Penguin Classics

Because what you read matters.

Reading the Classics from A-Z: Round #2

With one complete cycle under his belt, Alan Walker, our Senior Director of Academic Marketing and Sales, embarked on yet another Penguin Classics reading marathon of one book by an author per letter of the alphabet. Check out the Penguin Classics website for Alan's latest blog entries (Z), as well as his entire first marathon, and check back soon as Alan begins his third cycle!


The Epic of Gilgamesh Having read a Penguin Classic by author for each letter of the alphabet I thought it would be appropriate to start my next round of reading with a book written by that noted author of over 120 Penguin Classics, that illustrious literary figure who has written in every genre through every historical period known as Anonymous. The translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh by N. K. Sandars is really an amazing feat of literature for its accessibility, considering that the tale of Gilgamesh's search for immortality was uncovered by archaeologists in excavations of ancient Middle Eastern cities, predated Homer by at least fifteen centuries (maybe up to twenty), and was originally written on over 25,000 clay tablets. The introduction to this edition covers the historical and literary background of this epic, and is truly fascinating. And I am just sitting here and wondering if the switch from clay tablet to parchment paper was as controversial as the bound book to eBook debate is today?


Untouchable Mulk Raj Anand was considered in his day as his country's Charles Dickens for his detailed portrayals of the poor in traditional Indian society. The short novel Untouchable written in 1935 is a case of a Classic that is truly ripe for rediscovery for it's empathetic exploration of the conflicting emotions, humiliations and repressed desires of a sweeper, a latrine cleaner basically, and member of the lowest caste of Indians known as the Untouchables. The members of this caste were subjected to intense discrimination, and if someone from a higher caste came into physical contact with them, they were considered to be defiled and would have to be bathed thoroughly to be purified. A similar scene actually takes place in the book and is referred to in E.M. Forster's introduction to our Classics edition as "the touching". In Bakha the sweeper, the author paints a vivid portrait of the daily life of a strong and handsome young man who has to repress his anger at his place in society, and yet whose lack of a future and any hope to improve upon his position limits his own awareness of his own feelings. Near the end of the novel you also get to see Gandhi and the unnamed Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, speak at a rally, all though Bakha's own eyes.


Brodie's Report Ever since my first round letter B choice of Bulgakov, I've been looking forward to trying Borges for the first time. With quite a few titles in Penguin Classics from which to choose, I decided to read Brodie's Report which was Borges' return to fiction at the age of 70, after twenty years of focusing on poetry and nonfiction. All of the stories in the book are just a few pages in length, all representing some form of duel, whether between gauchos, hardened criminals, academics, or competing artists. My favorite story here is called The Other Duel, about two ranchers who were lifelong enemies. Despite having never come to actual blows, their rivalry was renowned. Their final duel came about when both were captured by the Reds while fighting for the Whites during the 1870s Civil War. The Reds, who put to death all prisoners, settled the lifelong dispute between these two men by staging a dual, letting everyone (both captors and soon-to-perish prisoners) bet on which of the rivals would be able to run the farthest once their throats were slit. Macabre and disturbing yet somehow whimsical, Borges' style is wholly original and highly entertaining. This is a real discovery and I look forward to mining his other works in Penguin Classics!


Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary "The horror, the horror!" My letter C pick for this go-round is that turn-of-century (1899) classic Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's deeply psychological tale of a riverboat journey into the Congo in search of the infamous ivory trader Mr. Kurtz. Maybe the most difficult thing for me in reading this book for the first time was trying to rid my mind of Marlon Brando's image as the story progressed. Of course, Brando played Kurtz in Apocalypse Now—the modern film retelling of Conrad's novel with Vietnam as backdrop in place of Africa. At least I don't recall Brando being "a malformed seven-foot-long puppet creature" (from Owen Knowles' introduction). The introduction itself is literary criticism in its highest form, and almost as entertaining as the book itself. Knowles discusses how Heart of Darkness played no small part in shifting attitudes towards "imperialism" which until then was a term with a more "reputable association" and was a form of "unthinking national self-congratulation."


Hard Times I don't want to date myself here but it struck me as I was reading Hard Times that I had not read a Charles Dickens novel in over three decades. I was an annoying thirteen year old adolescent when I devoured A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and Great Expectations in the summer of '77, alongside every P.G. Wodehouse book ever published and the latest issue of Mad Magazine! Well, I can safely report that not much has changed (except I don't read Mad anymore and I have to shave now). Like all those other Dickens novels, this book was hard to put down and the quirky characters were both unique and memorable. The names of the characters are classic Dickens here: school owner Thomas Gradgrind, the "bully of humility" Josiah Bounderby, circus girl Sissy Jupe, and my favorite name of all, the school teacher Mr. M'Choakumchild! Hard Times takes place in a factory town called Coketown, where children have facts drilled into them from inception, and where little credence is given to imagination, creativity and intuition. This indeed is a book with a lot of contemporary relevance in these days of No Child Left Behind with the heavy emphasis on standardized testing and the recording of facts for our youth. I guess not much has really changed since 1854 when Dickens wrote Hard Times! As for me, I will try not wait another thirty years for my next Dickens read (there are only twenty other Dickens titles in Penguin Classic editions, that is if I decide to re-read the first three some day).


The Waste Land and Other Poems I am certain if I made an attempt at interpreting any of the poems in The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot, the poet himself would most certainly respond to me with his own lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which starts off this collection: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all." Yet despite my confusion, I have to say that I enjoyed these poems much more than when I read them in high school, when I considered them a form of canonical punishment. In The Waste Land alone there are more literary allusions than I can count, and if one was to trace back each one (and one could just through Penguin Classics editions) one could start a wholly different kind of Classics marathon: from Virgil, Homer, Augustine, Ovid, Dante, Laforgue, Nerval, James Frazer, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Conrad, Whitman, Marvell, Milton, Chaucer….I could go on. I would read each poem straight through, then go back and read it flipping to the extensive notes at the back of the book, and then read it once again with that extra perspective. I found this helped the reading experience. Yet, I was most moved by sections when the literary and historical references took a back seat to Eliot's language, as in the fifth and last section of The Waste Land, What the Thunder Said. Frank Kermode's introduction and notes to the poems are also illuminating, and fascinating in their own right, and definitely help as a guide into the mind of Eliot. In the introduction Kermode includes a great quote from Eliot concerning the critical reception of The Waste Land as a piece of social criticism: "To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life: it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling."


A Room with a View In the back of an old Penguin Classic I discovered this quote from Ismail Merchant about growing up a reader in Bombay: "So reliable was the Penguin imprimatur that I was never once disappointed by the contents...Perhaps it's no coincidence that so many Merchant Ivory films have been adapted from great novels, or that those novels are published by Penguin." With this in mind I read E. M. Forster's novel A Room With a View, a story I feel like I have already read having seen and enjoyed the film many times. Reading the book only made me appreciate the film even more for its close rendering of the novel's humor, its absurd characters—most notably the arrogant Cecil Vyse and the grating Aunt Charlotte—and for the actors' painstaking portrayals of the many layers of "muddle" through which each of the main characters must wade—particularly Lucy Honeychurch on whose actions the book turns. I guess I am a sucker for a novel about repressed upper class Brits at the turn of the 20th Century, especially when juxtaposed against the raw passion and beauty of Italy. If you are like me, whether you've seen the movie a hundred times or not, Forster's novel will make you want to ask the great questions and maybe on a future trip to Florence plan a day trip to a nearby Fiesole hillside!


North and South For the letter G I dipped into Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel North and South, originally entitled Margaret Hale, but apparently renamed by Gaskell's own editor, Charles Dickens, to emphasize the class politics at the heart of the love story between Margaret and Mr. Thornton who come from different classes and opposing backgrounds. The proud and beautiful Margaret moves to the North from a peaceful Southern hamlet after her pastor father loses his faith, rescinds his position in the church and takes a tutorial position in the industrial town of Milton. There they both meet Thornton, a young, but inflexible cotton mill owner who signs up to study the Classics under the tutelage of Mr. Hale. Despite growing up in poverty, Thornton has become a man both respected and feared despite conflicts with his own workers who strike against him when their wages are cut. Both characters go through their own awakening as they come to terms with their own prejudices, and at the end of the book there is a remarkable role reversal as Margaret stakes her claim in a male world and Thornton learns humility and appreciation of his workers. What makes this the novel hard to put down though is the love story between these two. Novelist Margaret Oliphant (see the letter O from my first round of Classics reading) wrote of Margaret and Thornton: "Here is love itself, always in a fury, often looking exceedingly like hatred." For a modern pop culture reference you can see where the Sam and Diane characters from television's Cheers have their roots in these characters. The love story does not resolve itself until the last few paragraphs of North and South but of course you'll have to read it yourself to find out how it ends.


The Outsiders Many of you may already be familiar with The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, the classic Young Adult story of three orphaned Oklahoma kids, Ponyboy, Soda and Darry, their "greaser" gang pals Two-Bit, Dally, Steve and Johnny, and their battles with the rich kids in town, their enemies, the Socs. The novel was adapted to film in the 80s and its cast is a who's who among 80s male teen stars, including C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, even Leif Garrett (anyone remember him)!! Tom Waits also played a cameo and the film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Fortunately for my reading enjoyment, I had not seen the film in a couple of decades, and couldn't remember who played who in the film—except for Swayze's portrayal of the responsible older brother Darry—much less remember the actual plot. In the introduction to this Penguin Classic by bestselling author Jodi Picoult compares the book's influence on YA literature to Catcher in the Rye and films like Rebel Like a Cause that first showed the true angst of teen life, instead of the watered down representation that was so prevalent in the books, TV shows and films of the time (can you say Wally and the Beav?). Still, these Greasers are not your everyday ne'er-do-wells; you certainly don't come across too many juvenile delinquents who can quote Frost! Lastly I had no idea that S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders at the mere age of 16, a pretty amazing accomplishment. I also would recommend reading the introduction as an afterword as it does give away some key plot points.


A Doll's House and Other Plays I started out reading Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories for my letter I, and was halfway through and thoroughly enjoying the very amusing short story of Rip van Winkle when I went off course and started reading one of three Henrik Ibsen Penguin Classic play collections entitled A Doll's House and Other Plays. I figured that here I was, almost halfway through the alphabet for the second time, and I had not yet read a single play for my Classics marathon. And I asked myself what was the greater purpose of this whole effort if I wasn't indeed gearing myself up to read Shakespeare for the first time since high school (I was a history major after all!). So drama won out for this round and I put Rip van Winkle back to sleep (pun intended!) until I can come back around to the letter I and revive Old Rip again. Besides A Doll's House there are two other plays in this collection: Ibsen's first prose play The League of Youth centers on a young, ambitious and unethical public figure in an amusing and quick-paced comedy of small town politics; the third play in the book is The Lady of the Sea, and like A Doll's House is about a wife who is unhappy in her current state of betrothal, an Ibsen theme that stirred much controversy in his time! The centerpiece of this Classics edition A Doll's House is of course one of Ibsen's masterpieces and will provide much satisfaction for anyone who can't stand couples who speak baby talk to each other!! Behind the comedy lies a powerful tale of a woman's keen unhappiness and her profound need to escape the stifling oppression of what on the surface seems to be a loving marriage in order to lead her own double life. And drama definitely wins out; if one of these Ibsen plays is ever revived on Broadway, which I'm sure it will, I'll be first on line at the theatre box office.


Storm of Steel For the letter J, I read Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel, the memoir of the author's time spent as a German soldier and officer during World War I. Recognized as one of the most accurate and gripping accounts of trench warfare, Junger's book is filled with the numbing violence and death that accompanied the daily life of German soldiers. While some scenes are quite gruesome (this book is definitely not for the squeamish), there are also moments that seem to rise above the morass. For example, Junger often praises the courage of the enemy, one time commending a dying British soldier for managing to grit his teeth and take a puff of his pipe as he dies right after both his legs are blown off. There is also the surgeon who, while removing one of Junger's five bullet wounds during the war, states calmly that "books and bullets have their own destinies." (I think I am going to put that in my email signature!) In the end Junger is wounded fourteen times, and the reader can't help but be amazed at his chance survival after so many of his comrades seem to die right beside him. But what is more moving is Junger's subtle change in attitude as the momentum of the war shifts to the Allies' favor and he starts to reveal his own mixed feelings towards the war effort, despite his portrayal throughout the book of the righteousness of the German cause. I'm looking forward to reading other Penguin Classics on WWI like Henri Barbusse's Under Fire and the recent new edition of Humphrey Cobb's Paths of Glory. Also I highly recommend the recent novel by Joseph Boyden called Three Day Road about two Cree Indians who fight in the Canadian infantry during the war.


The Water-Babies Having already read Kerouac in my first round through the alphabet, the letter K came down this time to Kafka, Kesey, Kipling and Kingsley. Based purely on curiosity I chose Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies. This famous British "children's" story was originally published in 1863. It starts out innocently enough when the young overworked and soot-covered chimney sweep Tom tumbles down a chimney into the bedroom of the sleeping daughter of Sir John Harthover. Harthover House by the way is an unusual estate architecturally, with Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Cinquecento, Elizabethan, Doric, Early English, Boeotian influences along with characteristics from the Parthenon, Roman Catacombs and the Taj Mahal! Sounds lovely right! Anyways, a long chase ensues involving Sir John, Tom's cruel boss Mr. Grimes and Harthover's keeper, gardener, plowman, and dairymaid. Eventually Tom escapes and is turned by fairies into a Water-baby to live out his days in the sea learning lessons from other sea creatures and their rulers, Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid and Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby. According to the Penguin Classics introduction by Richard Beards, critics of the day found the story to be "unintelligible to children" and I would have to agree, in that what is disguised as a child's fantasy is actually a very complex—and bizarre—moral allegory written by Kingsley, an Anglican priest, who was attempting to resolve the conflict of his own faith with his adherence to Darwin's principles. In essence Kingsley draws parallels in nature between the metamorphic changes of different species in nature with "his concept of how humans develop into spiritual beings—'we are but crawling caterpillars, and shall be hereafter the perfect fly.'" Pretty heady stuff for a children's fantasy!


A Hero of Our Time I have to say the more Classics I read the more I look forward to the Russians. In trying to keep up the momentum I have avoided the 600 page novels, my longest read being Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant. But Tolstoy beckons as I approach the halfway mark of my second "tour of duty." Luckily for me though my L pick, Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, is still a quick read and it definitely jumps right to the top as one of my favorite novels in this Classics marathon (Tolstoy was a fan as well so I guess I am in good company). And I sincerely hope that no one out there mistakes my pleasure in reading this book to any personal allegiance or similarity to the character of the book's "hero," the dark and moody Pechorin. And maybe there are readers out there who will not find his escapades or the great pleasure he takes in the downfall of those around him as entertaining as I have. Cast in the same mold as the wicked Valmont (memorably played by John Malkovich in the film version) from the French novel Dangerous Liaisons (also in Penguin Classics), I couldn't help but be fascinated by Pechorin, perhaps the most unsentimental character ever laid out on the page. And if you are a fan of duels, the one that takes place between Pechorin and Grushnitsky towards the end of the novel is one of the funniest, most absurd, yet somehow dramatic episodes I've ever read. Ironically Lermontov himself died in a duel but I guess that's another story! For now I leave you with a great line from Pechorin for all those Twilight and True Blood fans out there looking for something new: "There are moments when I understand vampires."


Pierre and Jean Having recently spent some vacation time in Paris, I chose for my letter M pick the great French short story writer Guy de Maupassant's psychological novel Pierre and Jean—although I should add that it takes place in the port city of Le Havre in Normandy, and not in Paris. For all of you out there with siblings who've ever wondered if you could have possibly sprung from the same tree as your brother(s) or sister(s) this is the perfect book. The plot and style is very accessible, and the language simple, as was Maupassant's preference in writing (which he states vigorously in the essay which introduces the novel in this Penguin Classics edition). La famille Roland consists of the amiable yet ridiculous father Monsieur Roland, his sensitive novel-and-poetry-reading wife Mme. Roland, and their two sons Pierre and Jean, who like so many brothers are opposites both in appearance and in character. And as with most brothers there exists an underlying competitiveness and jealousy which becomes magnified when a long out-of-touch family friend dies and leaves his entire estate to Jean, the younger of the two. Jean instantly becomes a wealthy man, while his older and more wayward brother Pierre is left in a state of tortured aimlessness. Slowly Pierre's suspicions as to the cause of the mysterious willing of the fortune start to tear apart at the seams of the Roland family and reveal long hidden deceptions. As the brothers and their mother try to deal with the consequences, Monsieur Roland blindly and hysterically sees and understands nothing. Anyways I won't give away any more here, but I do look forward to future reads by this author as well as his writing mentors and friends Flaubert and Zola. Pass the Freedom—I mean French—Fries!!


The Painter of Signs For N I read R.K. Narayan's The Painter of Signs, a farcical novel about Raman, a young sign painter who lives with his mother and works in Narayan's fictional Indian city of Malgudi, where all of his novels take place. The novel is seen through the eyes of Raman as he falls for the independent and modern Daisy whose life mission is to introduce birth control into the rural areas of India in order to curb population growth. I couldn't help but sympathize with Raman as his constant advances are repeatedly denied by the fickle Daisy. Raman is the poster child for the romantic fool, a great character, both likeable and genuine, simultaneously modern and old-fashioned. I laughed out loud at times at Raman's struggles with his feelings and sexual attraction for Daisy. While her typical coldness is so oft-putting, Daisy's occasional glimpses of warmth towards Raman only lead him to aspire to greater heights, leading to one of the strangest and most humorous engagements you'll ever find in literature! The great introduction to the novel by Monica Ali talks about the two main characters and how one of Narayan's great gifts was his ability to show human frailty within the confines of the comic novel. I couldn't agree more; this is a light and funny book to read with serious undertones about India as a country and the clashes of the old and new worlds, especially in relation to its marital traditions. Narayan is a real find for me, and I look forward to reading more, including Narayan's renowned prose retelling of the Indian epic The Ramayana. Quick sidenote, Narayan was great friends with one of my favorite Classics authors Graham Greene, and was actually originally published by Greene's publisher in the UK at Greene's recommendation.


The Picture of Dorian Gray I knew the day would come when I'd be faced with the decision to break whatever unwritten rules I've gone by throughout my Classics Marathon Read. For my first round I read Margaret Oliphant's 19th-century novel Miss Marjoribanks, but this time I am left with but a few choices, Eugene O'Neill's Early Plays and the works of Ovid, the great Roman poet. Although I have nothing against either author (I even studied Ovid in an AP Latin course in high school), I decided to stretch the rules a little by reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. My apologies to the sticklers out there. This will make my choice a bit easier when I arrive at the letter W, as there are just too many great W authors to pick from (James Welch, H.G. Wells, Rebecca West, Patrick White, Whitman, Wharton, etc.). Secondly, no one really refers to Oscar Wilde as Wilde; his surname is almost always mentioned. Imagine Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as The Brief Wondrous Life of Wao? Wilde's only published novel follows the life of Dorian Gray who makes a deal with the devil to stay eternally young. It begins as a comedy of manners with upper class British dandies as protagonists, but turns into a gothic tale of murder and decadence, replete with suicide (by the aptly named Sibyl Vane), London opium dens, and of course the portrait of Dorian itself, which, hidden away in a locked room, eerily reflects the true ravages of the years on Dorian's face. By far my favorite character in the book is the cynical and scandalous Lord Henry Wotton. I highly recommend memorizing some of his quotes for the sake of dull moments at parties. Here is just a taste:

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

"To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable."

"It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true."

And one more for all you readers:

"The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame."

The Picture of Dorian Gray certainly fits that bill!


The Narrative of Arthur Gordon PymWhen I was but a young lad I first discovered Edgar Allan Poe's story The Cask of Amontillado in the renowned 70s horror comics magazine Eery. There's nothing quite like a story about the entombing of a living man to incite the active imagination of a ten- or eleven-year-old boy. I later enjoyed Poe's tales of murder and detection like The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the longer form narrative poem The Raven ("Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary"), and, as many of you probably did, I read Poe's most famous short story The Fall of the House of Usher in a college literature course. What many don't realize is that Poe only wrote one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and it was this novel that stirred all kinds of critical and favorable reactions in its time and continues to do so today, for it is unlike anything you have ever read or will ever read! The novel inspired Melville, James, Verne, Conan Doyle, and Borges called it "Poe's greatest work." Yet Poe himself called it "a very silly work," citing it as his attempt at commercial success since his shorter works had made it difficult for him to achieve broader appeal. The book is both a thrilling gothic sea adventure and biblical allegory, filled with strange sub-text about Poe's own family (according to the introduction and notes in the Penguin Classics edition). Blood, gore, cannibalism, death and near-death misses are present throughout, but in the end for me it is the early section of the book which resonates the most, when stowaway Pym is stuck in the hold of the whaling ship The Grampus without food or water for days on end, without word from his friend and accomplice Augustus. Can anyone portray the terror of claustrophobia in words the way Poe does? I guess when it comes to the entombing of a living man, that ten-year-old kid lives on in me. Now if I can only find my old copy of Eery magazine!


azarillo de Tormes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels The letter Q does present its challenges in coming up with an author, especially after reading Raymond Queneau's bizarrely hilarious Zazie in the Metro my first go-round. I picked up a Penguin Classic entitled Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels, the latter of which is by Francisco de Quevado, fulfilling my letter requirement. The tales come from 16th- and 17th-century Spanish literature and were early examples of the picaresque form, which influenced Cervantes—and European literature in general—over the next two centuries. Lazarillo de Tormes is credited with the founding and formulation of the style. It usually features the adventures of a rogue from low social station who, through wits and not much else, manages to navigate through a corrupt world. If that description rings a bell, that might be because the style continues to flourish today; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most famous examples in American literature. The two stories from this Penguin Classics collection certainly stand as amusing and enjoyable prototypes of the form. The first, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), has no claimed author, but The Swinder (El Buscón in Spanish) (1626), is by Quevedo, who was apparently quite the character, somewhat of a rogue himself. He had many enemies of note in the literary world and seemed to find himself in duels often, one of which is amusingly fictionalized in The Swindler. What stand out from these two tales are the humor, bawdiness and all-around irreverence of the narratives, both of which seem very modern to me. The not-so-funny Spanish Inquisition serves as an austere background to all the humorous pranks and goings-on! Definitely worth a plunge, I'd say, and if you find yourself intrigued, also try Fernando de Rojas' Celestina and Luis de Gongora's epic poem The Solitudes—recently translated by Edith Grossman—both just out in Penguin Classics, and from the same period in the same tradition. Interesting note: Quevedo and Gongora were lifetime enemies, and Quevedo constantly lampooned and satirized Gongora's work and character, including writing a sonnet called "To a Nose" making fun of Gongora's most prominent feature—and also called him out for his "Jewishness," which had far and serious implications in Spain at that time.


Twelve Angry Men Now that I no longer live in New York State, I can safely say that I managed to avoid serving on a criminal trial jury despite living and working in New York City for over twenty-five years—that is, until last year when I served on a federal criminal gun possession case. It was a fascinating experience and one of my few regrets (besides being caught unwittingly trying to sneak a box cutter into the courthouse) was that I had never read or seen a dramatic performance of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men before spending five days locked up with eleven strangers arguing over someone's future. Having never seen the original TV drama performance that included a young Norman Fell (that's Mr. Roper for all you Three's Company fans) or the Sydney Lumet–directed film version, the short Penguin Classics edition was a revelation and brought me back to that week of being sequestered with a rather diverse group of New Yorker characters. The Classics edition has a great introduction by David Mamet that talks about the two Americas—the "them" depicted in the news and the "us" made up of friendly and reasonable people with diverse talents and interests. Also hats off to the Penguin production folks for a great cover on this one; it's definitely worth a look (I know I'm biased and bleed black and orange)! It's a very quick read, the only challenge of it being the sorting out of personalities amongst the twelve jurors (named only Juror #1, #2, #3, #4, etc). I'm looking forward to renting the film version which starred Henry Fonda, and other great New York character actors such as Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam and Jack Warden, to name a few. And I guess I won't try so hard to avoid the criminal juries in the future, although they don't let you read Penguin Classics (or anything else for that matter) inside the jury room when things get slow like they do in the selection rooms before you get picked. Where is the justice in that, I ask!


Kokoro I've been looking forward to sampling the works of the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki, and of the three novels published by Penguin Classics I decided to pick up his most famous work, Kokoro. In the introduction translator Meredith McKinney writes that the literal translation of the title word Kokoro is heart, but that it is in fact a much more complex word implying the thinking and feeling heart as opposed to the workings of the pure intellect, devoid of human feeling. This is an interesting note and important to the book, which examines human nature through the story of a young man and his idolization of Sensei, a reclusive, married older man whom he becomes close to, and to some degrees, obsessed with due to Sensei's unusual and mysterious character. The novel also serves as a lens into the rapidly changing ways and values that are taking shape in Japan in the early twentieth century as a new generation of youth becomes westernized. Whats most entertaining about this novel though is the mystery at the heart of the story, which is revealed in the third section of the book, when Sensei writes a long letter to his young friend explaining the set of events that shaped his character as a youth. The novel itself is fun, dramatic, replete with subtle humor, and told in a lovely flowing language that owes a debt to Meredith McKinney's wonderful translation. I highly recommend this one; I guarantee you'll feel more worldly and cultured once you've finished!


The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories I accidentally pulled an old out-of-print edition of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories from the bookshelf, which happened to be sitting right next to the new edition. The two editions have only the title story in common. The other two stories in the old 1960 Rosemary Edmonds translation, Happy Ever After and The Cossacks, can now be found in new translations in different Penguin Classics collections of Tolstoy's shorter works (The Cossacks and Other Stories and Master and Man and Other Stories). Confused yet? Well, it's worth mentioning here that Penguin Classics never rests on its laurels, constantly putting out fresh new translations of the greatest works of literature. The 1960 Edmonds translation may seem slightly out-of-date in its language. Still, I have no regrets having picked up this old edition, for the three stories included are all unique examples of Tolstoy's soulful genius. Happy Ever After follows the ups and downs (and ups) of a young woman who marries her family's guardian despite their great difference in age (note: the title is ironic). The Death of Ivan Ilyich relentlessly tracks the title character's untimely illness and subsequent death, a disturbing and powerful portrait of loneliness and denial in the mind of a dying man. And finally there is The Cossacks, my favorite story of the three. I'm in good company, as Turgenev himself called it "the finest and most perfect production of Russian literature" (see my previous T entry for more on the odd history between these two Russian writers!). The Cossacks is a short novel about a young Russian nobleman, who, dissatisfied with his life in Moscow, departs for The Caucasus where he takes up with the simple yet noble Cossacks, befriending an old, hard-drinking hunter and falling in love with the stunning but already engaged Maryanka. The story takes a little while to get going but by the end you won't want to leave these characters behind—which I won't have to because now I can read the new translation! I did say in the last round that I might delve into War and Peace for this go-round, so I hope my choice here doesn't seem unambitious. Tolstoy's short stories will definitely whet the appetite for his longer works!


The Underdogs In round #1 of my Classics Read I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Wreath, the first volume of Sigrid Undset's medieval epic Kristin Lavransdatter. This time I decided once again to write my own marathon rules and select a book whose title starts with the letter "U", choosing Mariano Azuela's fabulously gritty novel of the Mexican Revolution The Underdogs. The term "underdog" may make you think of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, the Jamaican bobsled team, or any swimmer not named Michael Phelps (sorry, the Olympics just ended!); how about Dennis Kucinich to try a different sphere? In Azuela's novel The Underdogs, literally translated from Spanish as "those from below," are a rag-tag group of poor Mexican rural farmers who are fighting under Demetrio Macias, a general in Pancho Villa's army during the revolution in the early twentieth century. What makes this book so entertaining is the strange often macabre humor of the weary soldiers as they drink and shoot their way through the countryside. They have odd nicknames like Lard, Quail, War Paint, the Indian, or "curro", the city slicker Luis Cervantes, who makes rousing political speeches that none of his comrades understand. There is the evil blue-eyed Towhead Margarito, who constantly pushed the limits of sadistic behavior towards his enemies. In a bar he makes a young waiter put Tequila bottles on his head, and uses them as target practice, and after shooting the poor kid's ear off, gives him money and says, laughing hysterically, "It is really nothing! You can cure that with a little bit of arnica and alcohol." In the end the most important character is the leader Macias himself, who yearns for his home and family while becoming more estranged from the cause as the revolutionary factions turn from fighting the federales to fighting each other. The Underdogs is an amusing yet instructive read, a character-driven lesson in Mexican history and the underbelly of war.


The Tunnel Weep Not, Child The Harbor…is for Vacation reading! I can't think of a better place to spend my holidays than between the pages of a black spine Classic, so for my second round of the letter V, I decided to dedicate an entire vacation to the reading of Penguin Classics. I started with Argentinian writer's Ernesto Sábato's dark and twisted 1948 debut The Tunnel. This psychological novel of obsession and paranoia begins in a jail cell where one of the best unreliable narrators you'll ever read, painter Juan Pablo Castel, recounts the murder of the only woman to ever understand him…or so he thinks at least. On to Africa, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's first novel Weep Not, Child, which tells the story of ordinary Kenyans during the infamous Mau Mau rebellion through one family's trials as witnessed by a young teenager named Njoroge. I followed this by reading Ernest Poole's 1915 muckraking classic The Harbor about an aspiring young journalist who grows up next to the New York waterfront and whose allegiances seesaw between the dock workers who labor against impossible conditions and the capitalists who run the shipyards. Poole was the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his next novel His Family, but it was The Harbor that made him famous. Finally, I went back to South America, this time to Brazil, to read Jorge Amado's hilarious novel The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray, about a man who willingly gives up all of his worldly possessions, home, family, and job, to become a legendary drunk and bum. Quincas's eventual death leads to a bizarre battle over both his body and his legacy, between his shamed family and his lowlife drinking friends who, in sort of a literary Weekend at Bernie's, parade his dead body around the city, bringing him back to life for one last hurrah. So that's it for my Vacation reading, and I look forward to getting back to my more traditional alphabetical sojourn through the Classics with the letter W.


The Tunnel Rebecca West was a fascinating writer and figure. Born in the 1890s in England, she was a novelist, political essayist, travel writer and one of the United Kingdoms leading intellectuals in the 20th century. Her most famous work is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (available in Penguin Classics), a 1,200 page travel narrative about the culture and history of the former Yugoslavia, stemming from her three trips to the Balkans.

Early in her career, in 1918, at the age of twenty-six, she wrote a novella called The Return of the Soldier which I've chosen for my second round "W" read. The story takes place during World War I and centers around the lives of three women and a soldier, Chris, who has returned from the front to his beautiful estate in the countryside. He suffers from shellshock and a case of amnesia that has entirely wiped away the memory of his life with his wife, the passing of their baby son, and their home shared with the tale's narrator, his adoring cousin Jenny. Instead he is left in a self-absorbed state of passion for a poor and unattractive married woman named Margaret with whom he once had a brief dalliance in his earlier years. It is this bizarre set of circumstances that throws these three women together, with Jenny, the cousin and narrator, forced to moderate the difficult situation between her proud sister-in-law and the working class Margaret to whom Jenny becomes close to and admires for her simplicity and basic goodness. In the end, this claustrophobic tale of four characters builds to an ultimate irony, that to cure Chris from his "madness" and return his memory to him would be to take away his blissful happiness and turn him back into a soldier, having to face the full force of painful reality. But, of course, I won't reveal how it ends!

This is a quick but powerful read and a great introduction to West. On hearing of her death, William Shawn, then editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, said: "Rebecca West was one of the giants and will have a lasting place in English literature. No one in this century wrote more dazzling prose, or had more wit, or looked at the intricacies of human character and the ways of the world more intelligently."


The Underdogs I get my hair cut at a small shop on Carmine Street run by a group of friendly Chinese immigrants. When I told the two young women who do the wash and cut that I was reading Lu Xun, widely considered to be the most important Chinese writer of his generation, they both got very excited and told me how much I would enjoy his stories because they were so funny. I asked them if they'd had to read Lu Xun in school back in China and they both nodded, informing me that they'd read him when they were twelve or thirteen years old. This surprised me because the stories in the Penguin Classic The Real Story of Ah-Q: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun are sophisticated, and I would suspect demanding for a young reader. My new friends at the salon were correct; these stories are very funny, but often in a dark and macabre way. The title story in the collection is about an idiot everyman who is laughed at, abused and beaten by everyone in his town and yet manages somehow to maintain a deluded sense of his own self-worth despite every sign leading to the contrary, right up to the moment of his own demise. In New Year's Sacrifice, a widow becomes a beggar and tells anyone who passes her on the street the horrible tale of how she lost her baby son to a wolf. At first townspeople are sympathetic, later they avoid her at all costs, and then finally they ridicule her as she continues to tell the same story to anyone who passes, whether they've heard the story before or not. The anthology of stories is broken up into three groups. The first two are in a realist style and the third, my favorite group, is made up of stories that modernize and satirize ancient Chinese myths, and also make fun of some of China's most illustrious philosophers, Laozi, Confucius and Mozi to name a few. I found the introduction by translator Julia Lovell to be very helpful, even more so after I had finished all the stories, as she provides crucial historical background and cultural details of early 20th-century China, as well as information on Lu Xun's own life and politics, which all shed light on the humor and character of these strange, funny, and very unique stories.


Hungry Hearts And once again the anticipation builds as I round the homestretch in my second trip through the Penguin Classics alphabet. On my circuitous way to the letter Y, I stopped and read the great 20th century Turkish novel, The Time Regulation Institute, by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. The beautiful and clever packaging of this first Black Tie Classic comes with a dust jacket wrapped around the paperback cover, and begs the question why would anyone want to cover up the fact that they are reading a black spine Penguin Classic! For the letter Y I delved into Anzia Yezierska's collection of short stories Hungry Hearts. Both funny and tragic, these stories all center on early twentieth-century Jewish-American immigrant women who desperately yearn for love and beauty amid hopeless lives in their new homeland. Each character, trapped by relentless poverty and impossible working and living conditions, still dreams to be a real American, to be educated, to marry, and often finds the strength to carry on despite their great hardships. They are idealistic but easily disappointed by the great promise that America has held for them. In some ways these characters are stereotypes, with their constant longing and heartfelt "Oi wehs," but in other crucial ways they represent truly tragic heroines caught up in the great changes of history. My favorite story, "The Lost Beautifulness," is about a wife and mother, Hannah Hayyeh, who idolizes the beauty of her employer's home and saves her money in order to paint her own small apartment, only to have her landlord raise her rent because she did such a nice job, relegating her family to the streets. This story will make anyone appreciate the progress we've made on renter's rights! For anyone who appreciates these stories, I'd also highly recommend David Laskin's recent book, The Family, about his own Jewish family's immigrant experience during the twentieth century.


Therese Raquin And once again I arrive at the letter Z, capping off another plunge into the great literary depths that only Penguin Classics can provide. At a recent talk, Azar Nafisi, the renowned author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and forthcoming Viking title The Republic of Imagination, said that the great thing about books is that we get to be so promiscuous. I definitely agree. Surely there has been no greater mistress than the black spine Penguin Classic. So in order to celebrate reading promiscuously, for the letter Z, I read Émile Zola’s famously scandalous novel of adultery Thérèse Raquin which sent France into a fervor upon its release in 1867. Some of the reviews of the time called it “a tormented work,” with “medical dissections,” “crude colours,” “brutality,” “mire, blood, and bestial love.”  We find Thérèse trapped in a loveless marriage to Camille, with whom she grew up almost as brother and sister. Describing Camille on one of their Sunday walks together, Zola writes: “He would walk for the sake of walking, stiff and misshapen in his Sunday best, dragging his feet, dim-witted and vain.” Can you blame Thérèse for plunging into a tempestuous adulterous relationship with Camille’s handsome friend Laurent, leading them both to commit a horrible crime of passion?  You’ll have to read it yourself to find out who gets the last laugh. I’ll give you a hint. His name is François, and he is not a human. Have fun and see you back at the letter A.

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