender assumptions, while trying not to miss the genuine social commentary that was exercised by Twain himself. (The case of Huck Finn, who is grossly neglected, and then has trouble adapting to the conditions of his rescue, is fairly clearly one such piece of commentary).


Look at me, reading Tom Sawyer like a grown-up. As a kid (though of the wrong gender!), I really like the adventures - great places (a deserted island with a thunderstorm, a haunted house, unexplored caves) and cool, if occasionally inchoate quests (being pirates, finding buried treasure, and the like).


Becky Thatcher. Sigh. She's why, as a kid reader, I'm the wrong gender. Oh well, a girl with agency in a 19th century boys' story would be a bit much to ask.


Really enjoyed it anyway. After some dithering, I give it a fourth star.

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review 2014-07-04 08:49
#BookADayUK - Day 4: All-time favourite American Novel of 4 July Independence Day
Huckleberry Finns Abenteuer: Roman - Mark Twain

This was another difficult choice for me. In the end I decided to chose Huckleberry Finn. It is one of the very few books I've read twice (once as a child and again as an adult) and I aboslutely loved it both times.

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review 2013-11-29 12:10
I already know this review will make no sense.
The Quiet American - Graham Greene,Robert Stone

But here you go, you can have it anyway.


It's not often I close a book and have absolutely no idea what to put in my review. I thought this novel was pretty close to brilliant, but I feel like - I don't know - there's more to this than I even understand. I know what happened and I could tell you, but as to the deeper intellectual issues, I think it will take me longer to work through. A re-read will be in order in the future, most definitely, but for enjoyment as well as for understanding.

It's a heavy novella. There is a lot going on in the 189 pages. I had no idea what to expect, at all, when I opened it (I do that sometimes, without reading the blurb, it's exciting!) and I guess I'm setting myself up to be surprised that way. I feel like I'm making no sense already.

I feel affected by this book and I can't even explain why.

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