Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Review: Beowulf on the Beach (with Middlemarch)

Title: Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Greatest Hits
Author: Jack Murnighan
Genre: Non-fiction (Literary Criticism and/or Review)
Rating: A-

Summary: Dr. Smarty Pants (aka, the down-to-earth Jack Murnighan) gives you a low-down on 50 of the world's greatest books. He tells you what's sexy, what's skip-able, and why this book will rock your world if you'll just give it a chance. He aims to bring the lofty and esoteric of literature down to the huddled masses of the world so we can enjoy it too.

First Line: "What, you weren't planning on packing Beowulf with your flip-flops and sunscreen? How about Ulysses, Don Quixote, or The Illiad? But you still feel bad about not reading them, right?" (p. 1, Intro).

Review: I do admit that I have a fondness (and maybe a little bit of a crush) on this author. I mean it, let's get real, what guy was born a Hoosier, has a PhD in Medieval Literature from Duke, has read the Bible of his own free will (more than once), and writes insanely interesting and sexy articles for I'm pretty sure you can't find that combination anywhere else on that planet. (Plus, the guy's an involved donor-dad and not bad looking to boot. Too much.)

But lest you think I gave this guy an above-average grade just because I've got the hots for him, let me clarify: this book is really, really good. (I'm a genius, right?)

Here's why this book is good: it does what it's supposed to do. Accomplishing your objectives goes pretty far in my opinion. Did I agree with everything he said? No way. Do I think at times his irreverence can go a bit far? Sure. Does that make this a bad book? Not too much.

Here's how I approached this book (which I don't think should be read as a cover-to-cover read... let it be your guide):
1. I started out by reading the intro (which is generally a good place to start); this let me get a feel for his style, his writing, and his take on literary things in general. Up to this point, I was with him.
2. Next, I checked out a couple of chapters on books I'd previously read (including, but not limited to, Pride and Prejudice, Beloved, and The Bible--Old and New Testaments--all of which are books that I have loved reading at one time or another); this gave me a frame of reference for his views on literature a little more specifically as I compared and contrasted with my perspective on things.
3. Finally, I read a couple of chapters on books I had wanted (but been reticent) to read (Don Quixote, Wuthering Heights, Paradise Lost, and Middlemarch) and decided to test his opinions in real time.

I picked up a mega-used copy of Middlemarch at my local 1/2-Price Books retailer and set about to read it in a matter of months over the summer. I was persuaded to participate in this little experiment because of the associated B on the B Summer Reading Challenge hosted at Books on the Nightstand (because the idea of challenges with no rewards gets me excited).

Let me say this: I believe with fervent conviction that, had I not read the Middlemarch primer in Beowulf on the Beach, I would have had a ridiculously hard time enjoying this book. But, since I did pre-read the B on the B cheat sheet, I loved (loved, loved, loved) this book. This is earning a spot on my all-time-faves list. Beyond my heart-felt adoration of Ms. George Eliot (for publishing a "woman's book" in a man's world), this book knocked my socks (and shoes) off. I didn't start out loving Dorthea (and the idea that she was going to be a primary protagonist made me put the book down for about a month), but by the end she was gorgeous. She didn't change significantly; rather, the situation around her became more accomodating to her personality and I began to see that her beauty was really beauty and not posturing.

And speaking of personalities, there was plenty to go around. I did put this book down for a month, but when I came back (because the lure of no reward at the end of the challenge pushed me to do it), I picked right back up and the characters were all still vivid. The way that Eliot populated an entire city, letting you peek at the high and the low, was phenomenal. I think that my favorite character was probably Farebrother--his sacrifice for the youthful (and enduring) love of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth actually brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat.

But getting back to Murnighan and B on the B, I didn't give my current-author-crush a perfect grade because I didn't think he was perfect. In the example of Middlemarch, I think his assessment of Mr. Casaubon was off (he was being a little too 21st-Century American in his critique, I think). In the example of The Bible, I think his assessment of the book (in general) was off. Sure, The Bible is a piece of literature, but it's also a sacred text, and he didn't treat it as such (the snark got to be a bit much and dumbed down the actual review of the texts, in my opinion).

Now, I'm not so naive as to assume that everyone who comes from Indiana is a Christian of some stripe, but to be more balanced, I'd like to have seen him review texts from other faiths, just to see if his cynacism is directed specifically at Judaisim and Christianity, or if it's more generally applied to all religions. I'm sure that neither The Book of Mormon nor The Qur'an has risen to the level of The Bible (in terms of generally-accepted literary opinion and/or general readership), but his slights of The Bible were something that made me wonder (and put a grain of salt in how blindly I accepted his opinions on other books). And lest you think I'm just a religious nut, check out this quote as evidence that I'm not alone in this opinion.
"Many of Murnighan’s conclusions are off-base (see, for instance, his chapter on Balzac’s Père Goriot). But as with the collected writings of Pauline Kael, disagreeing with the critic can be more fun than turning to the work itself."
--Very Short List (June 1, 2009)
Recommendations: If B on the B seems like something you'd like, check out other great books that help reading the classics become more fun, such as How to Read Literature Like a Professor and 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.


Ann Kingman said...

What a fantastic review! I'm now toying with the idea of reading Middlemarch. I may have started it at one point, but if I did, I have forgotten everything about it.


jackmurnighan said...

a fantastic review indeed. thanks for taking my book seriously and putting up w/ my excesses. and sorry about the cheekiness of the bible chapters; i was trying to give non-Christians another way of looking at the texts so they might actually read them. had i been preaching to the converted, i would have only emphasized the glorious parts. best wishes, jack