The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

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The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

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Around the time that I finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time, it happened to start getting gloriously warm and sunny. It was staying light until gone half past nine, and then, when the sun did eventually start to sink towards the horizon, there were often stunning red sunsets. As I was considering what to read next, I saw my old copy of Brideshead Revisited sat on the bookshelf, and thought to myself: What could be more fitting than to read Brideshead on such beautiful, long English summer evenings?

And so I did just that. I sat in the evening sun, and delighted in rereading this wonderful novel: Brideshead Revisited: The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Indeed, summertime really is the time to read this classic. Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of privileged, slightly naive, hugely romantic young adults, just starting out in the world is beautifully written. The prose is sublime, the scenes well crafted, the settings evocative, and the characters brilliantly crafted. Waugh captures not only their enthusiasm and joy in exploring everything about the world around them, but also provides a snapshot of an aristocratic, feudal system that was very soon to be lost forever. It is partly this combination of youthful exhilaration coupled with a subtle underlying nostalgia that makes this tale so poignant.

The early chapters see our young protagonist, Charles Ryder, approaching the end of his first year at Oxford, when he makes the acquaintance of the charming, aristocratic, and entirely singular Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, and enjoy an intense period of pleasure and discovery as they drink champagne, eat quails eggs, party and philosophise – all against the backdrop of the ancient spires of Oxford during a glorious English summer.

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Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

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For my next book, I decided to tackle the final instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series: the wonderfully named novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

And so, nearly five years after beginning this series, and having read 12 novels, each typically around 250-300 pages (totalling over one million words), I have now finished this vast and impressive work.

In keeping with one of the themes of the series – namely how chance encounters can end up having a profound impact on one’s life – I have been reflecting on how I came to read these books in the first place. It was the summer of 2010, and I was on holiday in Cornwall with my wife and some good friends. One day we decided to visit Truro, and whilst there I wandered past a second-hand book shop, and decided to have a nose around. Whilst browsing the shelves, and I spotted this series, and having heard of it and knowing that it chronicled the lives of a set of English characters from their school days right through to old age, I decided that I’d like to read it for myself.

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Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

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Next up in my pile of novels that people had kindly given me, was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. A couple of years back I had noticed that this book featured in both the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list and the TIME Magazine 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 list, which piqued my interest. I then looked up some information about the novel, and decided it definitely sounded like my kind of read.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Fellow book blogger Robert Bruce (over at 101books.net) mentioned in his review of the novel last year that some have referred to Appointment in Samarra as a “poor man’s Gatsby”, and having now read the novel, I can see why. Within the world of this novel we meet not only the rich and the elite, but also bootleggers and gangsters, mistresses and, ultimately, Death.The setting of the book is 1930s America and the main character is a privileged young man named Julian English, who is part of the social elite of his home town.

However, despite everything that he has going for him, including a good job (the owner of a Cadillac dealership, no less), a lovely home, a beautiful wife, society friends, and a certain amount of natural charm, Julian English is somehow dissatisfied with his lot. Yes, as with The Great Gatsby, here too, it seems that the great American Dream is not quite able to deliver all that it promises.

Be in no doubt: this is a cynical and darkly comic exposé of the reality behind the façade of 1930s respectability and outward success.

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An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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Hello dear readers. Apologies for my absence. It has been a very busy few weeks. I did in fact finally finish reading An American Tragedy a while ago, but this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to sit down and update this blog.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Here are some titbits and highlights from this large novel:

First published: 1925

Length: my edition runs to a whopping 856 pages

Meaning of the title: I guess that Dreiser is subverting the well-known notion of “the American Dream”. Broadly speaking, the American Dream can be said to represent opportunity for all and the possibility of each man reaching ever greater levels of success, riches and happiness. So, even in the very title, Dreiser appears to be questioning this notion. The novel is also a tragedy in the true sense of the word, as Clyde’s downfall is brought about by his own innate weaknesses.

Opening lines:

Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants – such walls as in time may linger in a mere fable.

Setting: Kansas City, Chicago, and Lycurgus – a fictitious small town in New York

Origins: Dreiser apparently based the book on an infamous criminal case. As in the novel, the real case featured an overturned boat and the body of young woman found in a lake in Upstate New York. The man convicted of killing her also denied murder.

What’s to like? For me, the plot is the best thing about this novel. It is compelling and it does make for a good read. However, see the next point…

What’s not to like? Whilst the plot itself is gripping, the writing style sometimes leaves a little to be desired.  It is very heavy-handed in places, so much so that you nearly always know a long time in advance what is coming next. And, strangely, this makes the experience of reading the tragedy more not less painful. There is also some highly questionable punctuation, including dashes seemingly in every other paragraph. In fact, to my mind, the text cries out for some editorial attention.

Key quotes: I’ve picked out a few choice excerpts that give a flavour of the tale.

Early in the novel we find Clyde reflecting on his current situation and comparing his life with the lives of others:

His life should not be like this. Other boys did not have to do as he did.

Next is one of the many passages that highlight the conflicting desires that rage within the young Clyde. On the one hand he is desperately trying to better himself and to fit in with those he views as his social superiors, yet on the other hand he cannot seem to escape certain desires and behaviours that run counter to his social ambitions:

… he had sought to be as retiring and cautious as possible. For – after that and while connected with the club, he had been taken with the fancy of trying to live up to the ideals with which the seemingly stern face of that institution had inspired him – conservatism – hard work – saving one’s money – looking neat and gentlemanly. It was such an Eveless paradise, that.

Towards the end of the novel there is a powerful scene wherein a local priest gets to the heart of the matter when reciting a gospel passage to Clyde:

What matter it if a man gaineth the whole world and loseth his own soul?

In summary: a good yarn that I would recommend, although I suspect that its length and slightly dry style will put some people off trying this novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

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