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A novelty, for me at least: in 2010 I will be reading more than 3 comic books or graphic novels for certain! How do I know? Because I’ve joined the Graphic Novels Challenge as an Intermediate! 3-10 books must be doable, since I have just finished reading The Best of Mutts and Persepolis 1 & 2 are already waiting on the shelf; all three books I bought especially for the purpose of a varied diet in last October’s 24 hour read-a-thon. That’s when I read my first graphic novel btw: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. It felt really good to crawl out of my usual book nook.

It’s a good opportunity to check out Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No Towers, which I’ve been meaning to do ever since it was published. You all know Spiegelman from his famous autobiographical comics Maus I & II, right? I’ve mentioned him before in my post about Coraline.

Now I know I said I wouldn’t join any more reading challenges… Well, bad habits are hard to break :\ And don’t you think this is a different story? Besides, I’ve just finished wrapping up my 2009 Classics Challenge, so there’s room for something new! ;)

Not to mention this month’s irresistable mini-mission: the classics in graphics, for which you need to read 1 classic of literature that has been made into a graphic novel. Interesting, right?! So you’ll be glad to hear that you don’t even have to join the actual GN Challenge to participate in this mini-challenge that Teresa is hosting! What’s keeping you?

The 2009 Classics Challenge ended on October 31st.
2009 that is. Hence the title :\
And only today I got to write a short wrap-up post in which I have some good news, and some bad news to share…

Let’s start POSITIVE. I finished reading my 5 classics for the Entree Level of the challenge in time! I did tweak the list of my admittance post a bit (substituting titles), but that’s allowed. So below you’ll find the books that made it to the finish line.

The cover pics are links to the posts about the books here on Graasland. Well… that’s how it’s supposed to be anyway. Because the BAD news is that I still haven’t reviewed all of them! Baaaaaad Gnoe. I hope to make it up by stating a short (ha!) opinion right here, followed by a quick recap of the other reviews. And you never know; once the fuses are blown (is that the correct phrase?), when the pressure is off — I might actually get to writing a full-scale evaluation of Brideshead Revisited and Revolutionary Road ;)

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
I saw the 1981 tv-series of Brideshead Revisited twice, so I couldn’t help seeing — and hearing! — Jeremy Irons in my head whenever Charles Ryder entered the story. (Likewise with the Sebastian Flyte character, although I didn’t know that the actor was called Anthony Andrews. It’s just Sebastian.) I loved the book and I got to understand the story better than I did before. Everything seemed to go SO much quicker than on the telly! I seemed to have forgotten big parts, like all that happened after Sebastian went abroad… But what I enjoyed most is that I understood why the novel is called Brideshead Revisited. I had never noticed it before and I think it’s grand. Maybe it was left out of the television series? Gosh, now I need to watch it a third time! ;)

After reading Brideshead Revisited with my online bookgroup, the Boekgrrls, some of the women came over to watch the 2008 adaptation on dvd. Of course we had a fun night, but I didn’t like the film at all. It was way too explicit about the homo-erotic motive that was so subtly hidden in the book. Maybe Waugh would have liked that if he had lived in our era. But for me it took the edge of the story. Also, I hated that ‘they’ had tried to find clones of the original actors — Matthew Goode even sounded like Jeremy Irons. Well, of course with a voice like Sir Irons (really, when is he going to be knighted?), such a thing is not really possible, but they obviously tried. Shame.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird was a quick and entertaining read ad I’m glad to have read it. The story immediately grabbed me and I liked the atmosphere of doom, suggesting that ’something was going to happen’.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Revolutionary Road got under my skin, but in a different way than Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (see below). After I had picked it up I immediately got immersed in the story. But it’s quite depressing… The feeling of doom hardly left me during the day, even when I was not reading! It’s obvious from page 1 that something bad is going to happen. And still, the end came as a painful surprise.

The story revolves around image. “The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.” Frank and April Wheeler think they’re special, even though they live in the suburbs, like their peers, and Frank has a job in an advertising agency that is not much of a challenge. It is shockingly recognizable: don’t we all think we’re different? I kept seeing Jon Hamm = Don Draper in Mad Men, as Frank Wheeler btw. But that might have something to do with the cover picture ;)

Again, I watched the movie adaptation afterwards. Unlike Brideshead Revisited I really liked it — although I’m not sure if I’d have appreciated it as much if I hadn’t read the book.

I Am a Cat (vol.1), Natsume Soseki
After reading volume 1 of I Am a Cat I wasn’t sure yet what to think of it. I’m not much of a person for satire and I preferred the parts concentrating on the cat over sections digressing on humans. Reading the 2nd volume helped me form a clearer opinion — but only the 1st tome counts for the Classics Challenge ;) The fun thing was that while reading I Am a Cat I came across several parallelisms with graphics I read at the same time; Coraline and Mutts. That must mean typical cat tricks are pictured lifelike!
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath ended as my favourite read of 2009. I had been holding off this classic for a long time, not knowing what to expect, and even for about a 100 pages into the book I had my doubts. But after a while it really got under my skin — and I still can’t get it out of there. Heart rendering. A Must Read for anyone.

You know what? I believe reviews are not even required for the Classics challenge! Phew, three things to cross off my to-do list in one go. I am so relieved! I might even join the new Classics challenge in February/March… Or I may not ;) Let’s see what the future brings.

Who doesn’t know this famous picture of a Migrant Mother of the American Dust Bowl? It could be the icon of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in the autumn of 2009; 60 years after its publication date (1939), which was also the year that my mother was born. It came to be my favourite read of 2009 — something I would never have expected!

Set during the Great Depression preceding World War II, the novel focuses on the Joad family, farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. Because of their hopeless situation they set out for ‘The Promised Land’ of California, along with thousands of other Okies in search of land, jobs and dignity.

Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the grey lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. [p.108]

This quote vividly evokes the story of the east to west migration in the US during the Great Depression. The paragraph above is followed by an enumeration of places along the road and it strongly brought to mind the 1946 song that I came to know decades later, thanks to one of the best pop groups of my teenage years, Depeche Mode: Route 66.

The Grapes of Wrath was banned (and even burned) several times. Though I absolutely not agree with it, of course not — the very idea, I can understand see how that happened: there’s a lot of swearing, violence and carnal stuff in it, plus an apostate preacher, Jim Casy. I read the book in Banned Books Week — and what did I think of it?

Cover Grapes of WrathWell, I had a hard time getting into it. The paperback has a small font on thin pages so it reveals itself to be quite a chunker when you open it for the first time. The spoken language needs a bit of getting used to. But my biggest problem was that the chapters alternate between the (interesting) story of the Joad family and some sort of epic story telling that I couldn’t figure out — and bored me a little at first. Was it the (ex-)preacher preaching? Sort of a ancient Greek choir commenting on events? An omnipresent character? Biblical, mythological? Eventually I decided it must be the oral tradition of history — I could picture the poor travelers meeting around a camp fire at night; neighbours and friends for just a short time.

And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. [p.259]

But after a while the story really got under my skin. It made a huge impression that still lasts, even after a few months. I believe it is a great truth that the less people own, the more they’re willing to share. That reminds me of a television program in Holland about hospitality ;)

The attitude of Western Americans was often repulsive.

Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and so miserable… They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas. [p.203]

This.is.so.un.fair.
It almost made me swear out loud.
But of course, those people were scared too…

I copied whole pages in my notebook because I wanted to remember them. Better buy a copy of my own eh? Since this one was a Random Act of Bookcrossing Kindness, sent to me by boekenxnl. I’ll pass it along as soon as I’ve finished writing this review!

Now, on a side note: I was wondering who made the cover of this 1970 Penguin Modern Classic edition. I couldn’t find it in the book details, nor anywhere on the web. What I coincidence that I went to an exhibition on Edward Hopper and his contemporaries in the Rotterdam Kunsthal, where I came face to face with a painting by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) that immediately reminded me of the cover image! Because of the style, and of its subject: Social Realism (or social-documentary). The exhibition note explained that the artist used to make a photo first, which he later developed into a graphic work.

I figured it would be very appropriate to use a work of art by Shahn as a book cover for The Grapes of Wrath, because during the Great Depression he traveled and documented the American south alongside photographers like (among others) Dorothea Lange, who made the picture of a Migrant Mother that you saw at the beginning of this post. What a great discovery to make!

You can guess how proud I was of myself — until I accidentally found out that the blurb on the back mentioned that “it is a detail of a poster by”… Ben Shahn. DÔH. Well, I would like to say in my own defense that I usually never read the back cover because I want to know as little as possible about a book in advance. And in the end I just forgot. But yes, I admit I must be the dumbest person in the whole wide universe. Still, it’s fun to have figured it out all by myself ;)

Edward Hopper's Railroad Sunset (1929) Whitney Museum of American Art

Except for Hopper’s painting Railroad Sunset the rest of the exhibition actually was a bit of a disappointment. An Edward Hopper expo is no Hopper expo when his most famous painting Nighthawks isn’t there. But of course that picture doesn’t belong to the Whitney Museum of American Art, the institution that put the show together with works out of its own collection.

Back to The Grapes of Wrath. A minor point of critique is that the women in the story are horribly subdue. The following quote doesn’t show that for a 100%, but it made me go BWAAAGH ;)

Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great if their men were whole. [p.7]

But I guess some ‘male dominance’ was normal in those times (& that place) and so Steinbeck is being realistic. But then he talks about Jule, who’s partly Native American:

Tom and Willie and Jule the half-breed sat on the edge of the dance floor and swung their feet. [p.327]

Each time Jule makes an appearance this ‘half-breed’ fact is mentioned. That irritated me — and I got the feeling it wasn’t because Steinbeck happened to be such a great observer, but maybe because that was how he approached Amerindians himself. Or am I terribly wrong??

Thirdly, the poor migrants were at times too good to be true. But these things aside: I am SO glad that I have read this classic!

Btw if you’re interested: I stumbled upon a (really) short article about one of the daughters of the Migrant Mother…

The Grapes of Wrath is part of my Personal 2008-2009-2010 Reading Challenge and the 2009 Classics Challenge.

I am a cat. As yet I have no name. [p.5]

Logo Japanese Literature Read-a-longI started reading I Am a Cat (Wagahai wa Neko dearu) during the 24 hour read-a-thon and finished part 1 on October 31st. I’m reading this classic from 1905-1906 for the Japanese Literature Read-along. I wish I had the edition shown on Wikipedia, because I absolutely love that cover! But the picture on my ‘complete edition’ resembles my own cat Juno, so I am happy with that as well :)

I am a catWhat do I think of the book so far? Unfortunately I read the preface first, so there wasn’t much to find out for myself :\ This way I knew beforehand that the first chapter had been written as a short story, to be published in the journal Hototogisu. Originally it was not meant to be a book at all! But one of the the magazine editors persuaded the author to expand it into a novel because of its success.

I’ll let the introduction introduce the story ;)

[..] though Sōseki’s total book is held together by the continuing theme of a nameless cat’s observations of upper-middle-class Japanese society of the Meiji period, the essence of the book resides in the humor and sardonic truth of those various observations, not in the development of the story.

The preface also gave away that the voice of the cat gets more and more human. I recognized that in the following quote from the 3rd (and last) chapter of volume 1:

The more that humans show me sympathy, the more I am inclined to forget that I am a cat. Feeling that I am now closer to humans than to cats, the idea of rallying my own race in an effort to wrest supremacy from the bipeds no longer has the least appeal. [..] Moreover, I have developed, indeed evolved, to such an extent that there are now times when I think of myself as just another human in the human world.

Reading that, a relation to the song I Am a Kitten became apparent. Momus wrote the piece of music originally in French for the Japanese pop star Kahimi Karie. The booklet of his 20 Vodka Jellies cd even acknowledges that it owes something to this “excellent novel”.

The song is about a cat falling in love with a human being (= impossible love). I don’t think that’s going to happen in Natsume’s story, but you never know ;) Here’s Momus singing I Am a Kitten (in English), while you read along. We’ll save Kahimi’s performance for another time ;)

And though I’d love to be loved
The gods ordained it that
You were made a human being
And I turned out a cat
(I am a kitten)

[complete lyrics]

Cover I Am A CatBack to the novel. I’m not really sure what to think of it. Of course it’s interesting to read about Japanese intellectuals and their surroundings in early 20th century — seen through the eyes of a cat. But how realistic is it? And what is there to ‘learn’ about Japan it if I can’t determine that? Okay, I admit to not having a taste for satire. And yes, I’m embarrased to say so; it’s like confessing to not having a sense of humor — in other words being a sourpuss :\

Anywho. Aside from the above, I am not able to identify with the cat, even though it is portrayed lifelike (that is to say: the way we humans perceive feline characters). And this time it can’t be designated my shortcoming because in Barbara Gowdy’s book The White Bone I actually imagined I was the elephant Mud.

Am I not enjoying the read-along of I Am a Cat? Oh yes I am! :)

I really had to laugh about a scene where ‘the cat’ — I am going to baptize it Neko here and now — gets its jaw stuck in a rice cake. JumboI transcribed part of it for a mini challenge in the 24 hour read-a-thon, but it actually goes on for several pages and it is very evocative.

I guess this novel, for me, is about cherishing specific quotes; I’ve jotted many down in my notebook. In my blogpost about the graphic novel Coraline I have already talked about reading synchronisity on the basis of some similar quotes. But I was also affected by a scene in which ‘Neko’ finds Rickshaw Blacky sunbathing in his garden. This part reminded me very much of our belated tomcat Jumbo (who was HUGE and named Jumbo because of that by the animal shelter when he was only a few weeks old). He was a shy guy btw, not some bully like the cat of the rickshaw owner ;)

[..] and there I saw an enormous cat fast asleep on a bed of withered chrysanthemums, which his weight had flattened down. [..] there he was, stretched out at full length and snoring loudly. I was amazed at the daring courage that permitted him, a tresspasser, to sleep so unconcernedly in someone else’s garden. He was a pure black cat. The sun of earliest afternoon was pouring its most brilliant rays upon him, and it seemed as invisible flames were blazing out from his glossy fur. He had a magnificent physique; the physique, one might say, of the Emperor of Catdom. [p.9-10]

In conclusion I just think the cat(s) in the story interest me, and not so much the storylines about the people. Yes, I am a cat person :)

For surely even humans will not flourish forever. I think it best to wait in patience for the Day of the Cats. [p.7]

Part 2 of I Am a Cat needs to be read (and reviewed) before December 15th and the final part in the middle of January 2010. To be continued…

Note: I had a hard time deciding whether I should write Natsume Sōseki or Sōseki Natsume. The Western way would be Sōseki Natsume, since Natsume is the writer’s last name. But the Japanese put their family names first. In the end I considered decisive that 1) in my museum profession author and creator names are usually documented in the way the person presents him-/herself publicly and 2) that is probably also why I know the author by the name Natsume Sōseki best myself.

Since I Am a Cat is a Japanese Classic I’ve also admitted it to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge and the 2009 Classics Challenge.

Here’s my review of part 2!

spotvogel2It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird [..] They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.

Thanks to a bookcrossing book ring I have finally read Harper Lee‘s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It had been on my wishlist for quite a few years and became part of two challenges: the 2009 Classics Challenge and my personal 2008-2009 challenge. There has been written a lot about this book so I’m just going to add my personal view. Well.. and a little about the story for people who haven’t read it (yet).

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel in which a female attorney, Jean Louise — Scout — Finch, looks back on her childhood during the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first new it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. [p.11]

The story focusses on the events of a certain summer, that morally and socially shaped Louise into the adult she became. Because of this, the book is considered a Bildungsroman. Although Harper Lee used a lot of autobiographical elements, the novel is fiction.

Cover To Kill a MockingbirdI am very glad I got to read the book. I don’t think it will end up in my 2009 top 5 list, but it was a quick, entertaining read: the story immediately grabbed me and I liked the atmosphere of doom, suggesting that ‘something was going to happen’. The first paragraph sets the tone:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right -angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

The reader now knows that the rest of the book will tell about the events leading up to Jem’s accident. But like in a court case where seperate witnesses have different truths, the sibling’s have different points of view on where it all began.

In my online Boekgrrls book group there was some discussion whether or not the quote above contains vivid imagery. I think so ;) Some people didn’t find it evocative — worse, they thought it gawky because they had to physically try the position of the arm. I rather like it that everywhere around the world and through time, people are swinging their arms while reading ;)

Some women also didn’t find it believable that children were accepted into the courtroom. Well, it was a long time ago… And honestly, isn’t it really harder to believe that black people were treated as lesser humans? And they were! Even though you know that it’s true, it is still shocking to read about this kind of racism. To Kill a Mockingbird was published 5 years after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger (also in Alabama); Harper Lee had been writing on the book for a few years.

Aside from the main storyline (which I am not writing down because it is broadly known and when you’re in the dark about it you might want to keep it that way), you can feel how Scout grows into her later profession even though that was not yet common for women of that time.

“There are lots of reasons. For one thing, Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she’s a woman –“
“You mean women in Alabama can’t –?” I was indignant.
“I do. I guess it’s to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom’s. Besides,” Atticus grinned, “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried — the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.”
Jem and I laughed. Miss Maudie on a jury would be impressive. I thought of old Mrs. Dubose in her wheelchair — “Stop that rapping, [judge] John Taylor, I want to ask this man something.” Perhaps our fore-fathers were wise.
[p.225]

After Jem and his sister have sneaked out to watch the court case, some Southern ladies tease Scout afterwards:

“Watcha going to be when you grow up, Jean Louise? A lawyer?”
“Nome, I hadn’t thought about it..” I answered, grateful that Miss Stephanie was kind enough to change the subject. Hurriedly I began choosing my vocation. Nurse? Aviator?
“Well…”
“Why shoot, I thought you wanted to be a lawyer, you’ve already commenced going to court.”

Recently To Kill a Mockingbird became #1 on the list of the best 60 books of the past 60 years. Maybe not because Harper Lee is the most skilled writer of recent history, but because her book is about the equality of Man.

“Well how do we know we ain’t Negroes?”
“Uncle Jack Finch says we really don’t know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain’t, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Etiopia durin’ the Old Testament.”
“Well if we came out durin’ the Old Testament it’s too long ago to matter.”
“That’s what I thought,’ said Jem, ‘but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black [..]“
[p. 165]

John Sutherland remarks in his article about the list of 60 books:

“[..] as Henry James said, the house of fiction has many rooms. One important room is reserved for fiction that expresses the basic ideals of its time: such as Oliver Twist, or The Grapes of Wrath. To Kill a Mockingbird will always have a high place in that company.”

Cover Grapes of WrathHa! I have just finished John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath, which is also on my challenge list (review pending). That book is more about equal rights for ‘poor’ white people from the East of the US migrating to the West in the same period as To Kill a Mockingbird. Both books won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the year after they were published (respectively 1940 and 1961). And both books play in the American South.

Have you ever heard of Southern Gothics, a sub genre of the gothic novel and unique to American literature? I hadn’t. But To Kill a Mockingbird is (by some) considered to belong to this genre.

“Like its parent genre, it relies on supernatural, ironic, or unusual events to guide the plot. Unlike its predecessor, it uses these tools not for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South.

[..] the writer takes classic Gothic archetypes, such as the damsel in distress or the heroic knight, and portrays them in a more modern and realistic manner — transforming them into, for example, a spiteful and reclusive spinster, or a white-suited, fan-brandishing lawyer with ulterior motives.”

Lawyer. Heroic knight. That’s why Atticus, Scout’s father, seems a bit too good to be true sometimes! But I think it is also because most of the story is told through the eyes of a child — don’t young girls often look up to their fathers, seeing them as hero’s?

Gregory PeckI had to think about my father a lot whilst reading this book. He was a great fan of Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the 1962 movie adaptation. But he was also born in the same year as Harper Lee and had a huge sense of morality, of justice. He would have liked to become a lawyer. Hee hee, maybe he even looked a little bit like Gregory Peck ;)

I couldn’t help but think of another film as well: Mississippi Burning. Some marvelous actors playing in it: Gene Hackman, William Dafoe, Frances McDormand (I’ll leave it to you to look them up if you don’t know them ;) I would definitely like to see that movie again soon! I don’t feel the need to see To Kill a Mockingbird. But I liked reading this classic enough to want to have a copy of my own. I’ll be on the lookout for a nice edition! :)

Mockingbird sound recording courtesy of The Quomma.

Classics reading challenge 2009 buttonAs you may have read in my earlier post, I also joined the 2009 Classics Challenge.

I entered the Classics Entree level, which means I have to read 5 classics this year. Plus I want to go for the bonus by reading a book of the ‘Future Classic List’, since I’ve got some of those titles piled up on Mount TBR!

I think I can manage this additional challenge because I planned to read some classics already. Here’s my list:

Let’s see how things go: I consider Revolutionary Road a classic already so I might change my level to Classics Feast at the end of 2009 and read another bonus book ;)

To be honest, by joining this challenge I hope to help myself accomplishing the task I had set myself already. Now the hard part is really to blog my reviews!

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