Brief book reviews, mark 3
- For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
The Spanish Civil War is interesting but this, about an American dynamiter working with guerrilla fighters to destroy a bridge, wasn’t. It’s not because of Hemingway’s distinctively and deceptively simple style (which is actually not so noticeable here), it’s because very little happens. A character sums it up perfectly:
Some cavalry rode here and they rode away. And you all make yourselves a heroism. It is to this we have come with so much inaction.
It might be the Spanish-to-English dialogue (“thou”, “thy”, etc. are used), or the flatness of the characters and love story, but I found this really hard to get into. Pilar has to be one of the most annoying characters ever created in fiction. About half-way through it begins to become more interesting, but there’s still some weird stream-of-consciousness stuff that comes out of nowhere and derails the plot. I found the glorification of bull-fighting difficult to get over, although that’s obviously a cultural difference and not Hemingway’s fault. Towards the end there are some great moments, and the last 150 pages or so are incredibly gripping, tense stuff. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea and To Have and Have Not, and right now I’m finding Hemingway a bit overrated. I’ll have to read A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises before making my mind up.
- Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson
Bryson is the perfect insider/outsider (American, but lived in UK for 20 years) to uncover all the weirdness in British culture and society. I don’t care if he’s exaggerated what happened to him, it’s funny and he comes across as a smart guy that you wouldn’t mind having a few drinks with. The travelogue does get fairly repetitive after a while, but I’d still like to go to most of the places he mentions. Perfect light reading.
- The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (translated by Nevill Coghill)
After reading the Pardoner’s Tale in the original Middle English and finding it pretty tough (you basically have to sound every word out to decipher its meaning), this very readable version was welcome, and I could zip right through it. The stories and rhyme schemes are varied, and the framing device keeps you involved. There are some hilarious and risqué moments (which Chaucer apologises for, maintaining that he is merely reporting the words of his characters), but I found the insights into Medieval life the most interesting.
- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Not much to say that hasn’t been said before and better, just that this is a witty look at the rituals of early 19th Century society. Elizabeth, with her disdain for the world, was my favourite; Lady Catherine de Bourgh, being an uptight bitch, was my least, but that was obviously intentional. Up next, the zombie version.
- The Castle of Otranto, Henry Walpole
Basically the first Gothic novel, this reminded me a lot of The Canterbury Tales. Not only is it set in a Medieval castle, full of magic and prophesies, but the story-telling was all over the place. There are surprise revelations on top of sudden character reversals on top of incongruous coincidences. I think he was just making it up as he went along, but that kind of adds to the charm. The dialogue was unattributed, but separated by dashes, which got really annoying, but that’s obviously an editorial issue. Still fun to read, and short as well.