One girl's journey to read the top 100 literature classics of all time in the space of 365 days, a quest for only the most foolhardy and brave

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Hiding from Henry…

I’m finding Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady hard going, a few thoughts on his style so far..

H-arasses every detail
E-ven the beating of a moth’s wings is un-missed
N-ever ending words
R-enders the eyes and brain tired
Y-earning for the end

J-uxpostion of characters
A-rbitrarily ambiguous
M-angled text damaged by psychological analysis
E-nding easy to see (at this point anyway)
S-ocial custom and commentary obsessed

lets hope it improves with the pages.. simply put its about a headstrong, independent American woman who lands in England to pursue her destiny and has to keep her wits on guard against wily Englishmen.

Quite similar to time my time overseas to be honest, exchanging the American part for Australian :p

The only part I’m really enjoying right now is the cross dissection of english culture and the lead character, Isabel’s headstrong nature.

One of the top lines so far:

“The Husband of the elder (sister), Lord Haycock was a very good fellow but unfortunately a horrid tory and his wife, like all good English wives, was worse than her husband.”

…ouch! more scathing wit from Isabel to come I hope!





Hello mr james…

The next book underway..

A celebrity spotting if ever there was one…

Today I served a trio of celebrities. None other than Newland Archer, May Welland and Ellen Olenksa.

I couldn’t quite believe it at first. So much so, I did a double take. And then another, while handing them a menu and seating them at their table of 12.

Surely you’ve heard of them? Most have. It’s not every day you serve coffee to the very characters out of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence.

No I hadn’t by chance found some kind of time portal next to the cappuccino machine which teleported me back to 1870’s New York.

And No, I wasn’t  in the throes of classic literary fever,  I didn’t even have the hint of a temperature.

They didn’t just look like them, they were May, Newland and Olenka, the lead protagonists of Wharton’s gorgeous tale of love, yearning, and the constant obsession with the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence.

Why they chose my coffee shop to come into I have no idea but I loved every minute of it.

Newland and May obviously sat together and Ellen was at the other end of the table, diagonal to Newland’s line of sight.

He was everything I thought he would be, smart, charming and clearly sitting firmly in the middle of a charmed life, pretty wife by his side. But his eyes were his undoing. They betrayed it all. His disillusionment, his boredom, his panic at being trapped in.

When you looked at him you could literally feel him eyeing his surroundings looking for escape. A window or door leading out to adventure. He wanted convention, tradition and all things proper but also wanted to fly in the face of it. I could see exactly what led him to where he was sitting today. Safety. Security. Fear of the unknown and above all conformity.

His eyes kept darting to Ellen the complete opposite to May. She dark to May’s light. She curvy to May’s almost anorexic frame.

Any time Ellen’s name was mentioned, Newland’s ears seemed to prick and his head inclined in her direction. A movement that seemed to make May flinch and draw his arm tighter to her.

Ellen was stoic and strong, charming and smiling to all those around. Seeming to draw from an inner strength of self belief and discard for the judging eyes of others, except for when hers and Newland’s eyes met.

A sad recognition and acceptance of their situation fluttered between them. They both seemed so torn and yet so impossible for each other.

The others at the table seemed to dance around the invisible lines that inexorably tied May, Newland and Ellen together.

May was the complete embodiment of decorum and insecurity all in one. She smiled and indulged in hearing about one of Ellen’s latest stories or adventures before making a quick retort said pleasantly, but meant as a painful barb. Something about the contentedness of having a husband, house and life in order and that one of these days Ellen should think about the same. A pointed insinuation that Ellen should return to her own husband.

I could see the already easy resentment building between May and Newland and it was obvious to anyone that while matched well by status they weren’t matched in temperament or sense of spirit.

When they went out the door I didn’t know if they would all continue to be miserable or some how discover a solution to their situation. Ellen clearly stuck in limbo for a man who can’t be a man for her, May married to a man who married for safety and to do what was expected of him instead of following his heart or Newland who wanted to both have and eat his cake at the same time. Torn between his duty and his desire.

For characters from a book set in the 1870’s I could still see and hear them loud and clear today and it’s not hard to imagine how it all turns out.

Since guilt, agonising over what if’s and unyielding passion never go out of fashion, I think its safe to say Wharton’s classic is timeless.

Well worth a read for all those who are guilty of spending their time dithering so much that they end up forgetting to brave it and live their own life.

ps… Happy Birthday Ms Wharton, perhaps very fitting that I finished your book on the very day of your 150th birthday.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins…

As the title and opening line suggests, this is an uncomfortable book  to read. In fact Lolita is one of the hardest books I’ve ever read.
The haunting yearnings of a middle aged man for his pre-pubescent 12 year old step daughter.

Scandalous even now, I can’t imagine the furore it would have caused when it first came out.

I felt I was peering into the very mind of a paedophile. It provides intimate descriptions of the accidental touches, sniffing and caressing of his ‘nymphet’ before he manages to consumate his fantasy into reality.

I’m no book review critic but upon finally finishing it ( 7 tortuous days) I was left wondering why it was on the top 100 literature list.

I suspect the infamy of it’s content has raised it’s high above the parapet it really deserves.

I found it so hard to read a book full of French colloquialisms and random waffling. Constant drifting from thought to thought. Referring directly to the reader throughout it doesn’t really achieve the connection it seeks to make.

I know this isn’t an autobiographical book but such is the skill of Vladimir Nabokov that you really are left feeling this is an intimate depiction of his own thoughts and experiences.

How a book can have such a reprehensible character yet retain an audience is puzzling to me. It seems to draw you in with morbid curiosity as to how a young girl could fall into the clutches of a moral-less and despicable man so easily. He proclaims suffocating despair,  regrets and sorrow while at the same time licks his lips with glee at the activities he’s shared with his precious Lolita, his nymphet. It is in a word, unsettling. Lolita is not loved for who she is but what she appears in his fantasies.

The conclusion leaves nothing but a bitter taste in your mouth and it took gumption to finish it. I struggled to understand the importance or relevance of such a book.

If anything at all Lolita provides insight to the the psychiatric make up of a diabolically lecherous man and a young girl on the verge of understanding her own sensuality, using sex to explore and express herself.

I can understand why many tried to ban it when it first came out but it is important that works such as this exist and continue to be read. Even if it is only to better understand the illness that continues to plague many nromal appearing men today. What’s most disturbing about the book, is that it’s so realistic. It could happen. It has happened and will continue to happen.

If you think you are unshockable I challenge you to read it. I couldnt help but flinch at some of the prose but I feel all the more stronger for it.

Challenging yourself by reading a emotionally testing book can be even more gratifying then reading for sheer pleasure.

At the end of day, when the book is finished, the last page is closed and its back on the shelf the words last far longer in the mind. It’s what you do with them that counts. As for me, I’ll never look at young girl and a grown man together the same way again.


G is for Gatsby

Most people have read Fitzgerald. By that I mean F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in saying that, most know of or have read ‘The Great Gatsby’.

I had not. I had gleaned of what it was roughly about in highschool once, but it never was a book we studied or read.

Or most importantly one I sought out. It was however the first one I was drawn to when consulting my 100 list courtesy of The Modern Library.

I skipped the introduction and forward and jumped right in. With news that Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star as the mysterious Jay Gatsby himself and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in a film adaptation of the book later this year I couldn’t help but picture their faces when following the story.

It’s an understatement to say I adored it. While focusing on troublesome times of an altogether different era, it holds its own even today.

Perhaps I’m in the throes of classic madness but I do see elements of Gatsby and Nick Carraway in everyone.

I’ve met many a Gatsby who has constructed a life around them that they think they want, that shows them in the best light, that allows them to forget and scrub away the stains of times past and begin a new.

Those who find themselves trapped in their own lies, lonely even in their own company and who seek untenable dreams that sometimes are best left as pleasant day dreams.

This is the plague of Gatsby and I doubt there is a single person who reads it who doesn’t identify with him to some extent or recognise their partners or friends or colleagues in him.

He’s surrounded by many but always alone and never, ever openly lets himself out.

What could possibly be worse? Well to be Nick Carraway of course. The perennial observer, an outsider always analysing and judging the lives of others including his own. A person who never really plays his part or lives his own life. He more or less watches his life being lived beside or in front of him. Always one step ahead or to the side and looking back, instead of revelling in the moment.

Oh I know a lot of Nick Carraways and when procrastination gets the better of me, I do can indulge in a few Carraway traits. Self loathing and analysis, distance from others and questioning what would be the ‘right thing to do’. Perhaps the one thing I took out of the book was, that it’s not so much about the right thing to do, but the doing of something that matters.

What perhaps fascinated me the most was I intended to read through this list from the perspective of a writer and prospective author, studying the prose and gaining insight into my style and how I portray the characters in my novel which is still stuck at infancy.

Instead I became completely absorbed in the characters, in the setting, in the polar opposites and at the same time, striking similarities between Nick and Gatsby and the emotional manipulations of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.

The only redeemable feature of both Daisy and Tom is their love of each other and ability to save their own skins. Perhaps this is an unfair judgement but they both come off in the end as remarkably cold-hearted.

The real key to this book is the characters. I completely became entrapped in trying to understand Gatsby and seek some insight and depth to Carraway.

If that’s one lesson I take away from the interminably talented Fitzgerald, it’s that if you make the reader fall in love with the character, they fall in love with the book.

Consider me suitably infatuated.


let the classification begin…

I may have just set myself a challenge that is a bit beyond me. It requires endurance, patience and persistence.

A marathon of sorts, not for the body but for the mind. The question is just how many classics can one person read in a row before turning mad? Before they start believing that Mr Darcy lurks around every corner and sees elements of Gatsby in every person they meet?

Well I’m not sure, but considering I do this already I may be lost before I’ve already begun.

You see I’ve always been a self-confessed book nerd with a voracious appetite. Always looking for my next hit, something that I can shoot into my veins to stir the heart, emotions and mind.

There is no greater thrill or rush better than discovering a truly orgasmic book for the first time. You long to savour the story and characters but also want to rush to the conclusion.

But when you turn that final page, nothing but bittersweet regret lingers, you’ll never read that book for the first time again. And so begins the search for another and another.

It can become an overwhelming addiction, I can assure you. So I suppose to tame the beast and also nourish the writer I’m trying so hard to grow within, I have decided to jump into the 20th century era classics and read the crème de la crème of them. The top 100 classics from top to tail in 365 days. No skipping, no reading forwards or movie adaptations, introductions in advance and definitely no reading notes. Solemnly absorbing them one by one.

Don’t worry you won’t be reading blog after blog of analytical reviews of the books, just some witty (where possible) insights into how relevant these classics are to us today and just what a wayward writer and aspiring author can hope to learn from them.

So despite the risk of falling into classic madness which I fear I already suffer, at the very least a classic obsession, I will begin.



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