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The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent…

The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from…

by Sandra Newman

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I adore this book. If you are considering getting an English Lit degree, why not just memorize this instead? You'll save time, you'll laugh more, and you'll still be able to chat knowingly about Restoration Drama when it comes up (as it does). Oh, did I mention you'll laugh? You will. A lot. I sometimes strongly disagree with Newman—and you probably will too—but (as should be clear from my blog) I prefer literary criticism with personality rather than some riculous pretense of objectivity. I really can't recommend this book highly enough, to those who are interested in this sort of thing.


The other Jamesian keynote is the convoluted sentence. These sentences are a sort of literary Great Wall: while other, similar, structures exist, none are quite so long with so little apparent reason. (In fact, some sentences in The Golden Bowl can be seen from space.) Multiple feelings and perceptions are layered in each of them, in a syntax that seems to flow in every direction but forward. To give you an idea, here's one from The Ambassadors: "Nothing could have been odder than Strether's sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then." You will never catch Henry James writing "The dog barked." It will always be: "Had the dog not been, from the moment at which she entered the room in the perplexed flush of expectation in which she had been left by the hints of Mr. Westcott, barking..."

This review originally appeared on my blog, This Space Intentionally Left Blank. ( )
1 vote emepps | Jan 23, 2015 |
"This book treats Western lit like an amusement park. It offers a guide to the rides, suggesting which ones are fun for all ages, which are impossibly dull for all ages, and which might take a lot out of you but offer an experience you simply can't get anywhere else."

Sandra Newman, the author of The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics from Homer to Faulkner, is a very smart woman who is awesomely well-read. She also has a wonderfully snarky sense of humor. I loved this book. I read it in bits and pieces, over nearly a year's time, as it's jam-packed with short fun takes on the classics and the not-so-classics. If you worry about plot spoilers, it might not be for you, as she often gives a brief high level summary, but for many if not most of the ones you haven't read you probably know the plot anyway. A Christmas Carol, anyone?

I'll give you a few examples that had me laughing. (She has so many, this will only whet your appetite). Remember reading Aristophanes? Her explanation of his "comedy": "Aristophanes (446-386 B.C.) is a deadly cocktail of bawdiness, toilet humor, political satire, and men being hit with sticks. In his plays, what all of these have in common is that they're not funny. While Aristophanes can be surprisingly contemporary and clever, it is always in a way that adroitly avoids humor. (Some people claim to find Aristophanes funny. Best to avoid these people. Whatever they may claim, they are probably actors involved in a production of Aristophanes)." Yes! If only a teacher had told me that, reading Aristophanes would've been so much more tolerable.

She gives tips, too. Remarking on the many writers "from John Milton to James Joyce" who liked to quote Latin freely, "a quick fix is to treat all Latin quotes as meaning that Catholic girls are easy. They don't, but it may cheer you through the dryer passages of Paradise Lost.". She has great chapter titles. "Here Come the Puritans: Parade, Meet Rain." She's insightful: "If Wordsworth was the Paul McCartney of the Romantics, and Shelley the John Lennon, Blake would be the homeless guy on the corner screaming nonsense about lizard people." But she loves Blake, and goes on to extol the virtues of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "It's funny, beautiful, and incidentally wildly pro-sex. In fact, it's so dogmatically pro-sex, it makes you feel guilty for not being more promiscuous. Before you know it, you're back in the hot tub with your brother-in-law and a bottle of Tangueray."

She has a 1-10 rating system based on Importance, Accessibility and Fun that you can enjoy quibbling with. The one that stuck out for me was her ratings of Charles Dickens' novels are too low. There's at least one LTer named Richard who will be delighted by that. She has zingers for authors you may like, and for ones that to me are soppy, like D.H. Lawrence: "Lawrence should really have hired a guy to whip him with a cat-o-nine tails and gotten it out of his system." She is sweet on some others like Flaubert, causing me to consider them in a new light. She provides many nuggets I was unaware of - the wonderful Dead Souls "was one of many books intended to mirror The Divine Comedy"? She echoes some of my own feelings more eloquently, e.g., in discussing Henry James's convoluted sentences: "In fact, some sentences in The Golden Bowl can be seen from space". Plus she makes me want to read ones I'd never seriously considered. Despite "its status as a gender-bending classic, Orlando is much better than its hype. Written for Vita Sackville-West, briefly Woolf's lover, it tells the story of a young man born in Renaissance England; he lives for hundreds of years, in the course of which he unexpectedly transforms into a young woman. While the gender stuff is definitely there, there's also magic realism, postmodernist jokes about the fact that this story is being told, and all the pleasures of a historical novel. It is pure joy."

Finally, she enthusiastically reminds us that some books assigned us in high school really are great, like The Great Gatsby. "Exquisitely written, thoughtful and romantic, it is a profiterole of a novel, gorgeous to look at and filled with delicious whipped cream."

Her concluding materials include a helpful "Great Moments in the History of Western Literature" timeline with entries like "AD 1-900s: Roman Empire Turns into an Embarrassing Clusterf**k", which then refers us to St. Augustine.

What an amazing book. I'd be thrilled just to have read all the books she has - all of Proust? Are you kidding me? Then to write so humorously,, knowledgeably and shrewdly about them, well, I feel I owe her a great debt. If we're ever in the same bar, drinks are on me, and I hope I can say something intelligent enough to get her going on literature since Faulkner. ( )
20 vote jnwelch | Oct 9, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Remember all those dry-as-dust lectures about Western Lit. and all that boring poetry you had to read? This fast and sassy book is the perfect antidote for that stuffy teacher/professor who is still spoiling your reading.

Author Sandra Newman takes us on a seemingly casual but very perceptive tour of "the Western Canon", never fearing to call a work boring if it is.

Among other delights is an accurate and yet completely iconoclastic discussion of Milton, with special emphasis on "Paradise Lost"; a short, scathing review of Restoration Drama; and an even-handed assessment of Tennyson, the "most uncool" poet.

Newman also compares "Pamela" to "Green Eggs and Ham" with hilarious results, and explains how the 18th-century novel is, in fact, Post Modern in all but name.

Make no mistake: this is not one of those "for Dummies" books. It's much more sophisticated and much funnier. Only the sourest, joy-killing pedant wouldn't like it. Get yourself a copy and enjoy and entirely fresh and fun look at Western Lit. ( )
1 vote bohemima | Jun 5, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is fantastic! I read the whole thing straight through, laughed, smiled and took note on which classics that I wanted to read and which ones I never need to open. Her style is out of this world funny and knowledgeable. Ah, we need to let high school students have a look in this book! Loved it! ( )
1 vote klockrike | Feb 29, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Have you ever read a book that made you feel smart and dumb at the same time? Well, The Western Lit Survival Kit made me feel this way. However when I say the book made me feel dumb I do not mean that the author made me feel this way. No the book got me excited about literature. The author’s vast knowledge of literature can be a little intimidating though.
So many times before I’ve picked up a “classic” and thought it would be too intellectual or over my head. The author, Sandra Newman, breaks these books down and shows you what is worth your time and what you shouldn’t bother with. Her book is a history of literature but also comes with little histories about the authors. She shows you their “human” sides making them more approachable. Also she is hilarious! I laughed outloud throughout the entire book. I am glad I own and read this book. I will continue to use it as a reference when I get a craving to read a classic. ( )
  book_in_hand | Feb 27, 2012 |
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Presents a guide to the classics of western literature, citing popular culture, information on literary hoaxes, and bad reviews to foster appreciation for the great works of the past.

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