Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

This is a hard novel to review – so much happens, and so little happens. Waugh tackles Catholicism, dogma and paradigms, faith in general. He tackles homosexuality, social stigma, boyishness, growth, and responsibility. Divorce, society, nobility, riches, and innocence. Alcoholism, psychosis, war, nationalism, loss, and the Oedipus complex. All of this, from another writer, might seem overbearing, complex, or pretentious but Waugh somehow makes it all seem normal. Sebastian Flyte is an extraordinarly beautiful character, equally loveable and despised. Charles, the artist and narrator, confuses me in the end. His passion for Sebastian (pardon the rhyme, please, it was unintended) is finally realized in the affair between Charles and Sebastian’s sister, Julia. In a modern novel, or a Victorian, I might find this to be a cop-out. The setting here, though – Oxford in World War I / upperclass Britain of World War II make the displaced love affair seem the only real option, disappointing as it was for me as a reader. The exclusion of Sebastian from the third part of the novel disturbs me, but it leaves room for a renewed focus on Catholocism (personified by Lady Marchmain in the principal portion of the novel) and Reason (embodied by Brideshead throughout). Surprisingly, the concluding death scene makes clear which virtue Waugh finds most necessary (or appealing) – a twist which may have been forseshadowed by Charles’s stubborn rebuttal of Christianity, had it not been for his obvious infatuation with and love for Sebastian (“he was the forerunner”). Ultimately, I’m perplexed and enamored. I will certainly pick up another of Waugh’s works in the near future, and will likely return to this one again sometime down the road, perhaps in wiser days, as I haven’t quite figured out the last page of the epilogue yet. All in good time.

Review: Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums

Sessums’ memoir is beautifully – and painfully- honest. He describes his experiences as an effeminate homosexual boy, youth, and teenager in rural Mississippi, in a time and place where it was more popular to applaud the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr. than it was to express sadness over their losses. Sessums loses both his parents when just a young boy, left to be raised by grandparents who don’t quite know what to make of him but who, nonetheless, seem to love and care for them as best they can. Sessums doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with his siblings, possibly because he found it necessary to escape the close ties of “family” when both of his parents died (easier to distance oneself than to lose another). Still, Sessums is unable to escape further heartache with the loss of his two other parental figures, Jack (the older, educated, drama instructor and writer with a preference for “darker” boys, which is ultimately the source of his demise) and Matty (the mysterious cotton-picking maid, friend of Kevin’s mother, whose mental imbalance is hinted at earlier on than the reader might have realized). This story is brilliant in its unflinching honesty, its attempt at believable memory, and it’s refusal to condemn those ‘characters’ who had wronged or pained the narrator and author. A worthwhile read, also, for its inclusion of the inner-workings of the literary and artistic circles of the likes of Eudora Welty. Well written, moving, and terrifying.

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s achievement with Les Miserables is in stunning and breath-taking. Not only is the story superb, realistic, and moving, but it is complemented by aspects of French philosophy, history, and politics. When beginning this novel, I had no idea that I would be exposed to, and learn so much about, French history and culture. Napoleon Bonaparte, Waterloo, Louis VIII, the Guillotine, European relations, the gamins, prisons, crime and punishment, religion, morality – all of this is examined with a literary microscope; meanwhile, love, poetry, song, revolution, family, and society are all exposed to the scrutiny of an expelled patriot. The story of Jean Valjean is heartbreaking and vindicating. Cosette and Marius, lovers despite the odds. Javert, the intensely dutiful (to a fault) inspector, and his tragic revelations. Gavroche, the beautiful underprivileged. Fantine, the lost and compromised woman, taken advantage of while trying to care for her daughter. Eponine, Fauchelevent, the Nuns, the Gillenormands, all minor but telling characters – described incredibly and delicately by Hugo. What most impressed me is how Hugo described the history and purpose of each detail, to demonstrate it’s importance. Chapters of the novel are devoted to explaining seemingly insignificant points of detail, such as the prisons, the chain gangs, the slang language – all of which come into play during the story, but become active and live characters on their own merits, because of Hugo’s attention to them. I cannot say enough about this novel – it is truly a masterpiece and I can’t wait to see the musical.

Review: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is hit or miss, for me. I fell in love with A Farewell to Arms. I found The Old Man and the Sea a bit sluggish (though, admittedly, this is the point). I have thoroughly enjoyed some of the short stories, and wondered why in the world I bothered to read others. The Sun Also Rises was, for me, a book I could have skipped. I know Hemingway is one of the great American authors. I think he is brilliant at times, but for most of this novel, I found myself “laughing out loud” at all the uses of words like “grand,” which called to mind my favorite author, Salinger, and his enormous dislike for phonies. Now, I’m not saying Hemingway was a phony, by any means. In fact, I think it a testament to his art that he succeeded, after being a journalist, so extraordinarily, in spite of criticism from some of the other expatriates, such as Gertrude Stein. Alas, The Sun Also Rises was no A Farewell to Arms. I don’t think it even rivaled The Torrents of Spring. I was not at all intrigued until the final 40 pages or so, when the story moved to Spain and the bullfights. Here, in the deepest, darkest, and most romantic portion of the novel, Hemingway was masterful, and I couldn’t tear myself away. I just wish the first 60% of the novel was just as inspired.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“It wasn’t until after the first book (50 or so pages) of A Tale of Two Cities that I finally began to sink into the story and to appreciate what Dickens was developing. While there wasn’t as much opposition between London and Paris as I had expected (after all, the title and the history of the book make it seem that this is a story about the battle between, or at least the differences of, the two), the contrast between freedom in London versus persecution in Paris is obvious. It is also ironic that, while the Parisian “revolutionists” were espousing freedom and liberty, they were actually the cause of a great oppression of the French people and, particularly, of emigrants and nobles. Dickens does a masterful job of presenting this irony in a serious way. He allows the reader to sympathize with the plight of the peasant, while also condemning the over-zealous and destructive reaction of the lower class. The story itself reminds me – strikingly – of Les Miserables. The two main characters in both novels are an odd, prisoner father and his chaste, innocent-to-the-point-of-naiveté daughter. In A Tale of Two Cities, The daughter’s future husband reaches an epiphany about his father-in-law which allows the strange man to grow inestimably in character for the spouse; in Hugo’s Les Miserable, the young spouse is at first mistrustful of the ex-convict father but he also eventually reaches an understanding which brings the man into an almost saintly status. Also, in both, there are characters of unrelenting, spiteful yet understandable fervor. In A Tales of Two Cities, it is Madame Defarge, the vindictive wife of a wine-shopkeeper whose family was wronged in her youth and who will stop at nothing to avenge them, even if it means bringing down the innocent. Her counter-part in Les Miserables is Javert, the inscrutable police inspector who epitomizes absolute justice, regardless of man’s ability to change, grow, and make amends. Both novels are brilliant and, while I prefer Les Miserable on the whole, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is a more real description of the beginning of the French Revolution and it’s horrors, while Les Miserable largely takes place after the fact, during the reformation. In all, I would have to say that, once one gets through the rather clumsy introduction to the storyline and its characters in Book One, the tale then picks up and is rather impossible to put down.