Middlemarch by George Eliot

First! I am sorry this is late 😦 There are three reasons for this.

Most importantly: I made the mistake of trying to read two very long novels at once. Don Quixote AND Middlemarch.

Less importantly (well except to me, it took more energy than the former): I have been having stomach issues for a week now.

Even less importantly: The stomach issues and my natural tendencies have created some wicked insomnia.

But! onto what I thought of Middlemarch.

This was an example of a book I previously tried to read and could not get into. However, this time, unlike the Iliad, I WAS able to read it and get into it. So, that was awesome!

George Eliot is a pen name, during the 1800s it was less likely people would read a novel by a woman in England (probably elsewhere but I have noticed that a lot of women authors in the United States at this time were able to publish under their real names). When I was younger I always thought George Eliot was a man. Imagine my adulthood surprise to find otherwise.

I am not a fan of Jane Austen novels, which were written about the same time. I am also not overly fond of a lot of Dickens works (which I keep trying and failing to read most of them). I -am- fond of the Brontes. But, Middlemarch? I loved it. I loved the complexity of the novel. I loved that it was not merely focused on love, as Austen, but also about personal choices and the ripple effect they have, and politics and just life in general at that time. It has both a gossipy feel and a richly layered feel. In essence, there is something for almost everyone in it.

I read up a little and found out that even though at this time, most English novels were either published in installments like Dickens, or in 3 volume sets, Middlemarch was such a long novel (one of the longest in English history) that the publishers published it in 8 volumes, over the course of 18 months. They wanted people hooked. And they were. Middlemarch was immensely popular even in its time. And since, it has remained immensely popular.

For anyone that is looking for a long, satisfying novel to read this summer or during the winter when you merely want to be home under your blankets, please pick up Middlemarch. You can find it fairly cheap or free for Kindle or get the hardback copy. I was surprised how easy it was to read on Kindle.

Have a great week everyone! I will return on THURSDAY in a week and a half, hopefully with Don Quixote under my belt! 😀

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Maybe it’s the national chaos this election year, but I felt it was time to read something mired in panicked imperialism. Thus, we’re looking at Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee this week.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Jim Crace and 9th for Jim Shepard.)

Waiting for the Barbarians focuses on the Magistrate, the empire’s minor official who has been running his tiny town on the barbarian frontier for thirty years. It isn’t an important place, but it’s peaceful. There’s been talk for forever about the barbarians massing to take them over, but on the ground the Magistrate has seemed to see nothing of the sort. He doesn’t even have facilities for prisoners. Bandits swipe one or two cattle here or there, but for the most part they keep to themselves and concentrate on their nomadic lifestyle. However, things change when a visiting officer from the empire arrives to do something about the barbarians.

For one thing, the Magistrate is a good and peaceful man. He lives by the law, which he understands is the best that they have rather than perfect justice. Still, he is utterly unprepared for the kind of pointless cruelty of which the visiting officer (and indeed the empire and eventually most everyone around him) is capable:

“These are the only prisoners we have taken for a long time,” I say. “A coincidence: normally we would not have any barbarians at all to show you. This so-called banditry does not amount to much. They steal a few sheep or cut out a pack-animal from a train. Sometimes we raid them in return. They are mainly destitute tribespeople with tiny flocks of their own living along the river. It becomes a way of life. The old man says they were coming to see the doctor. Perhaps that is the truth. No one would have brought an old man and a sick boy along on a raiding party.”

*****

“Nevertheless,” he says, “I ought to question them. This evening, if it is convenient. I will take my assistant along. Also I will need someone to help me with the language. The guard, perhaps. Does he speak it?”

“We can all make ourselves understood. You would prefer me not to be there?”

“You would find it tedious.”

*****

Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing.

Horrified by what he sees done by the empire, he obsesses over a barbarian girl who had been blinded and had her feet broken, taking her in and performing odd quasi-sexual rituals involving washing and oiling her. Eventually, he takes a few soldiers on a long and dangerous journey to return her to her people, but upon his return he is arrested under suspicion of aiding the barbarians. He is tortured by the empire, though not as badly as what they seem to do to the barbarians, and is abandoned and laughed at by his own townspeople.

Of course, then things go badly for the empire. The barbarians, who had left things relatively alone for so long, cunningly manage to destroy crops, troops, and more. The empire’s soldiers all flee, leaving the town to its fate. The Magistrate just steps back up again, quietly trying to help the people of the town figure out how they’re going to get through the winter.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an interestingly spare exploration of imperialism and human cruelty. The writing is solid, though some of the paragraphs can swell a bit. For the most part the lines are clean though, and the descriptions are tangible. I liked how concrete everything was at the same time that the exact empire and place was left vague enough that it could be so many places. Waiting for the Barbarians is not going to be one of my favorite books, but it might be one of my favorite Coetzee books.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This is late. So very, very late. My apologies, I was trying to get through a different book and wasn’t able to finish in time. I switched to Beloved and read it as quickly as I could in order to talk to you guys about it.

I still have no clue where my Top Ten book walked off to this time.

I have not had a lot of sleep in two days so I feel a bit foggy right now, just an observational thing I felt you all needed to know.

I urge you to read Beloved if you have not already. I do not urge you to read Beloved if your stomach or mind are not equipped to deal with violence. Because in some things, Beloved is brutal. It is a story told over a decade after the Civil War. It is a story told about the present of former slaves as well as their past while still in slavery. Morrison drips description and metaphor alike from the page until you are as immersed in it as one of the characters is in an “emerald closet” (a bunch of shrubs that have formed a small hidden room) she uses as a play room and a dream escape as she grows older. So, when Morrison describes one of the characters telling about having an iron bit in his mouth, it’s not just “hm, ok, random detail to get over to get to the rest of the story”, you can taste the metal in your mouth and feel the skin at the corners of your mouth going tender and stretched out.

The story is about a house. A house that has a vengeful baby ghost in it, the toddler daughter of one of the main characters who died very young. A man from her past comes in the beginning of the book and chases the spirit off. The daughter that lived is upset about this, Denver. Her mother, Sethe, Denver and the man, Paul, they go to a carnival in town for Negroes. On the way home, Sethe sees their shadows with linked hands and takes it as an omen of good for the future the three of them can have. Upon arrival home, there is a young woman there, who is sick. Her name is Beloved. It comes about that Beloved appears to be the spirit that was chased from the house, but grown into a woman. Because this is a novel and because a spirit formed into a live human being just isn’t natural, of course things go horribly awry.

This is a book about slavery. This is a book about the power of hope and love and where that power can lead when that love and hope are warped beyond measure by something as ugly as being owned by another human. You can find hope in Beloved but it doesn’t jump from the page. Rather, it sneaks in the cracks and around the corners. The characters have it but squash it.

This is a book about memory. About how memories can entrap us, can impale us and can suffocate us. But it is also a book about how we can entrap ourselves by choice in a memory, while lying and saying we are free as birds.

This book is haunting. It lingers around you even after you’re done, and whispers to you even before you’re done.

Hope everyone has had a great weekend!

 

Books I Quit

Kim had to confess last week that she had, apparently for not the first time, not finished reading The Iliad. I don’t think we can blame her for that. We want a post, but Homer isn’t easy. She’ll get there, but in her own time. That sort of classic should be enjoyed, not forced (unless it’s a student who wouldn’t read it any other way, then go ahead and force). Regardless of any of that, I thought it might make Kim feel a little better to take this week to talk about a few books that gave me trouble as well.

Now, I can’t immediately remember any books that I tried and quit without having come back to them eventually. Usually I do, or at least I have as far as I remember. There are a couple that took me a few tries though, sometimes over the course of ten years or so, so we’ll talk about those.

The first was War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I imagine people can understand this one. I think I first got a paperback of this in 1994. I tried reading it, and then tried reading it again a few months later. I didn’t get very far in. Of course, I was seventeen, but still. I don’t think I read more than a couple hundred pages on either attempt. Those who know War and Peace know there’s a hell of a lot further to go than that. In any case, I stopped both times. Then I quit trying for a while. I thought about it, but I didn’t read it. I can’t remember if I even tried it again until the time I read it. I might have, I might not. Regardless, I had a copy when I got to the semester break during my first year of law school. I figured I wasn’t going to ever have that much time again without work, school, or significant other putting some kind of demands on me, so I gave it another shot…and got through just fine. I think I just needed to get a certain momentum in to carry me through.

Same with In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (alternatively translated as Remembrances of Things Past). I first got the gigantic two-volume silver set with the alternative title I mention in the parenthetical. That was maybe in 1998, or perhaps as late as 2000-2001. I tried to get into it because Kerouac spoke of it so highly and I was still really into him, but I couldn’t get past the bit where he talks in the beginning about dreading going to bed and the confusion he experienced waking up in the middle of the night. You might laugh, or you might know and not scoff. After all, he goes on about this for at around a hundred pages. I just couldn’t take it, especially with the weight of those tombs making my wrist numb as I tried to, and gave up. I tried at least two times, though I can’t remember how many precisely before the summer of 2005. Summer 2005 was when I picked up the 6 volume more modern set with the title above. I was summering at a firm in Kansas City before my last year of law school. Though I lived just around the corner from the Plaza and did do a bit of drinking on the weekend with the other summers (as well as some during the week by myself), I didn’t really know anyone in town and didn’t really have much to do. Sometimes I could watch the young coeds in the pool directly outside my window (it was a large apartment complex with a lot of young college kids), but not all the time. I got a lot of reading done, including just steaming through one volume of Proust after the other. Again, once I got momentum to get through him talking about not wanting to go to bed, somewhere over a hundred pages perhaps, I powered right though.

I’m sure there’s got to be a book I’ve quit and haven’t come back to, but I just don’t remember. I’m sure it isn’t as important a book to me as these two were that I really wanted to read and had trouble making myself do. Anyway, I just wanted to confirm to Kim that she wasn’t alone on this and I’ve failed to get through a challenging book I really wanted to read a couple times myself.

The Iliad

I have an admission to make.

I tried again, and again, and again to read The Iliad. And I couldn’t. Years ago I read parts of it here and there. I always found it interesting. I was excited to read it now. Yet, I’d get lost in the rhythm of the poetry and would get sleepy.

I really, really want to be able to read it, because when I was able to get into parts, it was so interesting!

When I was a kid, there was a book of Greek myths I found in the library. It was a kids’ book of myths but they were pretty complex. Just happened to be illustrated too. I absolutely ADORED that book. I’d buy it in a heartbeat if I could ever find it again. (Before anyone asks, I only remember vaguely what it looked like haha).

My favorite myth was the Persephone myth.

So anyway, that was part of the reason reading the Iliad really excited me. And I hate having to sit here and say “whoops, I couldn’t get through it guys, so sorry”, but I have to.

Anna Karenina took me about four times to finally make it through. So, I guess I’ll try the Iliad again in a few months. I’ll make sure to tell y’all what I think if I do get through it finally.

Have a great Fourth everyone! Dave and I will actually be face to face this weekend. He can yell at me then for forgetting the last two times to blog on Thursday. My other big sadness of the week.

*slinks off feeling a little embarrassed*