Tag Archives: Modern Library Top 100

Book Review: Call of the Wild by Jack London

the call of the wildThe Call of the Wild by Jack London

Goodreads Description: First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is regarded as Jack London’s masterpiece. Based on London’s experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness and his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence, The Call of the Wild is a tale about unbreakable spirit and the fight for survival in the frozen Alaskan Klondike.

Book Description: “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” THE CALL OF THE WILD is a novel by American author Jack London published in 1903. The story is set in the Yukon during the 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush—a period when strong sled dogs were in high demand. The novel’s central character is a dog named Buck, a domesticated dog living at a ranch in California as the story opens. Stolen from his home and sold into the brutal existence of an Alaskan sled dog, he reverts to atavistic traits. Buck is forced to adjust and survive cruel treatments, fight to dominate other dogs, and survive in a harsh climate. Eventually he sheds the veneer of civilization, relying on primordial instincts through lessons he learns, to emerge as a leader in the wild.

My Review:

The novel opens with the following epigraph:

“Old longings nomadic leap,

Chafing at custom’s chain;

Again from its brumal sleep

Wakens the ferine strain.”

After some digging, I discovered it was taken from the poem Atavism by John Myers O’Hara. For those that may not know (I didn’t), atavism means to revert to characteristics typical of an ancestral form.

The reader is given many clues (the title of the book, the epigraph, the name of the poem) as to the theme of the novel, and it’s one we can relate to. We all have a calling inside us, something that awakens the soul, and makes us feel alive.

The epigraph is followed by the sentence:

“Buck did not read the newspapers or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”

We immediately know the protagonist will go on a journey, literally and figuratively, that will cause him to return to the wild.

At the beginning of the book, Buck is enjoying a comfortable life with a wealthy family. He could easily have “lived the life of a sated aristocrat,” but “saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog”—a hint at the wild streak within. He was subservient to none. “And over this great demesne Buck ruled…king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller’s place, humans included.” While there are only a few pages dedicated to his relationship with the Miller family, you get the sense his attachment is superficial, his loyalty changeable based on those who care for him.

As the opening sentence suggests, “trouble is brewing” and Buck is plucked from a life of luxury and forced to work as a sled dog, suffering and witnessing cruelty from man and beast. He is no longer master of all, but must become subservient simply to survive. He eventually rises as the leader of the pack but still suffers man’s cruelty. He is rescued by a man and finally learns true love and loyalty. Eventually he learns to awaken the “ferine strain” and emerges as king of the beasts once again, but this time in the wild instead of civilization.

I liked this book better than I expected to. I wasn’t sure I would be able to connect with a dog as the main protagonist. Not that I don’t love dogs. I have two loyal companions sitting at my feet that would prove otherwise. I just wasn’t sure how genuine the character would feel to me. Would the main character, Buck, create the emotional attachment needed to propel me, the reader, through an entire novel? Surprisingly, he did and I even felt my eyes sting a little at the end.

4 out of 5 stars

 

I’ve been reading, or rereading, books on the Modern Library’s Top 100 list to see what I could learn from these highly praised works. The Call of the Wild is # 88 on the list. So what did I learn from reading this book? Here are a few writing “rules” that came to mind:

·         State the theme.

Masterfully done in the title, the epigraph, and the title of the poem the epigraph is quoted from.

·         Establish normal before you violate normal.

Buck was living an idyllic existence where he was doted on as the beloved pet of a wealthy family before he was plucked from his home and sold into a world of servitude and cruelty where he had to struggle to survive.  

·         Don’t use phonetics to emphasize dialogue.

At first I had difficulty reading the phonetic spelling of the dialogue given to the book’s human characters, but I adjusted to it fairly quickly. It provided a sharp contrast between the civilized world Buck had been stolen from and the savagery of the cruel world in which he had been placed.

·         The protagonist should be transformed over the course of the story (character arc).

London sends Buck on quite a journey, physically and emotionally, and he proves you can have a character arc when the main protagonist is an animal.

·         The final image should be the opposite of the opening image to show how much has changed.

The opening scene describes one where Buck is the master of his domain, a civilized animal among civilized people. The closing scene shows Buck as master once again but in a very different environment.  

 

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Book Review: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse fiveSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Goodreads Description: Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you – Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy – and humor.

My Review:

I read this book in May 2013 (I really need to get better about posting timely reviews), and while it’s been criticized as being choppy, disjointed, all over the place, and unintelligible, I came away with a profound sense of the disastrous effects of war on the human psyche.

The book is based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war where he, by a strange twist of fate, survived the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, was a prisoner of war held captive in an underground meat locker of a slaughter house, Slaughterhouse 5, that is.  In a reversal of fortune, his prison had become his salvation, delivering him from an apocalyptic scene of unimaginable destruction when the city of Dresden was almost obliterated from the earth. In the aftermath, his surviving captors forced him to perform the harrowing task of recovering and burning the bodies of the deceased.

The book isn’t written in chronological order. Instead, it jumps forward and backward in time, jarringly, to various periods in the main character’s life including time spent with aliens on the planet Tralfamadore. Yes, aliens.Was the character abducted by aliens? Did he become unstuck in time? Or were these just coping mechanisms in the aftermath of war?

Reading this book reminded me a little of someone who had experienced psychological trauma so severe that their personality split as a means to deal with reality. This condition, known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is a trauma-based disorder. It’s interesting that PTSD, common among war veterans, is also a trauma based disorder, and considering Vonnegut was a war veteran my perception of the novel may not be far off the mark. Vonnegut himself described the book as “so short and jumbled and jangled…because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

When you’ve experienced atrocities so unimaginable, it’s hard to make sense of anything and it’s easy to understand how Billy Pilgrim became “unstuck in time” and found refuge in another world. And so it goes…

Opening Line:

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

Memorable quotes:

“- Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Yes.
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

 “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

4 of 5 stars

Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

brave new worldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

Goodreads Description: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s prophetic novel of natural man in an unnatural world, is one of the twentieth century’s most profound and terrifying evocations of the future. This story of life in a streamlined Eden describes a civilization in which contemporary concepts of freedom and morality have become obsolete.

Modern Library Top 100 Rank: 5

My Review:

The book, written in 1931, is incredibly prophetic beginning with its description of human life created in a lab. No doubt it had seemed like a radical idea at the time, but less than fifty years later the first human would be conceived in a test tube within a sterile environment similar to one Huxley described. It’s a process known as IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), and it has fulfilled the dreams of many couples who couldn’t conceive naturally. With IVF, conception occurs outside the womb with the fertilized egg being returned to the mother’s uterus to develop as nature intended. I applaud science for finding a way to bring hope to couples who have had trouble conceiving, but I hope I don’t live to see a world where a BOKANOVSKY type process comes to fruition. Huxley’s novel takes the process to a terrifying level with its Hatchery and Conditioning center.

First Sentence: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”

The centre is a place where humans are artificially conceived and bottled in jars during gestation. Many are preselected at conception for a lower class, a process known as “bokanovskification”, where they are treated like a commodity and mass-produced in an assembly line of sorts, subjected to substandard environmental conditions at the embryonic stage to cause arrested development in mental and physical acuity, and conditioned via Pavlovian methods after “birth” to be suited and satisfied with their position in life.

Because of this, the family structure no longer exists. “Parent” is a foreign concept along with all the emotional ties of that familial bond. If you are a parent, think of the first time you heard your child say “Mama” or “Dada.” For me, it is one of the most beautiful words in the human language because of the depth of emotion and protective instinct that is tied to it. It stirs up feelings in me that I cannot even begin to put into words.

By artificially controlling the natural development of humans, we lose everything that makes each of us unique and suppress the potential for great ideas and innovation. By disallowing natural bonds to form like parent/child, husband/wife, we destroy the concepts of unconditional love, loyalty, and devotion.  

In the book, the leaders of society have created a utopia where everyone is content. A person’s purpose is manufactured through conditioning for the benefit of the community. Even a person’s emotions can be manufactured by popping a pill called Soma if they are depressed or having a VPS (Violent Passion Surrogate) treatment to stimulate the adrenals.

“What you need,” the Savage went on, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.

Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger, even for an eggshell. Isn’t there something in that?” he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. “Quite apart from God—though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”

“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”

“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.

“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”

“V.P.S.?”

“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

It’s frightening how prophetic this book is when you think about it. Don’t think so? Let’s name a few mood altering drugs on the market today: Zoloft, Xanax, and Prozac. They’re really not too different from Soma, are they? I haven’t taken any of them, but I’ve heard acquaintances gush about how wonderful they are because they don’t worry about anything. They are just so happy, albeit a “manufactured” happy. What about adrenal stimulation? Video games, anyone? Especially combat games where the threat of death is simulated. The same can be said of horror or action movies.

These things may seem innocuous. After all, antidepressants aid people suffering from depression, video games improve hand-eye coordination, reaction time and decision-making, and movies create empathy; but when we partake in such large doses and they prevent us from dealing with reality, it becomes an issue.  

Yes, Huxley’s Brave New World is frightening indeed, and when I think of the state of morality as displayed by many celebrities, people on reality TV, and society in general, I wonder how far we are from it, really.

4 of 5 stars

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

photo credit: creativereview.co.uk

1984 by George Orwell

Back Cover Blurb: The world of 1984 is one in which eternal warfare is the price of bleak prosperity, in which the Party keeps itself in power by complete control over man’s actions and his thoughts. As the lovers Winston Smith and Julia learn when they try to evade the Thought Police, and then join the underground opposition, the Party can smash the last impulse of love, the last flicker of individuality.

But let the reader beware: 1984 is more than a satire of totalitarian barbarism. “It means us, too.” says Erich Fromm in his Afterword. It is not merely a political novel but also a diagnosis of the deepest alienation in the mind of Organization Man.

George Orwell writes with a swift clean style that has come down from Defoe. Like Defoe, he creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing–from the first sentence to the last four words…words which might stand as the epitaph of the twentieth century.

Goodreads Description: Written in 1948, 1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while the year 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions. A legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.

My Review

1st sentence: “It was a cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Thirteen? Clocks don’t strike thirteen, at least not in the world I live in. This is a brilliant opening sentence. You immediately know something is off, the world has changed. And if you suffer from triskaidekaphobia then you already have little warning bells sounding in your head.

The world Orwell created is divided into three super states that came to power after a global war: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The novel takes place in Oceania which is comprised of three social classes:

  • The Elite (Inner Party) – 2% of the population,
  • The Middle (Outer Party) – 13% of the population, and
  • The Low (Proletarians or Proles) – the remaining 85% of the population.

The Elite control every aspect of society through the elimination of personal freedoms, fear, and mind control, but according to the Elite this control is necessary to maintain the safety and security of the greater good. The Middle carries out the orders of the Elite. The Proles are viewed as mindless cattle that work, eat, sleep, and procreate. They’re just a commodity to the Party.

Even the language is controlled. It’s continually being simplified. Words are being eradicated or concatenated into a language known as Newspeak. The idea is that if there is not a word for it, then it does not exist. Reading and expressing your own views (verbally or in writing) are outlawed. Individualism is not allowed.

“To do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.”

The masses are under constant surveillance through telescreens, wiretapping and hidden cameras. The only time they have alone is when they are sleeping, and even then a word uttered against the Party could have one arrested by the Thought Police for a thoughtcrime.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”

The government of Oceania established four ministries to maintain control over the people. The names reflect the brainwashing methods of the Inner Party:

1. Ministry of Truth (news)

The Party controls the media and thereby controls the “truth.” The past is continually being rewritten (fabrication, not truth) to reflect favorably on the Party, and any evidence to the contrary is eradicated.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

2. Ministry of Peace (war),

Oceania is constantly at war (not at peace) with one of the other superpowers.  This endless war is a means to keep the people under control. The angst felt at the loss of their personal freedoms is directed, or rather misdirected, at one of the other superpowers. They are too busy preparing for or thinking about war to believe otherwise.

“Heavy physical work, the care of the home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

3. Ministry of Plenty (economic affairs),

Basic human needs like food and water are under the control of the Party. Food is scarce, not plenty. The Party employs self-preservation as a powerful influence over the masses.

4. Ministry of Love (law and order)

Psychological and physical torture (not love) is used to punish any acts of rebellion against the Party. The Ministry of Love is located in a building where there are no windows. It’s continually bathed in light. Since one cannot distinguish between night and day, the passage of time is unknown. The following sentence appears early in the novel and gives the reader a feeling of hope, but by the end it is evident that it refers to something completely different.

“We shall meet in the place where this is no darkness.”

The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a member of the Outer Party who works for the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to cast a favorable light on the Party. He seems to be the everyman hero at the beginning of the novel. There is nothing unique about him other than his desire to write down his own thoughts, to dream of a better life, but in this Orwellian society those desires are quite extraordinary. He purchases a journal in secret and writes his thoughts in it with his back to the telescreen. That act alone could have him arrested by the Thought Police, but he goes further with the declaration of “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” at great personal risk of being “vaporized” (eradicated from existence). Readers will immediately root for him.

Orwell created a world so believable and prophetic that it is actually quite frightening. Don’t think so? We only have to look at the recent past, the era just prior to the time the book was written, for an answer. It happened during the Third Reich with the rise of Hitler. An entire nation was brainwashed through propaganda into dehumanizing the Jewish population, and we know the unspeakable atrocities that followed. Who says it cannot happen again?

It is often beneficial to reread books. You gain new insights based on your own life experiences since that first reading or you may make odd connections like I did. When I read the following sentence, I shook my head in disbelief. I’ll explain why in a moment. First, the sentence:

“He had been appointed to a sub-committee of a sub-committee which had sprouted from one of the innumerable committees dealing with minor difficulties that arose in the compilation of the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary.”

What is so compelling about this passage? For most of you, probably not much, but for me it could have been taken from a scene in my life. When I was working in the financial services industry, I received an e-mail from my boss letting me know that I had been appointed to the subcommittee of the committee to report on reportable events and would need to take part in a weekly conference (paraphrased except the words in italics which are verbatim, yes really). I wish I had a copy of the e-mail as proof, but it only exists in my mind (readers of the book will appreciate the reference here). I thought my boss was playing a joke on me, so I sent a reply to him saying as much. But, the subcommittee of the committee was, in fact, real. I had to sit through a meeting (via conference call with members in other cities) and listen as the other twenty plus members droned into the phone, “I have nothing to report.” Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

This novel is complex and thought-provoking. Although it was written in 1948 about the future, and 1984 has long since passed, it is still relevant today. I believe the author intended it to be a warning of what could be. It will leave you with a feeling of deep concern about the danger inherent in giving up too much personal freedom. I highly recommend this book.

5 of 5 stars

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsBook Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Published: 1929

Modern Library Ranking: 74

Book Description: The best American novel to emerge from World War I, A Farewell to Arms is the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Hemingway’s frank portrayal of the love between Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley, caught in the inexorable sweep of war, glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature, while his description of the German attack on Caporetto—of lines of fired men marching in the rain, hungry, weary, and demoralized—is one of the greatest moments in literary history. A story of love and pain, of loyalty and desertion, A Farewell to Arms, written when he was thirty years old, represents a new romanticism for Hemingway.

Okay, that wasn’t exactly my reaction to the ending of the book, but when I saw this scene in the movie, Silver Linings Playbook, I had to laugh. I could relate to his reaction, and although I didn’t break any windows or utter any profanities (okay maybe one or two), I do believe I tossed the book aside. I don’t need a happily ever after to enjoy a book, but this is what the author makes you crave while you’re experiencing an otherwise hopeless world, where war and death are commonplace. If you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t get that from Hemingway. His books depict the real rather than the ideal. War is not glamorous. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Death is inevitable. Often we read to escape that reality, and that’s where the disappointment comes from. We want to believe that it was all worth it somehow.

I’ve been reading, or rereading, books on the Modern Library Top 100 list to see what I could learn from these highly praised works. What did I learn from reading this book? Here are a few writing “rules” that came to mind:

  • Hook the reader with the first line.

1st sentence: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”

No, it’s not particularly engaging, but I kept reading as the next rule came to mind.

  • Avoid slow beginnings. Starting a book with too much pedestrian detail will lose the reader.

On the surface, the beginning appeared quite pedestrian, and it seemed so until I finished the book. If you know anything about Hemingway’s style, much of the meaning of what he writes lies beneath the surface. I reread the opening paragraph, and it took on a different meaning for me.

It describes a scene where troops are marching down a road. The only evidence that remains after they have passed is the dust that powders the leaves and trunks of the trees. Like the movement of the troops on the dusty road, our lives are temporary, and after we pass, the only thing that remains is the dust we leave behind; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’m not sure if this is the meaning Hemingway intended to convey but this is how I view it. The opening paragraph is hauntingly poetic to me now. Here is the rest of it:

“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

  • Use inconspicuous dialogue tags like “said” and “asked” only when necessary.

I don’t recall seeing any dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked,” and for the most part, Hemingway avoided dialogue tags altogether. It was confusing, at times, to determine who was speaking and I had to reread a passage.

  • Don’t use phonetic spelling to convey racial or cultural dialects. The oddly spelled words can be distracting to the reader.

The skill with which Hemingway uses the context of speech, a peculiar turn of phrase, those idioms indicative of a particular culture, allows the reader to hear the words as if they were spelled phonetically. As I stated above, he frequently omits dialogue tags, but his use of dialogue, for the most part, makes it unnecessary. One can learn a lot from studying Hemingway’s use of dialogue.

  • Create characters that are likable. The protagonist is a character the reader should empathize with. The emotional attachment is what keeps the reader interested in the story.

Initially, I viewed the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, as a self-absorbed womanizer. What led me to these initial reactions? Here is what he thought about Catherine:

“I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.” Then, in this same scene he tells her, “But I do love you.”

What a snake. I didn’t feel sorry for Catherine, though. She was a pathetic character who fawned over Frederic and didn’t have a life or thought of her own. She seemed desperate for someone to love and would become whatever he wanted.

“There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.”

“You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

I wanted to puke. I had a hard time empathizing with these characters. But, as usual with Hemingway, all is not what it seems. Frederic is an ambulance driver who risks his life to help the wounded. Pretty noble, eh? He actually does fall in love with Catherine and the way I initially viewed him changed. He was no longer a player in those early scenes, but someone who wanted to remain numb, unfeeling among the atrocities of war, suppressing his emotions with alcohol and meaningless sex.

As for Catherine, her actions contradicted her words. She did have a mind of her own. She left the safety of her home country to aid wounded soldiers at the front. She did this to honor her fiance who was killed in the war. She was independent and courageous. Like Frederic, she put herself in harm’s way for the welfare of others. I no longer viewed her as a pathetic character but as someone who was desperately trying to deal with grief.

Although I believe I came to understand their actions, I never developed a deep emotional attachment for the characters.

My favorite quotes both appear on page 249:

“I know the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started.”

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

This seems to be describing the contrast between dreams and reality. What are the things we dream of? Peace, security, love? Does our world allow those things to exist? Frederic and Catherine find solace in each other’s arms, but can love exist among the atrocities of war? Maybe the answer lies in the book’s title.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST HEMINGWAY

“The first draft of anything is shit.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Hemingwaysun1I was comforted by those words as I started to revise my manuscript. See. You’re not that bad. Even the greats admit to serving up some real crap. I read The Sun Also Rises a few months ago and was left wondering how often Hemingway took his own advice. It seems to me that the book could have used another round of edits. {GASP!}

There, I said it. I just lambasted one of the greats of American literature. I had a hard time reading it.

Why, you ask? Well, for several reasons. The following “rules” kept swirling in my head, rules that Hemingway obviously didn’t care for.

Hook the reader with the first line.

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

What do you think? Were you hooked? I wasn’t. What kept me reading was that it was written by Hemingway.

Don’t introduce too many characters too quickly.

There were so many characters introduced at the beginning and with little or no distinguishing characteristics I kept getting them confused. I had to reread passages just to get them straight in my head. My view of many of the male characters was fuzzy at best. Wait, which guy is Brett? Oh that’s right, Brett is a female, Lady Brett. Well, then who is Lady Ashley? Oh…Lady Brett Ashley. After my initial confusion she became quite clear in my head, though, which leads me to the next rule.

Create characters that are likeable, characters that readers will root for (or at least one, please).

Yeah, I know we don’t have to like all the characters in a book. The antagonist is one we love to hate but you need at least one character to root for and I tried. I really tried but I found them all to be self-absorbed. The friendships, if you can call them that, were superficial, even two-faced. I hoped for some wonderful character arc, at least for the main character, Jake Barnes, but by the end of the book I was left disappointed.

Brett was, for lack of a better word, a “ho.” She claimed to love Jake but flaunted her relationships with other men in his face, even enlisting his help in “hooking up” with a bullfighter. She was incredibly vain, and used the poor schmucks around her to feed her own vanity. They were fawning all over her when they should’ve kicked her to the curb. What was Hemingway saying about the male population? As long as a woman is beautiful and “built like the hull of a boat” (Hemingway’s words, not mine), then she could be utterly despicable. They’d keep following on her heels like a lovesick puppy.

Set the right pace to keep the readers engaged in the story.

My mind kept wandering. Was this book ever going to go anywhere? There were points where I lost myself in the story because I was expecting something. I started to get interested around page 112. I remember, because I took note of the page and thought, “Here we go. This is where it’s going to get good.”

At this point in the book Jake is going fishing with a buddy and that’s all that really happens. Have you ever been fishing? It can be thrilling if the fish are biting or excruciatingly mundane if they aren’t. Cast. Wait. Wait some more. Reel it in. Repeat.  I might find it relaxing if it weren’t for the anticipation of catching a big fish, any fish really. You might start drinking to fight the boredom. And that’s precisely what the characters did. They drank…A LOT. Maybe they were bored, too? I imagined them saying, “Hemingway, I say ol’ chap, give us something interesting to do!”

So Hemingway broke a few rules, but I suppose he accomplished what he set out to do and that is worth some praise. The theme of the story is the destructive nature of war, and not just that which can be seen by war-torn cities and lost lives but the emotional effects on those that survive. It wasn’t meant to be a “feel good” story. War is often romanticized, portrayed as the ultimate display of masculinity with acts of heroism and bravery. But Hemingway’s story reveals it as a lie as he shows that war is emasculating in more ways than one.

It’s a story about the Lost Generation; those poor souls left to pick up the pieces of a broken life after World War I. Trust, honor, decency, and morality have all been upended.  Their aimless wanderings, superficial relationships, and propensity to drink to excess speaks volumes about the effects of war. When you’ve been through something so horrendous how do you find meaning in anything?

The following quotes hinted that the characters were aware of the lack of purpose in their lives and left me hopeful for some bright spot at the ending.

“Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”

“Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”

Maybe Brett would change her ways or Jake would have a Rhett Butler moment and tell Brett where to go but sadly that didn’t happen. While the ending dialogue is in the context of the relationship between Brett and Jake it hints at a broader range: humanity. The acceptance of the things as they are left me feeling utterly hopeless and I guess that’s why it didn’t appeal to me. I believe there is always hope.

3 out of 5 stars. Although I liked parts of the book and can appreciate the message I believe Hemingway was trying to convey, it was just okay.

I’ve been reading the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels to see what I can learn from the masters of literature and this one was on the list. So what did I learn from reading this book?

  • The masters broke the rules and still managed to create art that is highly praised.
  • I’m no Hemingway so I should probably stick to the rules if I don’t want readers to toss my book after the first sentence.
  • No matter how well written a book is, not everyone is going to love it.
  • You can appreciate the literary merits of a book and still not like the story.
  • I’ll probably never drink absinthe. Apparently it tastes like black licorice which is at the top of my list of the most disgusting things I’ve ever tasted.