For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The writing is gorgeous and not at all what I was expecting. I have previously read some of Hemingway’s short stories which had his famous sparse style. The writing in this novel, however, while clear and crisp, has a rhythm and generous beauty that makes the reading almost sumptuous. My only warning for would-be buyers of this book: be patient to get the most from the novel.

The story is set during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. Robert Jordan, an American professor of Spanish, has come over to help the Republic fight the Fascists as a demolition man. He is sent to blow up a bridge at a specific day and time, creating a countdown where, as a result of the diminishing hours, he spends four intense days with a small guerrilla force, creating tight, intimate relationships.

I’ll be honest. The first half of the book put me to sleep; but I’m not saying this as a criticism, I swear! The language was so mesmerizing, repetitive, and rhythmic, that it created a hypnotic effect that kept making me drowsy. I had to be so patient. I couldn’t read with any distractions and often read only a dozen or so pages at a time to help with my focus.

The second half of the book, in stark contrast, accentuates the countdown to blowing up the bridge. The plot started to fly by, and I found myself going faster through the writing than I wanted to. I had to really focus on keeping my reading at a steady pace to catch all of the narrative and not skip anything. Again, I found I needed all my patience and focus, but in an entirely different way.

There are no bad parts to this book. The characters, language, pacing, plot, everything is well done. Chapters often set aside the plot for a while as characters give us their personal anecdotal histories or conversations, but these asides add so much depth to the narrative that they seem integral to the whole story.

Here’s my example of his writing style on pg. 323, Chapter 27: “Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.” There’s nothing about the style here that’s sparse. Repetitive and clear, but so lovely as the time that I find it captivating.

I was in a book club that read this, and I can tell you the only downside to this book is that we all agreed so well upon it, the conversation lacked any good argument or intensity (although we did understood the novel much better afterwards). I encourage book groups to read this book as there is so much depth here to explore; I easily created pages of discussion questions and could create so many more if I spent more time with the book. This would also make an excellent book for anyone interested in reading classics. Someday I’m going to read this book again, and I know that I’ll get even more out of it then.

You can find my discussion questions on this book here.

Review of Lonesome Dove

Review of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a truly epic book. The scope, the landscape, the characters, even the length of the book, give this narrative a grandeur in its story-telling.

The story centers on a couple of retired Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, who now own the Hat Creek Outfit, along with one of the employees, Call’s unclaimed son, Newt. There are many other major characters that are given depth in this book, but I can’t possibly list them all in my short review. The plot mostly follows an adventure-filled cattle drive when Call decides to be the first person to bring cattle to Montana and start a ranch there.

The characters are fabulously fleshed out. Everyone is a combination of good and bad traits, with plenty of muddy motivations and emotional handicaps. You will be frustrated with your favorite characters at times, and you will occasionally sympathize with the characters you dislike. And be forewarned, your most-liked and least-liked characters have a high likelihood of dying during the book.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the complexity of the characters’ decisions. The characters all seem to have many reasons for their decisions, often expressed at different times, and motivations are rarely cut and dry. I find this so much like real decision making, and I appreciate an author who can bring to life a slew of emotional issues without weighing down the book in unnecessary contemplation.

The writing is very strong as well. Descriptions are gritty and beautiful here. The tone and use of language feels in keeping with the western setting, but with a high enough skill to be labeled literature. An example I’m going to give of this is from pg. 99: “In a flash, as he stood half-through the swinging doors, Dish’s whole conception of woman changed; it was if lightning had struck, burning his old notions to a crisp in one instant.” From this quote, you’d never be mistaken about reading a western, but at the same time, there’s a flow and sharpness to the language.

I am discounting a point from the review because they are just a few too many times where I’m taken out of the story. Either something too coincidental happens, or the switch in character perspective feels awkward. It was a bit of a burr under my saddle. Having said that, this is a truly great book, and there’s a good chance that you will not have my problem in reading it.

I would like to highly recommend this book to anyone who grew up after the mini-series and think it’s only a western. This would make an excellent book for discussion groups. If you’ve never read this, pick it up now. And if you haven’t read it in a while, pick it up again.

Click here for my discussion questions on this novel.

Review of Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is real British jewel. Treasure it’s foreignness. Admire all that sparkles within.

As an American, I seriously felt like I needed a translation. For example, what American would know that a “scout” is a domestic worker at Oxford University? Plus the lives of the rich, landed aristocracy of the 1920s and 30s feels so otherworldly to me—the servants, the brutal and constant sarcasm, the expectations of conduct. However, once I accepted that this book is truly a book of an exotic land in a foreign language, I settled down in it and found it a delightfully good read.

In this novel, Charles Ryder finds himself mixed up in the Flyte family for two decades, from his college years into middle life. The family has so many destructive issues of which the narrator continues to be drawn into.

This isn’t the kind of book that I ever wanted to pick up and dive into; but once I was reading it, I found the pages would fly by. I had to get used to stumbling over the Britishisms. At some point, I figured out that it was useless looking them all up, so I would skip over them and wait to catch up a paragraph later.

For most of the book, I found the text alternatives between lengthy conversations and poetical descriptions, neither of which were overly floral or difficult to get through. In fact, I would say the language is possibly the best part of this book. The conversations aren’t realistic, but they do convey a great deal about the characters and viewpoints. Descriptions are absolutely beautiful and do the heavy lifting in this story. The plot is mediocre and seems beside the point.

The point of this book, in fact, seems to be the re-creation of the world these people live in. The reader is drawn into it, the sarcasm, the loneliness, the family responsibilities. It’s quite fascinating. Brideshead is the grounds that the book mostly takes place on, and Waugh has such an evocative way of bringing the place to life.

The characters are hideous in a way only a great author can make them. If you want to love the characters in a book, you might struggle with this one. All the characters will have parts of them you will like or find amusing at least, but they all have terribly flawed issues as well. However, their tragedy and complexity make for a good read.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.” (pg. 313)

I recommend this easily to any book group or any individual interested in classics. If you happen to be an Anglophile, this is a must-read for you.

Click here for the discussion questions.