24. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Year Published: 1919
Pages: 303
First Sentence: The writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed.
Rating: 1/3 (don’t bother)

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson | Two Hectobooks

I hardly know where to begin. I suppose we should start with the fact that Winesburg, Ohio is not a novel. It's not like Finnegans Wake, which is the only other book on The List that I've made this accusation against. Winesburg, Ohio is in fact not a novel because it is a collection of short stories, aka "A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life," which is the subtitle. I don't know how to review a short story collection in the format I usually use, so strap in for a bunch of rambling.

Let's kill time with a list of the stories, I guess? I will append some thoughts that I noted as a I finished reading each of them.
  • "The Book of the Grotesque"
    (I didn't make any notes about this. It acts as a sort of introduction, in which an elderly writer pictures his "grotesques," and we're given to understand that the following stories are the resulting illustrations of those grotesques.)
  • "Hands"
    Wing Biddlebaum, falsely or perhaps not falsely accused of molesting his former students, certainly betrayed by his hands and now hiding out in Winesburg.
  • "Paper Pills"
    Uhhhhh strange doctor marries vulnerable young girl, keeps slips of paper with thoughts written on them in his pockets until they disintegrate (not really sure about this story).
  • "Mother"
    Elizabeth Willard decides to kill her husband for trying to tell their son what to do with his life then doesn't (???).
  • "The Philosopher"
    Dr Parcival, who seems to be independently wealthy but lives like a slob, tells George Willard a story or two from his past.
  • "Nobody Knows"
    George Willard leaves work at the newspaper and sneaks to Louise Trunnion's house. This in response to a letter she sends saying, "I'm yours if you want me." They presumably have sex and because he sees her as beneath him, he reassures himself that nobody knows what has happened.
  • "Godliness"
    We begin by hearing about Jesse Bentley, owner of a farm, driven, who inherits it when all his brothers die in the Civil War. In the second section, Jesse's grandson David goes to live with him. Jesse's daughter is abusive and David brings life to the household. Jesse is still a religious fanatic.
  • "Surrender"
    Contrasts Louise (Jesse's daughter)'s desire to have a daughter with her father's desire to have a son. The harms of a lack of love (she is searching for affection and is destroyed by it). Louise's story about being sent into town to live with a different family, not fitting in, seducing the son, and then having an unnecessary shotgun wedding and finally a son.
  • "Terror"
    The story of how Jessie's religious fanaticism drives his grandson away, I guess? Didn't like this much.
  • "A Man of Ideas"
    Joe Welling talks a lot, talks so much he disarms the frightening father and brother of the woman he's courting.
  • "Adventure"
    Oof, this hits a bit too close to home. A story about Alice, who loves a man when she's young. He moves to the city and abandons her, and then she ends up alone. One wonders what all the title symbolizes.
  • "Respectability"
    Do I have any idea what's going on here either? No. The telegraph operator hates work because in his past, his wife cheated on him and then her mother pulled a crazy stunt. The ending is quite ambiguous.
  • "The Thinker"
    Seth Richmond is a young man with a lot of thoughts who struggles to articulate or take action on any of them. I think.
  • "Tandy"
    Again, I don't get it. There's good stuff with the father who's so obsessed with agnosticism and the young drunk who can't find the woman he's supposed to love, but I don't get it.
  • "The Strength of God"
    The Presbyterian reverend goes through a struggle with lust over a woman's body... Don't get it.
  • "The Teacher"
    Maybe a story about the loneliness of being a spinster with a lot of potential? I don't know.
  • "Loneliness"
    The impossibility of human connection.
  • "An Awakening"
  • "'Queer'"
    A story that might be about a young man's struggle and inability to overcome his bizarre parents or alternately, his struggle and inability to overcome his affection for George Willard. The quotation marks around "Queer" are definitely significant.
  • "The Untold Lie"
    The grass is always greener or some shit.
  • "Drink"
    Tom foster gets v. drunk and I read this while very sleepy, so no clue beyond that.
  • "Death"
    About the folly of living for death instead of for life.
  • "Sophistication"
    There's some really good stuff in this one but again it lacks the beginning/middle/end of a story? I do like the reflections here of small town life and of being enveloped by familiar faces and places, for better or worse.
  • "Departure"
    Great last line, whatever else I may say.

Ok, now I'm going to try a bit harder.

So the unifying factor between all of these stories is that they're about the people in a small fictional town called Winesburg, Ohio, and also there's a young man named George Willard who tends to pop in and out of the various stories. George works for the local paper.

Before I tell you how frustrated I was by the whole operation, I will say that Sherwood Anderson has a gift for getting to the heart of things every now and then. I had to read this as an ebook because I couldn't get it from the library fast enough, and I found myself highlighting quite a few passages (some of which are copied below as usual). Generally what he gets to the heart of is hypocrisy, and how people deceive themselves. So I appreciated that.

What I didn't appreciate was the format of his stories, which often seem to begin and end at random. I did like a few better than others, but I can't really say which ones those were because thanks to the plotlessness of them all, there's not much to remember about them. In my notes above you can perhaps tell that around halfway through the book I got worn down trying to figure out what was going on in each story and just gave up. Analysis of all of these stories that I didn't enjoy reading in the first place is above my pay grade.

If you're interested in reading some pretty good character studies of random people in a small town a hundred years ago, this is a book you might enjoy. I have a hard time with short stories anyway, so I bounced right off of this. I'm amazed at how high up on The List it is. Main Street was way better.

- - - - -
It seemed to the boy that the man had but one object in view, to make everyone seem despicable. "I want to fill you with hatred and contempt so that you will be a superior being," he declared.
- - - - -
For a year she worked every day from sunrise until late at night and then after giving birth to a child she died.
- - - - -
Like a thousand other strong men who have come into the world here in America in these later times, Jesse was but half strong. He could master others but he could not master himself.
- - - - -
Her father gave her but little attention and her mother was dead. The father spent his time talking and thinking of religion. He proclaimed himself an agnostic and was so absorbed in destroying the ideas of God that had crept into the minds of his neighbors that he never saw God manifesting himself in the little child that, half forgotten, lived here and there on the bounty of her dead mother's relatives.
- - - - -

NB: This book is one of the entries on my Classics Club list! -M.R.

Third Annual Personal Top 100 Update

It's not possible to convey how hard it is to maintain and update this list. It's complete nonsense. There are books that are down at the bottom of this list that have aspects that I like better than some of the books at the top. There are books at the top purely for nostalgic reasons, because of how much they meant to me when I was very young. There are books that are no longer on this list that I love very dearly. And then there's the problem of ranking all of the books I read last year, which starts off easily enough with the first five or so and then just devolves into me sliding books into place as best I can. Even though I try to avoid it, I sometimes rank the famous stuff higher just because I feel like I should. Ranking books is silly.

So, here's my third annual update of my personal Top 100 list. Of course it's harder to update every year, because it's an ever-smaller percentage of all of the books I've read in my life.

I'm also introducing a few innovations this year, the second of which is only going to make my life harder.

First off, I'm taking The Little Mermaid off of the list. I still love it, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure what gave me the idea that it was a book and not a story.

Second, I'm going to quit listing entire series as single entries. I've decided to do this because of the weaker entries of series that I enjoy that appear on this list but don't belong. I'm thinking of Jo's Boys which is nowhere near as good as Little Women or Little Men, as well as Titus Alone, a book that I forsake completely but has previously been on this list simply because of the two books that precede it in the Gormenghast trilogy. Because, as I've said before, making this list is so difficult, this is not an entirely retroactive change. It'll only show up for what I read in 2018 and 2019. For the other series, I'll just have to reread them to get a proper update I suppose. The Discworld series will be tricky to deal with for a while, certainly.

I have to confess, there was some awkwardness to deal with. Yet again, a bunch of books got hung up on the Earth's Children series entry, and that really shouldn't be happening. There was also the matter of encountering 1984 around the middle of my existing Top 100 list and not being sure whether I wanted to kick it off completely or not. (I did, and that led to me reevaluating basically everything I read last year that fell below The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. I have to be more careful about adding books just because I read them recently.) On the other hand, I knew that Bastard Out of Carolina was going to be in the top 10, it was just really hard to figure out where exactly to put it.

Fortunately for me, the penalty for getting all of this wrong is extremely low. There's room in my heart to love more than 100 books, anyway.

The books I read last year are in bold in the list below.

My Personal Top 100

  1. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
  2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
  3. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger
  4. Bastard Out of Carolina - Dorothy Allison
  5. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
  6. The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson
  7. Silence - Shusaku Endo
  8. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
  9. Little Men - Louisa May Alcott
  10. The Long Walk - Richard Bachman
  11. As for Me and My House - Sinclair Ross
  12. Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  13. The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
  14. His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
    • The Golden Compass
    • The Subtle Knife
    • The Amber Spyglass
  15. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  16. The House on the Strand - Daphne du Maurier
  17. The Last Unicorn - Peter S. Beagle
  18. Bird Box - Josh Malerman
  19. Fall on Your Knees - Ann-Marie MacDonald
  20. Peter Pan - J. M. Barrie
  21. A Room with a View - E. M. Forster
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë
  23. One Hand Clapping - Anthony Burgess
  24. Of Human Bondage - W. Somerset Maugham
  25. Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
  26. The Alice books - Lewis Carroll
    • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
    • Through the Looking Glass
  27. Watership Down - Richard Adams
  28. The Anne books - Lucy Maud Montgomery
    • Anne of Green Gables
    • Anne of Avonlea
    • Anne of the Island
    • Anne of Windy Poplars
    • Anne’s House of Dreams
    • Anne of Ingleside
    • Rainbow Valley
    • Rilla of Ingleside
  29. The Harry Potter series - J. K. Rowling
    • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
    • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
    • Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban
    • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
    • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
    • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
    • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
  30. Where Nests the Water Hen - Gabrielle Roy
  31. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
  32. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
  33. The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
  34. The Old Wives' Tale - Arnold Bennett
  35. House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski
  36. The Wings of the Dove - Henry James
  37. Sister Carrie - Theodore Dreiser
  38. A Handful of Dust - Evelyn Waugh
  39. Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake
  40. Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake
  41. The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford
  42. Mythago Wood - Robert Holdstock
  43. A Journal of the Plague Year - Daniel Defoe
  44. Appointment in Samarra - John O'Hara
  45. It - Stephen King
  46. I, Claudius - Robert Graves
  47. The Earth's Children series - Jean M. Auel
    • The Clan of the Cave Bear
    • The Valley of Horses
    • The Mammoth Hunters
    • The Plains of Passage
    • The Shelters of Stone
    • The Land of Painted Caves
  48. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - Judy Blume
  49. Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner
  50. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
  51. Native Son - Richard Wright
  52. Jo's Boys - Louisa May Alcott
  53. The Running Man - Richard Bachman
  54. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
  55. The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain
  56. The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect - Roger Williams
  57. Jamaica Inn - Daphne du Maurier
  58. Persuasion - Jane Austen
  59. Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  60. The Stone Angel - Margaret Laurence
  61. A Passage to India - E. M. Forster
  62. The Foundation series - Isaac Asimov
    • Prelude to Foundation
    • Foundation
    • Foundation and Empire
    • Second Foundation
  63. The Orenda - Joseph Boyden
  64. The Discworld series - Terry Pratchett
  65. My Ántonia - Willa Cather
  66. Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather
  67. Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
  68. Double Indemnity - James M. Cain
  69. The Cat Who Went to Heaven - Elizabeth Coatsworth
  70. Black Beauty - Anna Sewell
  71. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
  72. Plowing the Dark - Richard Powers
  73. Calculating God - Robert J. Sawyer
  74. Summer Sisters - Judy Blume
  75. Kane and Abel - Jeffrey Archer
  76. Post Captain - Patrick O'Brian
  77. Master and Commander - Patrick O'Brian
  78. Nightfall - Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
  79. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams
  80. The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
  81. His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik
  82. The Red Tent - Anita Diamant
  83. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
  84. Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood
  85. The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood
  86. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  87. The Crimson Petal and the White - Michel Faber
  88. The Dream Where the Losers Go - Beth Goobie
  89. A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes
  90. Howards End - E. M. Forster
  91. Main Street - Sinclair Lewis
  92. The Dark Tower series - Stephen King
    • The Gunslinger
    • The Drawing of the Three
    • The Waste Lands
    • Wizard and Glass
    • The Wind Through the Keyhole
    • Wolves of the Calla
    • Song of Susannah
    • The Dark Tower
  93. Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  94. The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
  95. East of Eden - John Steinbeck
  96. The Call of the Wild - Jack London
  97. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco
  98. A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway
  99. The Emily books - Lucy Maud Montgomery
    • Emily of New Moon
    • Emily Climbs
    • Emily’s Quest
  100. The Once and Future King - T. H. White
- - - - -

Five Years Ago This Month: January 2015

Five years ago this month...

...I completed the 12hppofxmas. Those early seasons of Grey's Anatomy were a real killer to my reading productivity.

...I listed the books I read in 2014. I read a lot of good stuff, but unfortunately not enough books from The List.

...I started reading Les Misérables. This was a terrible idea I had for a series on the blog called "la lecture en français" which unsurprisingly has still only one entry so far. Reading Les Misérables while also trying to finish this project made sense in early 2015 when I was still travelling weekly between places for work and had tons of reading time as a consequence. Eventually I counted the chapters of Les Misérables and realized that there are 365 of them, though, meaning that if I ever get to reading this book in French after all, it will be a project in itself. Maybe I'll blog about it, maybe I won't.

...I was distracted. The shelving I mentioned in this post is still in my living room and probably one of my favourite features of my house.

An adorable ice sculpture of two fish who are apparently in love.