Posts Tagged ‘Classics’

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

August 18, 2014

The Razor's EdgeThe Razor’s Edge (1944) is one of those classic books I never read. All I knew was that Bill Murray was roasted for his role as young Larry in the 1984 film. (Turns out there was a 1946 version , too, with Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, and Elsa Lanchester.) The title alone, from the book’s epigraph, is more perplexing than beguiling.

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over
Thus the wise say the past to Salvation is hard.

W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular writers of the day. He had commercial success with his novels, short stories, plays and films, and his masterpiece Of Human Bondage had been published in 1915. He had served in World War I as one of the British “Literary Ambulance Drivers”, and then as a spy. This experience supplied some background for his character Larry, a young man who had been a WWI aviator. When Larry returns to Chicago from the Great War, he is congenial enough, yet somewhat aimless. “I don’t know my purpose yet,” he replies to inquiries about his prospects. When offered a job as a broker in Chicago, however, he declines. His fiancé Isabel tells him “A man must work, Larry. It’s a matter of self-respect.” But Larry decides to go to Paris: “I think there I may be able to see my way before me.”

The Razor’s Edge was one of the first popular American novels to explore Eastern cultures, following the Transcendalists, and followed by the Beats in the 1950s. Maugham had visited an ashram in India, and talked with a well-known Hindu guru there. Larry tramps around Europe and India and absorbs much from fellow travelers and gurus, from the meaning of success, to the question of evil, to reincarnation, to the infinite.

If you have been asked, “What’s the use of knowledge if you’re not going to do anything with it?”, or can identify with the response, “Can anything in the world be more practical than to learn how to live to best advantage?”, read The Razor’s Edge.

If you like this book, you may also enjoy Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, or Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

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Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes

August 12, 2014

Don QuixoteDon Quixote, much like Moby Dick or Gulliver’s Travels, is such a familiar part of the canon, that it often seems unnecessary to actually read it. Most educated or culturally aware adults know about tilting at windmills, and the image of the ragged knight with his trusted Sancho Panza by his side, dreaming that impossible dream, so much so that it seems almost superfluous to tackle this large, old book. When they do, they might discover that this book is far stranger, more surprising and ultimately more transformative than all but a handful of works of art ever created.

Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in two volumes. Most of the famous moments come in volume one, published in 1605, the story of an old man, intoxicated by the popular picaresque books about knights and chivalry, renames himself Don Quixote, and sets off on his mount, Rocinante and alongside his squire, Sancho Panza, to prove himself worthy of his love, Dulcinea (actually a neighboring peasant girl). The second volume came 10 years later, and was Cervantes’ response to the popularity of an unauthorized sequel written by a different author. Where the first part is more light hearted and satirical, part two becomes more serious and philosophical, as a deceived Don Quixote grapples with his sanity and the nature of reality.

Don Quixote was among the first European novels, and it remains one of the most central works of the Western Canon. Shakespeare supposedly adapted a section of the novel into his lost play, Cardenio. Authors such as Kafka and Borges reimagined and reinterpreted the adventures of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance and his squire. Artists such as Gustave Dore and Pablo Picasso have created visual representations of the book, and both Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam famously struggled for years to create a filmed adaptation (appropriately enough, both attempts could be seen as the very definition of quixotic).

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

August 7, 2014

Brave New WorldYou’ve heard of this book. You’ve probably even read it, years ago in high school. (Maybe not so many years ago for some of you.) In 1999, Brave New World was number five on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, as chosen by its editorial board. This list inspired another list chosen by readers. Brave New World was number 18 on this one. So, perhaps it’s time to read it again to see what all the adulation is about.

Set in the year 2540, Brave New World describes a society that has given up independent thought and true happiness, replacing them with stability and constant pleasure. Embryos are grown in jars, and decanted rather than born. While in their jars, they are treated with chemicals to ensure the resultant person will have the intelligence needed for whatever job they are being engineered to perform. The Epsilons will do the most menial of jobs, so their intelligence is severely limited, Deltas are a little more advanced, and so on up to the Alphas. They have the most complex jobs, and so are the most intelligent.

Everyone, no matter their level, is conditioned as a child to be content with their lot in life and to accept the precepts of society. While sleeping they hear recordings repeating phrases like, “I’m so glad I’m an Epsilon” and as toddlers they are subjected to mild electric shocks when they approach a book. (Reading books might cause some independent thought that might in turn lead to instability in society.) They are also taught from an early age that “Everyone belongs to everyone else”. In other words, sexual promiscuity is encouraged, while developing feelings for one special person is a big no-no. Special relationships can lead to jealousy, anger, and discord, and would disrupt society. Stability is the number one priority. If ever your conditioning isn’t enough to keep you content, then there’s always soma, a Prozac-like drug that everyone uses.

You may have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of words just describing the idea of the book, without even touching yet on the characters or the plot. That’s because the idea is the most fascinating thing about Brave New World. Oh, there’s a story about what happens when individuals question their conditioning and just can’t fit in, and when a man who has been raised outside mainstream society is brought into it and experiences all these ideas for the first time. But the plot and the characters are not why you read this book. You read it for the intellectual rather than the emotional appeal.


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A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

July 2, 2014

A Room With a ViewBeing a fan of Jane Austen, I can’t help but love A Room With a View. Even though it was written nearly 100 years after Austen, this novel by E.M. Forster has many Austen hallmarks.

The main character, 19-year-old Lucy Honeychurch, is a member of the English upper middle class, and she hasn’t quite worked out yet just who she is and what she wants from life. On a trip to Italy with her maiden aunt Charlotte, Lucy meets George Emerson and his father, a pair who speak the truth without realizing how offensive this can be. When Lucy witnesses a tragic incident in the town square, George helps her to return to their hotel, and the two form a bond that Lucy refuses to acknowledge, even to herself. Instead, she becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, an arrogant, upper class prig of a man who views Lucy as someone he can shape into his ideal woman. Back at home in England, George enters Lucy’s life again. He declares his love for her, but she continues to refuse to see that she feels the same about him.

The most amusing character, and the most Austenian, is Aunt Charlotte. Here she is on a picnic arguing with Lucy about which of them will have the use of a mackintosh square to protect them from the damp ground:

“The ground will do for me. Really I have not had rheumatism for years. If I do feel it coming on I shall stand.” … She cleared her throat. “Now don’t be alarmed; this isn’t a cold. It’s the tiniest cough, and I have had it three days. It’s nothing to do with sitting here at all.”

A Room With a View is Forster’s lightest, most optimistic novel. However, if your copy has an appendix in it, then you will discover that the author did not expect things to go well for his heroine and hero after the events of the book. You can read the appendix  here.  Personally, I prefer a happy ending for Lucy and George.

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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

June 20, 2014

The Wind in the WillowsKenneth Grahame was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859. His father was a lawyer. He lost his mother when he was just five years old, and his paternal grandmother raised him. Living with her, he became acquainted with the river Thames and its river rats (or water voles, as they are not rats), and there – on the river bank – The Wind in the Willows begins.

Winter has passed, and the lightness of the northern Europe spring has arrived. Mole – very much a hearth and home kind of creature – has had it with spring-cleaning and takes the day off. He ends up by the river, which he has never seen before, and meets the water vole Ratty. In his rowing boat, the Rat teaches Mole about life by the river; they are about to embark on many adventures.

If this sounds idyllic and pastoral, that’s because it is. The rural landscape of Grahame wants nothing to do with the Industrial Revolution that had transformed the Great Britain in his time. The quiet adventures of Ratty and Mole are filled with a love for the wonders of the natural world and peak in the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn;” here the divine essence of nature is revealed.

Enter Mr. Toad.

Mr. Toad is a spoiled aristocrat who gets obsessed with one thing after another: sailing, rowing, caravan travel, whatever. Possessions are his thing. One day, when a motorcar passes Mr. Toads caravan, the car scares the horse and upsets the Rat. Toad, however, is delighted. He has found a new obsession. Before long, his friends learn that he has wrecked six cars and even has been hospitalized on several occasions. Toad pays no heed to the rules of traffic or other’s safety, and his friends decide to protect Mr. Toad from himself.

Mole, Ratty, and Mr. Badger (who was a friend of Toad’s late father) try to convince Toad to change his ways, but he will not listen. They then decide to put Toad under house arrest, with themselves as guards, till he changes his mind. Toad is clever, though. He pretends to be ill, tricks the Rat, and escapes. However, his escape, like most of his triumphs, is short-lived. He steals a car, drives like a maniac, and is caught by the police. Justice has no patience for him. He is sentenced to twenty years in prison.

And this is just the beginning of Mr. Toad’s mindless adventures. The quiet parts of The Wind in the Willows are magical – in nature’s own way – but the outrageous mishaps of Mr. Toad turn the book into a brilliant comedy.

The Wind in the Willows is a tale for children – Grahame originally wrote it for his son – but it’s a story readers can return to throughout the span of a lifetime.

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Medea by Euripides

May 23, 2014

medeabookcoverSome people pontificate that The Medea of Euripides does not come together as a coherent and believable personality.  This is a peculiar point of view.  For are people coherent?  Are people even believable?  Neuroscientists (and other observers of the human species) have pointed out that the human mind allows us to simultaneously endorse notions that are massive contradictions, and it’s no secret that humans are not fully (or even nearly) rational creatures.

Also, an advantage of Euripides Medea is that the part offers abundant scope for an actress who may choose to emphasize different aspects of this multifaceted role.  When Euripides’ play premiered in 431 BCE, the legend of Jason and Medea was already an ancient tale.  In Greek mythology, Medea was an enchantress, the granddaughter of the son god Helios, and wife of the hero Jason. Jason may be a hero, but he’s not much of a husband. He brings Medea to Corinth and then abandons her for another woman, Glauce, the daughter of King Creon.

Jason explains that he could not pass up the opportunity to marry a princess; Medea is, after all, only a barbarian (that is, a country dweller). But, Jason says, one day he hopes to take Medea as a mistress.   Jason has viewed Medea as a commodity that cannot think for herself or go against his wishes. Jason’s main interests in life are legacy and reputation, not love, affection, and loyalty, and according to him, a woman should be willing to sacrifice everything in order to satisfy the needs of the man.   As Medea is about to show Jason, she is willing to sacrifice everything, but not in order to please him.  Not at all.

For the betrayal causes Medea to go on a killing spree, as she aims to erase both the past and the future in the most harrowing way imaginable.   Medea is a play about love, passion, betrayal, vengeance, and not the least about women’s roles in the household and in (an unjust) society at large.    The play was not a great success when it premiered (it ended third at the Dionysia festival in 431 BCE). The audience may have been offended by Medea’s barbarian identity or by some other aspect of the play.   Over time, though, it has become one of the great plays of the Western canon, and it is as urgent today as it ever was.


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Lost Horizon by James Hilton

May 22, 2014

lostcover.phpThis classic story, which was published in 1933 and brought the world the land of Shangri-La, centers around an Englishman named Conway, a veteran of The Great War.  Conway has always done his duty, quietly and without fuss, which has earned him the name of a hero.  However, when he examines himself truthfully, Conway must admit to himself that his mind and heart are not in the work of war, but in the service of his internal life.  His outward calm comes from this sense of detachment from the horrors around him.

When a small plane carrying himself, a fellow officer, and two civilians (a missionary and an American businessman) is hijacked by an armed stranger, Conway rises to his accustomed role of being calm and rational and taking care of the others.  The plane crashes on the windswept plain of Tibet, the pilot dies, and the passengers would have died as well had not a caravan from a nearby lamasery escorted them to its pavilions in the mountains.

There they find a place of rare beauty and peace, hidden among the lofty peaks.  Even more amazing, all the accoutrements of the contemplative life await them—physical comforts, music, art, books, and stimulating conversation with their guide, a mysterious Chinese man of indeterminate age.  Slowly, Chang initiates Conway into the ways of Shangri-La, and eventually he is honored by being called into the presence of the High Lama himself.

During his conversations with the High Lama, Conway learns the secrets of Shangri-La—how it came to exist, what its purpose is, and the role he and his companions are expected to play.  Now he must come to terms with this new information.  His companions have varying degrees of the same knowledge and a variety of responses, positive and negative.  Conway must decide not only what is best for himself, but for them as well.

The suspense and mystery of this book held me enthralled.  It is an exciting tale, but it also raises many interesting philosophical questions.  What is our purpose in the world?  What constitutes the good life?  What is our responsibility toward others?  Conway’s struggle becomes our own, and for me his resolution sparked as many questions as answers.

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

April 28, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeIn honor of Harper Lee’s 88th birthday today, we are pleased to re-post this review of her seminal novel that we ran in back 2010 for the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.

I have debated writing about To Kill a Mockingbird.  There have been so many reviews of this book, and so much has already been said.  What was left for me to say?  But, this week is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of this timeless classic.  How could I not write a few words?

I do not need to review the story.  Atticus Finch, his children Scout and Jem,  the reclusive neighbor  Boo Radley almost feel like family to most of us.  This indelible story of race, class, and growing up in the Deep South of the 1930s was relevant at its publication and is still today.

Published in July 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild. A condensed version of the story appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.  Horton Foote wrote a screenplay based on the book and used the same title for the 1962 film adaptation.   Earning eight Academy Award nominations, the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird won four awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.

Not everyone has embraced the novel.  Over the years there have been many challenges by parents or groups who have wanted To Kill a Mockingbird banned from libraries and school curriculum.  The objections focus on some of the language and the racial themes of the novel.  In 2004 it was challenged at Stanford Middle School in Durham, N.C.

To Kill a Mockingbird remains a major work of fiction.  It has been translated into more than forty languages, and has sold more than thirty million copies worldwide. It has never been out of print, in either hard back or paperback.   Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.

Harper Lee never wrote another book.   Although she did collaborate on the making of the film, visiting the set during filming and granting  interviews to support the film,  she soon retreated from public view.  She seldom grants interviews or makes public appearances.  Even the hoopla of this 50th anniversary has not brought her out.

Libraries and book stores throughout the country will be commemorating To Kill a Mockingbird this summer.  Take this opportunity to revisit (or read for the first time) this amazing book.

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Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

April 4, 2014

Howard's End by E.M. ForsterBeing a Jane Austen fanatic, I often see similarities between her novels and whatever I’m reading. In the case of Howards End, that’s especially easy to do. Just like Sense and Sensibility, this book features two sisters of different temperaments. Margaret is the more practical one, while her younger sister Helen is the flighty, romantic one. Margaret and Helen are rich Londoners, living off investments made with inherited money. Their lives become intertwined with those of the Wilcoxes. This family is also rich, but Henry Wilcox and his sons are businessmen. They drive the economy that makes the sisters’ lifestyle possible. A third family is composed of Leonard Bast and his wife. Leonard is a clerk, a member of the working class who is striving desperately to make it into the middle class.

The Howards End of the title is the name of the country home of the Wilcox family. The house and the large elm tree in the yard are symbols of the connection between nature and human beings. Mrs. Wilcox grew up there and only she really appreciates the house, and the importance of connections. Her husband and children just don’t get it. Mr. Wilcox and his oldest son Charles deal with the world by taking emotion out of the equation and breaking problems into small pieces, never allowing themselves to see how their actions might adversely affect others. Here’s Forster’s description of their relationship:

“Charles and his father sometimes disagreed. But they always parted with an increased regard for one another, and each desired no doughtier comrade when it was necessary to voyage for a little past the emotions. So the sailors of Ulysses voyaged past the Sirens, having first stopped one another’s ears with wool. “

When the Wilcoxes become involved with Margaret and Helen, who try to help the Basts, then problems arise and complications multiply. Published in 1910, Howards End is a classic tale of Edwardian England, but the problems and issues wrestled with in its pages are relevant to America today.

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House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

March 7, 2014

Let’s say you combined the television shows “Girls”, “Sex and the City” and the cartoon, “Cathy” into a turn of the 20th century novel.  You would have House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I love it when I pick up a classic and it is so accessible and so current and so clever.

Lily Bart is beautiful, single and admittedly shallow. She needs to marry money and lots of it. She has expensive tastes. She needs to be assertive, coy and subtle. She plays games—literally and figuratively because the raucous game of bridge (yes, that suburban card game ) in addition to her expensive tastes has left her nearly broke. Lily moves around a lot. Sponging off of her rich friends who not only can afford life’s luxuries, they can also afford to be judgmental snobs.

What?! This sounds like a horrible book full of horrible people.

No! This is a beautifully written book filled with acerbic and astute observations about gender and class from an outsider who wants in but faces obstacles over and over. Here are a couple of quotes to prove my point :

“She had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce… but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptibilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.”

“The only way to not think about money is to have a great deal of it.”

These quotes make my heart race! And there are more at every turn of the page.

Despite her addiction to the material world and her over the top pride, I think the reader roots for Lily and probably that is the only thing keeping the reader going, the hope that Lily will be a success, what ever that means to her. She tries really hard and she makes some naive choices. She is used by those who can afford it, leaving her to pay the ultimate price.

So check out House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and remember: hate the game not the player.

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