Alas, Babylon review

Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

I first read this book in high school, and remembered enjoying it, though the details were fuzzy.

It was published in 1959 during the Cold War, and is set in a small central Florida town. Life is proceeding as usual when a young American pilot follows a Russian aircraft out of American airspace and shoots it down. Russia responds by firing nuclear weapons at American cities and presumably America responds in kind. Our characters don’t know what happened for a long time as nearby cities are obliterated, electricity and infrastructure knocked out, and travel impossible.

This becomes a tale of survival for the Bragg, Henry, and McGovern families and their neighbors. They have to figure out how to feed themselves, get water, cope without news of the wider wold, and fend off looting highwaymen.

It was interesting to read about this kind of disaster while living through another different kind, and I’m so glad not to be foraging for food right now or trying to make trades with my neighbors so we can all survive.

While I enjoyed this book, it’s definitely a product of its time; the Henrys are a black family, and as such, are looked down on by most of the white society (until everything falls apart and they’re actually the most prepared). It’s an uncomfortable reminder that “all men are created equal” in our founding documents is something we still need to strive toward.

Also, we really don’t want a nuclear holocaust. This book shows how hard it would be to survive even if you were in a pocket spared by radiation. Living only a couple hours south of Washington DC, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make it in such a scenario. So let’s all keep our fingers off those launch buttons please and thank you.

★ ★ ★

A Room with a View

I. Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin companion, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, travel to Italy where they stay in a British pension with other Brits and want to properly appreciate the sights with other proper tourists. There they meet the Emersons, a father and son who are more free spirited, and thus viewed with mild suspicion by the other tourists. Lucy likes them, though she’s torn between her feelings and her sense of what proper, refined people think and believe. These warring desires are brought to a head by a Slightly Dramatic Event (these are Edwardians, after all; we can’t get too crazy here)….

II. Back in England after her adventure, Lucy has one more chance to decide whether she wants a life based on Societal Expectations (her fiance is a too stuffy for even her own family) or whether she’ll follow desires she’s pushed deep down.

The book meditates on the difference between desires and expectations, and also highlights how in Proper society, emotion is a hindrance and ought to be repressed.

Lucy’s perception of what her family wants and expects is not exactly what they do want for her, and she gets tangled up in her mind trying to fulfill expectations that actually bore her. Her deep desires aren’t even to be a rebel, they just aren’t to be a stuffy society lady, which is what she thinks she ought to want.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it as it is a pretty slim classic, and it’s not a difficult read.

There’s also an excellent 1986 film version with a tiny Helena Bonham-Carter as Lucy. The pace is deliberate, but I think it captures the spirit of the book well; the acting is excellent (Judi Dench! Maggie Smith! Daniel Day-Lewis as THE stuffiest British person you can imagine!) and allows the story to unfold.

★ ★ ★ ★

Next On the List – Classics Club Spin 24

It’s been so long since I’ve updated here; it was hard to read and focus at the beginning of the pandemic, and while that’s still somewhat the case, human beings are fairly adaptable, and I’ve been able to read a few books over the past couple months. I’ll post separately about what I read the past few months. On to what I’m reading next!

The Classics Club is doing another “spin,” which is basically where you make a list of books you’re thinking about reading next from your list, number them, and they choose a number. That chooses the next book for you. As I’m being indecisive about what classic to pick next, this is perfect. Here’s my list:

  1. Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  2. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
  3. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
  4. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carre
  5. Many Waters, by Madeline L’Engle
  6. An Acceptable Time, by Madeline L’Engle
  7. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers
  8. Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope
  9. Richard II, by William Shakespeare
  10. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
  11. Emma, by Jane Austen
  12. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
  13. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
  14. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carre
  15. Many Waters, by Madeline L’Engle
  16. An Acceptable Time, by Madeline L’Engle
  17. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers
  18. Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope
  19. Richard II, by William Shakespeare
  20. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Yes, I know I listed most of these twice. I have enough books on my classics list to fill the slots, but I’m not ready to dive into a Russian classic just yet (it’s not cold enough!), so this is my list. There are some perks to being an adult and making up some of my own rules….

Update: I’ll be reading #18, Barchester Towers, next. I’m trying to decide if I want to read the physical book or listen to an audiobook version. To be determined (advice welcome)!

The Woman in White

I read this for my 50 Classics project and also for the Genre Classic in the “Back to the Classics” challenge.

It’s supposed to be one of the first “mystery” novels. It’s kind of like Charles Dickens writing a mystery–there’s a lot of ramp up as it slowly builds the picture of what’s going on.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but it was definitely slow moving, especially at first. The novel is written from several first-person perspectives, but the primary protagonist is Walter Hartright, an artist and drawing master who becomes connected with the Fairlie family when he’s employed to teach drawing to two half-sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe.

Marian is described as dark haired and eyed and “man-like” in her firm mind and stout heart (also, Collins tells us, she doesn’t wear corsets). Laura, meanwhile, has light hair and eyes and is much more emotionally and physically frail. One assumes she does wear corsets. Obviously, this being a 19th century work, Walter falls for Laura…cue eyeroll. But alas! Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde (what a name!) and Walter quits his job and goes abroad to forget her.

Most of the book centers around Sir Percival’s nefarious plot to get Laura’s money, which he’s limited in drawing from because of a well-written Trust (competent estate planning for the win!). Laura soon discovers her husband and his Italian friend, Count Fosco, are after her money, and the reader begins to fear for her safety.

I don’t want to spoil everything, but there are two lookalike women, the fortune-hunting unscrupulous spouse, a shady foreigner, a mysterious death, and a cranky invalid uncle who is too ill to deal with your bullying ways…fetch my smelling salts!

Things did pick up at the end, and while a good editor might have improved the pacing, it wasn’t bad for an early mystery. Just don’t expect a Holmes-style sleuth–the genre had not yet advanced to that stage, and if you have time and want to settle in, this is an enjoyable read.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’m counting this both for my 50 Classics project and for the Back to the Classics challenge it’s an “Abandoned Classic” because I started it about 10 years ago, put it down, and never returned (until now).

Dorian Gray is a very attractive young man who is rather vain and selfish, but his money and good looks gain him entry into London society. He’s easily influenced by a friend, Sir Henry Wotton, who espouses complete hedonism (and only partially follows through as he prefers listening to himself speak than taking action).

Basil Hallward, an artist, paints a stunning portrait of his muse, Dorian, and Dorian is sad that he will age while his portrait remains ageless…. He wishes he could exchange places and the portrait age while he remains youthful and *boom* wish granted.

This book is billed as a classic, and I have never seen it on the sci fi/ fantasy shelf, but it could be shelved there. While it’s rooted in the daily life of a handsome rich man, it’s about a man who doesn’t age because his portrait does instead! While his friends do comment on his “maintaining his looks” you’d think they would notice that he still looks 20 when he’s really 38? But perhaps in an age before selfies it wasn’t as obvious. And maybe they just assumed he spent a lot of his money on beauty treatments.

Dorian uses his agelessness as license to do whatever he wants. He can be dramatic and occasionally he thinks about making good choices, but ultimately he doesn’t have the grit to follow through on anything that doesn’t yield immediate gratification. “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” says Sir Henry, and Dorian takes that to heart.

The book explores how people judge based on money and beauty, and the fruits of selfishness. This was particularly interesting to read right after A Gentleman in Moscow, which is about connection and the way we can influence each other for good. Dorian Gray shows how the opposite approach leads to isolation and destruction.

★ ★ ★ ★