The End Of The Affair was published in 1951. It is the fourth (and last) in a series of explicitly Catholic novels written by British author Graham Greene… but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the first half. After all, it kicks off with a highly illicit adulterous affair. Hardly the stuff of great Catholic morality tales, eh?
So, let’s get all the salacious details out of the way: yes, The End Of The Affair is based on an affair of Greene’s own (authors just never tire of writing what they know, do they?). He was sticking it to one Lady Catherine Walston, and it ended badly, as the lover affairs that inspire great art often do. The British edition of the novel was dedicated to “C”, but over the pond, a little further from home, the American edition was dedicated to “Catherine”. That’s one way to make your mark on history, I suppose…
Greene based the protagonist, Bendrix, on himself, and Lady C was represented by the character Sarah. They met through Bendrix’s friend (and Sarah’s husband), Henry Miles. The fact that Bendrix is cutting his mate’s grass tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. Being, as it is, The End Of The Affair, you get relatively few details about the affair itself – it’s over before the story even begins. Sarah had suddenly and unexpectedly broken off her affair with Bendrix some time before, but he is still racked with jealousy and rage. So, he hires a private investigator (as you do, ahem!) to figure out what the fuck happened. Bendrix is basically stalking his ex by proxy, and it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds.
Through flashbacks and vignettes, we learn that Bendrix and Sarah fell in love quickly – it was the kind of affair that burns bright and fast – and he was increasingly frustrated by her refusal to divorce her husband (an impotent and amiable civil servant). Bendrix and Sarah were engaging in a little afternoon delight when a bomb went off (oh, yeah, there was a whole world war going on in the background, by the way), and it was shortly after that incident that she left him. The private dick reads Sarah’s diary from that day – ew, gross, I hate him – and reports to Bendrix that, in the moment of the bomb blast, Sarah made a vow to God that she would cut off her adulterous affair if He would let Bendrix survive the incident. That’s where things start to get religious-y, and the story takes some weird turns.
Sarah, unsurprisingly, has a lot of internal conflict over the whole situation. She checks out a few churches, and tries real hard to get her shit together… but then she quickly dies of a lung infection. And then all this miracle-y stuff happens. I told you it takes some weird turns! The most twisted part, in my humble opinion, is that when the adultress dies, her lover moves in with her husband. Greene explains that like it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it really creeped me out. The rest of The End Of The Affair is just Bendrix trying to reconcile Sarah’s death and her supposed faith, trying to figure out whether there really is a God, yadda yadda yadda. It’s heavy stuff, but the book is really short, so there’s not a lot of time for exposition: he just has a few revelations, but stays mad. The end.
Yes, The End Of The Affair is super-short. In fact, it reads more like a long short-story than a novel. Greene did his best to address major questions about faith, religion, obsession, jealousy, and the obligations placed upon men and women in hetero relationships, in as few words as possible. It really reminded me of that TED talk about jealousy in literature, which is well worth checking out.
My tl;dr summary: The End Of The Affair is a short novel about a scorned lover’s creepy pursuit of his best mate’s wife, who dies mid-way through her conversion to Catholicism. If I had to sum the book up in a single word, I would choose “bitter”: it sounds bitter, it feels bitter, it tastes bitter on your tongue as you read it. It’s not a romantic read, and probably not one to pick up if you’re looking to restore your faith in God (or humanity, come to that), but it’s certainly an interesting cautionary tale: never dump a writer without telling him why, or chances are you’ll find yourself a character in a book like this one.
“My third time out with Greene. The guy’s a bore. The End of the Affair is like having the Watchtower shoved at you by a Jehovah’s Witness with a really high opinion of himself.” – Fintan Ryan
“A boring book about people who don’t like each other very much but had an affair anyway, Another story of English men and women who were unable to confront their desires realistically. This is one of the reasons that I read non-fiction.” – Gordon R. Flygare
“I listened to this book on tape on a drive from Connecticut to Boston and tired of the man and woman constantly fighting. There was just too much drama in the car that day. I couldn’t take anymore. I haven’t fought that much with my husband over 33 years as took place within 3 hours of that car trip. Never was I so glad to get to my destination and tell the couple not to take themselves and their relationship, so seriously. Would not recommend this book on a car trip. Maybe it’s a better read.” – L. M. Keefer
“A woman goes to church like once and has some vague emotional experience. According to Graham Greene, this makes her a Catholic, a true religious woman. I’ve had orgasms with more depth than this novel.” – Lincott
I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.
Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.
“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”
Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction
There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.
The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.
Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.
There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.
Ever wonder why I’m constantly buying secondhand books? Aside from being thrifty, it’s because they have the most amazing and hilarious charm that I just don’t get when I click “buy now” on the latest brand-new mass-market paperback. Inside this well-worn copy of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, for instance, I found a hand-written business card, complete with name, phone number, email address, and the (one would assume unofficial) job title of “complete and utter wanker”. Can’t beat that!
Evelyn Waugh was the second son of Arthur Waugh, celebrated publisher-slash-literary critic, and also the brother of Alec Waugh, the popular novelist. I can only imagine the weight of family expectation on his shoulders, and the snippy conversations they had over Christmas dinners! Luckily, it would seem that he managed to out-write and out-last them both. He’s better known for his book Brideshead Revisited, but somehow Scoop, his satirical novel about sensationalist journalism and foreign correspondents, is the one that ended up on my reading list.
It’s kind of funny, really, to read a book about journalists and newspapers written before the News Of The World scandal. Scoop reads like a time capsule of the by-gone “heyday” of newspaper journalism. The protagonist is the humble (read: poor) William Boot, who lives on the very-very outskirts of London and regularly contributes over-written nature columns to The Daily Beast, a newspaper owned by the terrifying and powerful Lord Copper. Boot’s life is turned upside-down when Lord Copper mistakes him for a fashionable member of the literati (John Courtney Boot, a distant cousin), and bullies him into accepting a post as a foreign correspondent.
Not-very-important note, but something I can’t help mentioning: Waugh seemed to be unusually fond of the word “preternatural”. I had to look it up, to make sure it didn’t have some nuanced meaning or significant etymology, he used it so often! Twice in the first twenty pages alone, for crying out loud! In different contexts! I still can’t work out what he was playing at…
Anyway, Boot is sent to the fictional East African state of Ishmaelia, where Lord Copper believes there to be “a very promising little war” underway. Boot’s directive is to give the conflict “fullest publicity”. (Yes, the whole way through, the parallels to Murdoch’s real-life media empire are eerie.) Boot has no idea what the fuck he is doing, of course, but despite his total incompetence, he manages to get the biggest “scoop” of the year (thus, the title). He heads home a journalistic hero.
When he gets back to London, however, there’s another case of mistaken identity. All the credit for his work goes to John Courtney Boot, the writer for whom Lord Copper had mistaken him initially. Our hero is actually relieved by that turn of events, and he goes back to his humble life of genteel poverty, writing nature columns and caring for his crazy family. Everyone goes home happy, The End.
Now, let’s not overlook this: there are a lot of ugly racist and sexist overtones in this story (as there are in just about every book of that era). Privileged white people travel to East Africa to make a spectacle of a war between people of colour, in order to sell newspapers. That’s pretty gross on its face, but Waugh seemed to have a certain level of self-awareness about the implications. In fact, I’d say he used Scoop as an opportunity to punch up. The East Africans weren’t the butt of the joke: the ridiculous arrogant journalists and newspaper moguls were. And Waugh wasn’t subtle: the two major newspaper competitors were called the “Brute” and the “Beast”, so there’s no mistaking his true feelings. (Oh, and his idea of the lowliest employee at a newspaper was the book reviewer – ha!)
Waugh’s blatant disregard for the opinions of the powerful elites he lampooned is all the more surprising given that Scoop is actually based on his real-life experience working for the Daily Mail. He was sent to cover Mussolini’s role in the Second Italo-Abyssian war. Lord Copper is widely believed to be an amalgamation of characteristics of the real-life Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, a combination that produced a character so frightening his underlings could only say “Definitely, Lord Copper” and “Up to a point, Lord Copper” (which is how the whole mistaken identity issue arises to begin with). Waugh’s Scoop is the very clear and unambiguous predecessor to The Devil Wears Prada.
The main point Waugh was trying to make, it would seem, is that even if there isn’t anything newsworthy going on, the appearance of world media – desperate to please their editors and media owners back home – will, in itself, create the news. This sounds like an obvious statement of fact today, but I’d imagine at the time it was revelatory. Waugh appears to have foreseen the proliferation of fake news and alternative facts. It’s a testament to his searing insight that Scoop maintains its relevance to the present day. Even as journalism dies a quiet death and the newspaper work room becomes a quaint relic and the news increasingly relocates to online formats with instantaneous delivery systems, Waugh’s wit and insight remains almost as sharp as it did at the time of publication.
As for the writing itself, as much as I admire Waugh’s incredible foresight in his premise and plot, it wasn’t mind-blowing. It really evoked The Thirty-Nine Steps for me, actually – a grumpy Pommy bloke, through a series of coincidences, gets thrust into a situation that’s beyond him and he has to rise to the challenge. It forms a kind of bridge between The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Sun Also Rises. I liked it well enough; it wasn’t fantastic prose, but it wasn’t a chore to finish, and I’m glad to have read it. If you’ve got an interest in media, how it works and how it affects our understanding of the world, this would be great background reading for you – give it a go and let me know what you think.
“Somewhere between William Boyd’s “A Good Man in Africa” and Graham Greene’s “Our Man In Havana” you will find Waugh’s “Scoop”, which should have been titled “Our Gardening Columnist in Ishmaelia”….” – Pop Bop
“I think some people would find this very funny. I didn’t.” – ellen sf
“Book was brand new and I loved the size of the font! Extra easy to leave nits in the margin (because I am studying the novel for a class)” – Ebony Cannon
“She’s a he. Pronounced EEEEE-velyn.” – Amazon Customer
“‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.’ That must babe good style.” – A customer
I’m becoming a bit obsessed with looking at my reading list for this project from different angles. I’ve created a bookish timeline to see what period I’m covering, and a world map to look at all the different places I’m travelling, through the magic of the written word. And here’s a peek behind the book blogger curtain for you: I can actually see what searches people use to find Keeping Up With The Penguins, and it would seem that a lot of you are curious about the page counts of classic and best seller books. So today, I’m going to arrange my entire TBR from longest to shortest by page count.
(Note: these are the page lengths of the actual editions I own, so it might differ from what Wikipedia says or the copy you have at home.)
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: 138 pages The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: 150 pages A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: 152 pages Murphy by Samuel Beckett: 158 pages A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 160 pages Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 161 pages The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: 167 pages Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: 172 pages The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Dougals Adams: 180 pages The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 184 pages Amongst Women by John MaGahern: 184 pages The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame: 192 pages The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene: 192 pages Party Going by Henry Green: 192 pages
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet: 201 pages Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: 201 pages An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: 206 pages As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 208 pages Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: 222 pages Scoop by Evelyn Waugh: 222 pages If I Stay by Gayle Forman: 224 pages The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: 224 pages The White Mouse by Nancy Wake: 224 pages We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 227 pages Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 227 pages The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger: 230 pages The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do: 232 pages My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin: 232 pages Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 233 pages The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 234 pages A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking: 241 pages Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos: 243 pages (*also contains But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which I also read.) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: 247 pages Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: 248 pages The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: 250 pages
The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James: 272 pages (*also contains The Aspen Papers, which I definitely did not read. I’ve had my fill of Henry James.) Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: 274 pages Lord Of The Flies by William Golding: 285 pages Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: 286 pages Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 288 pages The Call Of The Wild by Jack London: 288 pages (*also includes White Fang, which I didn’t read. Too much puppy torture!) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 292 pages Still Alice by Lisa Genova: 293 pages The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham: 296 pages The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 301 pages To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 309 pages On The Road by Jack Kerouac: 310 pages A Passage To India by E.M. Forster: 312 pages Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 314 pages Wild by Cheryl Strayed: 315 pages The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: 316 pages
Kim by Rudyard Kipling: 322 page We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: 323 pages Yes Please by Amy Poehler: 329 pages My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: 331 pages The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: 334 pages Paper Towns by John Green: 336 pages Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller: 336 pages The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen: 336 pages The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: 336 pages Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: 336 pages In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: 343 pages Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: 344 pages The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: 352 pages Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: 354 pages The Martian by Andy Weir: 369 pages The Maze Runner by James Dashner: 371 pages The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: 373 pages The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: 374 pages
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: 384 pages Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis: 394 pages Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen: 398 pages Dracula by Bram Stoker: 400 pages The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: 406 pages Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli: 412 pages The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 416 pages She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir: 416 pages The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 416 pages (*also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I did read, too) The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: 432 pages American Sniper by Chris Kyle: 448 pages Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: 459 pages The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan: 467 pages Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos: 469 pages Emma by Jane Austen: 474 pages True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: 478 pages
Divergent by Veronica Roth: 489 pages Clarissa by Samuel Richardson: 516 pages (*but this is an abridged edition, the full version is literally one of the longest books ever written.) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: 519 pages All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: 531 pages The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow: 536 pages The Golden Bowl by Henry James: 547 pages The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett: 569 pages The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: 584 pages The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: 588 pages Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: 590 pages The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: 596 pages The Lake House by Kate Morton: 608 pages Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: 622 pages The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: 656 pages Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 656 pages The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 672 pages (*note: also contains other stories)
All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: 672 pages A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: 687 pages Ulysses by James Joyce: 719 pages Moby Dick by Herman Melville: 720 pages A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: 864 pages Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: 883 pages Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: 1056 pages David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 1057 pages
The strangest thing I noticed: page length has very little to do with how long a book feels. Mrs Dalloway felt like a much longer read than My Brilliant Friend, and yet the latter is nearly twice as long in page count. It also felt like a much longer read than The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but in reality they’re about the same length. Weird, eh? Really, you can’t tell much from a book’s page count at all. Some of the classic books, which we all assume will be long and meaty, have the fewest pages, while some of the most-recent best-sellers are doorstops.
So, here’s my total (I know you’re all dying to know): accounting for a few pages of notes skipped here and there and a couple of combination editions where I didn’t read the second book, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me reading 40,700 pages. Not bad! And, of course, you can find links to every single review here (I update the list with the new one published each week). If you’re curious about how many pages are in your TBR, you can find page counts for most editions of most books on Goodreads (and you can friend me while you’re there!). How many pages is your current read? Add to the list in the comments below (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
This is the first time I’ve reviewed two books by the same author back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…
This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five… turns out, it wasn’t just a quirk of his storytelling exclusive to The Turn of the Screw. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.
If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.
A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She convinces him to marry her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte sure enough it it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…
… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.
This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!
Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, what a cuck!). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!
Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James seems to be the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
I ended up having to look up chapter summaries online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.
To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems)… but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?
The Golden Bowl ended up on my reading list because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.
“The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
“…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
“The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
“I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane
By popular demand, here is the full list of Books I’ve Never Read (But Really Should), all to be reviewed and discussed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Click through the links to check out my reviews as I knock them off, one by one…
Booklovers take their book-loving seriously, and their opinions vary – widely. So any award that picks one book as the “best” of a given year or genre is always going to be controversial. Literary awards honour the great authors of our time, and winning a major one pretty much guarantees that a book will fly off the shelves as people to scramble to see whether it’s worthy. It’s a high-stakes game, this literary award business! Today on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we take a look at some of the major awards and ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question: are there any award winning books that are worth your time?
The Major Literary Awards
Let’s take a quick look at some of those major awards and prizes, shall we?
The Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best original novel, written in English, that’s had a print run in the U.K.
The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author (supposedly from any country, but more on that in a minute), who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recognises a distinguished work of fiction by an American writer (usually themed around American life) published in the preceding calendar year.
The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback (founder of revolutionary sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories); they recognise the best science-fiction and fantasy works of the preceding year.
The Miles Franklin Literary Award is awarded each year to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. (The Stella Prize is also awarded each year to a female writer, in response to a perceived gender bias in the selection of Miles Franklin winners. Both awards are named after legendary Australian author [Stella] Miles Franklin.)
The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually to American authors of fiction who have produced the year’s “best” works. The organisation claims it to be the “largest peer-juried award in America”.
The National Book Awards are presented each year by the National Book Foundation in the U.S., and traditionally includes two lifetime achievement awards.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.
This is, obviously, a very, very small sample of a rather large pool of major literary prizes. There are dozens of others in every country, and across every conceivable genre and market.
Booker Award Controversies
Controversy plagues every literary award, in one way or another, and the sniping only grows bigger and uglier as the award becomes more prestigious. If we’re going to look at some examples, we might as well start right at the top, with the Man Booker.
Take, for instance, the great Trainspotting drama of 1993. Two judges threatened to quit the Booker committee after Irvine Welsh’s “vulgar” novel was named on the long-list that year. The book offended their feminist sensitivities, so much so that it was subsequently pulled from the short-list. Welsh didn’t respond well (even by my low standards); he called the prize imperialist, and said that “any claim that it’s an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”.
The shit-slinging doesn’t stop there. In 2001, A.L. Kennedy said that the Booker is “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Her experiences on the committee in the ’90s had convinced her that the winner was determined only by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. She also claimed to be the only judge who had read all 300 novels under consideration – yikes.
The same year that Kennedy called bullshit, there was an unrelated whoops-y in the announcement of the winner. Life Of Pi had pretty long odds, until the prize’s website accidentally announced it as the winner a week before the official decision. I’d imagine the originator of that particular fuck-up had to go into some kind of witness protection, because bookies have been known to take baseball bats to kneecaps and they had to pay out all of the bets when the leak later proved to be correct.
The most recent revelations about more Booker scandals (oh yeah, there’s plenty more!) can be found here.
And, lest you get the impression that the Booker is the worst of the lot, let me tack on a couple of Nobel disasters. The Swedish award has long been the target of accusations of political bias and Eurocentrism in their selection process. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkov never got the gong, oversights that have been widely attributed to Sweden’s long-held antipathy towards Russia. On multiple occasions, other authors from outside of Europe have also been controversially and bafflingly snubbed; in 1974, Grahame Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were all over-looked in favour of a joint award to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who (to this day!) remain relatively unknown outside their home country. (And you should know, they were both Nobel judges themselves – a pure coincidence, I’m sure, but…)
It’s all enough to make you wonder whether the awards mean anything at all. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that merit clearly isn’t the only criteria at play in picking the winners. But, despite the drama, now and then these committees pick a winner that is, y’know, actually a winner. Let’s take a look at some of the award winning books that are worth your time…
Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time
The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1921)
Leading the charge, we’ve got The Age of Innocence (and you can check out my full review for the run-down). The committee almost overlooked this early 20th century gem, but in the end Wharton’s competition was disqualified on political grounds. And that’s the story of how she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction *fist pump*. Now, this isn’t to say that gender equality was achieved as of that moment – it was one very small step, and one could perhaps even question its ongoing relevance given the way that women have been overlooked for literary awards in the century since – but you never forget the first 😉 And if that’s not reason enough to invest your eyeballs, the story’s pretty damn good! Buy it here.
The Martian (Andy Weir)
Winner of the Hugo Award (2016)
Not all award winners are lofty works of literary fiction, only comprehensible to English majors 😉 The Martian scored a Hugo Award, and went on to become one of the biggest break-through sci-fi novels of the past decade. I was pretty hesitant when I first picked it up, because sci-fi isn’t my go-to genre and I’m skeptical of any film adaptation starring Matt Damon, but goshdarn it was funny! I cackled out loud on every other page (check out my full review); Weir’s characterisation and voice is strong and direct and hilarious. Plus, the premise is pretty compelling – a lone man abandoned on a planet, forced to find a way to survive on meager rations until help arrives – and it forces the reader to confront the terrifying thought of what they’d do in that situation. Buy it here.
To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1961)
Forty years after Edith Wharton got the gong, Harper Lee was called up – for her first (and only) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s one of the only books I’ve read that’s truly exceeded the hype, and I’m not sure I can recommend it more highly than that (I mean, the hype is considerable). I completely understand if you take issue with some of the racial politics of the book, especially given that it has been so widely and consistently lauded with nary a mention of some of its more problematic elements, but the writing is exquisite, so I’d say it’s worth a look regardless (check out my review here to see why). Plus, it’s had many tangible real-world impacts since its release – consider the formation of the Atticus Finch Legal Society, for instance – so reading it will get you up to speed on that front, too. Buy it here.
The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2009) (and the ABIA Book Of The Year, and the ABA Book Of The Year, and a bunch more)
Christos Tsiolkas won nearly every major literary award in Australia – except the biggie, the Miles Franklin (for which he was short-listed) – with The Slap. I read it a few years ago, and I don’t mind confessing: I had to take a few runs at it. I bought a copy in a fit of unbridled optimism about my future reading life (it’s a long book), only to pick it up once every couple of months, and then abandon it after a few pages. It followed me, languishing in the bottom of a suitcase, as I moved up and down the country. When I finally got around to finishing it, I was so glad I’d persisted! The catalyst of a slap at a family barbecue sets off a chain of reactions, sucking multiple characters and families into a vortex. This one would be particularly good for readers overseas who still think of Australia as the home of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee; Tsiolkas’ treatment of Australian suburbia and community is searing, confronting, and insightful. Buy it here.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2014)
I know, I know, I squeeze this one in with just about every list of recommended books I write here on the blog: I make no apologies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves definitely deserves its place here. I wouldn’t recommend reading my review until after you’ve read the book; the plot twist is just so damn good, don’t let anything ruin it for you! I’m this book’s biggest advocate and proponent now, and I think its relatively understated popularity is infuriating. And, let’s be honest, I’m still bitter that it lost out to The Narrow Road To The Deep North for the Booker Prize in 2014; luckily, the folks judging the PEN/Faulkner saw sense. Buy it here.
Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
Winner of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais (1933)
Stella Gibbons was snubbed by the literary world for the most part, so she makes it into this list by the skin of her teeth. Her crime was satirising D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries, making fun of their horniness-masquerading-as-moral-philosophy and their attempts to write vernacular. Luckily, she still managed to score a gong or two, and in all honesty Cold Comfort Farm deserved a lot more. It’s really the only novel for which Gibbons is remembered (also a shame, because she was pretty damn prolific), and even then it’s not all that widely read, not even in academia. It’s a snarkier, sassier, more modern Jane Austen – a great one to read when you need a good laugh! Buy it here.
I’m actually pretty behind in reading the award winners, so there’s every chance I’ve missed some fantastic worthy inclusions here – please give me your suggestions in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
You know what’s more valuable to me than that Nobel money? Any change you could spare to help Keeping Up With The Penguins keep on keeping up! Click the banner to help us out:
Hi, my name is Sheree, and I’m a second-hand book addict. If you’ve been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you’ll know that I’m a regular fixture in all my local stores, scouring the shelves for books. In fact, I’ve managed to find the majority of them this way (the subject of this week’s review, Fangirl, being the exception). Sometimes, I muse on how easy it would be to simply buy books brand new with the click of a button… but where’s the fun in that? It’s all about the thrill of the chase! To save you some of my heartache, I thought I’d write a post about the longest and most difficult chases, and give you some tips to make it a little easier. Here’s 7 books that are hard to find second hand (and my best tips for tracking them down!).
The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
When my hunt for books on my reading list first started, I didn’t anticipate Terry Pratchett being a problem. After all, he’s so popular, and so prolific(!), I figured that every secondhand book store would be simply groaning under the weight of his entire collection. Plus, I was sure I’d seen stacks of his books in other stores before, so surely it wouldn’t be that hard. Turns out, I was dead wrong! Maybe I’m just in the wrong (geographical) area, maybe all fantasy books just blur together in my mind, but whatever it is: The Colour of Magic was nowhere to be found! When I did see a small handful of Terry Pratchett’s offerings on the shelves (which wasn’t often at all, by the way), this particular book – the first in his Discworld series – was never among them. I ended up finding it while I was wandering through a neighbouring suburb on a Saturday afternoon. Some long-suffering hippie had set up a trestle table, and he was selling off his personal book collection; he had half a dozen Pratchett books, and I finally hit pay-dirt.
Tip Number 1: Don’t limit your search to stores! Often, the best bargains are to be found at markets and other stall-type set-ups, where people are just selling off their own stuff (thank you, Marie Kondo!). They’re just happy to be rid of it, de-cluttering and all that being good for the soul, and you can score a hard-to-find book at a fraction of what you’d pay in the store (where the seller would know exactly how hard it is to find, and how much it’s worth!).
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I had one secondhand book store staff member LITERALLY LAUGH IN MY FACE when I asked if they had a copy. If that doesn’t convince you that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is hard to find second hand, I don’t know what will! The problem is that this beloved classic of the sci-fi genre is a comfort read; people pull it out when they want something familiar and calming, re-reading it dozens of times over, and so they never want to part with it.
Still, joke’s on that giggly store clerk: I grabbed the first copy I found, without even looking at the price (a modest $9, thank goodness!), and it turns out it’s a freaking first edition! It’ll be worth a quid one day, believe you me…
Tip Number 2: Don’t give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And before you donate or sell any book of your own, always double check the publication date and whether there’s any significance to that edition. Make sure you’re armed with information, and you know its worth before you pass it on!
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
Now, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Clarissa was tough to find second hand: not only is it one of the lesser-known classics (compared to something like Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield), but it’s also fucking loooooooong! It runs to over 1,500 pages, meaning that it’s not that popular with contemporary readers. And when people aren’t buying it new, your chances of finding it second hand decrease dramatically (duh). So, I was keeping my eyes peeled for a big-ass book… Imagine my surprise when I found a modestly-sized abridged version at a closing-down sale, running to just 500 pages! Now, I’m not saying I’d turn down a copy of the full text if I came across one, but in the meantime I’m happy to consider it checked off my to-buy list.
Tip Number 3: Don’t get tunnel vision! I find having a to-buy list really enhances my second-hand book buying experience, and it stops me from feeling overwhelmed. Without it, I’d probably want to take home every single book I see, and end up with a hundred copies of everything. But if I stayed hell-bent on only buying “pretty” editions, or full texts, or print-runs from Penguin, or whatever, I’d have missed out on some great deals and books I’ve come to love very much. So, a list is a good idea, but don’t let it hem you in!
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend
I’ve searched for Lolly Willowes one long and hard, and it’s even tougher than most of the others on this list, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve got to check for two different titles (it’s usually called “Lolly Willowes”, but some editions go under “The Loving Huntsman”). And, if that’s not enough, I’ve also got to check under two different author names (she’s alternately called Sylvia Townsend, and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Luckily, T and W are pretty close together in the alphabet, so I normally don’t have to search too far if the shelves are arranged alphabetically…
Tip Number 4: If there’s something in particular you’re searching for, make sure you know everything there is to know about it. Does it have an alternative title? Did the author use a nom de plume at first, or switch to a married name, or choose a new name after coming out? You’ll kick yourself forever if you figure out that you could’ve found a copy, if only you’d known where to look!
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Speaking of alternate titles: The Sun Also Rises was also sometimes printed with the title “Fiesta”. There’s a fun fact for you! But even knowing that, I still had a really tough time finding it, and I couldn’t understand why. I mean, I saw A Farewell To Arms, and The Old Man and The Sea, in almost every store I entered – but never the Hemingway I actually wanted. I was bitching about this situation (indeed, rather loudly) in my favourite second-hand book store one day, when a lovely young woman gently tapped me on the shoulder, and held out to me the copy she’d just pulled off the shelf.
Of course, this all happened on the very day when I had no cash on me and I’d left my card at home. But I wasn’t completely out of luck: I was in the company of a very dear friend (when I’m with friends, “let’s go for a wander!” is almost always code for “let’s go find a bookstore to browse!”), and he was kind enough to buy it for me. Not all heroes wear capes!
Tip Number 5: If you’re going to forget your wallet, make sure your friend brings his! And make sure you name them as a sponsor of your book blog and show them lots of love and gratitude 😉 Ha! On a more serious note, don’t be afraid to ask the store assistants if you’re looking for something in particular. Sure, now and then, you’ll encounter one that will laugh in your face (ahem!), but for the most part they are incredibly kind and helpful. And the patrons are too, come to that (the young lady who helped me was not an aberration – I’ve helped out fellow patrons a time or two myself!). Sometimes, the store will have a “wait” list of sorts, and the staff will add your name and call you if the book comes in. They’re so grateful for your custom, they’ll go above and beyond to make sure you keep coming back!
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
I must admit, I actually have no idea why this one was so difficult to find. It was one of my top priorities in my search, having heard that it was excellent, and I dutifully checked every single store I passed in my travels. I came across dozens of regular bookstores that stocked brand-new copies of the tri-band Penguin edition, but I never came across it second-hand. It wasn’t too long to be popular, like Clarissa, or genre-defining, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it was just… hard to find! Luckily, I eventually found a copy at a market stall, buried among stacks of Vintage classics and coffee-table books.
Tip Number 6: Keep your eyes peeled, at all times, always! Even when you’re browsing the markets for a gift, or looking for a bathroom in Tel Aviv, or even just hanging out at a mate’s place – I’ve had more than one generous friend offer to permanently lend me a book from their collection, for the purposes of this blog. You just never know where you’ll find gold!
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
I have it on very good authority (i.e., several booksellers and #bookstagrammers have told me) that no one ever, ever, ever wants to part with their copy of The Bell Jar. And I can see why! Having read it for the first time recently (my review here), I can already tell that it’s a book I’ll read over and over again, and you’ll have to pry my gorgeous Faber edition from my cold dead hands. Seriously, it’s beautiful! It’s matte black embossed with shiny gold, and it has the most beautiful inscription from a friend of mine. (Yeah, funny story: she knew I’d been searching long and hard for a copy, and she was looking for a last-minute gift for me, so she stopped in the secondhand book store closest to my house and said “I know you probably don’t have it, because my friend is in here looking for it all the time, but is there any chance you’ve got a copy of The Bell Jar?”. Sure enough, they’d had one come in that very day. Sometimes, life just works out!)
Tip Number 7: Make sure your friends and family know what it is you’re after. That’s not to say you should expect them to buy everything they see for you, of course, but they can give you a heads up when they spot a hard-to-find book in their local second-hand store. And they’ll know exactly what to get you for Christmas!
Bonus tip: Never bother buying any Charles Dickens, or D.H. Lawrence, or Grahame Greene brand new. Every single second-hand store I have ever entered has STACKS of them, and at least a few of those are unread, as-new copies. The same also goes for the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and the Harry Potter books. Plus, if you’re not precious about movie tie-in editions (I’m not, but some booklovers are), you’ll find STACKS of them in secondhand stores, too. If you’re after a book that has been turned into a film in the last 2-3 years, you’re almost guaranteed to find it (and probably in pristine condition, too!).
Bonus bonus tip: Young Adult is a mixed bag, on the whole. Some of them (like Fangirl, and If I Stay) are tough to find right now. In general, you’ve got the best hope of finding the specific YA read you’re after in a secondhand store that has a dedicated YA section (if they’re lumped in with general fiction, you’re going to have a hard time – not sure why that is, it just is, I don’t make the rules). And you usually have to wait about 5-10 years after the initial release, once the target market has outgrown them and moved out of home (either they’ll sell them off, or their parents will, either way…).
Do you buy your books second hand? Why/why not? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook)!
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