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Summer of Classics 2010

Since it's now October, I suppose I should finally post my final thoughts on my Summer of Classics reading. Actually, this post isn't as late as you might think - I only finished my reading last week. So here's what I read.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Achebe's widely acclaimed novel is an interesting study of an African tribe as it struggles to maintain traditions despite the relentless pull of modernity and progress. That said, however, I never really engaged with the characters, partly due to the flat and lean prose, and that more than anything left me underwhelmed.

Stendhal, The Red and the Black
I had high hopes for this book after learning of its reputation beforehand, and especially after the first few pages, when we meet the protagonist, Julien Sorel, a sensitive young man who is totally out of place with his working-class family. Promising start, but as Julien establishes himself in the world, he steadily becomes an ambitious, conniving, insufferable bore, and what I thought would be a book about political/social protest, it instead turned out to be an unforgivably overwrought romance novel. How not one, but two high-standing women could possibly swoon over him made very little sense to me. And though the political and social aspects of the novel might have made perfect sense to a reader in, say, 1835 (the book was published in 1830), most of those aspects went way over my head. Frankly, I couldn't wait for this book to end.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Another exhausting book, but exhausting in a good way. Whitman's verse sings a passionate love song to America, its citizens and, yes, himself. Fascinating ideas and gorgeous lyricism. And also physically draining to read - while marvelously written, it's also very long-winded and repetitive, with Whitman returning to the same themes again and again. I had to set the book aside after 100 pages and move on to something else. But I know I'll resume reading it again soon.

Seamus Heaney (translator), Beowulf
I've read numerous prose translations of this great epic poem over the years, but never read it in verse. Heaney's translation is a very modern one that breaks from the traditional stanza structure toward longer, flowing lines, and that makes this a very smooth and enjoyable read. However, Heaney's treatment makes me now want to try a more traditional verse translation, one which is more faithful to the original structure. I already know the story well enough that a more archaic style won't make it prohibitively difficult to read.

O.E. Rölvaag: Giants in the Earth
You might think a pioneer epic about Norwegian settlement in 1870s South Dakota would make for very dry reading, but this great book is anything but that. It's greatness is partly due to the vividness of Rölvaag's prose, particularly when he so perfectly describes the prairie during cultivation and harvest, or the terrifying danger of a lethal blizzard. But despite being a pioneer epic, what this book is really all about is a relationship - the once-warm and thriving but now distant and bitter marriage of Per and Beret Hansa. They don't connect and barely communicate, and their lives steadily grow apart - as apart as a husband and wife (plus four children) can possibly be in a two-room sod hut. As Per hungers for adventure and material success, Beret feels trapped on the desolate prairie, bound by her maternal duties and having only her religious faith (which Per does not share) as respite. Giants in the Earth is an unforgettable portrait of high-flown dreams and bitter reality, and one that I can't recommend highly enough.

October 1, 2010 in Books | Permalink


I recall Giants fondly though it's probably been 15 years since I read it. What an ending! I suppose you know there are two sequels to it. I've always meant to read them and somehow never managed to pick them up.

I forced my way through Red and Black too.I think it is a bit of an anachronism now, though maybe it lets me sound sophisticated when I drop the fact of having read it at parties. (joke) About the same for Things Fall Apart. I didn't relate to it.

I have Leaves of Grass on my shelf, and I keep meaning to pick it up. Someday.

Posted by: Paul Lamb at Oct 2, 2010 3:32:16 AM