Book Review #4: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)


It’s been far, far too long since my last book review. I’ll definitely try to upload book-related posts with more frequency going forward.

Anyway, The Adventures of Augie March was quite the ride. It covers a pretty large time-span, mapping out our hero Augie’s life all the way from his childhood into adulthood. Augie March truly is the modern-day Dickens novel, taking the reader through a huge string of events throughout the protagonist’s life, as they look for direction and attempt to make a living for themselves in a failing economy. Augie is an incredible character: he’s got so many layers and so much depth that I can barely even scratch the surface of his personality in this review, but I guess I’ll try.

As the brilliant opening line puts it, Augie goes at life as he’s been taught: freestyle. He never sticks in one place for long, and always either loses his job or plain rejects it in favor of some other opportunity, which he will soon do the same with. He finds it almost physically impossible to settle down for more than a couple months at most; he’s always on the move and never looks back. Along the way he tries his best to find some sort of meaning to it all, meeting new people along the way that always manage to challenge his preconceptions and outlook. Saul Bellow has written one of the greatest character arcs I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and with two more books on the two lists I’m reading through, I can’t wait to read more by him.

saul-bellow-new-yorkerImage Source: The New Yorker

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book is just rather disorganized. I can’t really complain though, as that’s pretty much by design. With a concept and plot like this one, it wouldn’t be the same were it well-organized. There are a large amount of characters to keep track of, with Augie’s entire family, his circle of friends, his many, many employers, romantic interests, and the list just goes on. It’s pretty easy to lose track with so many characters and such a loose, intentionally aimless narrative structure. Stick to it, however, and the experience is hugely rewarding.

So, The Adventures of Augie March was an excellent novel. It took me an abnormally long time to get through it, but the time put in was absolutely worth it. Saul Bellow is a brilliant writer, and I greatly look forward to reading more by him in the future. If you’re interested in a long, enthralling journey with great characterization and poetic writing, I’ve got the book for you.

Next Up: Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (1913)

Book Review #3: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)

Under the Volcano cover

Under the Volcano is one of those books that you cannot simply read casually. It’s the kind of novel that requires you to take a short pause after each paragraph and really think about what you just read. It’s truly dense and packed to the bursting point with symbolism and hidden meaning, and if that isn’t your kind of thing, you will probably strongly dislike this book. Otherwise, you’re in for a real treat.

The book details the various activities of Geoffrey Firmin, his ex-wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh, over the course of a single day, namely, the Day of the Dead, in the city of Quauhnahuac, Mexico. Each of the twelve chapters focuses on the thoughts and actions of one of the characters, and every one of them has a distinct way of thinking. The narrative is frequently sidetracked and taken on tangents by the characters thoughts. In one rather extreme example, Hugh spends almost the entire forty-page chapter lounging in a pool chair and reminiscing on his life. In that respect, Under the Volcano is very Ulysses-like, even if it is miles easier in terms of writing.

Speaking of writing, Lowry’s narrative voice is great, if at points confusing and overly complex. His writing is eloquent and often poetic. He really knows how to take the emotions and thoughts of his characters and beautifully put them to paper. That’s not to say his style isn’t very difficult to understand. Sentences are multi-layered, strangely worded and very long-winded. A basic understanding of Spanish also helps, as there is quite a bit of dialog and other phrases that require that you have at least a small grasp on the language. While I certainly don’t consider any of that a negative, it does require an extra level of concentration for pretty much the entirety of the novel. If you aren’t up for that, I wouldn’t recommend you read it.

So to conclude, this is a very intricate, powerful and thought-provoking novel. If you are willing to put in the effort to really give it a thorough reading and analysis, it’s a hugely rewarding undertaking. Malcolm Lowry has certainly written a masterpiece here, just one that not everyone will enjoy, per se. I certainly enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend it. Just know what you’re getting into.

Next Up: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

Reading Update: Halfway Through Under the Volcano

Halfway there! So far, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry has been outstanding. It’s quite the depressing read, but Lowry’s writing and characterization is incredible. As for the plot so far, one of the things I have noticed is that it is very sparse in terms of actual plot events. For example, the main character Geoffrey, a.k.a. The Consul, at one point spends almost twenty pages simply having an idle chat with his neighbor while they do yardwork. He doesn’t really accomplish anything in doing so, and the reader might be left wondering what the point of the entire scene was, but that’s the point, or so I can tell. It’s not a novel about action, but rather introspection. It’s about gazing inwards, rather than outwards. What gets done, and not much has at this point, doesn’t matter. What matters is the inner conflict and anguished thoughts of the characters, as they lounge around, ride horses down nature trails, and generally just bathe in their own sorrow and depression.

So far from what I can tell about the book, one of the main themes is misunderstanding. None of the characters really seem to know each other, even family and close friends. Geoffrey’s doctor keeps nagging him about giving up his drinking habits, and the reader can clearly see, as is usually the case with severe alcoholism, that it’s nowhere near as easy as just putting down the whiskey and quitting.  His doctor, however, doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is for him. Hugh, his half-brother, is another good example of a disconnect between people and their understanding of each other. In one particular scene, written from Hugh’s point of view, the narrative makes frequent jumps between his rambling, aimless inner monologue and the conversation that he’s having with Geoffrey as he helps him shave. It’s very clear that Hugh is not at all engaged in the conversation, as when the book jumps back to his thoughts, his mind is occupied with something completely different and unrelated.

So, two-hundred pages in, I can already tell that this is an incredible book. It’s very character-driven, with almost no actual action to be spoken of, but Malcolm Lowry pulls that off masterfully, giving a detailed and incredibly sad portrait of his character’s inner struggles. Needless to say, I am highly enjoying this novel, and will probably place it very high in my rankings. The review should be up in about a week, see you then!

Book Review #2: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

Midnight's Children cover

This book was absolutely incredible. I’m not really even sure what to say. It consistently blew me away, and Rushdie’s writing is some of the best I’ve ever read.

First off, so much happens in these 450 pages that it feels at least twice as long as it actually is (and in this case, that is not a bad thing). Over the course of this book, you witness the history of an entire family tree over half a century, with the history of an entire subcontinent as the backdrop. It’s definitely a lot to swallow, but that’s probably the book’s strongest point. More than any other book I’ve ever read (possibly even more than the Lord of the Rings), when you read this book, you are truly immersed in the story’s world. A huge list of characters, a ton of detail, historical context… All of these work together to create a novel that truly sucks you in and completely wraps you up in the story.

Rushdie’s writing is great as well. His prose is the kind that’s enjoyable to read but incredibly intelligent at the same time. You can tell how smart he is just by reading a paragraph of his writing. And while there are some things that take getting used to, such as his tendency to omit commas when listing things and his frequent overuse of ellipsis, his prose is outstanding nonetheless.

Overall, I was very, very impressed by this book. Salman Rushdie is a true genius and one of the greatest writers of the last century. If you’re even slightly interested, I would absolutely recommend this book.

Next Up: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Book Review #1: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Lord of the Rings Cover

Quite a lengthy one to start with, eh?

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most successful fantasy stories of all time. It has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to find someone that doesn’t have at least a general idea of the plot, characters and setting. That being said, there are still quite a few pleasant surprises in store for anyone who actually decides to pick up the thousand-page epic and dive in. Tolkien created an entire universe for his characters to trek across. A big part of what makes it so great is simply absorbing every detail like an as-seen-on-TV super-sponge, and just losing yourself in Tolkien’s world.

Tolkien’s writing is incredible. He truly is a master wordsmith; one of the best parts of this book is simply how greatly each sentence is built. If you enjoy a book with tons of extra detail, this is the one for you, because he definitely makes a point to paint as vivid a picture as the English language will allow him. His world-building skills are off the charts, and you really feel like you know what Middle Earth looks and feels like once you’ve made it through the whole thing.

While I found a few characters to be a little underdeveloped, a lot of characters (Sam, Merry and Pippin in particular) were really fascinating and well-written. In a story like this one, the ensemble is much more important than the individual characters, so I can definitely understand a couple flat characters thrown into the mix. In a sprawling, world-encapsulating monster of a book such as this one, the group itself is a character, and each individual a facet of its personality. That said however, I still felt that there was a bit of a disconnect between the story and the characters, and with some exceptions, it didn’t really feel like there was that much emotion other than fear, determination, etc. Maybe this just isn’t really the type of story for me. I’ve always enjoyed feeling invested in the book, and I just didn’t feel that with this one.

So in all, this was a worthwhile read. I loved the world Tolkien conjured, and the journey truly was an experience. There was so much to be found that simply can’t be experienced through only watching the films. And while I didn’t feel as much of a connection to the characters as I would have liked, I would still say that this was a very good book, and a novel I would recommend to almost anyone.

Next novel up: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie