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Fiction Historical Fiction Literary Fiction Romance

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Book Thoughts)

In an effort to broaden my reading horizons and shore up some of my literary gaps, I started reading a few classics every year.

For my summer session of classic torture, I was surprised to find that The Scarlet Letter was not really that challenging to read. It is fairly short and the language isn’t terribly insufferable either (My last classic was Notre Dame de Paris ((The Hunchback of Notre Dame)) and … Whew, no thanks).

So let’s talk about my reaction to the book, if I think it has relevance today, and I’ll treat you to my teen-speak synopsis of the book.

Originally published in 1850, here’s the Signet Classics synopsis:

This tragic novel of sin and redemption is Hawthorne’s masterpiece of American fiction.

An ardent young woman, her cowardly lover, and her aging vengeful husband—these are the central characters in this stark drama of the conflict between passion and convention in the harsh world of seventeenth-century Boston. Tremendously moving and rich in psychological insight, this dramatic depiction of the struggle between mind and heart illuminates Hawthorne’s concern with our Puritan past and its influence on American life.

Broadly – I enjoyed the read.  It’s not hard to know what’s happening, and minus a bit of minute descriptive language mostly in the first novella about the Custom House, it was pretty readable.

His author intro is everything: Oh you’re offended by my sketch? I think it’s fine, it’s not like I burned the place down!! I bet Hawthorne had a big personality.

Relevance: I think it has relevance as a cautionary tale today in a world where teen moms get “famous” on TV and you can’t even scroll Bookstagram without seeing books with x rated content advertised. I would definitely put this in a home school curriculum to talk about Puritanism, early settlements, guilt, adultery, having children out of wedlock, stigmas and identity, I mean there’s a lot of discussion content here that I imagine parents would rather handle.

Here’s my teen speak synopsis:

Part 1: So Mr. Hawthorne was in the hot seat for blasting his employer after being fired, and said HaHaHaHA I’m gonna publish this anyway because it’s not offensive so enjoy! Sticks and stones!

Part 2: The Scarlet Letter. Ok so this lady living in Puritan Salem/Boston finds this brown eyed pastor waxing poetic, and even though she’s married, they get their shenanigans on. What the heck did she think would happen when she had a baby? This wasn’t 2020 where Jerry Springer lets your baby daddy and your husband fight it out on live TV, your @$$ is going to be hung by the neck!

That didn’t happen because Hawthorne had to write a book longer than 5 pages, so the two men have to kill each other with psychological warfare instead. A good lesson about carrying around a guilty conscience.

Long story short – actions have consequenes

A few random thoughts:

  • I thought it was funny that even the beggars were shunning charity from Hester. These days everyone grabs all the free stuff regardless of who is handing it out
  • A character mentioned transmuting alchemy to gold, which is something I usually see in fantasy books or nonfiction moreso than historical fiction
  • The book takes place 50 years before the Salem Witch Trials and Hawthorne brought in some real historical figures as characters.  Bellingham was the real governor, as was Hibbins who mentioned witchcraft throughout the book and was hanged in real life shortly after it took place. I didn’t know how many women were hung before the actual frenzy took place

Overall thoughts: I didn’t feel bad for Hester at all. She wasn’t forced into marriage and knew the laws of the time. Dimmesdale probably took advantage of his authority position and that isn’t an excuse for either of them since she clearly knows how to say NO to men in power based off the rest of the book.  I know 2020 is whack but choices, actions, they all have consequences and I’ll never support adultery.  That’s why I think this is a good cautionary tale to lay against idiocracy like “Teen Mom”

This is a quicker, easier to pick apart classic and I definitely think it held up over the years.

Soooo what classic should I read in the fall?

Categories
Fiction Literary Fiction

Struggling Through the Classics: Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

Well – my dad is going to scoff at this one but I was so flabbergasted at Zorba the Greek for having retained popularity that I actually did some extensive research on what the heck I was supposed to be getting out of the book.

The main ideas that I originally took away were 1) Crete is pretty 2)the author really didn’t like women at all 3) the narrator learns how to live a little 4) EXISTENTIALISM, yay, and 5) I did pick up on the Apollo vs Dionysus ideology because that’s not an entirely uncommon theme in Greek writing.

So – my gut reaction though is that I just did not care for this at all.  They were such dicks to the widows and I can’t figure out how a 65 year old survived for so long with absolutely zero impulse control 😂

That said – ok, let’s break it down and I’ll share what I really didn’t understand, what I learned, and what my ultimate takeaways were

Bookish Quick Facts: 

  • Title: Zorba the Greek
  • Translator: Peter Bien
  • Published: 2014 translation through Simon & Schuster, originally 1946
  • Length: 368 pages
  • Rate & Recommend: I am coming in neutral but honestly. *throws hands up* I’m a terrible Greek apparently

Here’s the synopsis via Am*zon:

A stunning new translation of the classic book—and basis for the beloved Oscar-winning film—brings the clarity and beauty of Kazantzakis’s language and story alive.

First published in 1946, Zorba the Greek, is, on one hand, the story of a Greek working man named Zorba, a passionate lover of life, the unnamed narrator who he accompanies to Crete to work in a lignite mine, and the men and women of the town where they settle. On the other hand it is the story of God and man, The Devil and the Saints; the struggle of men to find their souls and purpose in life and it is about love, courage and faith.

Zorba has been acclaimed as one of the truly memorable creations of literature—a character created on a huge scale in the tradition of Falstaff and Sancho Panza. His years have not dimmed the gusto and amazement with which he responds to all life offers him, whether he is working in the mine, confronting mad monks in a mountain monastery, embellishing the tales of his life or making love to avoid sin. Zorba’s life is rich with all the joys and sorrows that living brings and his example awakens in the narrator an understanding of the true meaning of humanity. This is one of the greatest life-affirming novels of our time.

Part of the modern literary canon, Zorba the Greek, has achieved widespread international acclaim and recognition. This new edition translated, directly from Kazantzakis’s Greek original, is a more faithful rendition of his original language, ideas, and story, and presents Zorba as the author meant him to be

I think the most informative part was Peter Bien’s forward.  I’ve never thought about what Greece was doing during the world wars, but apparently Kazantzakis was living on a beach starving and then his wife showed up? Ok.  I don’t know, I can’t imagine this setting except that he was envisioning a better time with plentiful food and lively company

The book confused me from the get go which was a bad start.   I couldn’t figure out that the friend at the start was Stavrandakis, not Zorba, and eventually I Googled and was like “ooohhh”.  It’s hard because the author never named the friend at first, or the narrator ever.

Zorba was the YES GO LIVE AND DO THINGS person, while the narrator was intellectual, stuck on books, and trying to write one.  I never understood his Buddhist fascination but I think he was trying to write a book or dissertation on it, and was mentally freed afterwards.  Zorba was a more visceral person and brought the narrator out of that intellectual/mental prison he was in.

The book took on the theme of extremes, and the end was to try to find a happy medium between living EVERY moment and self limiting.

The scenery and descriptions were my favorite part – I was too young in Greece to really remember it but the descriptions put me right back on a beach in Crete.  The setting and also atmosphere of hospitality just felt so real it made me truly want to go back.

Zorba loved food, women, music, dance, except he was like the ultimate example of objectifying women, and they killed that poor widow for what, rejecting a man? Holy cow, mixed feelings.  The aging process was so different between Zorba and “Bouboulina” that I picked graceful aging out as a theme.

I had to research what else because my intuitions stopped there.  The Buddhism part – the narrator was removing himself from material things but trying to find a deeper meaning … and Zorba was all about material things.  Again, finding balance

Freedom was another big theme that I missed.  Zorba just wanted to be free to live the way he wanted – finding new experiences and seeing where the wind, his nose, and his d!ck led him – I saw that part but didn’t connect it to the larger ideology.  The narrator wanted to find his freedom and Zorba was definitely instrumental in bringing that out

Nietzsche – I am not even going here.  I’m not a philosopher and have little to zero knowledge in this area so I’ll rephrase what I said above – EXISTENTIALISM, yay

…… That’s the summary of the academics that I remember.  There is a lot of joy throughout the book and my main takeaway was to find the beauty and awe in small things.  Don’t rush things, enjoy, and be open to new people and experiences. I definitely remember the Greek hospitality too which shows up constantly.

All in all – I would read it if you want to read the classics, but be ready for all the philosophical elements and (even for me who is bothered by like absolutely nothing) infuriating treatment of women.  The movie is quite good though

Categories
Fiction Historical Fiction Literary Fiction

Notre-Dame de Paris (or The Hunchback of Notre Dame) by Victor Hugo

Here is the summary via Amazon:

The complete and unabridged translation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The setting of this extraordinary historical novel is medieval Paris: a city of vividly intermingled beauty and ugliness, surging with violent life under the two towers of its greatest structure and supreme symbol, the cathedral of Notre Dame.

Against this background, Victor Hugo unfolds the haunting drama of Quasimodo, the hunchback; Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer; and Claude Frollo, the priest tortured by the specter of his own damnation. Shaped by a profound sense of tragic irony, it is a work that gives full play to the author’s brilliant imagination and his remarkable powers of description.

Translated by Walter J. Cobb

**originally published in France, 1831.  Approx 500 pages but differs between versions*

I tend to find classic novels a huge struggle to read. This is especially true when the author takes an entire section (literally) of the book just to describe the view from the cathedral rooftop.  I knew from reading a number of modern reviews that Notre-Dame de Paris is a tiresome read at times, but even I wasn’t ready for the ratio of story involving the characters – very small – vs. the rest of the book. The rest includes architecture, history, society, more architecture, more social commentary, more history etc.

That said, I readily admit to using a teaching guide so I could at least follow and try to absorb what Hugo was trying to tell his readers.  I think that really enriched the read. I know next to nothing about French history so it was kind of interesting to see the parallels and explanations that he was giving the 1830s Paris readers, of the medieval 1400s Paris in which the book takes place.  Truly this is a piece of historical fiction

There is also a running commentary on architecture, orphans, classism, unrequited love and all the forms it can take, plus internal vs external beauty.  I liked the parts that actually focused on the characters.

The characters are really funny actually, I liked Gringoire the most. I think he liked the goat more than he liked La Esmerelda. Then she was terrified of everyone else who loved her, except for Phoebus, who was (pardon my French haha) basically chasing hookers.  She was obsessed with the idea of him. Frollo and his failures made for an interesting villain,he basically sunk into madness once his ideals were thrown haywire and his life caught up with him.

One other thing that seemed funny was that in this original version, La Esmeralda had absolutely NO personality at all, she was just entirely a tool for the story. The men were actually interesting though, and so was the general arc of the story

Oh, gosh, I forgot the one that truly had me cracking up – the frequent use of the word Ejaculated in conversation 😂 oh I do hope that wasn’t the translator having a gag at Hugo for some reason. It does make me wish I could read in other languages – how much of an original work truly gets lost in translation?

This one was a true struggle but I’d recommend reading it if you enjoy classics! I would imagine though that Hugo was rolling in his grave over the Disney version, what a travesty haha I was expecting something much different but am glad that I read the full, unabridged translation.