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What I'm Reading (No. 10): novels, old and new
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway's famous 1926 debut novel was our book club's pick for March. I read it for the first time a few years ago, and remember having liked it. While most of my fellow book clubbers thought it was fairly boring and pointless, I again thoroughly enjoyed it.
Set in Paris and Spain, the short-ish book (249 pgs for my edition) is a novelized, autobiographical story of a group of friends who lounge about Paris and carouse through Pamplona's famous bull fighting festival, drinking — getting plastered, really — throughout. And that's about it.
This novel doesn't have a classic story arc of inciting incident —> climax —> resolution. What made it famous in 1926 was its then-revolutionary terse, declarative writing style, lacking nearly any metaphor or imagery. It's a stark contract from 1925's The Great Gatsby, which is full to the brim of those things — the green light, penetrating eyes, long and descriptive sentences. Hemingway was trying to pioneer a new style of writing, and he successfully did so.
It's not a style that everyone enjoys consuming, though. The Sun Also Rises is almost too journalistic for some. Whereas in most novels the reader plays God, knowing what everyone is thinking (or at least multiple characters, at most times), we only know Jake Barnes' thoughts (the main, Hemingway-esque character) and have no sense of anyone else's inner life. It makes for characters that feel shallow.
That said, as a defining novel of the Lost Generation, its characters' aimlessness is surely part of the point. Jake and Robert and Bill and Michael just drink and drink and drink and fight over the beautiful, but destructive, Lady Brett Ashley. They're all searching for some sort of purpose, and trying to drown out their not having found it yet.
I'd recommend reading the book, if for nothing else than the cultural literacy factor. It was a milestone novel, and created the macho Hemingway persona. And in spite of its sometimes despairing nature, there's something romantic — even if it's just a tinge — in reading about a group of friends who lunch and drink at Paris cafes, then head to Spain for a festival.
If you read it and find it's not for you, try reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea (128 pgs, 1952) or my favorite Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (480 pgs, 1940).
El Paso by Winston Groom
Winston Groom is most well-known for penning 1986's Forrest Gump (yes, like many great movies, it was first a book), as well as a treasure trove of masterful and wide-ranging history books. In 2016, for the first time in about 20 years, Groom published a new novel. El Paso (478 pgs) is the story of a kidnapping in the midst of Pancho Villa's Mexican Revolution. And it is so good.
Equal parts Clive Cussler and Larry McMurtry, it combines historical fiction, romping adventure, and Western into one epic saga. Villa takes hostage the grandkids of a wealthy railroad magnate, and what follows is a rollicking tale of the eclectic cast of characters trying to get them back. What's great about the book is how many real life characters Groom peppers in: Ambrose Bierce (who has a fascinating story of his own), Woodrow Wilson, famed war general George Patton (whose auspicious start came in the Mexican Revolution), and a few other railroad tycoons.
El Paso really has everything: gunfights, romantic drama, an epic bull fight, a cross-country race between a train and an airplane, and some history lessons about America's first armed conflict of the 20th century. It's nearly 500 pages, but I had a really hard time putting it down and flew through. There was at least one occasion of my reading it while pretending to help my son with a puzzle . . .
I also finished Panorama by Steve Kistulentz (400 pgs, 2018). Set mostly in 2001, this debut novel is about a plane crash in Texas which kills everyone aboard. The novel is laid out well — with alternating chapters from before/after the crash featuring passengers, family members, eyewitnesses, etc — but isn't quite executed well enough for me to recommend it. There's a little too much focus on ancillary characters, and at the end I found myself wishing that concluding events had happened more in the middle so that they could have been expanded upon. The writing was generally quite good though — my complaint is more with the structure/focus — and I'll certainly keep an eye on Kistulentz.
Our next book club selection is Marilynne Robinson's acclaimed Gilead. I've been looking for an excuse to read it for years now, so I'm pretty excited. Anyone read it? What did ya think?
My giveaway had just about 60 entrants, and the winner was Phil Thomas from the burbs of Omaha. He's been looking to get his hands on Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life, so it was a fortuitous win. I'll keep doing giveaways every 4-6 weeks or so.
Thanks so much for reading everyone, and let me know what YOU have been reading this week. And of course, always feel free to let me know what you think of this little newsletter in general.