Summer Reading List #3: Wicked, Penguin Mini Modern Classics, Sylvia Plath

It’s getting well into autumn now so I should really get going and have done with this Summer Reading Series! Here are the last set of books I tackled over the summer holidays…

Wicked – Gregory Maguire

I actually missed Wicked: The Musical when it came through Melbourne a couple of years ago, mainly due to, uhm, poverty. But when I saw a tattered, spineless copy of this book on the shelf of my Samoan hostel, I pounced on it at once (its decrepit state gave it a certain charm).

Maguire is a spellbinding storyteller. He takes an old fairytale (the Wizard of Oz) and really fleshes it out. You can tell the amount of forethought and planning that have gone into this book. There’s something to be said for passionate rambling books, but I am always suitably impressed when books present themselves in a structured, clean and well-synthesised manner. Reading Wicked, you constantly feel that events have an impetus; that backstory is present for a reason; that all plotlines converge towards a climax.

The Wicked Witch of the West is Elphaba, a green-skinned girl with a prickly demeanor and more wits than the average damsel. I found her an incredibly irritating but likeable protagonist. The novel opens with a prelude in which the Witch overhears Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman gossiping about her. She’s “possessed by demons,” they say. “She was castrated at birth…she was an abused child…she’s a dangerous tyrant.”

The opening scene illustrates the power of stories–not only stories passed from gossiper to gossiper across the land of Oz, but stories that are passed from generation to generation, from those in power to those beneath, in our world. What do we believe about the Wicked Witch of the West? Has it even occurred to us, before now, to question her true wickedness? Why don’t we question stories that are handed down to us from our superiors? What does it mean to be wicked? Do early life events or traumas lead ineluctably to the corruption of a person’s soul?
The story is set for us to discover who this Witch really is: to dispel rumour and hearsay and propaganda. We are introduced to two main themes: firstly, the definition and the roots of evil and tyranny; and secondly, the development of a girl into a woman–the factors that shape her coming-of-age.

In summary: a rollicking, enjoyable read with a satisfying pace and conclusion. There’s no excess material and Maguire is a delectable wordsmith.

Penguin Mini Modern Classics

Discovered a whole shelf of these in a bookstore in Hong Kong. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Penguin’s Modern Classics (first released in 1961), Penguin has published fifty Mini Modern Classics: short stories and lesser-known snippets of fiction by famous writers including Fitzgerald, Lovecraft, Nabokov, Chesterton, Borges, Calvino, Truman Capote, Virginia Woolf, etc. etc. (see here for full list).

I bought 5 of these little books (Fitzgerald, Lovecraft, Nabokov, Chesterton, Angela Carter) for about $5 each. I especially enjoyed the classic fairytales, including the spooky and slightly disturbing Bluebeard, retold by Angela Carter. They’re great both for discovering extra work of authors you already love, and also for sampling the style of a writer you’ve always wanted to read but haven’t had the chance to tackle a heftier book.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I’ve never read Sylvia Plath before and to be completely frank, Bell Jar was not what I had expected. I had expected a vague, ponderous, artsy, poetic novel about deep themes of life. The Bell Jar was straightforward, honest, relatable, gut wrenching and without artifice.

I can see why Plath’s only novel is so famous. At first, I didn’t find the first few chapters particularly impressive–a girl goes to New York to do an internship for a fashion magazine and there’s a bunch of photo shoots, luncheons, parties–but I felt the novel really blossomed as I read on. Plath writes in such a stark and graceful manner. Metaphors float from the page into your head then hit you a second time when your brain processes them (I’m not very articulate today–sorry). As Esther descends deeper and deeper into her melancholy, the world grows bleak around you without you even realising it. It is the very experience of the bell jar closing over you, sealing you off from your surrounds.

Of course I must mention that the story is made even more tragic given that it is a semi-autobiographical work, with names of people and places altered, and that Plath lost her tumultuous battle with mental illness. I feel like the world lost a great literary talent at such a young age.

That’s all the books I read over my summer! Thanks for checking out my summer reading series–I hope you found my reviews somewhat informative. More book reviews to come over the course of the year as I continue tackling my list of 101 goals!

Related to goal #5 – 8/32 books read and reviewed.


Review: Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.” — Vladimir Nabokov, 1963.

Goal #5:  Read and review at least one book per month (1/32).

Unfortunately I read this book in fragmentary spurts during semester and exam period, so it exists in my mind as an eloquently written, morally disturbing blur. I can’t give a detailed review of Lolita–a lot of plot details escaped me whilst I lay clutching my Kindle in a somnolent haze after an evening of study–but I’ll tell you as best I can what I thought of this controversial classic.

Lolita is a narrative of events, told in retrospect from the highly coloured viewpoint of one Humbert Humbert (pseudonym), presumably from his prison cell. H. H. is a respectable European scholar with good looks to boot when, after failing an earlier marriage, he comes to the United States to write. He also has a dark secret: an irrepressible taste for prepubertal girls.

He takes up tenancy in the house of the widow Charlotte Haze, and immediately becomes infatuated with Charlotte’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita/Dolly/Lo. Humbert’s increasing obsession with Lo and Lolita’s emerging precociousness combine to produce a spiralling succession of bizarre and chaotic events that make the reader more and more uncomfortable with each of Humbert’s passing thoughts.

Lolita has been described as a tragicomedy. I found it more tragic than comic, for in spite of Humbert Humbert’s intensely sophisticated and artful prose and his attempts to justify his own shortcomings, the reader sees a man who is weak, morally conflicted and, ultimately, despicable. Nabokov’s book, I believe, is a piece of art because one has to struggle not to sympathise with the central character; not to be unconsciously persuaded by H. H.’s eloquent and intelligent sequence of thought.

Nabokov’s rich, brimming prose, dripping with puns and multilingual word-play, is made even more amazing by the fact that, although Lolita was originally written in English, Nabokov’s first language is Russian. His descriptions skip from metaphor to metaphor in a way that is always acutely lyrical, never jarring. In particular, the build-up to the violent final climax, phrases like “the sun was visible again, burning like a man” and “the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees” leave the reader shivering in nervous anticipation.

Yes, okay, Lolita is essentially a story about a paedophile. Some people describe it as the story of a perverted adult destroying the the innocence of a young girl’s childhood. But others have described it rather as the story of the exploitation of a weak man by a corrupt child. I feel like the novel stood at a midpoint. Nabokov himself said that there is no moral to Lolita, and I agree that the book does not convey one. He also said that he detests symbols and allegories.

In summary, Lolita was neither a pleasant nor an easy read. It was different, and artful, and elegantly disturbing. Both Nabokov and our dear Humbert Humbert are writers of astounding aptitude, but, unlike most books, Lolita will not generate in you a sense of fondness for a single one of its sorry characters.