Tag: reviews

A quick reminder: Don’t forget to sign up for the “Drunk At First Sight” Blogfest–a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy’s Day! Get all the details here.

Now, down to business.  Any long time follower of this blog may recall I posted a web article I read discussing “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles back in January.  Subsequently, I purchased the book, read it, and today I am going to review it.

When I first sat down to write this review, my draft narrative drifted all over the place (I mean more “all over the place” than normal!).  I was trying to review the book and answer the issues raised in Metcalf’s article simultaneously, with little success.  After wrestling with it for awhile, I realized I had two posts on my hands: a review and a discussion.  Therefore, I’m going to give you a straight review of the book in this post and publish a second post at a later date discussing the provocative issues Metcalf raised in his piece.

“A Separate Peace” tells the story of Gene and Phineas, two fast friends who attend a New England prep school called Devon, reportedly modeled after Phillips-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  Gene is the best student in the class, Phineas the best athlete, and the story relates the fierce rivalry between the two boys, set against the backdrop of a country mobilizing for World War II.  The separate peace of the title refers in part to a brief period of calm during the summer session–when it seems almost as if there isn’t really a war, and Gene and Finny and their chums won’t soon be enlisting and shipping off to distant places like Guadalcanal.  The title also refers to the primary conflict between Gene and Finny, and how that is finally settled.

The key incident in the story comes when the two boys are high on a tree limb overhanging the Devon river.  Inexplicably, Gene jounces the limb, and Finny’s superlative athleticism does not save him from a nasty fall.  He lands too near to shore and is seriously injured.  Gene is confused and shocked, and much of the rest of the novel centers around whether Gene knocked Finny off intentionally (it is never made clear–and the subject of Gene’s intentions has been the subject of many a High School English class) and what reparations Gene should make as payment for this awful act.

When I read this story as a teenager, I remember being stung by it’s vibrancy, devouring the pages in short order because they spoke to me so clearly.  Much time has passed since then, and before picking it up this time, I wondered if Gene and Finny’s struggle would still be real to me, whether I might have lost the understanding I brought as a teenager, so close in time and action to the age of the main characters, in the intervening years.  Perhaps I wouldn’t like it at all, and the fact that I had mentioned it over the years as one of my favorites had in fact, with the passage of time, grown into an inadvertent untruth.

Happily, Knowles’ novel did not disappoint me.  Gene and Finny’s story is still as real to me as it was back then, and the problems that face these two boys are, I am now convinced, timeless.  Rivalry.  Insecurities.  Friendship.  Wonderment as yet unsullied by how the world really works.

Knowles’ does an amazing job balancing many of the stories threads, and deftly handles scenes of great drama that would feel tinny and overdone in the hands of a lesser talent.  I found the imagery remarkable in its clarity; the scenes practically pop off the page, written in prose powerful enough to put you indisputably in the moment, almost like poetry, like in this scene after Phineas is injured and Gene returns again to the river:

“As I had to do whenever I glimpsed the river, I thought of Phineas.  Not of the tree and pain, but of one of his favorite tricks.  Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations, each muscle aligned in perfection with all the others to maintain this supreme fantasy of achievement, his skin glowing from immersions, his whole body hanging between river and sky as though he had transcended gravity and might by gently pushing upward with his foot glide a little way higher and remain suspended in space, encompassing all the glory of the summer and offering it to the sky.”

Some will argue that Knowles’ tends to overdo it from time to time.  I would argue that it is our tastes which have changed, not the brightness of Knowles’ language.  In an age when novels are expected to be off and running in the first three pages, it is no surprise that it bothers the occasional modern reader that Knowles’ stops and savors the moment from time to time.  My own feeling is that, even considered the rigid criteria of the modern commercial novel, “A Separate Peace” still holds its own.  There was never a moment where I felt the action dragged, or saw a scene I felt should have been cut.

In fact, not only is this a remarkable book, but it is astounding that it has stood the test of time as well as it has.  Despite having written it in 1959, John Knowles’ could almost have published it last year, with the Iraq War as the backdrop instead of World War II.  The themes and images of “A Separate Peace “could be transplanted from 1959 to 2009, with young men readying themselves for war, measuring themselves against each other, puzzling over how to leave friends and family to go abroad, to fight, to dare to hope for a safe return home, to wonder at the end of it all what sins have been committed and what price has been paid.

These questions troubled me as a teenager–for fear that I should one day have to face them–and they are questions that trouble me now as I return home from Iraq.  That Knowles’ could have distilled these truths so purely so many years ago shows both his clear literary talent and his unflinchingly prescient view of human nature.  His every page speaks to us effortlessly across the years, and will continue to communicate it’s wisdom to readers for years to come, I have no doubt.

So I highly recommend “A Separate Peace”–one of the finest examples of American writing I’ve read in quite some time.

Have you read “A Separate Peace”?  What was your impression of it?  Are there other classic books which you’ve recently reread that you loved/hated?

**[Author’s note:  If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home.  In other words, I am off the grid.  As soon as I am able, I’ll make the full go ’round and respond to comments and check out any new followers.  As always, thanks so very kindly for stopping by, and I’ll see you all in a few days.]**

Hubert Selby’s “Requiem for a Dream” is the story of four people–three young and one old–and what happens when they get trapped in their addictions. Harry and Tyrone, occasional heroin users, decide that they need to keep their nose clean, “off a pound of pure,” make a big score and retire–and Harry and his girlfriend Marion dream about using their windfall profits to open a coffee house. At the same time, Harry’s mom Sara gets a phone call telling her she’s to be a contestant on a game show.  Wanting to fit into the red dress she wore to Harry’s barmitzvah, she goes to the doctor for diet pills.
As the novel progresses, their worlds begin to unravel.  Tyrone, Harry and Marion can’t quite keep from “having a tase” of the product, and as summer turns to fall then freezing winter, their efforts to stay ahead of the ever present “sickness” become increasingly desperate.
 “At first Harry and Tyrone stayed on the fringes of the devastation, seeing the campfires in the hollowed buildings from a distance, but it became progressively necessary to go deeper and deeper into the desolation to fulfill their needs, the urgency of the need being the first concern of their lives.  At first their forays were tentative and timid, now they were cautious but assertive, realizing the necessity of getting to where the action was as rapidly as possible before it was just no mans land with empty bags, broken bottles, unconscious bodies and an occasional corpse.  Whatever chances they had to take they took automatically as their disease ordered and they obeyed, a small part of them wanting to try to resist, but that part was shoved so far down that it was no more than an ancient dream from a previous life.  Only the insatiable and insane need of the moment had any bearing on their lives, and it was that need that gave all the orders.”
Similarly, Sara isn’t happy with the slow pace of her weight loss.  She begins drinking pots of coffee and taking all her diet pills in the morning, then downers in the evening to sleep.  This odd behavior is accompanied increasingly by a ruthless obsession for being on TV–what gameshow will she be on?–and her downward slide begins as well.
Written in 1978, the novel stands the test of time.  Both the writing style and the content are still so dramatic and telling that Selby could have put the words down yesterday.  In particular, Selby’s stream-of-consciousness prose conveys the turmoil and desperation faced by the characters.  Though his writing style might be off-putting to purists who prefer the shape of conventional prose, readers patient enough to stick with it will see a rhythm of language start in the first chapter and carry through, and will ultimately understand the characters in a visceral way not achievable with conventional language.
What sets this book apart is the immediacy of the action.  This story is not told in civil tones or painted from afar in kind colors.  Rather this book is a slow-motion car accident, like one of those sickening over-exposed films shown to driver’s ed classes.  The reader knows from the first moment that someone is going to get hurt, maimed or killed, but they can’t stop reading.  Somehow, even understanding the collective fates of Tyrone, Harry, Marion and Sara, the text binds us up in their days and destruction, until we all reach an inevitable and disturbing end.
This novel was made into a film of the same name by Director Darren Aronofsky, in 2000, and I am a big fan of the film.  In fact, I was not aware until recently of the existence of Selby’s novel.  Typically, I am disappointed with books I read after having seen the film, but this book is an exception.  While the film follows the book rather closely, Selby’s attention to detail and clear voice allow the reader to look at the story in a new and enjoyable way.  I thought it was great read all the way through, and I highly recommend it.


I came across this article yesterday and I thought it was a good read: The Secret of a Separate Peace

If you don’t know, this John Knowles book is a staple of high-school freshman English classes in Texas and in the rest of the United States.

“A Separate Peace” affected me profoundly as a teenager probably because I finished it.  Were you to stumble across my copy in a used bookstore today (it has long since been lost to the sands of time), you’d discover underlined lines of dialogue and description, notes scribbled in the margins.  This was unusual.  When it came to class-assigned texts, reading all the way to the last page–and certainly being engaged enough to comment–was rare for me. 

At the time, my public school upbringing felt pedestrian and ordinary, a world away from the uppercrust, entitled student lives depicted in the novel.  To my teenage sensibility, school days lacked even a hint of glamour. By contrast, Gene and Finny appeared put together, bigger than life.  The story provided me an escape I think, and thus got to me somehow. 

The “separate peace” of the title refers to the military service the main characters face following graduation.  Sitting in Baghdad as I am now, the idea of war looks different to me (Not that I am really “at war.”  For the record, I make Powerpoint slides for Generals.  Not exactly Battle of the Bulge, action hero kinda stuff).  When I consider my current occupation and look back toward days spent in literature classes and drama workshops, a certain nostalgia floods in.  I wonder if I had it better than I thought.

I don’t necessarily agree with Metcalf’s comments on the homosexual undertones in the text.  The relationship between Gene and Finny, as I recall, revolved around an intense sibling-like rivalry, and the inexplicable but all too understandable guilt and disastrous consequences associated with that competitiveness–not the brand of affection Metcalf describes.  Time may have colored my appraisal on this point, or I may never have understood the text in the first place, but that is how I see it.  Nonetheless, having not read the book in twenty years and likely making these comments out of ignorance, I think it advisable to investigate further.

So yesterday, quick as lightning, I flashed over to Amazon and ordered a used copy of “A Separate Peace”, plus a copy of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” (long on my TBR list) for good measure.  No doubt, they are winging their way around the globe as we speak.  A report, in greater detail, will follow.

I only just now walked home from a viewing of “Amelia,” the new flick about Amelia Earhart starring Hilary Swank. 

Movie Link Here

For me, the film was very take it or leave it.  The script suffered from a lack of character development, a typical flaw of recent historical dramas and a phenomena I see cropping up more and more in recent Hollywood films.   

Though the acting generated some heat and the directing was acceptable, “Amelia” needed a heartbeat–a longing or desire or life’s dream (beyond the generic and formless “I really want to fly!”)–to make the story go.  Unfortunately, the writers (Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan) didn’t install one.

The truth is they don’t make ’em like they used to.  Anymore, we never see characters like George Bailey or Rose Sayer that walk, talk and sweat character.  Even our old friend William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame showed more promise than Amelia, trying to wing her way around the world.

So I grade the film average.  Worth a viewing if you have nothing else going.  That, class, concludes our movie review for today.  And I won’t give away the ending.  Promise.