1920s Classics Pulitzer Prize

So Big by Edna Ferber

SO BIG By Ferber, Edna (Author) Paperback on 22-Aug-2000 Winner of 1924 Pulitzer Prize

Five words from the blurb: Chicago, society, Illinois, farmers, ideals

Selina Peake, the central character in So Big, is one of the strongest women in literature. After the death of her father, a gambler who always looked for the most exciting things life had to offer, Selina moves to Illinois to become a teacher. This rural community is very different from the high society life she led in Chicago and Selina must work hard to survive. Life isn’t good to Selina and she has a string of problems, but she copes with them all, despite the disapproval of a society who believe women should not work outside the home. Selina was a groundbreaking character for the time and nearly a century on it is still possible to admire her courage and resilience.

I wasn’t convinced I’d enjoy a story about Dutch farmers in Illinois, but Selina was an amazing character and I fell in love with her. The plot felt quite slow, but on reflection an amazing number of events occurred in Selina’s life. The writing was wonderful and apart from having to get the dictionary out a few too many times, I had no complaints.

The main theme of the book was encouraging people to live life to the full and that money does not bring happiness – topics which are just as relevant now as they were back then. I loved the advice given to others throughout this book:

“The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living. Remember, no matter what happens, good or bad, it’s just so much” – he used the gambler’s term, unconsciously – “just so much velvet.”

This is a wonderfully rich story that can also be taken as a guide to the important things in life. Recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Exquisitely crafted and lovingly plotted, it is story that is worthy of the Pulitzer.  Caribousmom

Selina is one of the most powerful and memorable characters I’ve ever read. The Book Nest

…infused with meaning not found in many books. Musings

1910s 1920s Short Story

‘They’ – Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling is one of those authors I felt I should have read, but hadn’t until now. ‘They‘ is a collection of three of his short stories. The blurb states that they are very different from his novels and poems, being more sinister and macabre. This darker element really appealed to me, but unfortunately I didn’t find any of the stories particularly chilling – early 20th century fear is very different to that of the modern day!

They is the first story in the collection and it reminded me of The Turn of The Screw; or at least a shorter, more easy to follow version. The writing was of a very high quality and contained vivid imagery, but glimpses of ghostly children did nothing for me. 

‘I heard that,’ she cried triumphantly. ‘Did you? Children, oh, children! Where are you?’

The voice filled the walls that held it lovingly to the last perfect note, but there came no answering shout such as I had heard in the garden. We hurried on from room to oak-floored room; up a step here, down three steps there; among a maze of passages; always mocked by our quarry. One might as well have tried to work an unstopped warren with a single ferret.

The rest of the stories were equally well written, but all succumbed to the problem I have with short stories – they were too short! I longed for some plot, instead of just brief scenes.

The second story in the collection is Mary Postgate. It was written during WWI and it has been suggested that it is anti-German propaganda, but this is a disputed topic among Kipling scholars. It should have been a disturbing tale, but I remained unmoved. The subtlety of the words meant that I appreciated it much more on a second reading, but this appears to be one of those stories which benefits from being studied and discussed rather than just read once for pleasure.

The third story is called The Gardener and I have to admit that on completing it I had no idea what the point was. I didn’t understand what had happened until I found these notes on a Kipling site. Even this insight didn’t help me to appreciate the story. It is another story that needs to be studied to be enjoyed and I’m afraid that I just like to read a story without having to tease the significance out of individual sentences.

Overall I can see why these stories are significant, but they were too subtle for me.

Have you read anything written by Rudyard Kipling?

His novels are supposed to be very different. Do you think I’d enjoy them?

They is one of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics (a series of 50 books launched on 15th February). They can be bought individually for £3 each or as the beautiful Penguin Mini Modern Classics Box Set

1920s Books in Translation Science Fiction

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

 Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown

Five words from the blurb: dystopia, totalitarian, masterpiece, individual, freedom

I hadn’t heard of this book until Michelle recommended it on my Literary Science Fiction post, but I’m so pleased that she bought it to my attention as I feel it is one of the most important dystopian fiction novels ever written.

We was originally written in 1921, but was suppressed in Russia and so first published in English, French and Czech, before finally being published in Russian in 1988. We is recognised to have been the inspiration behind George Orwell’s classic 1984, but on reading it I spotted key ideas that I’d read in many other books.

The plot follows D-503 (everyone is given a unique number, not a name) who lives in a totalitarian society built entierly from glass (so they can be spied on more easily). All aspects of life are controlled to the extent that everyone must get up, work and eat at exactly the same times each day. D-503 begins to have dreams and question the society he lives in. Everything changes when he discovers that there are other humans living outside OneState – haired humans who live free amongst the animals….

The book is very readable and hasn’t dated at all. It is amazing to think that it was written 90 years ago as most of the ideas and fears still hold true for us today. The book was packed with thought-provoking quotes: 

But, my dear readers, you’ll have to do just a little thinking. It helps a lot. Because, you know, all human history, as far back as we know it, is the history of moving from nomadic life to a more settled way of life. So, doesn’t it follow that the most settled form of life (ours) is by the same token the most perfect form of life (ours)?  If people used to wander over the earth from one end to the other, that only happened in prehistoric times, when there were nations and wars and trade discoveries of this and that America. But why do it now? Who needs it?

I was gripped throughout, but have to admit that a few things went over my head. I would have benefited from having a reading guide to explain some of the weirder sections, but I’m sure this is one of those books that gets better with each re-reading.

The only problem with this book was that I didn’t develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters. I was interested to see what would happen to them, but didn’t really care about their fate.

I think it is important for anyone interested in dystopian fiction to read this book, but if you after an emotional response to events then you need to look elsewhere.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

I’m glad I read We for the historical and contextual value as a dystopia, but I didn’t love it. Rebecca Reads

….the longer We went on, the more it reminded me of The Famished Road by Ben Okri with its endless blending of colour and dream. Books, Time, and Silence

…one of the weirdest, most disorienting things I’ve ever read. The Zen Leaf

1920s Classics

The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury was first published in 1929 and is considered to be one of the most important novels of the 20th century. The book follows the Comptons, an Aristocratic southern American family, struggling to deal with their poor reputation and the breakdown of their family.

The Sound and the FuryThe Tale of Genji or Ulysses, if I ever manage to finish them!!).

The first section is narrated by a mentally disabled man called Benjy. I finished these 72 pages without having much idea of what had happened. The disorienting world of someone who doesn’t fully understand what is happening was made even more confusing by a stream of consciousness writing style.

I wasn’t crying, but I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t crying, but the ground wasn’t still, and then I was crying. The ground kept sloping up and the cows ran up the hill T.P. tried to get up. He fell down again and the cows ran up the hill. Quentin held my arm and we went toward the barn. Then the barn wasn’t there and we had to wait for it to come back.

I sought out a summary of the chapter on wikipedia and this helped a lot – especially learning that anything written in italics is a flashback. I re-read the chapter, trying to seek out all the points mentioned on wikipedia, but I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have noticed some of the plot points without a guide to help.

The second section, narrated by Benjy’s older brother, was easier to understand, but not much!! Again I had to rely on wikipedia and re-reading to pick up many of the plot points. I continued the rest of the book having read the wikipedia summaries in advance. It was hard work! I also discovered Spark Notes, which gave me an even greater insight into the book.

The problem that I find with books like this is that the effort it takes to simply understand what is happening removes any chance to form an emotional connection to the characters. The plot wasn’t that exciting and so I didn’t feel as though the effort I put in was rewarded.

I’m sure that you can derive a lot of pleasure from studying this book, but I’m afraid that I prefer to read books rather than tease out the meanings from individual paragraphs.

Highly recommended to people who enjoy studying literature.

Have you read The Sound and the Fury?

1920s Classics

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

I have been wanting to read some Virginia Woolf for a while, but I had been told that her books are very difficult to read and so had been putting it off. When I saw the Woolf in Winter read-along I decided it was the perfect opportunity to give her a try, as difficult texts are always easier when you have a group of people to read along with. Emily is hosting the discussion for To the Lighthouse today, so please pay her a visit if you’d like to join in!

I was pleasantly surprised when I read the first few pages of To the Lighthouse – it was much easier to read than I had expected it to be. Yes, the sentences were often long and meandering, but I found it easy to follow and some of the descriptions were strangely fascinating.

Disappearing as stealthily as stags from the dinner-table directly the meal was over, the eight sons and daughters of Mr and Mrs Ramsay sought their bedrooms, their fastnesses in a house where there was no privacy to debate anything, everything; Tansley’s tie; the passing of the Reform Bill; seabirds and butterflies; people; while the sun poured into those attics, which a plank alone separated from each other so that every footstep could be plainly heard and the Swiss girl sobbing for her father who was dying of cancer in a valley of the Grisons, and lit up bats, flannels, straw hats, ink-pots, paint-pots, beetles, and the skulls of small birds, while it drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds, which was in the towels too, gritty with sand from bathing.

It is odd that in copying the above paragraph down I realised how little of it makes sense. It is a collection of random thoughts, but I didn’t worry too much about understanding why every little word was used – I just enjoyed the images they created.

The book begins with a young boy wanting to visit a lighthouse, but being told that it probably won’t be possible to go. I thought the scene was set beautifully, but I soon discovered that nothing else was going to happen.  In the final part of the book, set many years later, they head out to visit the lighthouse, but that is all that happens. There is no plot, simply observations of small scenes – this lack of any action meant that it turned out to be quite a boring book. It was very short, so I had no trouble finishing it, but in the end I was left with a feeling of disappointment. If the book had been much longer, but with more interesting events occuring, then I’m sure I would have enjoyed it as I had no objection to the writing style.

Overall, I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with this book. It felt more like an introduction to a set of characters than a novel in its own right. I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Woolf’s work.


Have you read To the Lighthouse?

Did you enjoy it?

1920s Pulitzer Prize

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize

The Age of Innocence is set in the upper class society of New York City. The book begins with Newland Archer, the heir to one of the best families, eagerly awaiting his marriage to the beautiful, but quiet May Welland. The arrival of May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska from Europe, leads Newland to question his choice of bride as he finds himself falling for Ellen.

I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy this book – it annoyed me from the very first page:

But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.

I just don’t enjoy reading about people whinging – especially when they are among the most priviliedged in society. I found all the characters to be dull and I didn’t care about them at all. They just seemed to go from one non-drama to the next, continually fretting about insignificant things.

There was something about the writing style that I didn’t like. It could have been the overuse of brackets, or the repetition of the word “darling!”, but whatever it was this book wound me up as much as it bored me. 

There were a few reasonable sections and the ending was actually one of the better parts of the book, but overall I was very disappointed.

I seem to be alone in disliking this book. Reviewers on Amazon describe it as “a work of beautifully subtle observation and delicacy”, “beautifully written, haunting and evocative” and “deeply moving”. I guess I just like reading about people with real problems, or dilemmas that I might have to face one day. I can only enjoy these lighter romances if they make me laugh and I’m afraid that this book failed to do that.

Recommended to those who enjoy gentle, observational books about those with more money than sense!



Did you enjoy The Age of Innocence?

Will I enjoy any of her other books?

classcirc-logoI read The Age of Innocence for the The Classics Circuit. For other Edith Wharton reviews in the month of January, please have a look at the schedule.