I changed jobs at the end of last September and suddenly find myself with a vastly different commute than the one I’d been plodding along for the last decade. Although the amount of time spent on the road is about the same, I am now putting my body into the hands of a bus driver. This has freed up my mind for other endeavors. I spent most of the first few months with this new commute situation going through the several thousand photos Steve and I took on our trip to Scotland, narrowing it down to, literally, the best thousand or so. With that large task finally behind me, I have started reading again!
For many years, the only time I found to read novels was on airplanes. My selections have mainly focused on the big series that run amuck in the popular imagination. Having traveled over the last several years with Harry Potter, Lisbeth Salander, and Katniss Everdeen, at the end of 2015 I also found myself current in the lives of the Starks and Lannisters.
So, I have been trolling through the many classics I had previously loaded onto my Kindle, as well as lists of “should really read or re-read someday”, and garnering suggestions from friends for what to start next. I don’t think I want to post an individual review of every book I read this year, but I think perhaps a monthly summary might be a worthwhile task. So, here are the books I read in January.
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway. One of the themes in my recent reading selections has been “authors I feel like I should have read something by already”. For all of my familiarity with his cats, I am at a loss to remember having ever read anything by Hemingway. So this was my first foray. It’s an odd book – part travel diary, part ennui. Brett seems like a selfish bitch most of the time. Jake seems mainly along for the ride. Perhaps the latter is the point. I can’t say I feel particularly edified by this one, but I will read more Hemingway novels before coming to any kind of conclusion.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. Okay, I know I read it in high school, but it’s been ages and I have fond memories of this, Animal Farm, and 1984. Ah, the disenchantment of adolescence. What I didn’t remember was how ridiculous this book is. I get that it’s a warning of a dystopian future, concerned with the industrialization of the time. I could take the “Oh my Ford/Freud” conceit. But the intellectual debates between John and Mustapha Mond were just too much. That John, who had grown up among illiterate, alcoholic “savages” with no one to discuss his intellectual pursuits with, could engage in such lively philosophical discussions based solely on the fact that he had read the works of Shakespeare didn’t just strain credulity, which I’m generally open to having strained; it also made the dialog and character development unbelievable and pedantic, which I’m not so much down with. An important book, very much of its place and time, but one of the 100 greatest novels of all time? Not a chance.
I imagine Huxley would very much appreciate the resurgence of artisan cheese, bread, door knockers, and holes in the ground that the hipsters are bringing back, but be dismayed by their endless stream of i-products.
I still plan to re-visit Animal Farm and 1984 and hope they will be closer to my memories.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. From one dystopian future to the next. Another fondly-remembered book from my youth, this one more than met my expectations. Yes, it spoke to the worried, indignant feminist in me, both then and now. In the super crazy election campaign we are experiencing in the U.S., it even seems that a similar coup is more realistic now than it was a quarter century ago.
But what really struck me was the language. It was beautiful. I went out to look for a couple of reviews out of curiosity and found one contemporary to the book which wasn’t very complimentary, but which in part referred to it as “a poet’s novel”. I revel in language and am a slow reader precisely because I will re-read sentences multiple times if they are particularly striking to me. The metaphors throughout this book were, indeed, pure poetry.
And much of it was poetry that I’m certain I didn’t fully understand back in the day. Just one of the passages that struck me was this one about Offred’s sexuality and sexual utilitarianism/possession:
Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I too am disembodied. I can listen to my own heartbeat against the bedsprings, I can stroke myself, under the dry white sheets, in the dark, but I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it’s like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it’s like snow. There’s something dead about it, something deserted. I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor.
Really captivating imagery to me. I also remember being downright offended when I first read this by the abrupt change in the last chapter where all that came before is being discussed as historical primary documentation. I remember being particularly upset that the academics seemed to be calling into question Offred’s veracity. While a part of me still feels like I would have rather had a different ending – perhaps even as open-ended as just leaving off that final chapter – it no longer struck me as quite so dismissive of Offred and it didn’t detract so much from the novel as it did in my younger years.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. Have I read this one before? I really don’t know. I’m virtually certain I read some Jane Austen book, and it seems like this would have been the one, but upon reading it, it was a bit too unfamiliar. I’ll be reading others, so perhaps one of those will be the one I recall. Maybe it was Sense and Sensibility. Regardless, I really enjoyed this book. It wasn’t always easy reading – some words were jarring as having clearly different meanings now than they did then – but it was also beautiful language. Of course, I can always appreciate a strong-willed, intelligent woman who can hold her own, particularly in a time when she shouldn’t be able to. And I’m not above a little romance.
Mind you, once he got over being an elitist prick, Darcy was a little too perfect. He may be the original Jake Ryan, ruining 19th century women for all other men with his exceeding charm, wealth, generosity, and overall hottiness.
I was surprised by just how risqué the novel got when young Lydia ran off to live with Wickham for two weeks without the benefit of marriage. Truly scandalous for the time! Also, balls on Monday? Weddings on Thursday? The life of the well-to-do was certainly unconstrained by the idea of a work week.