Archive for the ‘Realism’ Category

Book #106: The Girls of Slender Means

Let me preface this by saying that I think just about any book I read after my wild and crazy romp with Douglas Adams was bound to be a bit of a letdown.

I had a hard time taking Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means seriously at first. I kept wanting it to be funny and assuming that everything she said was meant to be sarcastic or witty. I was kind of in the Douglas Adams “this is supposed to be silly” mindset, which wasn’t great for this book.

The Girls of Slender Means is a postwar story about a rooming house in London where literary, smart young women live. They’re pretty much all twenty-somethings, and they all are trying to find husbands and make their way in the world. And that’s pretty much it.

I will say this for Spark – she’s great at creating vivid, believable characters. We meet several girls who live in the hostel, and they are all real and believable, with interesting quirks, flaws, and ideas. They all come to life very well. I felt like I could know or encounter any of them in the real world and not be surprised at all. Almost all of them are fully developed and three-dimensional.

Overall, however, The Girls of Slender Means was a bit “meh” for me. I think I’ll chalk it up to the stark reality of Spark’s novel immediately following the colorful, clever, and zany world Adams created, because I did find myself enjoying it more by the end. I’d even recommend it to people who want a quick, relatively interesting read.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Butcher Boy

Book #102: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I grew up just a few hours from Mark Twain’s stomping grounds in Hannibal, Missouri. I remember visiting the city a few times as a kid while we were on a family trip to the Ozarks. We went to the cave from Tom Sawyer (I have a story about it, but I guess I’ll save it for when I read that book), walked along the river, rode the Mark Twain steamboat, explored the bluffs and river banks around Hannibal, all the stuff. Sometimes while I was reading Huck Finn, I felt like I had an added layer of appreciation because I’ve seen where Twain was writing from and can visualize a lot of what might have influenced him.

That said, I went through a Mississippi River phase when I was a kid, where I liked reading books about people going on the ‘Mighty Mississippi.’ My grandparents took me to the locks and dams on the river, I went to a couple museums, I watched some shows about it. But somehow even though I read the kid adaptation of Tom Sawyer, I never read Huckleberry Finn.

I’ve talked before about how I hate when things are written in dialect. It doesn’t matter if it’s something like Jim’s way of talking in Huckleberry Finn or the crazy mess of “what the heck??” that was Trainspotting, I do not like it. It doesn’t really add anything to the story for me and I have trouble figuring out what characters are saying and it takes me out of the story. I knew that I was probably going to have some issues with Jim just on the dialect front, but I tried to psyche myself up for it as much as I could.

Thankfully, the dialect issue wasn’t that bad for me this time. It was annoying, but I could still enjoy the story. And, to be honest, that’s what I did. I didn’t really want to get too analytical about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read it with the awareness that it’s really controversial and that it captures the racial tensions and issues of the society it’s portraying really well, and winds up coming up with some interesting conclusions about race, but I didn’t focus on those issues. Huck Finn was a great adventure story, and it took me back to all our family vacations at the Ozarks, exploring the bluffs and valleys along the Mississippi, and all the pretending I used to do about running away from home and living off the land.

I enjoyed Huck Finn for the story. Maybe I should have read more critically, and maybe I should say more things about it here now, and maybe I will do that later on. I certainly have some thoughts about its language and the controversy surrounding it that I might want to bring up later.

For now, however, I just enjoyed Huck Finn, and I sort of want to go visit Hannibal and maybe build a raft and float away down the Mississippi for awhile.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Cat’s Eye

Book #90: Call It Sleep

Growing up and trying to understand the world around you is hard enough. In Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, the young narrator has it even harder as he tries to adjust to life in a new city, in a country he doesn’t understand. The story opens with the young boy and his mother meeting the father in New York City, where he has been working to save up to send for them.

The Jewish family settles into the slums and young David has to adjust to, and attempt to understand, life in the big new city. In a lot of ways, it’s a typical coming-of-age story. Growing up is tough stuff, and David has to do it in two languages. In doing so, he provides a very interesting filter to view the strange, terrifying, and remarkably foreign New York City.

Overall, Call It Sleep is a pretty interesting read. I especially liked the way Roth deals with language in the book. David’s mother never learns English, and Yiddish dialogue is woven throughout the novel. It added an interesting dimension and never let you get too comfortable in the setting. Just when you thought you were adjusting to the narrative and landscape the narrator was living in, the Yiddish would remind you that something about this is still foreign. It never lets you get too at home.

Rating: ***

Book #37: Bunner Sisters

Not sure what there is, really, for me to say about Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters.

It kind of reminds me of Ethan Frome (which I have not read in its entirety, but I know the story anyway) in that it’s just sort of about these two semi-pathetic characters. And then it ends kind of badly.

Bunner Sisters doesn’t really have much resolution. It tells the story of two spinster sisters who run a store in New York City.

Ann Eliza and her younger sister Evelina run – and live in – a shop in a rather seedy, run-down part of New York. Their shop is not doing particularly well and they are just barely getting by. Then, of course, comes the German clock shop owner Herman Ramy.

Ramy charms the sisters and they both fall in love with him.

The trouble is that the sisters are naive. They are own their own and, evidently, don’t understand how things work in the world.

It probably goes without saying that the story doesn’t really end well. Mr. Ramy is not the wonderful man he seems to be, and the sisters wind up suffering for it.

To be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about Bunner Sisters (which is why it’s taking me like ten days to write this post). I guess it’s a pretty good example of turn-of-the-century(ish) realism. Wharton captures the not-so-glamorous aspect of early twentieth century New York life. She doesn’t sugar-coat or paint over the bad situation. She doesn’t even really leave the story off on any positive note. Bunner Sisters pretty much “tells it like it is.” It’s short and to the point.

Rating: ***
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