The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Earlier tonight, I was watching Sons of Anarchy.  And I realized, that while it doesn’t bug me anymore really, that SOA was a show that you wouldn’t want to watch if you had recently quit smoking. Then, when I sat down to write this blog, I realized that Hemingway is an author you wouldn’t want to read if you were trying to not drink.  I don’t drink that often, and even I have a can of Smith & Forge Hard Cider next to me while writing this. (It’s only my 2nd of the night, so this should remain fairly coherent, just fyi).

The Sun Also Rises was listed by Barry Hannah, Bobbie Ann Mason, George Pelacanos, and Reynolds Price.

I both liked The Sun Also Rises more than Farewell to Arms, and less than Farewell to Arms.

I liked it less for a very small reason that actually isn’t that big of a deal.  It just seems more trivial than A Farewell to Arms.

The reasons I liked it better:

1. While the main female character, Brett, was crazy, she was crazy in a manner that I could better relate to.  Catherine of Farewell to Arms was just…codependently crazy.  Brett has the opposite problem.  She is impetuous, a drinker, and a definite fornicator (it sort of rhymed, I went with it), unable to commit to anyone for sure.  She and the narrator are in love, but she can’t be with him. (It’s all very confusing, my dear). She’s engaged to a man named Mike (our narrator is Jake) but has recently run off to San Sebastian with a friend of Jake’s, named Cohn.  Who then develops an unhealthy attachment to her.

“Come off it, Michael.  You’re drunk,” Brett said.

“I’m not drunk. I’m quite serious. Is Robert Cohn going to follow Brett around like a steer all the time?”

“Shut up, Michael.  Try to show a little breeding.”

“Breeding be damned. Who has any breeding, anyway, except the bulls? Aren’t the bulls lovely? Don’t you like them, Bill? Why don’t you say something, Robert? Don’t sit there looking like a bloody funeral. What if Brett did sleep with you? She’s slept with lots of better people than you.”

2. Even though this was his first novel, in some ways stylistically speaking, I felt it was better than Farewell To Arms.  I think he captured his characters in a more fully dimensional manner.  I had more of a sense of who they were, whereas in Farewell To Arms, I really only fully felt that way about the narrator.

3. The subject matter was a lot lighter in some ways (a festival in Spain while the bulls ran), but because Hemingway touched on so many of the ex patriate community in one book, and characterized them so well, I felt that it actually delved deeper into people’s psyches.

4. There are so many moments in this book where it doesn’t feel dated at all.  Like, I could imagine saying or doing something one of the character’s did.  Maybe the wording would be slightly different, but who -hasn’t- been irritated by a lovesick “suitor” of a friend who won’t go away?  Who hasn’t said something similar to Mike’s words up above, or at least heard or thought them?  And that’s not the only instance where I felt that with a few tweaks, Hemingway could have written this book in the last 10 years.

5. Hemingway captures the feeling of “festival” really well I think, his writing for the time frame of the festival gets both choppier and hyper-focused. He will chop along at a frenetic pace for a bit, then focus on one instance with a hyper lens. Which, if you have ever been to a long party (I used to hang out with friends over New Year’s for a succession of days with parties each evening, which isn’t quite the same but has that same frenetic/slowed down pace to it), is a familiar thing.

Side Notes:

I read while looking up stuff for Farewell To Arms that what Hemingway is drinking during certain points, his characters are drinking. His love for a good martini pops up in this book.

I read his granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway’s memoir this last week. It was okay. I wasn’t overly impressed with it. She had a stilted writing style and didn’t delve deep enough into stuff. She’d lightly touch on it and then go “And that was that, and I had to learn to live with it, tra-la-la” and then ended the book with feel good “I figured out it was my life’s work to write about and tell the story of growing up in my messed up family”. But, it is interesting to see the mental illness that dripped down the family tree.

Have a great weekend! I would have had this up yesterday but for some reason WordPress wouldn’t give me a new entry page, even though Dave had no issues whatsoever.

Which was grrr.

But I got over it.

Cider helps.

Fuzz by Ed McBain

This week I took on Fuzz by Ed McBain. Hold on, I have to get something out of my system…

McBain as an author has apparently little to do with The Simpsons character, though. Fuzz doesn’t center on a single Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger character. It’s a number of characters in the 87th precinct. It’s a thrilling crime drama, but not quite the Bruce Willis/Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie kind of a thing.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for…David Foster Wallace?! Yeah, apparently so.)

The 87th precinct is in a mess. A cunning criminal known as ‘The Deaf Man’ is making extortion demands, and killing city officials when the demands aren’t met. He kills the parks commissioner. He kills the deputy mayor. Fuzz has plenty of stark crime drama type action:

That night, as Parks Commissioner Cowper came down the broad white marble steps outside Philharmonic Hall, his wife clinging to his left arm, swathed in mink and wearing a diaphanous white scarf on her head, the commissioner himself resplendent in black tie and dinner jacket, the mayor and his wife four steps ahead, the sky virtually starless, a bitter brittle dryness to the air, that night as the parks commissioner came down the steps of Philharmonic Hall with the huge two-story-high windows behind him casting warm yellow light onto the windswept steps and pavement, that night as the commissioner lifted his left foot preparatory to placing it on the step below, laughing at something his wife said in his ear, his laughter billowing out of his mouth in puffs of visible vapor that whipped away on the wind like comic strip balloons, that night as he tugged on his right-hand glove with his already gloved left hand, that night two shots cracked into the plaza, shattering the wintry stillness, and the commissioner’s laugh stopped, the commissioner’s hand stopped, the commissioner’s foot stopped, and he tumbled headlong down the steps, blood pouring from his forehead and his check, and his wife screamed, and the mayor turned to see what was the matter, and an enterprising photographer on the sidewalk caught the toppling commissioner on film for posterity.

He was dead long before his body rolled to a stop on the wide white bottom step.

However, oddly enough, there is a slapstick humor element regularly mixed in with all the cop drama and crime aspects:

The painters were in a garrulous mood.

“What have you got going, a stakeout?” the first painter asked.

“Is that what the walkie-talkie’s for?” the second painter asked.

“Is there gonna be a bank holdup?”

“Is that why you’re listening to that thing?”

“Shut up,” Kling said encouragingly.

The painters were on their ladders, slopping apple green paint over everything in sight.

“We painted the D.A.’s office once,” the first painter said.

“They were questioning this kid who stabbed his mother forty-seven times.”

“Forty-seven times.”

“In the belly, the head, the breasts, everyplace.”

“With an icepick.”

“He was guilty as sin.”

“He said he did it to save her from the Martians.”

“A regular bedbug.”

“Forty-seven times.”

“How could that save her from the Martians?” the second painter said.

“Maybe Martians don’t like ladies with icepick holes in them,” the first painter said, and burst out laughing.

The drama was gripping and well written, and I did get a guffaw out of the humor. I did find some weird repetitions in Fuzz that grated a little bit. Here are a few: 1. The city is a bitch. 2. It’s cold. 3. People don’t like working on Saturdays. These didn’t break up the book too much, but they were kind of weird things to harp on.

Fuzz was my first McBain and I have to say I had a lot of fun. I was expecting a fast paced and stark crime drama, and it was and did all that well, but I wasn’t expecting the intermixing of the slapstick humor. Fuzz is gripping and vivid, action-oriented and all that, but it’s also quite funny in parts. That made it a lot more for me than a simple crime drama. I enjoyed myself much more than I thought I was going to.

Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway for this week.  I remember reading Hemingway in college, and I’m fairly certain I read this one as bits and pieces of it were vaguely familiar.  However, it must not have made that much of an impact on me then.  It made more of one this time around, I think.

A Farewell to Arms was listed by Susan Vreeland.

The story is based in part on Hemingway’s own experiences.  The main character, Frederic, is an American on the Italian front, working as an ambulance driver.  Hemingway was an American on the Italian front working as an ambulance driver, in 1918, at the age of 18.  Frederic gets hit by mortar and severely injures a leg, sending him onto a hospital and then convalescence for a few months away from the front.  Hemingway was severely injured in his legs by mortar, sent to a hospital and then convalescence for a few months.  Frederic falls in love with a nurse, Catherine Barkley, an English woman.  Hemingway fell in love with a nurse.  He and his nurse (Hemingway) decided upon marriage, but a few months later, she wrote to tell him she had decided to marry another person.  What happens with Catherine and Frederic in A Farewell to Arms follows a different trajectory, so you’ll just have to read it to find out what.

Three things struck me while reading the novel.

1.  Catherine is one very messed up chick.

The following is from like the third time or so that they’ve gotten together to talk and hang out in front of the residence that Catherine is staying at.  He has just returned from a battle that was slightly unexpected to take as long as it did.

“When we were out on the gravel drive she said, “Where have you been?”

“I’ve been out on post.”

“You couldn’t have sent me a note?”

“No,” I said.  “Not very well.  I thought I was coming back.”

“You ought to have let me know, darling.”

We were off the driveway, walking under the trees.  I took her hands, then stopped and kissed her.

“Isn’t there anywhere we can go?”

“No,” she said. “We have to just walk here. You’ve been away a long time.”

“This is the third day.  But I’m back now.”

She looked at me, “And you do love me?”


“You did say you loved me, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I lied.  “I love you.” I had not said it before.

“And you call me Catherine?”

“Catherine.” We walked on a way and were stopped under a tree.

“Say, ‘I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.'”

“I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.”

“Oh, darling, you have come back, haven’t you?”


“I love you so and it’s been awful.  You won’t go away?”

Eventually, he does fall in love with her.  She makes a variety of different very co-dependent statements, but many of them, he now joins her in sharing the sentiment.  However, she has him very much beat in the department.

“I’d rather look at you.  Darling, why don’t you let your hair grow?”

“How grow?”

“Just grow a little longer.”

“It’s long enough now.”

“No, let it grow a little longer and I could cut mine and we’d be just alike only one of us blonde and one of us dark.”

“I wouldn’t let you cut yours.”

“It would be fun.  I’m tired of it. It’s an awful nuisance in the bed at night.”

“I like it.”
“Wouldn’t you like it short?”

“I might. I like it the way it is.”

“It might be nice short.  Then we’d both be alike. Oh, darline, I want you so much I want to be you too.”

“You are. We’re the same one.”

“I know it. AT night we are.”

“The nights are grand.”

“I want us to be all mixed up. I don’t want you to go away. I just said that. You go if you want to. But hurry right back. Why, darling, I don’t live at all when I’m not with you.”

Hemingway even writes about sex in a pretty forthright manner for the early 1900s.  He never comes out and gives details, but it is very, very clear from the very beginning when they move into the sexually intimate stage of the relationship.  They even refer to it as “playing”.

2. Hemingway’s style of brevity actually works amazingly well for describing war time. And as I was reading it, since I just recently read Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and they were writing at the approximate same times, it was interesting to compare and contrast their writing styles.  In Grapes of Wrath and in Farewell to Arms, there is a lot of dialogue.  But Hemingway will say things in 2 pages that takes Steinbeck 10 pages or more to say. There are similarities as well, but some of that is from being the same nationality during the same time frame (though Steinbeck deals mainly with life in the United States and the Great Depression and Hemingway with war zones), if you read more than one author from a certain time frame and they are the same nationality, there are definite stylistic points that will feel familiar from one to the next. In Farewell to Arms, Hemingway captures the soldiers’ views on war, and their coping mechanisms.  He does this without becoming Freud or Jung, but through brief observations on their words, things that they say themselves about how they’re coping with it, and events around him.

3. Frederic drinks an awful lot during the novel. At one point, while recovering from his war wounds he drinks so much that he develops jaundice.  I thought that it might reflect how there is a “common knowledge” that Hemingway was a drunk.  So I decided to google about it.  I found this link, which if you’re a Hemingway fan will interest you.  Basically, while Hemingway was recovering, he also would have friends sneak vermouth and other alcohol into his hospital room.  In the book, he has hidden them all in a closet and the head nurse surprises the porter carting some of them away, so busts him with the remaining bottles.  This leads her to reporting him (she didn’t like him very much) and he loses the additional 3 weeks leave he would have had coming after being released from the treatment program.

For a few years now, I’ve heard off and on that “Hemingway was a hack”. But, I remembered liking him for the most part while in high school and college.  So, that’s why I decided to give him a try again.  He isn’t a hack.  The books he has written are classics for very definite reasons and they aren’t just because people are stupid. They’re because they are great.

Have a great weekend!

Closely Watched Trains by Bhoumil Hrabal

I talk so much on here about books I was familiar with but hadn’t ever gotten around to reading, or books I’d heard of but didn’t know what they were about. Rarer on here are the books I’d never heard of. That’s one of the best things about this blog, running into something good that was totally outside anything I normally might have ready. That brings us this week to Closely Watched Trains by Bhoumil Hrabal.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for A. L. Kennedy)

Milos Hrma is a young man tending German trains in German occupied WWII Czechoslovakia. He is endlessly exposed to the war and the occupiers of his country, turning to fantasy to try to cope. His first sexual encounter is awkwardly bungled and he attempts suicide fearing that he is impotent.

I kneeled down and began to gather them up, and Mrs Lánská began picking them up, too, and while we were at it I told her why I’d slashed my wrists that time, because I wilted in Uncle Noneman’s studio, the studio with the notice saying: FINISHED IN FIVE MINUTES, because I was finished even before I began. And the station-master’s wife was silent now, holding the gander by the beak.

In a burst of glory he proves to himself that he is definitely a man and sacrifices himself to blow up a German ammunition train. That’s Closely Watched Trains, a tragically glorious coming of age where human sexual obsessions are inseparably interwoven with the best of human heroism in the face of oppression.

However, I’d be remiss if I just painted the book as sex, brutality, and heroism. There are only a small number of pages, but there’s more packed in there than that. There is as much sex as humor, humor sometimes bound up in the sex and/or the brutality.

Not to make a long story of it, they were on night duty together, and Dispatcher Hubička bowled Virginia over, and then turned up her skirt and printed all our station stamps, one after another, all over our telegraphist’s backside. Even the datestamp he stuck on here there!


‘Now, Miss Virginia Svatá, pay particular attention how you answer,’ said Councillor Zednicek, getting up from his seat. ‘Before Dispatcher Hubička laid you down on the telegraph table, didn’t he place some constraint upon you? Didn’t he utter threats? Thrust you down by force?

‘Good gracious, no, why should he? I did it myself. I lay down myself … suddenly felt I wanted to lie down there, without anyone making me … and wait and see what would happen … ‘ said Virginia, laughing.

Comedy. Comedy, sex, tragedy, horror, heroism, dreams—the multifaceted nature of what it is to be who we are. All the things we are at once that can’t be separated no matter how much we’d like to think they can be.

Looking at the whole, Closely Watched Trains is some quite powerful prose. It’s tragic that I’d never even heard of it before. The sentences are dense, but purposefully so given the setting and subject. It’s a brutal situation, but impossibly intermingled with wit, lust, bravery, and humor. The result is that Closely Watched Trains is fast, moving, and intensely feeling.

The forward to my edition of the book discusses that some think Closely Watched Trains is watered down Hrabal, that he compromised his previous writing course in the face of the totalitarian regime in order to have it published. In that case, I really should check out some of Hrabal’s less ‘acceptable’ works. Those have got to be dynamite.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

Way back at the genesis of this blog (3 years ago :O ) Dave and I discussed a few of the books we wanted or didn’t want to read.  Willa Cather’s books (specifically My Antonia) were at the top of my do not read under any circumstances list.  As I explain here.  Yet, I’ve already blogged My Antonia, and now I decided to read another Cather book.  Sometimes, life and literature just prove us wrong.  I just had a discussion today about this while talking about Grapes of Wrath, and how because of this blog I read both it and East of Eden and loved both of them.  That, in high school, I had to read Of Mice and Men and didn’t particularly care for it, so it made me not that interested in Steinbeck and his works.  Again, proven wrong.

Both Elisabeth Spencer and Peter Cameron listed The Professor’s House in their Top Tens.

Anyway, to me, reading this book showed me just how talented Cather was.  This book is nothing like My Antonia, even the feel of it is different.  Her narrative style is different as well.  It reminds me more of British stories from around this time frame (1920s) than it reminds me of My Antonia.

That being said, I can’t say that I was blown away by this book on the whole.  It was entertaining, and it was an easier read, but a lot of the books I’ve read for this blog have a deeper impact on me, like there’s a certain heft to them (and not just the literal heft and slog of Les Miserables).  Maybe Dave can agree or disagree with that statement.  This felt like…just a book.  I’ve read books for the blog that I disliked, but they still had that heft to them.

The story is about a man, who is older with two grown daughters, married for 30 years.  He and his wife are finally moving house because he managed to publish a multi volume series on Spanish explorers, that actually found a market and brought in a tidy sum of money.  One of his daughters has become quite wealthy with her husband, due to a dead fiancee’s invention and subsequent patent that she inherited after he died in the Great War.  Professor St. Peter refuses to leave the office in his old house, even going so far as renting the house for another year, just so he can keep his study.  He even insists that the seamstress, whom he shared the attic room with, leave her dress forms there.  The book gives you the sense that St. Peter was a very active man:

“St. Peter had always laughed at people who talked about “day-dreams,” just as he laughed at people who naively confessed that htey had “an imagination.” All his life his mind had behaved in a positive fashion.  When he was not at work, or being actively amused, he went to sleep.  He had no twilight stage.”

But as time passes in the year that this book covers, St. Peter sinks deeper into introspection.  There seems to be a sense of mourning too for Outland, his daughter’s fiancee, whom was also a bit of a protegee of his and a close friend of the family even before his engagement to St. Peter’s daughter.  The story breaks away and tells some of Outland’s story too.  There is a definite sense of loss in both narratives.

St. Peter’s increasing lassitude for life is something he even expresses to his wife:

“My dear,” he sighed when the lights were turned on and they both looked older, “It’s been a mistake, our having a family and writing histories and getting middle-aged.  We should have been picturesquely shipwrecked together when we were young.”

And she later expresses it back to him:

“You are not old enough for the pose you take.  That’s what puzzles me.  For so many years you never seemed to grow at all older, though I did.  Two years ago you were an impetuous young man.  Now you save yourself in everything.  You’re naturally warm and affectionate; all at once you begin shutting yourself away from everybody.”

There is one thing about the book that is lingering with me however and keeps poking at me to mention it during writing this post.  I loved how Cather resolved the story for St. Peter, but she didn’t feel a need to run along resolving all the story lines in the book into neat and tidy little bows.  The now wealthy sister’s increasing miserly nature and, to be blunt, bitchiness.  The professor who also helped Outland being cheated out of a portion of the patent money.  The non wealthy sister feeling more and more alienated from her sister.  These are all things that Cather leaves alone.  Which, to me, since the book was about St. Peter’s internal life, is the sign of an amazing author.  I don’t know whether she had the temptation to just go along and tidy those things into little piles and resolve them all, but I can’t imagine there wouldn’t have just been at least a tiny urge to, say have the sisters have one big mighty show down, or to say whether Crane (the professor) gets any money at all.

A minor theme in the book is how money changes things, and changes people (if you haven’t gotten that hint yet).  Which Cather glances on but doesn’t dwell on really.

If you loved My Antonia, or if you have ever enjoyed some good turn of the 20th century British literature, definitely check out this book.  Or if you’re just bored and looking for something to read, check out this book.