It's been a while since I've talked about my reading. I'm continuing to concentrate on classic literature, driven in part by my participation the "First Monday Classics" book club at the Orange County Library. I'm sure I'm going to forget something, but since last fall I've read:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. A seriously brilliant book. It's well written in a simple, straightforward style that rises to poetry when needed. It does a masterful job of showing you the world through the prism of a different time and culture. Achebe doesn't romanticize pre-colonial Africa. We see the ugly side of the culture as well as the high points. But you can't help but come away from the book seeing the world with new eyes.
A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. I have to admit, I thought this was pretty terrible. No plot, no characters of any depth, just lyrical sentimentality.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. A novel about reading a novel. The protagonist keeps getting interrupted after reading an opening chapter, discovering his book is misprinted, has the wrong cover, is the wrong translation, etc., so that every other chapter is the beginning of a new book. Lots of musing on the power of writing and the power of reading, but ultimately the book left me cold. Once you realized that none of the chapters of the fake books were ever going to go anywhere, they turned into a pointless slog.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Beautiful writing and very deep exploration of characters. The dialect was kind of hard to work through, but once you caught the rhythm the back and forth between the supporting characters was very funny and really brought the book to life.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Meh. I mean, it's not terrible, and thankfully it's not long. But Kurtz is built up throughout the book as a great and interesting man, but when he finally appears he barely says anything then dies of illness. It's a lot of build up for a somewhat weak payoff.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. I added this one to the clubs reading list because it's one of my all-time favorite novels. I've lost track of how many times I've read this book, but every time I always hit lines that make me laugh. Despite all the talk about frying his mind with drugs and booze, the actual writing in this novel is crisp and focused. The book isn't without flaws, of course. There's a certain amount of low-brow, gross out comedy, and most of the characters are one-note clichés. Except for a maid and a waitress, women are strangely absent from the book. Still, a damn funny novel.
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric. The opening chapters are pretty harrowing as we see in graphic detail the gruesome practices used to force the laborers to build the bridge. Then we start skipping through the centuries, getting a pretty broad mix of history and characters. As a history lesson, it's informative, but as a novel it lacks any sense of immediacy. You can go many dozen pages at a time before stumbling onto an actual scene with dialogue.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This book was all kinds of terrible. In fairness, it has moments of wit and the author has a great talent for bringing a setting to life. I even thought she had a good ear for dialogue. But I couldn't relate to the characters even a tiny bit. The book is about how shackled the characters are by the society they live in, but, the characters are all rich enough that they could live pretty much any life they wished if they'd just show a little backbone.
Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdal. This wasn't part of my book club reading list, and I'm hesitant to recommend it to the group since our focus is on novels and this is non-fiction. I'd read this book as a teenager and had fond memories of it, so I grabbed a used copy at a book store and decided to reread it during a week at the beach. It was even better than I remembered, a grand adventure pitting men against the elements. The great strength of the book is the crazy confidence of the author, who is convinced that Polynesia was settled not from Asia, but by ancient Peruvians crossing the ocean in rafts. When the scientific world assures him that a raft can't cross the ocean, he decides to prove them wrong by building his own primitive raft and setting sail. Along the way, we see the ocean in a way that few people ever get to see it, a living, ever-shifting waterscape populated by strange inhabitants. Completely engrossing.