Author Archives: jamesallenmaxey

First Monday Classics: Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier

On June 5, our First Monday Classic at the Orange County Public Library is Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier. Its credentials as a classic are pretty impressive. Published in 1938, the book has never been out of print, and remains popular with tens of millions of readers.

I don’t love every book we read for First Monday Classics. Some I respect, and understand why they deserve to be counted as a classic, but the passage of time and changing cultural values have made a once great book less enjoyable. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic, but the barely comprehensible dialect, the stereotypes it relies on for humor, and Twain’s inability to edit himself when it comes to shoe-horning Tom Sawyer into the book has turned the book into something of a slog for modern readers.

I don’t think anyone would describe Rebecca as a slog. De Maurier knows how to set up a hook, ending each chapter with just the right bit of information that will make you want to read a little further. Her writing style is sensual, full of colors, scents, and textures, vivid details that make her settings come alive. The book engages you on a physical level. At the same time, we are also taken into the imagination of the unnamed narrator. Many chapters are filled not with things that are happening, but with the narrator imagining things that will happen, both her hopes and her worries. While this robs the book of some immediacy, I appreciated the reflection that people really do spend so much time worrying about things that haven’t happened. Her daydreaming makes the character seem real.

That said, wow, I hated this book. This is the point of this essay I should probably label “Spoilers Ahead,” but, seriously, we’re talking about a book almost 80 years old. A book that endures that long doesn’t have to rely on hidden plot twists to stay relevant. My objections to the book are many.

First, the characters are thin to the point of parody. As the male protagonist, Maxim has zero traits that identify him other than the fact he’s rich, handsome, and brooding. The narrator marries him apparently without asking one single question about his past. We’re told he’s smart and kind, but I have difficulty pinning down a single moment where these traits are on display. The narrator, his new wife, is such a blank slate she’s not even given a name. We’re in her head constantly but we’re never shown any reason at all that Maxim might have fallen in love with her. She’s so young and naïve that his attraction for her seems to be that she’s young and naïve, which is creepy on his part and foolish on her part.

Second, the morality of this book is loathsome. The big plot twist is that Maxim killed his first wife, Rebecca, then sank her boat with her body inside in the bay. When the boat is eventually found, the narrator’s reaction to learning her husband is a murderer isn’t to fear for her own safety or to think about how to report him to the police, but to instantly and whole-heartedly conspire to make sure he goes unpunished for the crime. His motives for the murder? Rebecca was cheating on him, told him she was pregnant with another man’s child, and reminded him of how much gossip he’d have to endure if they divorced. Seriously, his choices were an ugly divorce or to murder a pregnant woman, and for some reason we’re asked to empathize that he went with murder.

Third, the utter passivity of these characters is frustrating. Maxim doesn’t get away with murder because he’s clever. He escapes mostly by luck. He shoots Rebecca, but luckily the bullet misses any bones, so when her body is discovered there’s no evidence of a bullet wound. There is a witness to him dragging Rebecca’s body onto the boat, but luckily it’s a deranged old man who is unable to explain what he saw. There’s a man with proof that Rebecca didn’t commit suicide, but luckily he’s intent on blackmail, which means he doesn’t use his information at the inquest where it actually could have mattered. At the end, it’s discovered well after the fact that Rebecca had cancer and likely manipulated Maxim into murdering her as a form of suicide, which seems to remove the last trace of his moral culpability. He didn’t really kill her by shooting her and hiding the body. It was suicide after all! The terrible moral logic is cringe inducing.

Finally, the most disturbing truth of all: Maxim gets away with the murder mostly because he’s rich and powerful. Law enforcement is deferential to him at every step. He escapes suspicion of murder as the evidence accumulates primarily because his high status makes him immune from any important person really thinking him capable of the murder. And if Maxim escapes justice by doing absolutely nothing, the book’s unnamed narrator does even less. Maybe it’s slipping my memory, but I don’t think the police even question her.

As I head to book club next week, I’m actually pretty excited by the possibility that other people will have loved this book. A lot of the best discussions come from books that illicit mixed reactions. Also, I’m always eager to hear from champions of a book that I’ve disliked, wanting to get their take on why so many readers might love a book I regard as deeply flawed. If you’ve read this book and have an opinion pro or con, feel free to join us next Monday at 6:30. It should be a fun discussion.


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First Monday Classics – The Stranger by Albert Camus

On May 1, First Monday Classics will be tackling The Stranger by Albert Camus. While researching the book, I saw multiple references to the fact that it’s often assigned reading in high school, which was surprising to me. I first read the book in my early twenties, after I’d graduated from college. I remember being shocked by the book’s blatant and unrepentant atheism. I’d grown up in the Bible belt. Perhaps this book was assigned reading elsewhere in high school, but it seemed to me to be the sort of book that would have wound up getting removed from the library if it had been assigned reading while I was attending school in Mississippi.


Note that I wasn’t shocked by the atheism itself. I’d been raised a fundamentalist, but in my teens I’d become an atheist, and a somewhat loud, militant, and obnoxious member of that tribe. Confronting others with the absence of God was one of my favorite hobbies. What shocked me was the nakedness of Camus’ treatment of the subject, the fact that someone had put so many of my thoughts and feelings onto paper twenty years before I’d been born. Reading the book in my early twenties, I felt tremendous empathy for Meursault, and felt a little less alone in the universe.

The irony of this reaction isn’t lost on me, since the whole argument of the book is that we are ultimately alone in the universe, and Meursault responds to this truth by shedding all traces of empathy. He kills a man and is incapable of feeling remorse. He’s not even able to understand his own motivations for the murder, defending the fact he fired five bullets into a man as simply a thing that happened because the sun had been shining too hot and bright. He has no logical explanation for his action, because he’s incapable of believing that things happen for a reason. Things happen as they happen, and to try to say that not killing the man was a better course of action than killing him is absurd to Meursault. He’s living in an uncaring universe where his death is certain, his victims death was certain, and the details of how a life plays out is ultimately meaningless because eternity will inevitably wash away all memory of our actions. Life is only a short absurdity, and the best we can hope for is to enjoy the few sensual pleasures available to us while we’re here.

When I was twenty three, Meursault’s feelings resonated with me. Yes, of course, life was pointless and absurd, but have what fun you can with it. Now that I’m fifty three, rereading the book proved uncomfortable. I find Meursault’s lack of empathy to be a devastating character flaw. He has the courage to accept the absence of God, but lacks the imagination to see that this doesn’t render life pointless. If we’re all trapped in a universe devoid of any higher meaning, it doesn’t follow that we must withdraw into ourselves and live like selfish, emotionless strangers. Quite the opposite. If there is no God to watch over us, then the full responsibility for the safety and happiness of our fellow man falls on our shoulders. The band Typhoon has a lyric in the song “Morton’s Fork” that sums up my feelings perfectly: We’re all alone in this together.

While I’ve lost respect for Meursault, I still have a great deal of respect for the Stranger. To qualify as a classic, a novel must struggle with a great theme. Camus faces a godless universe within these pages, and does so with skill and beauty. The writing is spare and precise, and despite the focus on the indifference of the universe, you can’t help but be moved by the wonder of small details like the way the sky changes color during the course of a day as Meursault watches from the tiny window of his prison cell. It’s a carefully crafted, thought provoking novel that still rewards the reader’s time and attention.


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First Monday Classics: The Grapes of Wrath

On the first Monday of each month at 6:30pm, I take part in the First Monday Classics Book Club at the Orange County Library in Hillsborough. April 3 will be the second anniversary for our group. We’ve covered a broad range of classics by authors such as Austen, Dostoevsky, Twain, and Cervantes, and now we’re getting ready to tackle one of the most acclaimed American novels, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath

In choosing to focus on classics, this book club inevitably runs into a problem of definition: What, exactly, constitutes a classic? One of the criteria I look at when proposing books for the group is that the novel has a timeless quality, that the topics under discussion are just as relevant today as they were at the time the book was written. The Grapes of Wrath is nearly 80 years old, but as I’m rereading it this time I keep being struck by the sense that the novel could have been written today as a commentary on current issues.

To begin with, the novel is about the consequences of man-made climate change. The dust bowl was partly caused by poor farming practices that turned once fertile soils into barren dust. The Joads and thousands of other families are forced from their land as their crops fail. But even if the dust bowl draught years had never come, the novel makes clear that the Joads’ way of life is doomed by another force: technological advance. With big combine harvesters, a single man can work hundreds of acres that once required the labor of dozens of men. Yet another force of social change that will seem relevant today is that distant banks run by people the Joads will never meet decide their fate. There’s no one local to blame, no one to personally appeal to for another chance. The faceless world of finance doesn’t judge you by your character or your needs, only by whether or not you can pay.

Once the Joads reach California, they become migrant farm workers, facing the problems that still bedevil migrant workers. Employers need to hire hundreds of able hands for a few weeks, but after that the workers must move on. As people without homes, they’re treated as potential criminals by the locals. And not without cause, as Tom Joad, Steinbeck’s primary protagonist, is a convicted murderer violating his parole by leaving his home state. I admire Steinbeck’s courage in choosing Tom as his vehicle for exploring these difficult themes. It would have been tempting to make the central character a saint. That this far more complex character still earns our sympathy shows the depth of Steinbeck’s skills.

Of course, it’s possible to appreciate this novel without once thinking about how the problems faced by the characters are echoed in the modern world. The language of this novel is powerful in its clarity and beauty. Steinbeck’s ability to create a scene, to make you dwell inside a single moment, is something few writers can match. Near the beginning of the book he devotes an entire chapter to a turtle attempting to cross a road, turning an event most people barely notice into an epic tale of determination. This is the third time I’ve read this book, and on this pass I’m taking more time to step back from the story and simply appreciate the beauty of the words.

If you’ve appreciated this book in the past, or are considering reading it in the near future, please feel free to join us at the library at 6:30 on April 3. I can promise a lively, thought provoking discussion on a truly enduring classic.

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