Review: The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Alex Jennings

The Horse and His Boy CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)I know I read the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, about 20 years ago when I stalled out somewhere in the middle of [amazon_link id=”0064405028″ target=”_blank” ]The Voyage of the Dawn Treader[/amazon_link], but I had no memory of its plot at all. I think I know why. It’s utterly forgettable.

If you are not familiar with the plot, it is the story of a foundling boy named Shasta, who is raised by a fisherman named Arsheesh in Calormen, which seems to be C. S. Lewis’s stand-in for the Arab world. Shasta runs away upon learning that he is to be sold, and he meets talking horse from Narnia named Bree; a feisty fellow runaway named Aravis, who is escaping a marriage she does not want; and Aravis’s horse, Hwin. In their escape, they go to the city of Tashbaan, where Shasta is mistaken for a prince of Archenland named Corin. You see where this is going, right? I figured out most of the rest of the plot at that moment. At any rate, Shasta does meet Queen Susan, Queen Lucy, and King Edmund in his travels, as well as Aslan, who guides him in the night when he is running to tell the king of Archenland of an impending invasion by forces from Calormen.

I thought the plot was predictable. My reaction on finishing the book is really just a resounding “meh.” The characters were fine. I liked them. I just felt the plot was fairly well trodden. I really wonder why the book needed to be included in the series. It feels like filler material. However, Alex Jennings does an excellent narration, and I think I would like to read other books read by him.

Book Rating: ★★½☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

[amazon_image id=”0061340405″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_image] Thomas C. Foster’s excellent book  [amazon_link id=”006000942X” target=”_blank” ]How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines[/amazon_link] elucidates literary analysis like no other text I have read. It clarifies the sometimes difficult task of interpretation and making meaning. It has an excellent recommended reading list, and it is indispensable for English teachers. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t enjoy its “sequel,” [amazon_link id=”0061340405″ target=”_blank” ]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_link] nearly as much.

Let’s start with what I liked:

  • The motif, which runs throughout the book, of the reader as creator. Reading is a creative act. Books demand that we have an imagination. It reminds me very much of something I heard Jasper Fforde say about reading when I went to a book signing. Foster says, “readers are the ultimate arbiters of meaning in a work” (126). I agree with him, and it’s one of the things that can be difficult about teaching English. English teachers are often experienced readers who understand the ways in which texts talk to one another and speak the language of symbolism and metaphor. Students, who are less experienced, often become infuriated when a teacher makes a connection or interpretation that the student didn’t make, and English teachers are often wrongly accused of inventing intentions the author never had. The author’s intentions do not matter once the reader reads the books. We readers bring so much experience, prior reading, belief, opinion, and knowledge to everything we read, that no two readers read the same book, and no reader reads the same book the author wrote. I really like it that Foster explained the importance of the reader so clearly because it is a real issue whenever two readers disagree about a book.
  • I like Foster’s breakdown of 18 things we can tell about a book on the first page. It is a great guide for students who struggle with annotation. If you can point students to look for style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place, motif, theme, irony, rhythm, pace, expectations, character, and instructions on how to read the novel (whew!), then you will have paved the way for them to better understand the novel and help them figure out what to look for when they read. Eighteen is a bit much, but I found as I scanned the list that I agreed that most, if not all, of these elements can be determined to some degree on the first page of the novel.
  • I am fond of telling students that literature is the mirror that we hold up to examine our world and to ourselves. It tells us who we are and what we want. Foster expresses a similar sentiment: “So almost any novel can teach us, and the novel has one big lesson that lies at its very root: we matter. A human life has value not because it belongs to an owner, a ruler, a collective, or a political party, but because it exists as itself” (115). As such, characters in novels matter because they are us. We see ourselves in them. We see our humanity in their humanity.

Now to what I didn’t like:

  • The book is repetitive. Foster discusses the same books, pretty much over and over, and if, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with one of his pet texts or if you didn’t like it for some reason, it’s hard to connect to what Foster is saying—or it was for me. Your mileage may vary. I don’t much like Joyce. There, I said it. I did give him a try. I guess I prefer my novels to be more like the great Victorian novels Foster describes. I am not opposed to Postmodernism here or there, and I don’t have to travel with the characters in a straight line. But Joyce doesn’t do it for me. I like it that Foster acknowledges we have different reactions to novels. Towards the end of the book, he describes a discussion with a high school English class in which one lone dissenter admitted he didn’t like [amazon_link id=”0486415864″ target=”_blank” ]Great Expectations[/amazon_link]. Of this student, Foster says, “It takes courage, to say you’re in AP English and aren’t wild about one of the established classics. For one thing, there’s the weight of more than a century of received opinion going against you” (292-293). Yes. True. I do not like [amazon_link id=”1840226358″ target=”_blank” ]Ulysses[/amazon_link]. I tried to read it. I was grossed out on page one. I gave it up. And that is OK, though the “weight of [nearly] a century of received opinion” is going against me. But he’s a favorite of Foster’s (not surprising, as he seems to be a favorite of many college profs), and he is used as an example over and over and over. And since I didn’t grok Ulysses, I didn’t find myself connecting to those examples very well.
  • I think Foster’s definition of theme is off, and I wouldn’t recommend sharing it verbatim with students. Foster defines it as “the idea content of the novel” (30). When I teach it, I tend to take it further than that. What message did you get from the novel? Deeper than what it is about—why did the author write it? We can’t know that, of course, but we can extrapolate. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald write [amazon_link id=”0743273567″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Gatsby[/amazon_link] because he wanted to comment on how the American Dream is not achievable by all, and maybe that it is even dead or never existed in the first place? I don’t know, but that is a message I receive from it when I read it. Certainly different readers will see different themes. But I don’t find the definition “idea content” to be all that helpful.
  • Likewise, Foster describes different kinds of narration on pp. 46-47. I teach students first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. I mention second person as a type of narration they will rarely encounter. That’s it. And I discovered that there are these other types called third person objective, first person central, and first person secondary, which, as Foster describes them, seem like splitting hairs unnecessarily. He also puts stream of consciousness in there, which is not a type of narration, but a narrative technique. And he even says it’s not a kind of narrator, so I find it confusing that he puts it in this list at all. It doesn’t belong there.
  • The book has no index. How to Read Literature Like a Professor has a great index. It made finding information so much easier.
  • The book doesn’t have a recommended reading list. There is a list of other literary criticism to read, but in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster shared a list of great literary works to read. I liked it. I suppose he figured the list of all the novels he mentioned in the book should do, but I liked the list in the other book.
  • Foster’s appeal lies to a great degree in his entertaining style. He cracks jokes. He’s snarky. For some reason, it was fun in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In How to Read Novels like a Professor, I found it less appealing, and occasionally off-putting.

This book is worth it for the discussion of reading as a creative act and intertextuality, but aside from that, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t captured better in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I highly recommend that book, and I would recommend it far above How to Read Novels Like a Professor.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Kenneth Branagh

Heart of DarknessKenneth Branagh should read all the audio books.

Well, maybe not all.

He is probably the best narrator I’ve ever listened to, however. Of course, I’m also about to listen to Ian McKellen do Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, so I may stand corrected shortly.

If you haven’t read Heart of Darkness before, I can’t think of a better way to do it than listening to Audible’s version. After all, Marlow tells the entire story to a crew of sailors on the Thames River, and Branagh perfectly embodies not just Marlow, but all the characters, from the Russian protege to Kurtz to the native man who says, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” to Kurtz’s “intended.” In fact, I dare you not to get a chill when he reads Kurtz. He almost makes you understand why Kurtz has so captivated everyone in the novel. Almost.

I think the reason this novel is still relevant is that it speaks to our infinite capacity for evil. All of us have it inside us, and “the horror” is realizing that fact. I think Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the novel is valid. It is racist. (It’s sexist, too, but that fact often goes uncommented upon.) The African characters are only so much scenery, and their culture is dehumanized. They are depicted like animals, slavish in their devotion to and fear of Kurtz. There is no getting around it. At the same time, you can look at Marlow as narrator. Who is he but a perfect product of his times? Of course he believes Africans to be subhuman. Conrad probably thought so, too, but it is Marlow who tells the story, so who can say? There probably is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator.

You might like this Book Drum profile of the novel. I found the section on the history of the Congo very interesting (and very tragic, as is the case in so many places colonized by Europe).

Many years ago, I went to an English teachers’ conference, and one session I attended discussed how you can engage students in the reading of literature and help them make thematic connections by asking them to choose modern songs that have a story, theme, or message similar to a work of literature they have studied. One of the presenter’s students connected Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Nine Inch Nails’ song “Head Like a Hole.”

After listening to it with that connection in mind, I had to agree that the song and the novel shared such a close connection that I have wondered for years if Trent Reznor was thinking of Heart of Darkness when he wrote it. Connect Reznor’s last line “You know who you are” with Kurtz’s last words “The horror, the horror,” and it’s just plain spooky. And I know I make that connection every time I talk about the novel now. I did it in my previous review of Heart of Darkness. This is the third time I’ve read the novel—once in college, once a few years ago.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this mashup of “Head Like a Hole” and “Call Me, Maybe.”

You can’t unhear it. Sorry. Not really.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake: A NovelHow strange it is after such a long reading dry spell, I’ve been whipping through books again. I finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake in the matter of a couple of days. I think I may have started reading it Saturday.

The Namesake is the story of Gogol Ganguli, named for his father’s favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol. His father, saved when his copy of Gogol’s short stories is noticed in the rubble following a train wreck, must give his son a name before he will be released from the hospital. Since his wife’s grandmother has been given the honor of choosing his “good name,” the family settles on Gogol, thinking later they can change it.

Each chapter is a vignette in the lives of Gogol and his family, from his parents’ arranged marriage to Gogol’s rediscovery, at the age of 32, of a copy of Gogol’s short stories that his father gave him when he was a teenager who hated his name. Gogol, born in America, straddles two cultures all of his life, never seeming to feel completely comfortable in one or the other. In one poignant passage, his father finally tells Gogol the true story of how he got his name, and Gogol is moved:

And suddenly, the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years. “Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night?”

“Not at all,” his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. “You remind me of everything that followed.”

The one thread that runs through this novel is the importance of looking forward instead of looking back. One of the interesting things about this book is that it is not a grand adventure. It’s the story of an ordinary life. In part, it is a coming of age story. It’s engaging, nevertheless, and Gogol becomes a sympathetic character that I rooted for and hated to see disappointed. He became very real, and by the end of the book, I felt I knew him. I wondered what happened to him on 9/11. I wondered if he found happiness. If he had children. If he went to visit his mother in India.

The lush descriptions of food were one of my favorite parts of the novel. Whether it is home-cooked Indian food or dinner at a restaurant, meals are central to this novel—they bring the characters together. They are the agents of assimilation (Thanksgiving turkey), and they are the vestiges of a home left behind.

My own family has lived in America for hundreds of years. I don’t have any idea what the immigrant experience is like. Sure, I have moved to new places, but the culture in each place I have lived is more or less the same, and if I have to do without restaurants that have become favorites, it’s no small price to pay when I find new favorites and quickly assimilate to the new place. I can’t imagine what it must be like to move thousands of miles away to a completely different culture, where I am unsure of the language and customs. However, I feel like I caught a glimpse of what such an undertaking must be like after reading this book, and it made me admire immigrants for what they are willing to do in order to build a life for themselves. More Americans should read this book. I was moved by a passage near the end, as Gogol reflects on the fact that his mother is selling the house he grew up in so that she can go to India:

And then the house will be occupied by strangers, and there will be no trace that they were ever there, no house to enter, no name in the telephone directory. Nothing to signify the years his family has lived here, no evidence of the effort, the achievement it had been.

On a lark, I searched through census records to see who had lived in my current house. The names changed each decade. In 1910, the Anderson family, Swedish immigrants whose children had been born here in Massachusetts, lived in my house. Arthur Anderson was a carpenter. I wonder if any of his work survives. My husband often says this house was built like a ship. In 1920, the French Canadian Cartier family lived in my house. Frederick Cartier owned a shop, but the census doesn’t say what kind. His three children, all teenagers between 14 and 18 years old, worked—the two girls in a corset factory and the boy in a cotton mill. In 1930, Albert Dupont, a carpenter who had been born in Massachusetts to French Canadian parents, lived here with his family. In 1940, the O’Briens lived in my house. John O’Brien was a salesman. The names change every ten years, and but for a whim, they would have been completely forgotten. I was fascinated to discover a few scant facts about each family. Worcester is a city with a strong immigrant population, even up to the present. It’s one of the things that makes this city interesting. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes Massachusetts interesting. It makes a great deal of sense to me that Jhumpa Lahiri brought the Ganguli family from Calcutta to Boston. Something about this state has attracted people who have set off thousands of miles away from home to build a new life, from 1620 when the Pilgrims sailed The Mayflower and landed at Plymouth to the present day.

Rating: ★★★★★

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

State of Wonder: A Novel (P.S.)Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder is my school’s upper school summer read. I am not sure I would have thought to pick it up otherwise, as I haven’t read Patchett before, and I have a list of books I want to read a mile long. However, I found it a compelling and fascinating book, and it far outstrips most of the other books I have read this year (and even the previous year) so far.

I don’t typically include the book synopsis in my reviews, but it seems appropriate for this novel.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.

The reference to Heart of Darkness is not incidental, but State of Wonder updates Conrad’s classic with ethical questions for our own times. How far should science to go to improve on nature? Why do we develop certain drugs over others? What impact could such scientific research have on native populations? Should we care about that impact, or should we care more about “the greater good”? What happens when, to paraphrase Dr. Swenson, we allow ourselves to lose focus on the things we are looking for so that we don’t overlook the things we find?

Marina’s journey into the jungle reminded me of some of the ancient mythological heroic quests to go into the unknown and come back again. The hero is often never the same, and even Dr. Swenson warns Marina about this transformation. Dr. Swenson is Patchett’s own Kurtz, a formidable and ruthless woman committed to her research, even at the expense of her supposed commitment to her Hippocratic Oath as a doctor. Marina’s confrontation of her former teacher, a woman who has loomed like specter over Marina’s life and informed some of her most important life decisions, is the central story of the novel, and it is fascinating to watch their relationship unfold. Dr. Swenson is at the center of everything, and it is her choices and decisions that the novel revolves around, in the end.

Laura Ciolkowski says in her review of the novel for The Chicago Tribune that State of Wonder is “Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey,” and “a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.” That would be my assessment as well.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who has read Heart of Darkness, but thought it seemed dated. It will change your mind. But I would also recommend it to readers who liked The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. All three novels explore the Western exploitation of indigenous people, simultaneously unmasking the horrors of colonialism as well as the terrible beauty of the jungle.

Rating: ★★★★★

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior: A NovelBarbara Kingsolver’s latest novel [amazon asin=0062124269&text=Flight Behavior] opens as Dellarobia Turnbow, unhappily married at the age of 17 after a pregnancy scare, is on her way to meet up with a telephone repairman with the express purpose of cheating on her husband. Before she reaches her destination, she is confronted with the arresting sight of trees aflame with monarch butterflies. Spooked by the vision, which she considers a sign, she returns to her mother-in-law’s house to pick up her children and go back home.

Others in her small town view the strange butterflies as a sign of God’s providence. The butterflies’ appearance sparks a national news story. Monarch butterflies are, of course, native to Mexico and unheard of in the small town of Feathertown, Tennessee. What could be driving them to Appalachia? Scientists visiting the town set up a lab in the Turnbows’ barn, pulling Dellarobia further into their work. The scientists discover that the monarchs’ appearance is the result of global warming, but the populace of Feathertown doesn’t believe it. Over the course of the novel, Dellarobia’s life in Feathertown is reflected in the butterflies’ existence. Dellarobia wonders, “Why did the one rare, spectacular thing in her life have to be a sickness of nature?”

Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. She has a way with words that is frankly gorgeous. I marvel at her writing. However, I had trouble getting into this book. I didn’t find myself too interested in Dellarobia. I think Barbara Kingsolver has a gift for character development, and I could clearly see Dellarobia as a real person. I didn’t relate to her in the same way I have other characters she has created. [amazon asin=0060786507&text=The Poisonwood Bible] is one of my favorite books, and [amazon asin=006210392X&text=The Bean Trees] is another I enjoyed quite a lot. I also appreciate Kingsolver’s purposeful use of symbolism and metaphor to convey much larger ideas (brilliantly executed in The Poisonwood Bible). This book starts kind of slowly, but the beautiful writing and description should keep readers going in spite of the slow start.

Rating: ★★★★½

Learn more about Barbara Kingsolver at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

TLC Tour HostBarbara’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, November 6th: A Reader of Fictions

Wednesday, November 7th: Dolce Bellezza

Thursday, November 8th: The Blog of Lit Wits

Monday, November 12th: Caribousmom

Tuesday, November 13th: Bookish Habits

Wednesday, November 14th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, November 15th: Unabridged Chick

Monday, November 26th: Book Snob

Tuesday, November 27th: What She Read … – joint review

Wednesday, November 28th: Becca’s Byline

Thursday, November 29th: A Patchwork of Books

Wednesday, December 5th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Thursday, December 6th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness

Tuesday, December 11th: Man of La Book

Wednesday, December 12th: Tina’s Books Reviews

Thursday, December 13th: Seaside Book Corner

Monday, December 17th: 50 Books Project

Friday, December 21st: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

How the French Invented Love, Marilyn Yalom

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and RomanceMarilyn Yalom’s book [amazon asin=0062048317&text=How the French Invented Love] is an interesting look at the French attitude toward love from the Middle Ages to today. Yalom’s source material is the body of French literature produced over time.

As a fan of medieval literature, I particularly enjoyed Yalom’s examination of the letters of Abelard and Héloïse, whose story should fascinate anyone interested in true love. I thoroughly enjoyed the long chapter on courtly love and wished I were teaching the concept in a course again, as I have done in the past, because I think Yalom’s ideas would help me break down the idea in a way that would be easier for my students to understand. It has traditionally been a difficult concept for me to teach. I loved seeing the references to Guinevere and Lancelot. I always found it interesting that the French invented perhaps the most famous Arthurian knight—Sir Lancelot (I have always been more partial to Sir Gawain).

Another section I enjoyed was the chapter on George Sand and Alfred de Musset. I encountered George Sand’s journals about her relationship with de Musset in college, and I developed an interest in Sand that endures to this day as a result. Like Yalom, I adore the English Romantics (one of my best ever dreams was about having tea with Byron, Shelley, and Keats), and Yalom begins that chapter with a comparison between English and French Romantics before focusing more narrowly on George Sand. As Yalom notes, Sand gave her entire “heart and soul” to whatever “enterprise” with which she was concerned, whether it was writing or an affair. Her journals about the end of her relationship with de Musset are so heart-wrenching, that I wondered how she ever recovered from the loss. Yet, she went on to have other affairs, notably with Frederic Chopin. That she could recover and love again speaks to resiliency of the human heart.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject, but particularly to literature scholars. I enjoyed the narrow focus of the history of love in French literature. One quibble I had with the writing style was Yalom’s propensity to insert herself in the thread of the book. It made the book feel more anecdotal and perhaps less formal, which may have been Yalom’s goal, but it’s not typical of other nonfiction of this type (or at least not that I’ve noticed), and I found it drew my focus away from what she was saying—each time I encountered it, I was rewriting the sentence in my head to remove the personal reference. I can’t explain why it bothered me, particularly, but it did.

At any rate, this was an interesting read, and anyone who enjoys literature, especially Francophiles, will enjoy it very much. I would definitely read more of her writing.

Rating: ★★★★☆

About Marilyn Yalom

Marilyn Yalom is a former professor of French and presently a senior scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She is the author of widely acclaimed books such as A History of the BreastA History of the Wife, and Birth of the Chess Queen, as well as The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History Through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, which includes a portfolio of photographs by her son Reid S. Yalom. She lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband, the psychiatrist and author Irvin D. Yalom.

Website

Marilyn’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, October 23rd: The Year in Books

Thursday, October 25th: Unabridged Chick

Tuesday, October 30th: Doing Dewey

Wednesday, October 31st: Take Me Away

Monday, November 5th: Sophisticated Dorkiness

Tuesday, November 6th: Dreaming in Books

Wednesday, November 7th: Bibliophiliac

Thursday, November 8th: Book Hooked Blog

Friday, November 9th: BooksAreTheNewBlack

Monday, November 12th: missris

Wednesday, November 14th: Oh! Paper Pages

Wednesday, November 28th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

TBD: The Written World

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

[amazon_image id=”1400031702″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Secret History[/amazon_image]Critic A. O. Scott has called Donna Tartt’s novel [amazon_link id=”1400031702″ target=”_blank” ]The Secret History[/amazon_link] “a murder mystery in reverse.” In the first few pages of the novel, narrated by Richard Papen, a student in a small group of classics majors taught by charismatic and myterious Julian Morrow and which includes cold, enigmatic Henry Winter, twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, foppish (he wears a pince-nez, I kid you not) Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the reader learns that the group has evidently conspired to murder Bunny and make it look like an accident. What the reader does not know is why. Richard slowly reveals the motive for the murder, as well as the ways in which it reverberates among the members of the group.

After recounting the murder, Richard tells the story more or less chronologically. At the beginning, he transfers to Hampden College in Vermont seemingly to get as far away from his parents in Plano, California, as he can. He becomes intrigued by the classics students, and having studied Greek previously, seeks entry into their exclusive courses. Julian initially denies Richard, and Richard becomes somewhat obsessed with the classics students. One day, he helps some of them with a Greek grammar question, and he is offered a place in their exclusive course of study. Initially, he is somewhat of an outsider in the group, who go on cliquish excursions to Francis’s house in the country and are oddly close-lipped around Richard. Over time, Richard is allowed into the group’s circle of friendship and he discovers a horrible secret about a wild night in the woods near Francis’s country house.

The Secret History is an intriguing thriller. Knowing from the outset that the group will murder one of their friends did nothing to diminish the mystery: quite the reverse, in fact. Initially, the group seem like such logical intellects and scholars that one can hardly imagine what will lead to Bunny’s murder, but as the book progresses, even events that seem outlandish on the surface are rendered in such a plausible way, that the reader hardly questions. (Of course a bunch of highly intelligent classics majors, seeking to get closer to the ancient Greeks they study, would stage a bacchanal. That’s perfectly logical!) Tartt offers an interesting character study into what prompts a murder and how it affects each member of the group differently. The Secret History is as much a character study as anything else, and I think the reader will be surprised by the ending (which did not go where I thought it would, for sure).

Tartt has a gift for description, choosing for her narrator a man who describes his own fatal flaw early in the novel:

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs. (7)

And Richard describes everything he sees with this rapt beauty, from the run-down room with the hole in the roof in a house owned by an aging hippie where he spends his winter (and nearly dies of pneumonia) to Bunny’s descent into the ravine, windmilling and grasping for something, anything, to prevent his fall. Richard struggles to see things as they really are and renders events as he seems to wish they had occurred. He even admits this flaw near the end, as he tells the reader how he would have liked to have described an event—his description would have rendered it more romantic.

Jenny has a great review of this book (in fact, it was her review that put the book on my radar). She says,

[A]s a classics geek, I love it that this book makes Latin students seem super dangerous and dark and edgy. This is not necessarily the typical portrayal of Latin students, but it appeals to me: Watch out for us classics people. We are loose cannons and might push you off a cliff if you cross us. Or we might not. YOU JUST DO NOT KNOW.

Point taken, Jenny. I’m not sure I’ll be able to turn my back on a classics major ever again. Awesome read, Jenny. Thanks for for recommending it.

Rating: ★★★★★

This Sunday review shared as part of the Sunday Salon.

The Sunday Salon

Full disclosure: I obtained this book from PaperBackSwap.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Rebels in Literature

Top Ten TuesdayI just came back from the post office where I mailed off a bunch of PaperBackSwap requests. I logged in to my content management software here at Much Madness and discovered WordPress has an update. And it’s a slick one! Nice job, WordPress folks.

Anyway, to business. Rebels are those folks who buck the system. Sometimes they do it because they care. Sometimes they do it because they don’t. Here’s my list of the top ten rebels in literature (or at least in the part of it I’ve read).

  1. Huck Finn. As he tears up his letter to Miss Watson and says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” well you just can’t get more badass than that. It’s incredibly brave, and he shows he will follow his own conscience. I think I understood for the first time this year after teaching the book for several years that Huck has to light out for the territory because he has to go somewhere that is not tainted by an antiquated morality he disagrees with—he’s simply too good for Missouri.
  2. Severus Snape: He defies the most powerful and fearsome dark wizard in recent memory, a man known for his ability to “read minds,” and spies for the Order of Phoenix and Dumbledore, and it’s all because he loved a woman so much that he is willing to do anything to protect her son, even though Harry was also the son of his worst enemy. Dumbledore once said that he thought sometimes Hogwarts sorted people too soon, and Harry told his son that Snape was probably the bravest man he ever knew. What Snape did—standing against his former master and all of his Slytherin friends—took a lot of guts.
  3. Hester Prynne: Marked as a fallen woman, she defies the villagers who label her, quite literally, as an adulteress and refuses to name the father of her daughter Pearl. She becomes such a help to the villagers that they come to associate her letter with “Able” rather than “Adultery.” In defiance of the villagers, she wears the letter (except for a brief moment when she is alone with Pearl and Dimmesdale) for the rest of her life to remind the villagers of their cruelty, hypocrisy, and judgment.
  4. Katniss Everdeen: She defies the entire capitol during the Hunger Games and becomes a symbol for the districts as they rebel, led by District 13. She is hard and tough, but she loves her family and friends fiercely. Rebellious to the end, she kills President Coin when she realizes the woman is no different than her arch-enemy President Snow.
  5. Captain Ahab: He threw his entire crew under the bus in his quest for Moby Dick, and he wouldn’t listen to reason. He refused to help the captain of the Rachel look for his lost son. His single-mindedness both terrified and enthralled the crew of the Pequod. In the end, only Ishmael is left to tell the tale of the driven captain who defied even God in his quest to pursue vengeance.
  6. Dorian Gray: In defiance of mores of his time, he lives exactly how he wants to live while his enchanted portrait bears the scars of his sins. He lives a completely hedonistic lifestyle. He treats people however he wants, even destroying or killing them if they get in his way. He is a man without a conscience who lives by his own set of rules and never has to pay for his crimes. Until the end, that is.
  7. The Lorax: He stands up against the Once-ler in an attempt to protect the environment. He alone knows where greed and destruction of the Truffula trees will take their once-beautiful home, and he keeps crying out, even though the Once-ler shows no signs of listening.
  8. Guy Montag: At the beginning of [amazon_link id=”0345342968″ target=”_blank” ]Fahrenheit 451[/amazon_link], he is a fireman who relishes his job burning books. As the story progresses, he defies his whole society once he realizes how keeping books and information from his society has kept them in the darkness of ignorance. He joins up with a group of book-lovers determined to preserve literature for the future.
  9. Scout and AtticusAtticus Finch: He does the unthinkable in his society—he actually defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus is licked even before he begins because of the racism entrenched in his society, but he does it anyway because it’s the right thing to do, even if it will make him unpopular in town.
  10. Juliet: She defies her family’s ancient feud with the Montagues by falling in love and marrying Montague’s son Romeo. Juliet even chooses her new husband over her own family after Romeo kills Tybalt. Rather than marry a man her family chooses for her, Juliet feigns her death. If only that messenger hadn’t been waylaid by the quarantine for the plague and Romeo had received Friar Lawrence’s message! When she awakes and discovers Romeo, believing she was truly dead, has committed suicide, she kills herself by stabbing a dagger into her own heart rather than continuing to live without her Romeo.

Top Ten Tuesdays is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Scout and Atticus

Best Dads in Literature

In honor of Father’s Day, I thought I’d pull together my own list of the top five dads in literature.

Happy Fathers’ Day to all those dads, but especially to my husband, Steve Huff; my dad, Tom Swier; and my grandfather, Udell Cunningham.

Scout and Atticus

Atticus Finch. Probably first on any list of great literary dads, Atticus Finch of [amazon_link id=”0061205699″ target=”_blank” ]To Kill a Mockingbird[/amazon_link] showed his children through example why doing the right thing is always best, even if it isn’t easy, and that there are all kinds of bravery. Atticus is believed to be based on Harper Lee’s own father Amasa Lee. Harper Lee gave Gregory Peck (pictured above with Mary Badham as Scout), who played Atticus in the film of [amazon_link id=”0783225857″ target=”_blank” ]To Kill a Mockingbird[/amazon_link], her father’s pocket watch.

Arthur Weasley
Arthur Weasley by Makani

Arthur Weasley. The beloved patriarch of the Weasley family in the [amazon_link id=”0545162076″ target=”_blank” ]Harry Potter[/amazon_link] series, Arthur Weasley is a role model to his children and a father figure to their friend, Harry. He is brave, loyal, hardworking, and fair-minded. Some readers may not know that J. K. Rowling considered writing Arthur Weasley’s death into [amazon_link id=”0439358078″ target=”_blank” ]Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix[/amazon_link], but he was given a reprieve when Rowling realized losing his father would alter Ron’s personality in ways that wouldn’t work for the character.

Señor Sempere. Father of Daniel Sempere in [amazon_link id=”0143034901″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link], Señor Sempere was a bookseller who took his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books to adopt a book. The elder Sempere is the only parent young Daniel has after his mother’s death, and he sacrifices to buy him Victor Hugo’s pen.

Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Bennet. Hear me out on this one. [amazon_link id=”1936594293″ target=”_blank” ]Pride And Prejudice‘s[/amazon_link] Mr. Bennet has his faults. He lets Lydia and Kitty run wild. He holes himself up in his study on a regular basis. On the other hand, he loves Elizabeth and encourages her to marry for love. On Mr. Collins’s proposal, after Mrs. Bennet tries to enlist Mr. Bennet’s help in making Elizabeth see reason, he says, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

Ramona and Her Father

Robert Quimby. Ramona’s dad is awesome. In [amazon_link id=”0380709163″ target=”_blank” ]Ramona and Her Father[/amazon_link], Ramona’s dad loses his job and her mother goes to work. One of the most heartwarming episodes in children’s literature is the chapter in which the Quimby family can finally splurge and go out for hamburgers, and a nice elderly man at another table pays for their meal. Having been the recipient of this exact kindness myself, I can tell you how much it means.

Who do you think the best dads in literature are?