Before I get to the books, a bit of housekeeping. Thanks for all the comments recently – it’s been so fun to read through them! You all add something to this little blog when you comment, and I want you to know I appreciate it. I’ve finally responded to each comment, so if you want to go back and read the response, it should be up. Thanks again!
It’s been a bit since I wrote my last book review post and I’ve read some good books since then. I’ve been trying to incorporate more classics into my reading as my post-uni literary diversions have tended to mostly be for pleasure and have veered toward the contemporary. Over the past few months, I have read a few classics, Dracula, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Wise Blood, and I’m currently, and slowly, working my way through Les Miserables. Having grown up reading the classics and benefiting from the “Great Books Curriculum” offered by my college, it’s been great to delve back into this world. Interestingly enough, while I read these classics I often think about how they were the “popular” novels of their day and it makes me think about what books today will survive and attain that status in the future. This entry is going to focus on four classics I read recently and one contemporary novel that I think is destined for that distinction.
I don’t know how I skipped this when I was younger. It’s sort of one of those American classics that everyone knows and has probably read. I know I’d seen a cartoon version when I was younger and I was familiar with the references to Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, but I had never read the story. For some reason I had been expecting a novel and so when I downloaded it to my kindle, I was surprised to find that it was a short story. Don’t ask me why I expected a novel, but I did. So I read it quickly and checked it off my list. It’s a fine story and it has worked its way into the American lexicon but I found it to be overly flowery in style and even a bit simplistic. If we’re going for stories that bring chills to your spine, I much prefer the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.
Now this book will give you some chills. I am fully befuddled by the current obsession with all things undead. This trend to romanticizing characters that originally represented the very embodiment of evil is a bit beyond me but I thought that it would be interesting to go back to the original and get a bit of context. Having read one of the Twilight series, I had been given a very perfunctory background on vampires. The original is so entirely different from the modern renditions there really is no comparison. Sparkly, brooding, and romantic are not adjectives you would use to describe Dracula or any of the other undead that haunt this story. No, they are repulsive or horrific. Not really surprising, right? What I did find surprising was the way the story was framed in terms of Christian spirituality. I really hadn’t expected that at all. Vampires are satanic and demonic. The people who fight them are defending what is right, good, and true. And they have a more important motivation. The vampires inhabit the bodies of those they have killed, robbing their victims of the opportunity to truly die and know the peace of heaven. There are lots of references to blood sacrifices, redemption, the power of crucifixes. The story is often framed in terms of spiritual warfare. I found this so surprising.
If you do want to read it, I would recommend a critical edition as the notes will provide very helpful background information. The Norton Critical edition, as usual, is excellent. Interestingly, Norton has only produced critical editions of five other classic “horror” stories: Frankenstein, The Turn of the Screw, Heart of Darkness, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Metamorphosis. Having read all the others, it’s not surprising that Dracula is included with this formidable list.
I am currently in the middle of working on a project involving lots of classic Medieval literature. As Beowulf is one of the original “Classics” I am trying to decide which version to include. There are several considerations and both editions have their merits. Having read a couple other editions, I know that the decision is going to come down to these two. Other versions translate it into prose (blasphemy!), others drop the alliteration and compound words. These versions preserve all these important elements without being too clumsy. I think that the Crossley-Holland version is a bit more accessible, an important thing to consider as it’s going to be read by high school students. The problem, is that Heaney’s version is more beautiful. Heaney’s version is also a bit snooty. By that I mean that I think Heaney makes things more complicated than they need to be – but he does capture the linguistic beauty of the poem. So, what do you go for, especially when you want to nurture a love of great literature in young students? Good, reliable and accessible or beautiful, well-done but a bit affected? Ahhhhhhhh. That’s basically how I feel about it now and that means I’m probably going to have to read them again.
OK, it’s really already considered a “modern classic” but there is something to this book that sets it apart from so many other contemporary stories. There’s a thoughtfulness, a solemnity and a respect for the characters often lacking in most novels published today. Although her style differs from that of Marilyn Robinson, I am convinced that these two women have firmly established themselves in the great American literary tradition. Their stories are deeply thoughtful and speak to the pain and glory of humanity. The common thread that I believe ties the stories of Dillard and Robinson together in my mind is a delicate and graceful handling of the frailties of their characters. There is a compassion and a recognition that each of the people that inhabit their stories represents some characteristic present in everyone, whether it’s beautiful, strong, ugly, or weak, or a combination of all the above. These characters are never one-dimensional. I remember reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and getting the distinct feeling that the author found his own characters laughable, detestable, and ridiculous. Thackeray stood in judgement of the people who inhabited his fantastic story in a way that was indicative of the mores and customs of his time.
In contrast to this, Dillard and Robinson utilize the element of plot in a way that I believe is much more effective. Instead of writing through a narrator who provides commentary on the story, both these authors provide histories, side-plots, and follow-ups that not only give more depth to the stories, they provide context that allows the reader to understand the motives and effects of action more thoroughly. In The Maytrees, Dillard does not cast aspersions when one character decides to leave his loving wife for her best friend, she provides a context. This grace allows the story to take an unexpectedly beautiful twist while doing justice to the gravity of the action and the devastation it causes. As a reader, I find this style a much more effective mirror to my heart than the more didactic style so often taken by the authors of older classics. The Maytrees is a wonderful book and I’m indebted to my friend, Jeremy, for the recommendation. Check out his thought-provoking blog here.
I’m going to write a separate entry on some of the other books I’ve been reading and will put that up later this week. What have you been reading?
To see my other book reviews, click here.