Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: A-

From the back cover:
Cathy—Her love is so great it trascends even death.

Heathcliff—His burning passion destroys two generations.

These are two of the most unforgettable lovers of all time, driven to a tragic fate by wild, intense emotion and strange imagination.

Wuthering Heights has been called “the most haunting love story in the English language.”

Here is an example of how a book containing a vast amount of unlikable characters can still be enjoyable. In short, it’s the story of a foundling named Heathcliff who vows revenge on those who mistreated him when he had neither education nor riches. He goes away to improve himself and returns to wreak havoc on their lives, scheming and plotting to eventually come into possession of their land using whatever means necessary. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course.

Nearly every character is exceedingly annoying: cruelty, selfishness, moronitude, and petulance abound. Catherine and Hinley Earnshaw are particularly loathsome, and though Heathcliff is indeed a wretched person and not the stern-but-kind romantic hero he might initially seem, he was at least rational most of the time and therefore tolerable. The worst, however, is Linton—Heathcliff’s sickly son who is fond of sniveling and playing the “poor me” card. About the only characters I liked or at least had sympathy with were the housekeeper and Hareton Earnshaw, the rightful heir to Wuthering Heights who has been denied the education a man of his class should have had.

The story is quite melodramatic, but it’s still fun. I particularly liked the way in which it was structured: irksome tenant Mr. Lockwood encounters the occupants of Wuthering Heights, gets damp in the process, then spends several weeks convalescing, during which time his housekeeper tells him the entire story of their past. After her narrative finally concludes, another visit is payed to the Heights in present day, and now the characters seem quite different, as their whole story is known. A final visit, half a year or so later, brings the tale to a very satisfying conclusion.

This brings up one amusing/irritating thing about the book: damp = sick. Several times throughout the book someone gets rained on, or does not immediately dry their wet feet, which subsequently leads to an illness of several weeks.

I’m glad to’ve finally read Wuthering Heights. I can see myself doing so again someday.

Dracula by Bram Stoker: C+

From the back cover:
When Dracula first appeared, it fascinated and terrified readers. A vivid tale of evil forces, unspeakable desires, and imperiled innocence, Stoker’s work quickly earned a reputation as one of the first psychological thrillers of its day.

This haunting, unabridged reading, from the original 1897 text, recounts with mounting suspense the nocturnal travels of the suspicious count from Transylvania.

While there were elements of this story that I enjoyed—moments of genuine interest where the action picks up—on the whole I’d have to say it was rather boring.

The plot itself is fine. Jonathan’s narration in the beginning was quite amusing as were a couple of cameos by more common folk. The ending is satisfying. I also enjoyed comparing the vampire facts here with those that have been incorporated into later interpretations.

On the negative side, the women were irksomely fragile and pure-hearted and fond of lauding the bravery of the men. There’s a plot hole. What really made it drag, however, were the long-winded characters, particularly Van Helsing. There were a few speeches that he gave more than once, too.

Light in August by William Faulkner: B

From the back cover:
Light in August is one of the most brilliantly conceived, cleanly structured, and efficiently expressed novels in the Faulkner canon.

With the timing, climax, and resolution of a great symphony, Faulkner’s seventh novel is a eulogy to the outsider: Lena Grove, a guileless pregnant woman who walks from Alabama to Mississippi in search of the father of her unborn child; Gail Hightower, whose romance with the past sent his wife to her grave; Joanna Burden, a middle-aged woman ostracized from her Southern neighbors; and Joe Christmas, a tortured young man of mixed ancestry whose isolation escalates to homicidal rage.

It is Joe Christmas’ story that frames the novel. With its dramatic back-trackings into Joe’s troubled past, Light in August rushes the reader like flooding water to an unexpected and inspired conclusion. As Joe fulfills his own destiny, he in turn plays out the doom of the South.

I admire the insight and pure craft that went into the writing of Light in August, even as I have complaints about the plot and the intrusive narrative voice. Faulker paints a vivid picture of the time and environment of the story, with an excellent way of pointing out the sorts of things we all notice subconsciously and bringing them to light with perfect clarity. That’s precisely the sort of thing a good writer should do, and I can see why he is revered and remembered.

In and of itself, this would be wonderful, except the result is that each of the characters ends up with essentially the same inner voice. Beyond that, I have trouble believing, for example, that an employee of a planing mill in a dinky little town in 1930s Mississippi would look at his elderly friend’s nose and thoughtfully, consciously compare it to a flag flying above a ruined fort.

The plot itself is slow-moving, and if trimmed of stream of consciousness, this novel would probably be about one third its current length. For the most part, these excursions are comprehensible, but there were a couple of occasions where I had to give up on grasping the meaning of a passage. Here’s an example:

“She has no mother because fatherblood hates with love and pride, but motherblood with hate loves and cohabits.”

Ultimately, I liked this book, though it took time and effort to complete. I am not sure that “enjoy” is the right word for the experience of reading Light in August, but it definitely leaves an impact.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles: B

From the back cover:
Set in an exclusive boys’ school in the summer of ’42, A Separate Peace offers a quietly told story of the relationship between two boys. Under the surface though, violent thoughts and feelings lurk, mirroring events in the outside world. It is these deeper levels of meaning that have made the novel an enduring classic of American literature.

Through the adolescent eyes of Gene, an introverted intellectual, we are shown the world of the Devon School. The campus and its residents appear to be untouched by the realities of war. Phineas, a charismatic daredevil athlete, embodies a careless optimism as he leads the boys in seemingly innocent games. Schoolboy capers, though, turn dark, and perhaps inevitably, the war slowly permeates the boys’ lives.

I remembered really liking this whatever year that was I was required to read it for school, but now I have mixed feelings.

The crux of the problem is that I don’t particularly like either Gene or Phineas. Gene initially comes across as borderline nutso, obsessively in love with Phineas and always comparing himself against him and suspecting Phineas of plotting against him. He even dons his clothes at one point in a very The Talented Mr. Ripley moment. Phineas is genial enough, and I like him better as the story progresses, but he’s one of those playful manipulator types who goad non-troublemaking sorts into participating in their activities, and I find those people irritating.

Eventually, though, one begins to think maybe Gene isn’t crazy, but a typical mixed-up stupid teen driven by impulses he doesn’t understand. Maybe he’s just the product of the competitive atmosphere of an all boys’ school, where no one wants to be caught out falling for a trick, where everyone is always on guard and suspicious of sincerity lest they lose face with the rest of the group.

Soon, some of their classmates begin to change as they confront the reality of the war in their lives, a fact they’d been able to deny in the summer when they were still sixteen. All this sounds pretty good, but this is also right around where things began to drag for me. It was also hard to believe all these kids were so gung-ho to be involved with the war, but maybe that’s realistic behavior for “the greatest generation.”

But hey, bonus points for slashiness! Take this lovely passage, for instance:

Finny was right. And there was only one way to show him this. I threw my hip against his, catching him by surprise, and he was instantly down, definitely pleased. This was why he liked me so much. When I jumped on top of him, my knees on his chest, he couldn’t ask for anything better.

To Kill a Mockinbird by Harper Lee: A+

From the back cover:
Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill a Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior—to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. This regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

This is such a lovely book, full of spots that make me sniffly and full of real and vibrant characters, including children who are not idealized or always loveable. I like Scout and Jem a lot, but my heart really belongs to Atticus. Mild guys trying to be good fathers just tug my heartstrings, I suppose.

To Kill a Mockingbird deals with the difficult subject of a black man accused of a crime by a white woman and her father, and its impact on a community, in a way that is understated and illuminating. Very seldom does the story veer into territory that could be considered preachy.

It’s so much more than that, though. It’s about justice and human decency, the definition of real courage, the Finch children seeing their father in a new light, the limitations of small-mindedness, childhood innocence, and learning to put oneself in another’s shoes. Most highly recommended.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: B+

From the back cover:
The Turn of the Screw is regarded as Henry James’s most puzzling and controversial work. The narrator is a young governess sent off to a country house to take charge of two orphaned children. Everything seems charming and her wards especially so. But she soon begins to feel the presence of intense evil and sees the ghosts of two previous servants in the house. Are these figures, so vividly depicted through the eyes of the governess, products of her hysterical fantasies, or do they really exist?

Ambiguities abound in this short novel. Chief among these is the question of whether the ghosts are real or the governess is merely bonkers. I tend to the latter interpretation, myself. Some of the actual sequence of events at the end is fuzzy, too, which I found frustrating.

At times, the language of the story (and not the plot) was problematic, bordering on nigh incomprehensible. Most of the time, several rereads of an enormous, comma-laden sentence would divulge its meaning, but there were a few occasions where I just had to give it up and move on.

I thought the creepy atmosphere was well done; it was especially interesting to shift one’s attitude from ‘ooh, ghosts’ to ‘ooh, nutty chick’ and begin seeing the events from that perspective instead. What was most creepy, in the end, was her slavish obsession with the kids in her charge.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins: B+

From the back cover:
The light that streams from the Moonstone, a yellow diamond of unearthly quality, is like that of the harvest moon. Rachel Verinder receives the stone for her 18th birthday. But on that very night, it is stolen. Although all members of the household must give account for the day’s events, Betteredge offers the most insightful renderings. His story is made all the more enjoyable by his uproariously honest assessments of human nature and his reliance on Robinson Crusoe, a book he firmly believes answers the fundamental questions of life.

The Moonstone has been hailed as the first English detective story, and is well worth reading for historical merits alone. That said, I found the mystery here to be a shade lackluster. From my modern perspective, certain conclusions that were obvious to me were overly explained, and I didn’t find it very hard to guess the perpetrator after a number of facts came to light.

So, as a mystery, it’s not going to be the tightest or cleverest you’ve ever read. As a story, however, it’s very entertaining and often quite funny! It’s told from a variety of first person narratives, as each person concerned with the loss of the moonstone has been charged with committing the things they witnessed to paper, but not to comment on the things that they personally did not know at the time. Particularly amusing are Gabriel Betteredge, the steward of the house, and Miss Clack, a proselytizing cousin whom everyone finds extremely distasteful.