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The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century Classics)
The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century Classics)
von John Steinbeck

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Possibly THE Greatest American Novel, 26. Juli 2000
I have never read a better novel written by an American than THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Steinbeck's deeply touching tale of displaced families and a nation rent by Depression will never cease to be relevant.
The Joads and thousands of others are driven out of Oklahoma by drought and the Depression. It is bad enough they lose their farms to homes and have to move. It is worse that the big business fruit growers in California print misleading flyers claiming to have far more well-paying jobs available than they ever intended to have. It is miserable when they get to California (where the people curse them as "Okies") and find out that as few as one man owns as much a million acres--much of it lying fallow in front of their eyes.
As difficult as the plight of the Joads and families like them, Steinbeck does not paint the Californians or their police as evil so much as scared into treachery and violence in order to protect their own. No one wants to starve and starvation after the dust bowl and thanks to the exploitative wages paid by the vineyard owners is a very real possibility. Nor does he canonize the migrants--the societies that grow up by the side of the road each night have their own laws and lawbreakers, stout hearts and slatterns--but does show them as civilized people who don't deserve being treated like animals. Many fearful Californians don't agree.
Steinbeck's character Tom Joad (whose ghost lives on in a Bruce Springsteen's song recently covered by Rage Against the Machine) is as important to American literature as Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby. Joad knows life offers no simple solutions, but he also knows that fair is fair. When a man's employers charge him for his work gear AND operate the stores where he must buy his food so that he often ends up OWING his employers more at the end of the week than his pitiful wages can cover, Tom Joad knows that's not just. He knows the land is fertile enough to feed everyone, so don't try giving him any speeches about "private property" and "supply and demand." If the test of a system and a society is how it treats it poorest members (especially in a crisis like the Depression), then the world the Joads live in fails miserably.
No less strong a character than her son Tom, Ma Joad embodies all the cliches about being a tower of strength without actually being a cliché herself. She and her family possess all the true grit and hearty spirit America prides itself on as a nation of pioneers, but by the 1930s the frontier has been bought up and the pioneers are in desperate straits.
This book is occasionally criticized for being too socialistic. This criticism is misguided; what THE GRAPES OF WRATH does is show how capitalism can and often does enrich the few while the many suffer. Steinbeck shows how breadbasket farmers were thrown off the land they had worked for generations so bankers in the East can make more profit. Can this happen today, even in a time of tremendous prosperity? Ask today's family farmers what agribusiness has done to them. THE GRAPES OF WRATH is no call to play the "Internationale," but it does starkly and intelligently raise questions about the meaning of equal opportunity and justice for all.
This is a book that should be required reading for Alan Greenspan, the editors of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and triumphal capitalists everywhere who wince for their stock dividends when the unemployment rate goes down. Not to mention every single elected official in the United States. The subject matter is extremely heavy and sad, but Steinbeck's style is straightforward and easy (even with the various dialects he employs perfectly). THE GRAPES OF WRATH does what so very few great novels can: it will take a lot out of you, but leave you with much more than you had when you began.

Portnoy's Complaint (Vintage International)
Portnoy's Complaint (Vintage International)
von Philip Roth
Preis: EUR 9,99

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5.0 von 5 Sternen I Can't Believe No One Ever Told Me About This Book, 24. Juli 2000
After reading PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, I find myself scrambling to recall whether I have ever read another American novel anywhere near as hysterically funny. Maybe Tom Robbins's SKINNY LEGS AND ALL is in the same ballpark (and I've yet to read CATCH-22) but Roth simply had my head spinning while I read this book. My jaw is still on the floor, in fact.
Esoterically, this book is one long rant about the joys and (more heavily) the anguishes of growing up Jewish in America in the forties and fifties. It's 1966 and successful civil servant Alexander Portnoy is on the psychiatrist's couch trying to get out all his Oedipal, inferiority, and sexual fetish complexes.
That infamous masturbation scene in the movie AMERICAN PIE? A direct descendent of Mrs. Portnoy's piece of liver!
More deeply, if you can stand it, this book seriously examines the struggle of growing up with smothering parents: Alex's both put him on a pedestal and criticize everything he does. He's unmarried at thirty-three in part because of all the neuroses his parents have bestowed in him--so why doesn't he get married and have children already? Alex lets us know in pornographic detail why. Speaking of pornographic detail, Alex spends plenty of time on his ultimately doomed affairs with (mostly Protestant) women. Most of his anger at growing up Jewish in a Christian-dominated society he takes out on these "shikses"--variously called Pumpkin, the Pilgrim and the Monkey--this is not a politically correct book from the feminist perspective. It does, however, raise serious questions about what it means to be a human being, as opposed to just a hyphenated-American.
PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT is brash, profane and wonderful. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted or those with what were once considered "polite sensibilities." But it is a very moral book in it's own way. Portnoy knows he's no hero, and Roth doesn't portray him as such--in some ways the book is one big joke. Every effective joke has its kernel of truth; Roth's have the whole can of corn.
I never expected a novel that is one long rant to inspire a review that is one long rave, but there it is.

Lolita (Vintage International)
Lolita (Vintage International)
von Vladimir Nabokov
Preis: EUR 9,99

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5.0 von 5 Sternen A True Original, 14. Juli 2000
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Lolita (Vintage International) (Taschenbuch)
"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." --Oscar Wilde
Often banned by those who consider it "immoral," LOLITA is far better than just "well written." Stylistically, there are few novels in English that match Nabokov's masterpiece for the seriously playful love and use of language. And English was at least Nabokov's third tongue! LOLITA is neither a moral nor an immoral book. It is brilliantly written. But Wilde was slightly off: that is NOT all.
French academic Humbert Humbert comes to America to renew his life after stagnation and divorce in Paris. He soon meets the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Lolita. She who reminds him so powerfully of the young Annabel he so innocently fell in love with on the Riviera when he was thirteen. The trouble is, Humbert was thirteen twenty-five years before and he wants to love Dolores as if he were thirteen again. It's just not so innocent this time around, and the fact that he knows this does not stop him.
That LOLITA is a love story cannot be convincingly denied any more than that it is a twisted tale of illicit, deranged obsession--novels, like life, often revel in ambiguity. Nabokov encourages these multiple shades of gray by employing one of the most enchanting yet unreliable narrators I've ever encountered. We see not only his obsessive, unheathily insatiable lust for the young girl, but also what life with him does to her: how she cries at night despite her brave front during the day, how she learns to manipulate him, how she grows to hate him. How much of what Humbert says can really be believed? Trying to figure that out is part of the enjoyment.
The whole book is a story of decadence and decline, of the beautiful ugliness of corruption. LOLITA is an aesthetic dream gone horribly wrong under the bright hot sun of the highways of middle America. It is also a treasure of twentieth century literature, a work of genius in how it persuades us, from time to time, to sympathize with its charming yet ruthless villain. But to say that Nabokov endorses pedophilia would be like saying that Sophocles endorses patricide and sleeping with one's mother because he wrote OEDIPUS REX. Read LOLITA and be amazed!

Making History
Making History
von Stephen Fry

4.0 von 5 Sternen It starts with a dream . . ., 2. Juli 2000
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Making History (Taschenbuch)
Stephen Fry's third novel is an interesting and amusing (though not as frightening as he would have it seem) re-imagining of what would have happened had Hitler never been born. Twenty-four-year-old Cambridge University history scholar Michael Young has a penchant for the type of fictional embellishing that Edmund Morris was guilty of in his recent memoir of Ronald Reagan. But unlike Morris (and Reagan himself, to some extent) Young really is a fictional character. He still has to pay the price for his creative scholarship (his thesis is rejected by his advisor), but it is this imaginative sense that bears him up for the journey back in time to sterilize Hitler's father before the evil seed is ever planted.
I recommend that people read MAKING HISTORY after Fry's two earlier and more scintillating novels, THE LIAR and THE HIPPOPOTAMUS. The heaviness of the subject matter here is slightly out of Fry's hitting zone and I would hate to have anyone put off perhaps the funniest intellectual writer alive today. That said, this is a fine book in its own right and contains an excellent understanding of academic life (at both Cambridge and Princeton) and human nature. Special points, too, for an opening chapter that ranks among the most screamingly funny in Fry's oeuvre--what would you do if you woke up late for class and only had decaf in the house?
As an avid Stephen Fry fan I was in no way displeased with this book, I just know that he has done better work--most recently with the sensational autobiography, MOAB IS MY WASHPOT. MAKING HISTORY is not a book for science fiction connoisseurs, but definitely an ambitious, well-imagined work of literary merit. You'll be surprised how much you laugh.

This Side Of Paradise
This Side Of Paradise
von F. Scott Fitzgerald

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5.0 von 5 Sternen The Education of a Personage, 2. Juli 2000
Rezension bezieht sich auf: This Side Of Paradise (Taschenbuch)
Run or click, but don't walk to grab yourself a copy of THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel (published when he was twenty-three) is so glitteringly brilliant you might--I say MIGHT--just like it more than THE GREAT GATSBY. By the Gatsby masterpiece Fitzgerald was cutting back deliberately on his flourishing prose--read THIS SIDE OF PARADISE to see him let it all hang out.
Fitzgerald's protagonist Amory Blaine inherits from his mother exquisite manners, a European sensibility, and a dangerous superiority complex. It is to Amory's credit then, that throughout his prep school and Princeton years he regains the respect his attitude loses for him through talent and hard work. His stunning good looks (a point repeatedly established) position Amory well to lose his innocence as a variety of beautiful girls fall for him throughout his adolescence. Looking back nostalgically later on, Amory is honest enough with himself to realize that he doesn't really want to "repeat" his innocence, but merely "want[s] the pleasure of losing it again."
When I first read this book almost four years ago I shook my head after a few pages and said, "there's no accounting for genius." Much later I read E. M. Forster's ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL where he points out what I said as characteristic of the "pseudo-scholar." Yikes! The truth is that there is accounting for Fitzgerald's genius: it lies in his depth of insight, sharpness of wit and overall "will to bigness," as his narrator puts it for Amory. GATSBY is certainly the book that crowned Fitzgerald an immortal, but THIS SIDE OF PARADISE is a must-read for those who want to know what first made him a star.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Bank Street Ready-To-Read)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Bank Street Ready-To-Read)
von James Joyce
Preis: EUR 4,49

5.0 von 5 Sternen A Classic Coming-of -Age Tale, 26. Juni 2000
A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN does not so much solicit deep thoughts and great emotions so much as it wrings them out of the reader. To finish this book is not to feel uplifted and encouraged for Stephen Dedalus, but to feel that at least he has made progress and knows enough of his strengths and weaknesses that he may make something of himself. Is this not possibly where we are left at the end of all great coming-of-age novels?
Joyce takes us through five stages of Stephen's youth. As a boy in 1890's Dublin he hears his father arguing that Irish nationalism has been sold out by the Catholic clergy. Soon Stephen's hands are "crumpling" beneath the paddle of an unjust priest. He becomes a leader in his class, an intellectual in a world where many believe: "If we are a priestridden race we ought to be proud of it. They are the apple of God's eye." Later Joyce spends eleven inimitable pages on these apples explaining in colorfully exhaustive detail what it would be like to be baked in a hellpie (for God is loving but God's justice is harsh). Five pages on the physical tortures of the eternal fire, and six more after a break about the mental tortures--Dante himself would be impressed. Fear of hell scares Stephen sufficiently enough to repent from his teenage brothel-frequenting phase. He goes to rather interesting extremes of devotion, even considering the priesthood as a vocation. But his questioning nature is even too intellectual for the jesuits and he discovers another path for himself at and after college.
Joyce writes poetic, often urgent prose: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to create life out of life!" becomes one of Stephen's clarion calls. A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN should be read by anyone looking for one of the best tales of intellectual, physical and spiritual awakening we have. Its beauty is best savored slowly. The rhythms might be difficult to pick up at first, but it really won't take very long until you will have a hard time putting the book down.

Bridget Jones's Diary
Bridget Jones's Diary
von Helen Fielding
  Gebundene Ausgabe
Preis: EUR 20,25

3.0 von 5 Sternen Ditzy Charm and Fun-- But Not Written By a Ditz, 14. Juni 2000
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Bridget Jones's Diary (Gebundene Ausgabe)
My sister abandoned this book in our parents' house and after reading the quote from Nick Hornby on the back ("Helen Fielding is one of the funniest writers alive and Bridget Jones is a creation of comic genius.") I decided to liberate Bridget from her cardboard box in the spare bedroom. I'm certainly glad I did so, but not enough to rave like my new idol Nick Hornby. While Fielding does give him a run for the money in the giggle department, BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY doesn't measure up to HIGH FIDELITY in belly laughs and depth of character. Nor need it--Bridget is a deliberately hyperbolized character--take her seriously as a whole and you miss the point. Be wary of similarities between her and people you know and appreciate Fielding's talent for exaggeration.
Fielding is very strong with comic repartee (if only Bridget really had answered the sneering "why aren't you married yet" question with the "Because I don't want to end up like you, you fat, boring, Sloaney milch cow" that she swallowed). Her bits on the Smug Marrieds are none the less poignant and funny for being obvious--it's just all the booze and cigarette-counting and weight-watching simply does wear thinner than Bridget herself in the end. Moreover, Bridget's love story that parallels PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is not the worthiest homage to Jane Austen. But if it manages to inspire people to read that novel--one of the five funniest written in any century--it has done great and noble service.
Bridget Jones doesn't learn as much as she should, which (while frustrating) is a fine lesson for all of us. Helen Fielding has created a memorable fictional character in Bridget Jones. Expect light, occasionally raucous fun from an intelligent writer--just don't confuse her with her creation.

Lucky Jim (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
Lucky Jim (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
von Kingsley Amis

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Still Reeling, 13. Juni 2000
This early masterpiece of Kingsley Amis inspires such peals of laughter and raves of admiration that it will put you in a good mood for a week after finishing it.
Jim Dixon is a World War II vet who has somehow become a medieval history lecturer at a provincial English university. He worries about keeping his job and meanwhile loathes the self-absorbed pedant who will decide whether to keep him or not: "No other professor in Great Britain, [Dixon] thought, set such store in being called Professor." With the axe hanging over his head Dixon falls for the girlfriend of his boss's son, Bertrand. A ruthless social-climbing artist, Bertrand is one of the most intolerable snobs I have come across in literature. You will be impressed by Dixon's campaign for the lady Christine-- sometimes carried on as much to prick Bertrand as to win her affection. Dixon is a remarkably funny character, and part of Amis's genius is that we like him far more than we should. He starts off rather childish, spitefully penciling moustache and glasses on a face in someone else's new magazine. As the plot moves along at an increasingly rapid pace, we see the necessary defense mechanisms in his many contorted facial expressions and pseudo-polite manner. So often does fear or calculation lead him to think one thing and say the opposite that the moment when he first does say exactly what he is thinking will move you to stand up and cheer.
LUCKY JIM had me putting it down often--not in boredom or disapproval, oh my, no!--I just had to pause time and time again to laugh and recover, to let Amis's brilliance sink in--his deceptively calm tone, his nimble use of the language. Occasionally Amis will turn a giggle-inducing phrase in the style of P.G. Wodehouse, but most of his humor is the unavoidable belly-aching kind. Funnier than and just as sharp as Evelyn Waugh, Amis's influence can be seen--albeit in much wackier fashion--in the 1990s novels of Stephen Fry.
Not just a comic novel, this, but a work of true and timeless literary merit. We shouldn't forget that Amis has Dixon wrestle with a few demons that are not put down easily by anyone. But I guarantee it won't be chance that will have you rolling on the floor if you pick up LUCKY JIM.

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life's Greatest Lesson
Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life's Greatest Lesson
von Mitch Albom
  Gebundene Ausgabe
Preis: EUR 22,78

5.0 von 5 Sternen A Teacher to the Last, 12. Juni 2000
How lucky Mitch Albom was to see his former professor on "Nightline" as he flipped through the channels one night in 1995. How fortunate that he had another chance to reacquaint himself with the teacher that had been most important to him as a college student. How grateful I was to read this description of the "final thesis" between a superior teacher and a completely invested student. The wonder of TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE is right there--in being a completely invested student of Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom becomes better invested in life and in love and less sunk into our materialistic culture.
"Death ends a life, not a relationship." Dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, Morrie reminds us that we live on through our love. But our love needs our attention: the people that we love need us to be "fully present." I saw at least two of Morrie's three interviews with Ted Koppel and I can still hear his voice, just as I can still hear the voice of a favorite professor of mine who died four years after I graduated from college--a rushed hug as I marched by him in my cap and gown was our final contact. Morrie helped me forgive myself for that, and I keep in good touch now with the other teachers who meant the most to me. That way I show respect for the legacy of those that I never thanked enough.
This book is short, but neither underdone or overdone. Nowhere is it flat, nowhere does it sermonize, per se. But it is a taught class, and as such can be didactic. Take a lesson with Morrie, it doesn't matter how jaded or cynical you are or you think you are, you will find much that is valuable in this book.

Art of the Novel, The
Art of the Novel, The
von Milan Kundera

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5.0 von 5 Sternen Much Needed Luminescence, 7. Juni 2000
Rezension bezieht sich auf: Art of the Novel, The (Taschenbuch)
"Outside the novel, we're in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel, however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and of hypotheses. In the novel, then, reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical."
Thus Milan Kundera affirms the wonder and beauty of the novel and explains the difference between how philosophers think and how novelists think. Born of the Modern Era ushered in by seventeenth century rationalism, the novel contemplates and explores existence in the Modern Era. Like the Modern Era, the novel is distinguished by its ambiguity and complexity. For Kundera, the novel's core is an inquiry, not a moral position. It makes sense, therefore, that in a world where humans long for black/white, wrong/right distinction, that the "wisdom of uncertainty" which Kundera calls the wisdom of the novel, should be so hard to accept and understand.
This remarkable short book shares the seven part form of several of Kundera's novels: each can stand alone but all are connected by vital and pervading themes. The seven parts comprise two essays, a collection of notes, two dialogues, a dictionary of sixty-three words, and an acceptance speech for a literary prize--and not in the order just mentioned. This mosaic structure works well to underscore part of Kundera's point: there are many ways to approach an understanding of the novel. Is Don Quixote a critique or a celebration of idealism? Both cases have been made often, neither is right--the novel's spirit of complexity and continuity brooks no dogmatism. In fact, the novel has its own "radical autonomy" which Kundera uses to illuminate the works of Franz Kafka. It can say and show things humans cannot achieve in any other way.
If the novel that is art--the novel that truly says something new--is to survive, novelists would do well to think more like Milan Kundera. Readers of THE ART OF THE NOVEL, meanwhile, will gain a new appreciation for the genre as well as valuable insight into the thought process of one of the world's greatest living novelists.

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