Book Review: May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Although I have read most of Fitzgerald’s novels, it has been a long time since I have read anything by him. In that time I think I may have forgotten just how enjoyable Fitzgerald’s writing is.

Not surprisingly, May Day takes place on May 1st. The year is 1919 and crowds of soldiers recently returned from World War I are plentiful on the streets of New York. Among the characters that populate this novella the conflicts of the American class system play out over the course of twenty-four hours. We see affluent Yalies, working class soldiers who misdirect their leftover angst and agression toward socialists, and two women of vastly different worlds both hoping to make a match with Gordon Sterrett an impoverished artist having trouble readjusting to life after the war. And we see booze. Lots of booze.

Despite much humor, May Day is filled with many minor tragedies that make contentment difficult, life a struggle, and lead to truly tragic closing curtain.

The Verdict: Didn’t want to put it down. Almost missed my train stop.

Book Review: The Horla by Guy de Maupassant


Until now I had only ever read one short story by de Maupassant. Does anyone want to hazard a guess which one it was?

This edition of The Horla (roughly translated: “the outsider”) is actually one story told three ways. The Horla (1887), Letter From a Madman (1885) and finally The Horla (1886). Melville House puts the 1887 version first and I think they did the right thing. Not only is it the longest but it is also the most substantive. Letter from a Madman might be interesting in itself, but I think it would have been much less so if I hadn’t had the background of the 1887 version. Finally by the time I got to the 1886 version I am not sure I cared all that much.

The basic story is the protagonist’s descent into madness. Insomnia leads to paranoid delusions. In the end he thinks he has trapped the invisible horla in the house and sets it on fire. What’s that? Oh yeah, when he locked the house up and set it alight he failed to remember the servants sleeping on the top floor.

The Verdict: I was intrigued by the very real seeming descriptions of the descent into madness.

Book Review: The Dialogue of the Dogs by Miguel de Cervantes


In general I am not a fan of talking animals, but I must admit that with Lucy in our lives, I am more amenable to talking dogs now than I would have been previously. Apparently, if you believe the front flap, this is the first instance in western literature of a talking-dog story.

While taking treatment for syphilis, Ensign Campuzano overhears Scipio and Berganza, two Mastiffs talking to each other for what turns out to be their first time. And they have much to say. As Berganza tells Scipio about the different masters he has had over the years he simultaneously transmits Cervantes’ commentary on the vagaries of human nature. According to the front flap of this edition Berganza’s tales (tails?) provided a new way to discuss morality without relying on empiricism. The stories are interesting enough and they are indeed effective in accomplishing Cervantes’ aim. It took a while getting used to the translation which includes enough 21st century vernacular to be a little jarring at first. But I think overall I liked the modern language. It seemed more appropriately whimsical for the dogs than more antiquated language.

The Verdict: While it didn’t knock my socks off, the novella included many interesting stories with moral messages that never got preachy.

Book Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen


I love an espistolary novel so when Teresa pointed out that Lady Susan is an epistolary novella, I moved it right to the top of my list. Often I am disappointed because the letters included in such works of fiction have way too much quoted speech or dialog in them. To the point where there is little credibility in the epistolary nature of the work. One day I would love to find a work of epistolary fiction that reads like the correspondence in 84, Charing Cross Road. If anyone knows of a such a work let me know.

Austen does much better with the form than most authors. It isn’t until about half way through that she starts to use much quoted conversation. Perhaps she got lazy. I don’t think she needed to invent conversation to keep the narrative moving along. I liked the fragmentary nature of the letters back and forth. This is one form where I think it is good if not everything is crystal clear. I might try my hand one day at an epistolary something. Although not being a talented fiction writer I am at a distinct disadvantage. Then again maybe I should just read volumes of letters for the effect I appreciate. In my libarary I have unread volumes of correspondence to and from Gustav Mahler, Virgil Thompson, Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, May Sarton, the Mitford Sisters, GB Shaw, and others. And I loved my undergraduate History paper which used much from the five volume set of the letters of Sir Edward Elgar.

But I digress. Lady Susan is a conniving bitch and unlike other reviewers I don’t think she is deserving of any sympathy. She is the definition of selfish and deserves whatever lumps come her way.

The Verdict: A total pleasure.



Book Review: The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling


I think if you are going to be called Rudy, Rudyard is a much better name than Rudolph.

Sigh. What to say about this one? In this story of two British “ne’re-do-wells” who attempt to create their own kingdom in Afghanistan can be found fodder for those who find Kipling jingoistic as well as those who find him to be shining the light on the evils of imperialism. But in either case I just didn’t care. I was perpetually confused by the protagonists’ dialect and the smattering of non-English words. In the best of circumstances I don’t much like books written in dialect, and in this case it took a much too hale and hearty tale and made it far more annoying.

The Verdict: I can appreciate this for what it is, but I didn’t enjoy it for one moment. I don’t see much Kipling in my future unless it comes in cake form.


Book Review: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville


The first time I read Bartleby was in grad school. And do we ever appreciate anything properly when we are forced to read it? I worry that I can’t remember one word or feeling from the classroom discussion, but I think that says more about the quality of the discussion and less about my memory.

The second time I read it I think I was so looking for the magic key that would explain the story that I rushed through it.

This time I took it slow paying careful attention to everything. Because of this I enjoyed it.

For those who don’t know this famous story, Bartleby is a legal copyist for a Wall Street lawyer. There are many things Bartleby doesn’t want to do with his mantra being “I prefer not to”.

After looking around online (and at Frances’ review) and there are many different ways one can read this book. I even approached it with a queer perspective and really don’t put much stock in the homoerotic possibilities. The only thing that had any resonance with me is that Melville was suffering from clinical depression and fantasized about letting every obligation go bit by bit until he could finally turn his head toward the wall and die.

The Verdict: While I quite enjoyed reading Bartleby this time round, I am not sure I a m any wiser for the experience.


Book Review: A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert


Is this novella the source of Flaubert’s parrot? Or is the parrot a leitmotif in Flaubert’s work?

This is a simple tale of Félicité who spends her whole life looking for love. The longterm housekeeper for Madame Aubin, Félicité’s opportunities for love are perhaps not as many as they might be for someone with a higher position in society. Over the years she pours herself into work and her love into her charges, her boss, her nephew, and ultimately her parrot.

The Verdict: I found Félicité’s simple heart and her simple life to be intensely moving and really enjoyed A Simple Heart.


Book Review: The Dead by James Joyce


In The Dead is a story that could have gone many different ways. Taking place at a party, the reader wonders with each interaction where the plot may be headed–especially given the title. Dubliners Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta attend the annual dance hosted by his spinster aunts around the time of Epiphany in early January. While there he mixes with his aunts and the varied guests and generally finds himself unsure of himself and feeling rather awkward. At the end of the evening he becomes emotionally and physically amorous towards his wife. But he finds her worlds away. When pressed, Gretta tells him about her profound loss over the death of a loved one when she was seventeen. For a few reasons the story effects Gabriel deeply and one senses that he might be on the edge of a personal epiphany.

He muses:

Better to pass boldy into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.

The Verdict: Much to my surprise I really liked this novella. Up to this point I had sworn off James Joyce. I think The Dead has me reconsidering that.


Book Review: A Sleep and a Forgetting by William Dean Howells

If I were to very crudely characterize this novella I would say it was a cross between Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier and the movie Groundhog Day without the poignance of the West or the humor of the Bill Murray.*

I am a sucker for a story of rich folk travelling through Europe in general and Italy in particular. In A Sleep and a Forgetting William Dean Howells gives us an American travelling in Italy who finds himself enmeshed in the affairs of a rich American and his daughter who developed a serious case of short-term memory loss after witnessing the violent death of her mother. What’s not to like right? I am not sure but I found this one a bit of a slog. I think it may have something to do with what Frances refers to as the antiomniscient narrative.

The Verdict: I didn’t like this one very much because it was unhelpfully opaque. Frances, tell me does the doctor marry her in the end?

*For the record I really dislike Andie McDowell as an “actress” and I have never actually seen the movie.


Book Review: Adolphe by Benjamin Constant


I have already written about Adolphe in my review of Providence by Anita Brookner. It was a total coincidence that my TAOTN delivery arrived with Adolphe included just after I had finished reading the Brookner novel in which the protagonist leads a graduate school seminar in a close reading of the book.

Adolphe can be easily (and crudely) summarized thusly: For the first third of the book Adolphe seeks to win over the love of Ellénore. He spends the final two thirds trying to break up with her.
Like Tolstoy’s The Devil, I liked the straight forward storyteller-ish quality of this book. Unlike my experience with The Devil, my reflections on Adolphe were greatly enhanced by the discussion of it in the Brookner novel. It was almost as if I had been there for the discussion. Although Brookner’s characters are capable of a much more in-depth analysis of the text and its place in the Romantic tradition than little ol’ me. Plus they read it in its original French.

Since my experience of Adolphe was greatly influenced by the discussion in Providence, I will let Brookner flesh this out a bit.

‘…it is characteristic of the Romantic to reason endlessly in unbearable situations, and yet to remain bound by such situations…For the romantic, the power of reason no longer operates. Or rather, it operates, but it cannot bring about change.’

…the potency of this particular story comes from the juxtaposition of extremely dry language and extremely heated, almost uncontrollable sentiments…[T]here is a feeling that it is almost kept under lock and key, that even if the despair is total, the control remains.

…its terribly enfeebling message: that a man gets tired of a woman if she sacrifices everything for him, that such a woman will eventually die of her failure, and that the man will be poisoned by remorse for the rest of his life.

The Verdict: I liked Adolphe because it kept me in suspense as to how such a mind-f*** would end.