Archive for the ‘100 Word Reviews’ Category

James Joyce' A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManIs selfishness an obligation of genius? If so then Stephen Dedalus, the focus of James Joyce’s brilliant semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meets his responsibilities in full.

The book follows Stephen as he grows from a young child to a sin-and-salvation obsessed teenager to an ambitious university student preparing to leave his home, country, and religion, and forge his own soul as a free artist.

Portrait deserves its acclaim as one of the founding works of modernism. Joyce uses his famous stream of consciousness technique to convincingly render Stephen’s inner voice, which he interweaves with dialogue, descriptions, sermons, and diary entries. The story is built on thematically linked episodes, rather than conventional plot and conflict, and rewards the attention required from readers to follow it.

Joyce regards Stephen Dedalus as the model of what a writer should be (an early draft of the novel was called “Stephen Hero”) but it is his character’s spectacular self-concern that stands out as much as the spectacular potential of his talent.

Stephen Dedalus thinks about no one but himself. He is indifferent to the poverty of his parents and younger siblings, while carelessly neglecting the university classes they struggle to afford. He values his friends largely as sounding boards for his ideas. And he refuses his pious mother the comfort of attending a service for a religion in which he no longer believes, holding his fine scruples higher than her single request.

Perhaps great artists need to ruthlessly commit themselves solely to the creation of their art. Perhaps this is an obligation of genius. But it is not a pretty one.

Related Content on James Joyce

You’ll find my review of Finnegan’s Wake (actually totaling 100 words) as part of this post.

Here is an interesting article on Finnegan’s Wake by Michael Chabon. Aside from trying a little too hard to out-Joyce Joyce, I like Michael’s thoughts quite a bit.

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Henry V by William ShakespeareIn Henry V, Shakespeare finds his “muse of fire” and she blinds us with her dazzling light.

Henry V is a play of almost ridiculous dramatic richness in which the scrappy, underdog Harry wins the battle of Agincourt, seizes his rightful French throne, and gets the King’s daughter. Hooray!

Except the war is justified by dubious arguments and provoked by the English clergy, who are eager to distract Henry from confiscating their wealth. Henry captures the French town of Harfleur after threatening genocide. He orders the slaughter of prisoners and leaves 10,000 French knights and soldiers dead on the field. Every friend of his youth, except one, is gone. They die in the battle, by execution after Henry’s judgment, or in the case of Falstaff, cold in bed with a wandering mind and a heart broken by the king.

In the end, it all comes to naught. The last lines of the play tell us Henry dies young, leaving England to be misruled by his infant son and a group of nobles who lose all that Henry won and spill more blood. But it was still worth it and Henry is still a hero. Right?

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Bronte Wuthering HeightsHalloween is an excellent time to read a scary book, but you don’t have to read dreadful trash written by semi-literate hacks – although honestly, that can be pretty fun too.

So I’ve chosen my favorite works of “horror” from famous writers for this personal “best of” list, and treated each to my 100 Word Review format. Hope you find something in here you like!

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847). Heathcliff and Cathy’s fierce love survives betrayal and lives on beyond death in this superb novel. Wuthering Heights tests the reader’s patience through its long middle section, but rewards this patience in the end, when Heathcliff either embraces an ecstatic vision or succumbs to insanity.

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian (1985). Sam Peckinpah meets the Old Testament in this nightmare Western by the author of No Country for Old Men. Although the story follows a young boy through the Indian wars of the 1850s, its central figure is “the judge,” who seems to be neither man, demon, nor god, but the embodiment of the endless violence fixed deep in the human soul.

Henry James: The Turn of The Screw (1898). A country house, two small children, a young governess, and the appearance of menacing apparitions. You’ve seen this set-up before. But James is a master storyteller, and the ambiguity at the center of his tale – whether the children are haunted by the ghosts of former servants or by their governess’ furious delusions – make this work particularly effective and frightening.

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897). Stoker’s novel makes the list because it’s a vampire novel actually worth reading. Dracula is a predator, not a seducer, and Stoker’s work surprises by resembling a detective novel as much as it does a horror story.

William Shakespeare: MacBeth (1606). An obvious choice, but it bears repeating that a play featuring regicide (among other murders), witches, ghosts, sleepwalking, suicide, a severed head, and blood everywhere and continuous, is a good choice for Halloween.

Nikolai Gogol: The Nose (1836). In this Russian short story, a minor civil servant wakes up one morning to discover his nose has been replaced by blank skin as flat as a “freshly cooked pancake”. The missing nose is an embarrassment, an inconvenience, an annoyance, a source of curiosity or indifference, but never the cause of wonder or fear. Similar in many ways to The Metamorphosis, Gogol wrote this story nearly 80 years before the appearance of Kafka’s famous beetle.

Shirley Jackson: The Lottery (1948). Jackson’s much-anthologized short story packs a wallop with its renowned gimmick ending. Whether it’s anything more than Children of the Corn for the Proust set is another matter.

Matthew Lewis The MonkMatthew Gregory Lewis: The Monk (1796). For lurid trash with a pedigree, it’s hard to beat The Monk. The novel tells the story of a pious Capuchin who succumbs to lust and features black magic, rape, incest, torture, murder, and behind it all, the machinations of the Devil himself. The Monk is one of the key novels of the Gothic genre. It is also an urtext for the mass-market bestseller, in which a book that lacks coherent plot, internal logic, human insight, or a glimmer of writerly craft can become wildly popular by sheer force of sensationalism.

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The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey EugenidesIn The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of the five Lisbon sisters who kill themselves over the course of a single year, and along the way writes a mash note to youth and innocence, age and disappointment, and the Detroit of the 1970s at the moment when the city’s wealth and vitality begin to rot away.

Eugenides’ story is twee, and fantastic, and too cute by half until the last twenty pages, when he slips his knife under your breastbone, cuts out your heart, and holds it up, beating and bleeding, with a silent question: “This is life. Can you endure it?”

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I had a long slow argument with Henry James while reading The Wings of the Dove. Was he an immortal genius? Or a purveyor of pretentious soap operas? Here’s who won the argument:

“On that especial issue, Peter made something like a near approach, taking into account his great reasons, the particulars and nuances and complexities, they being, of course, more important than the main point, they being really fine, and grand, and ravishing, and although he hung fire on his answer, and really, who might blame him, before committing himself, as it were, to a more definite position, which if stated plainly, might fall a little flat, might seem a little thin, might reveal too baldly a poverty of thought and a desolation of feeling, conveniently concealed in a thicket of syntax, great flashes of brilliance aside, yet he did half commit himself, in the end, all of which is to say, perhaps, he wouldn’t decide James wasn’t coming out something more ahead than not.”

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The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe - book coversFans of science fiction, with two weeks of glorious vacation reading time before them, could do much worse than pick up The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.

This four-novel series follows Severian, an exile from the guild of The Seekers of Truth and Penitence (ie, torturers and executioners) as he pursues his picaresque and ultimately momentous destiny on an earth so far in the future the sun is burning out.

Severian’s adventures keep the reader cheerfully turning pages, and Wolfe seeds the novel with enough time-bending, past-is-future plot twists and vague mythological-theological themes to feed late-night bull sessions in college dorm rooms everywhere, but the real delight – and the major accomplishment – is in the details.

The plants, animals, machines, buildings, cities, humans, and aliens of The Book of the New Sun consistently enchant with their originality and strangeness. And by creating a decaying medieval society, mostly forgotten and abandoned by other humans who fled to the stars long ago, Wolfe smoothly unites fantasy and science fiction. Excellent, guilt-free reading for August.

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As You Like It - The New Cambridge Shakespeare book coverIn As You Like It, Shakespeare banishes all unhappiness, unless it springs from love.

The play follows a multitude of characters driven from a nobleman’s court to exile in the Forest of Arden, where they find refuge from the ambition, intrigue, envy, and striving of the world.

There a usurped Duke philosophizes on his new freedom; a lord tends his melancholy like a garden; and the clown Touchstone pursues his fooling to the edge of the sublime – but the show belongs to the misery and ecstasy of love and to the superlative Rosalind, mistress of all situations and persons except her own wild heart.

There are familiar Shakespearian tropes in As You Like It. The instantaneous and absolute way love conquers. The woman dressed as a man who hides from her love and is loved by the wrong person in turn. And the character who arranges events to create maximum drama, even as the audience is left wondering what motivates her manipulations.

No matter. The dialogue is superb. Rosalind bewitches men and women, on and off stage, in equal measure. And all ends happy in this most delicate of Shakespeare’s comedies.

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In Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel continues her speculation on the life of Thomas Cromwell – Master Secretary and consigliere to King Henry VIII of England – as he works to remove Anne Boleyn from the throne of England because Anne has failed to produce a male heir for the king and, more essentially, because Henry has grown tired of her.

Mantel delivers a brilliant synthesis of the genre and literary novels, offering action, intrigue, sex, and blood as well as masterful writing, sharp-edged dialogue, finely drawn characters, and acute psychological insights. More impressively, she takes absolute possession of Cromwell’s mind and then offers readers a prime seat in it.  Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall.

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Holy cow, he’s rich and handsome. Holy crap, he makes me horny. Holy Moses, he’s got a sex dungeon. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, I have to sign this contract? Holy crap, he’s mysterious and tortured. Ouch! he’s spanking me. Oh, I like it. Holy cow, he loves me for me? Hey! he tied me up. Huh, I like it. Holy crap, I’m meeting his mother. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, shocking personal revelations! Glider. IHOP. Flogger. Handcuffs. Holy crap, he plays the piano too. Such a nice boy. Holy cow, the love of a brave woman should fix any broken man. Ah … aah … aaahh … aaaahhh! … aaaaahhhh!!AAAAAAHHHHH!! 

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Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, Yale Univ PressNikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls first gained fame as a caustic satire of Russian society when it was published in 1842. Today’s readers will value it as a mesmerizing phantasmagoria of human vice, mendacity, and mediocrity.

The title refers to a defect in Russian law that frequently required the owners of serfs (or “souls”) to pay taxes on their human property even after the serfs have died. The story follows Chichikov, a small-time confidence man, as he buys these souls at steep discounts, saving the owners from the taxes and gaining for himself fraudulent collateral he can use in subsequent schemes.

Gogol offers a parade of vividly detailed human caricatures described in language which is baroque, grotesque, exuberant, and exact. Fans of Vladimir Nabokov will find much that is familiar in Gogol’s prose. I enjoyed the translation of Dead Souls by Bernard Guilbert Guerney which Nabokov recommended .

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