Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann – Book Review

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann - Book Cover

“WTF!” exclaimed Thomas Mann, the author of “The Magic Mountain,” when he received the Nobel Prize in 1929—for his novel “Buddenbrooks.” Perhaps he himself thought that the story of the Lübeck merchant family Buddenbrook, spanning about three and a half generations in the mid-19th century, was not the most obvious choice for this prestigious award.

What Buddenbrooks is Not About

1, Not about Lübeck at all: You can count on one, maybe two fingers (and that might be generous) how many times the name of the city, where Mann’s family saga almost entirely takes place, is mentioned. You learn absolutely nothing significant about the city; the plot rarely leaves the Buddenbrook residence.

2, Not about trade either: If you expect the current Johann Buddenbrook to to be a 19th-century J.R. Ewing, performing various financial machinations and driving his business rivals crazy, nothing of the sort happens. The Buddenbrooks’ business principle is to only engage in ventures that allow you to sleep well at night. Boring? Not my words!

3, And there is not a single word about the German social processes of the 19th century. The characters in “Buddenbrooks” move exclusively within the wealthy upper middle classes.

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – Book Review

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon - Book Cover

Not So Amazing Adventures

What comes to mind when you see a book title that includes the phrase “amazing adventures”? I’d bet you’re thinking of amazing adventures. Well, those are largely absent from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Or at least they are only present in traces. The title is a classic example of (deliberately) misleading titling. The story of Josef Kavalier, who escaped to America from the Nazis, and his cousin, Clay spans about fifteen years and is a semi-family saga about the golden age of American comic book writing and the “survivor’s guilt” of those who lived through the Holocaust.

The Escapist Makes Comic Book History

So, what’s amazing about The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay? It’s the comic book history. (Of course, the adjective in the title of the book refers to this.) I can imagine that the early history of this classically American genre, the ninth art form, was enough to earn Michael Chabon half a Pulitzer Prize. (The other half was probably due to his humble and passionate homage to 1940s and ’50s New York.) The novel’s Escapist didn’t actually exist; the masked hero is a kind of paraphrase of Captain America, and the memorable cover featuring a punch to Hitler’s face is also connected to the latter.

The second amazing thing in Chabon’s book is the love between Joe and Rosa. After all, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also a love story, and the focus gradually shifts more and more towards this aspect. But no worries, it’s a love story devoid of excess, borne with patience and perseverance, so you can’t help but root for the involved parties.

But Where Did the Prague Golem Go? And Especially Clay???

The third amazing thing is the pre-war, glimpsing Prague, with its famous golem (a massive but passive participant), a crash courses in escapology, and the increasingly suffocating presence of the Nazis.

Who doesn’t get much attention in this novel is poor Clay himself, who eventually gets relegated to a mere supporting role. Even when he does get some presence, it feels forced. (Another puzzled brow-furrowing moment considering the title.)

A Humanist Grand Novel – With Minor Shortcomings

The style of writing in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay oddly matches the time of the story: sometimes you feel like you’re reading lines written several decades earlier. This is due to the endlessly leisurely pace, the boldly drawn-out scenes, or the meticulous descriptions of characters (or even interior spaces) who appear only for a few pages. Some people might find this frustrating, but it oddly suits the melancholic tribulations of Kavalier (and Clay), mimicking the expression of a grand novel, which, unfortunately, Michael Chabon’s work doesn’t quite reach. Nonetheless, it is still a very enjoyable read, mainly thanks to its humanistic perspective and its far from flawless but highly likable characters.

Rating: 8/10

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
639 pages, Paperback
Published in 2001 by Picador USA

Legends of the Fall – Film Review

Legends of the Fall - Film Poster

Colonel Ludlow, weary of the Indian massacres, settles down in the remote Montana long-long ago, three sons are born, and so on. And when the youngest brings his bride, the STUNNING Suzannah, even the other two boys start to drool over her. As if that wasn’t enough, World War I breaks out just then.

And what’s the point? It’s not good to throw around big words, but there’s nothing to be done when this is the situation. Now listen: the film drama “Legends of the Fall” teaches you that no matter how diligently you obey all laws of God and man, you can still end up with EVERYONE loving someone else who outrightly flouts these laws. Can you do anything about it? Nothing, you just got screwed. Thanks a lot!

At most, you can toughen up your soul, because this film is shamelessly and unabashedly manipulative, every effort aimed at bringing tears to your eyes.

Little “M” for example, kept watering the mice, so eventually I had to keep a list, and in the end, it turned out that Edward Zwick’s esteemed masterpiece brought tears to the little one’s eyes precisely a dozen times during viewing. Quite an achievement!

This goddamn film affects the viewer like this, even if you know exactly that most of the characters’ troubles – alongside the damn scriptwriters – are caused by stubbornness bordering on stupidity or incomprehensible self-will, and they wouldn’t get into such a mess if they showed a little more empathy or at least some PATIENCE towards each other.

So if you feel as tough as nails, but just to be on the safe side, you want to check, watch “Legends of the Fall.” And if your eyes don’t well up once during it, well then you really are!

8/10

Legends of the Fall (1994) (IMDb)
Director: Edward Zwick, Stars: Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Julia Ormond

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham – Book Review

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham - Book cover

Ross Poldark, a captain with a gunshot ankle, limps home to picturesque Cornwall from the American Revolutionary War. His father is dead, the house is in ruins, and his fiancée has replaced him with his cousin. As Ross sets out to restore his dilapidated home, his self-esteem, and embark on farming, you get a glimpse into the daily life of late 18th-century South England. It wasn’t the most uplifting place at the time: the war has plunged the country into recession, the mining industry, the cornerstone of Cornwall’s economy, is struggling, the upper classes revel while the lower ones suffer. Ross’s useless employees, inherited from his father, drink like fish, and Ross himself isn’t averse to a tipple. You have no idea how this will turn out.

Then Demelza arrives.

Demelza is a 13-year-old, impoverished half-orphan whom Ross rescues from her brutal father and takes in as a housemaid. He couldn’t have done anything better. From this point on, you can’t wait to read about Demelza; her pages, especially with their poignant nature, overshadow the rest of the novel. Demelza is getting older, becoming more astute, and then sets out to capture Ross’s attention…

Many liken the first volume of the Poldark series to “Pride and Prejudice.” I wouldn’t know, as I haven’t read it; I only started with the 1995 Colin Firth series adaptation, but after about 10 minutes, I tossed the remote due to its superficial and exaggerated nonsense. Winston Graham’s book is emotional but not sentimental. It’s much more of a family saga with social sensitivity than a romantic novel, and it doesn’t feature the silly twists typical of women’s genre fiction.

A romantic novel would end with the main characters getting married. Their story really only begins after Ross impulsively marries the girl: you, on the other hand, watch contentedly as Demelza rises to Ross’s intellectual and then social level, and by the end, they become equal partners in the relationship.

Interestingly, it’s as if Demelza not only has a positive influence on Ross and you but also on the novelist: with the marriage, the quality of the writing improves, the style becomes more cohesive, and elaborate nature descriptions start adorning the text, while the uninteresting subplots (Jim and Jinny & other miners – who occasionally had their own perspectives) either seamlessly integrate into the narrative or disappear altogether. And you notice that you CAN’T PUT DOWN this volume.

8/10 (80%)

Ross Poldark (The Poldark Saga #1) by Winston Graham
379 pages, Paperback
Published in 2015 by Sourcebooks Landmark