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Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is a very good writer, and Cat's Eye is a very good book, beautifully written, marvelously observed, sometimes funny, eminently well worth reading. It is the story of Elaine Risley, a painter, who returns to Toronto, where she grew up, for a retrospective exhibition of her work. The story, all of it in the first person and the present tense, is told from two alternating perspectives: that of the adult Elaine Risley, now middle-aged, back in Toronto, seeing again her first husband, visiting neighborhoods formerly familiar, and attending the opening reception of her exhibition, and that of the young Elaine Risley, daughter of an entomologist, growing up in Toronto, accompanying her father, mother, and older brother on summer research trips to northern Canada, attending grade school, then high school, forming friendships, often stressful, with her schoolmates, intersecting with her older brother, eventually taking art classes and starting to paint. The two perspectives come together at the end. Read moreCollapse )

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell(1810-1865) was a nineteenth century novelist and short story writer whose works were popular at the time but are now largely forgotten. I, at any rate had not heard of Elizabeth Gaskell until assigned Cranford by 1001 books. It was published serially in 1851 in the magazine Household Words, which was edited by Charles Dickens, an acquaintance of Gaskell's who also apparently advised her in her writing. Despite such distinguished tutelage, the writing in Cranford is undistinguished throughout. Taking this book as representative, my impression of Gaskell is of a second-rate novelist whose works, though mildly amusing and not boring, one need feel no particular urgency to read.Read moreCollapse )

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses is extremely long. Much of it is obscure if not entirely unintelligible, and I found it paralyzingly boring. I did read the entire book, if only to secure bragging rights, since I have not yet discovered an acquaintance who has read it. It strikes me as a book that professors of literature inflict on their students, whom they can impress with tidbits of information, culled from secondary sources, about Dublin and the day in 1904 on which the events of the novel occur. It is tempting to suppose that much of the notoriety of the book derives from its having been banned when it first appeared, which conferred on it the allure of forbidden fruit. Read moreCollapse )

Castle Rackrent, by Maria Edgeworth

An early satirical "Big House" novel about 18th century Ireland.

Castle Rackrent

Originally published in 1800, approximately 45,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.

For the information of the IGNORANT English reader, a few notes have been subjoined by the editor, and he had it once in contemplation to translate the language of Thady into plain English; but Thady's idiom is incapable of translation, and, besides, the authenticity of his story would have been more exposed to doubt if it were not told in his own characteristic manner. Several years ago he related to the editor the history of the Rackrent family, and it was with some difficulty that he was persuaded to have it committed to writing; however, his feelings for 'THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY,' as he expressed himself, prevailed over his habitual laziness, and he at length completed the narrative which is now laid before the public.

An Hibernian tale taken from facts, and from the manners of the Irish Squires, before the year 1782.Collapse )

Verdict: An early historical novel with touches of wry humor, and significant for its view of Anglo-Irish relations, Castle Rackrent is not particularly interesting outside this context; for plotting and characters one would do better with one of Edgeworth's contemporaries. Another one of those books that has earned its place on the 1001 Books list more for its historical place than its literary qualities. 5/10.

My complete list of book reviews.

Mother, by Maxim Gorky

Maxim Gorky's pioneering (boring) novel of (boring) "Socialist Realism" about a (boring) mother of the Russian revolution.


Originally published in 1906, 324 pages. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.

Maxim Gorky, pseudonym of Alexei Maksimovich Peshkov, Soviet novelist, playwright and essayist, was a founder of social realism. Although known principally as a writer, he was closely associated with the tumultuous revolutionary period of his own country. The Mother, one of his best-known works, is the story of the radicalization of an uneducated woman that was later taken as a model for the Socialist Realist novel, and his autobiographical masterpiece.

The road to hell is paved with well-intentioned revolutions.Collapse )

Verdict: Is this a book you must read before you die? I'd say as a sample of a particular period of history and the literature it produced, it has its value. This isn't a post-revolutionary Soviet novel, so it's a vivid if biased view into the time in which it was written. But as a work of literature, I would not inflict this on anyone who isn't perversely fascinated with the Bolshevik revolution. 3/10.

My complete list of book reviews.

V. by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is a brilliant writer. The writing is imaginative, vivid, sometimes very funny. But, as V. demonstrates, a brilliant writer can be a dreadful novelist. The book is long, disjointed, and in the end (or rather, starting close to the beginning) very tedious. I did force myself to read it to the end (sustaining myself along the way by taking breaks to read Proust and Sinclair Lewis, both far more interesting). Some people claim to love this book, and I assume they are sincere; perhaps I'm missing something. For me, however, even while recognizing the cleverness of the writing, the literary allusions (I probably missed some of those), and the striking descriptions and comparisons, the overall effect was to numb the mind. I found none of the characters interesting or sympathetic or easily distinguishable from one another, and I found no direction or purpose in the book, not even a discernible plot. A critic quoted on the dust jacket of the edition I got from the library describes the book as indulging in the "luxury of dreams dreamt for the dreaming," and it does have the character of a dream: vivid, weird, and almost immediately forgotten.


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