You have probably realized by now that my ideas for blog posts come from pretty random things. This blog post was inspired by an episode of Hot Ones (yes, the show where people eat increasingly spicier hot sauces on chicken wings). Drew Barrymore was asked about her love for classic literature and my brain simultaneously thought “ooh, new post idea!” and “why must I always get excited about blog posts that require me to read a lot of books I wasn’t planning on reading?” And here we are, so you can guess which side won that argument. Can I hate myself and be excited at the same time? Because that’s where I’m at right now.
I spent kind of a long time trying to find books that Drew has recommended over the years. And the vast majority of them seem to be classics. So I decided to go with those. My past reading experiments tend to be mostly more modern books with a few classics thrown in. So this will be my first reading experiment where I read exclusively classics. They aren’t particularly old classics, but they’re still considered classics (note: after reading all of these books, that is definitely up for debate).
One of my reading goals for this year was to read six classics. So I’m basically going to just knock that one out in one shot with this post. But because I am physically incapable of simply meeting my goals, I have another insane classics reading experiment in the works for August. With another eight works of classic literature (and those are all super old). So I’ll be at least doubling my goal, if not tripling it by the end of the year. I really need to stop.
But for now, here are five of Drew Barrymore’s absolute favorite classic novels, and what I thought of them:
Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
I will be honest, I kind of didn’t really know what to expect going into this experiment. I know these are all classics (this one more of a modern classic), and that’s kind of it. But since this one was the only book on this list I hadn’t heard of, and it was kind of hard to get my hands on (I had two orders of used copies cancelled before I finally succeeded), I thought I’d start here. I was also kind of excited because this is the book Drew loved so much that she chose it as the one book her character reads every single day in 50 First Dates. Has to be amazing, right?
Yeah… nope. I will give it this: it was fun for a few pages. I do enjoy that specific seventies/early eighties writing style (kind of early Stephen King-esque). And I liked the jokes about the typewriter. But that got old pretty quickly. Because then the book did that “look at me, I’m so quirky and dark and funny” thing that was super popular for a while. Which is fine… for like a second. Then it becomes irritating. And this book definitely started to get on my nerves after a while.
It is also the kind of book one could only get away with publishing forty years ago. Because holy sexism and racism, Batman! No no no no nope. I feel like the sexism in this book was pretty on-par for the time it was written. Doesn’t make it okay, but I can understand how some people might view this in the same way that the heroines in Jane Austen novels are expected to get married (it is not the same, and I will fight you on that). I still didn’t like it. And the racism, particularly aimed at Arabs, really rubbed me the wrong way. This book also very much embraced the “redheads are either sexy or there’s something wrong with them, nothing in-between” stereotype, and I didn’t care for that very much, either. Basically, this book disguised harmful stereotypes under the guise of being quirky, and I kind of hated it.
I’m gonna be completely honest here, I skimmed most of the second half of this book. I just couldn’t do it anymore. The first sex scene was the cringest thing I have ever read. I would be absolutely shocked if this book hasn’t been featured in “Men Writing Women”, because “folds of saltmeat and peach” absolutely deserves to be featured for it’s cringe-inducing powers. Oh, and that was not even part of the sex scene that made me want to claw my eyes out. I can’t recall a single part of it that is remotely appropriate to mention here, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. It was pure ew.
As fun as it is to hate on books in these reading experiments – and this one deserves it – I do kind of feel a little bad because these are the favorite books of an actual person (not just a random internet generator). Not that there is a chance in hell of Drew Barrymore ever seeing this, but still. I do have to say, I can absolutely understand why she would like this and why it might be nostalgic for her. If I’d read this for the first time at like twenty, I think I’d like this more. Especially if I was a teenager in the 80s and 90s. This might be a formative book. It was a different time, and I can honestly say I would not have reacted to this the way I did as a thirty-two year old in 2021. So I won’t judge just because I hated this book.
This kind of reminded me of reading The Catcher in the Rye at fifteen and thinking it was really clever, but also knowing I wouldn’t think it’s amazing if I’d read it now. My tastes are different. But the world has changed and there’s a lot less tolerance for books in which embracing negative stereotypes of ethnic groups the author really doesn’t understand is fun and quirky. I’m really glad I got this over with first. One star, but barely.
Franny & Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Obviously, since I basically just kind of shit on The Catcher in the Rye, the sensible thing to do is to immediately jump into a Salinger book. I honestly have no idea how I’m going to feel about this book. But there’s a very good chance I’m going to enjoy this less than the Hemingway, so I’m just going to get it over with.
So, a funny thing happened (on the way to the forum). Sorry, my brain is firmly in 1960s mode and the urge to make that reference was just too strong (I’m also listening to the audiobook of Valley of the Dolls at the moment). Anyway… I think I read The Catcher in the Rye as a sophomore or junior in high school, which was about sixteen years ago. Literally half my lifetime. And it took exactly one page of this book to suck me right back into that classroom. Salinger definitely has a very distinct style, and I can’t say I hate it.
I can, however, say that I kind of hated these characters. For the first thirty pages or so, I was kind of sort of into this. I was embracing the whole fifties academia/existential crisis vibes (even though this was published as a book in the sixties, the individual stories were first published in the mid-fifties). But then it morphed into something completely different when it simultaneously became kind of whiney about how pointless the world is (Franny = female Holden Caulfield) and also kind of preachy about religion and spirituality. A little bit in “Franny” and a lot a bit in “Zooey”. I don’t remember so many religious references in The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s entirely possible my brain just blocked that out since I was already in Catholic school. I honestly don’t disagree with the points made in this book, but it was just A LOT. Also, not what I was expecting going into this one.
Here’s the thing, I can read books with characters I don’t entirely agree with. And books where nothing really happens. But I have to be invested in the characters or the world or something, and that was not the case here. If an asteroid came down and took out every single character in this book, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t care. I didn’t hate this book, but I also didn’t really like it. I guess that’s still an improvement over Still Life with Woodpecker, right? Even though this one was still kind of sexist. I’m giving it two stars.
Valley of the Dolls by Jaqueline Susann
This is the only book on this list that was written by a woman (though they are all white, so take from that what you will). Maybe some female energy can save this experiment from being a total fail. And… drumroll please… I actually liked this. If you’d asked me a month ago which book on this list I thought would be my least favorite, it definitely would have been Valley of the Dolls. This book is kind of a blend of some of my least favorite things to read about: drug use, Hollywood, cheaters, narcissism… it’s Stepford Wives if behind the scenes, all the women were fighting over one of the husbands (the one who isn’t very nice). But, oh wait! He’s cheating on all of you because he is literally the worst. Why did I like this?
Maybe it was because, unlike Franny, I cared about these women and their drama. They weren’t just whining about how life sucks, they were actually trying to make their lives better. Not their fault the patriarchy required them to compete with each other and then be shit on for being successful. Or that they were flawed human beings who didn’t quite know what they were doing. Or really what they actually wanted. Even though my life experience is wildly different than the characters in this book, they felt more authentically human. Wait, is this what happens when women write women? Also kind of made me realize that Salinger’s characters live in an alternate universe where it’s completely normal for all of your thoughts to come out of your mouth. Which is weird.
I ended up giving this three stars. I really enjoyed it, but something about the ending just didn’t sit quite right with me. I will say this is kind of what I anticipated jumping into the previous two books, so I am glad I got the kind of dark, summery sixties read I had been looking forward to.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
So, I have a theory. As the books get progressively older (sort of), the star ratings get higher. You see where I’m going with this. I know this book is supposed to change my life or whatever, but I’m skeptical. The last book I read for a reading experiment that was supposed to be life-changing was not. To be fair, I think this one has a much better shot than The Birds.
Usually when I pick up books, I do my research to get a better idea of if I will enjoy them or not. However, I don’t really do that with these reading experiments. Because I will be reading them regardless of whether or not I’m excited to read them. So I was not aware going into this book that it is very much about the experiences of Nazi death camp survivors. And while that is absolutely an important thing to read about, it was really not the uplifting read I was expecting.
It was, however, very interesting. I did appreciate reading about the experiences of Holocaust survivors. But it was also kind of insightful. Kind of. I am acutely aware that my life is kind of lacking in the purpose department. I’m working on it, but it’s definitely an issue. I fully agree with this book’s point that the primary human drive is not pleasure, but the pursuit of something meaningful. I hadn’t exactly thought about it all that much, but it’s kind of true.
The problem is, this book gave me absolutely no insight on what to do with that information. How do I find my purpose? I still have no idea. While I did like this a lot, I did not particularly love being left with the feeling of “well, now what?”. Four stars.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
This was my first Hemingway novel. And I was kind of convinced I would like this because of the one Hemingway short story I read in grad school (it was “Hills Like White Elephants” in case anyone was wondering). I really enjoyed that story, so I had somewhat high hopes going into this one. Part of my brain was sure I would be the person who liked reading Hemingway while drinking daiquiris. And now that I’ve written that, maybe a drink would have been nice (it is insanely hot in California right now and I’m miserable). But I had no drink, and I did not love this book, sadly.
I did enjoy it, though. I ended up giving it three stars. But I fully blame Drew Barrymore for giving my skewed expectations going into this. In the episode of Hot Ones that started this whole thing, she was asked which novel she’d pull off the shelves for a hopeless romantic. This was her answer (with no hesitation at all). Which I took to mean there is a lovely love story in this book. And no, no there is not. There’s definitely a love story, but it’s more like “this is what love in real life actually looks like, morons” and not happily ever after. I guess that is a little bit my fault for not realizing she probably meant this as a little bit of a reality check.
Also my fault for getting almost all the way through a book by Hemingway before realizing it was never going to end happy at all. It’s not a bad ending. It was just kind of disappointing given my unfounded expectations. Which I will take full responsibility for. What is not my fault at all is the fact that this book is super freaking depressing. I wasn’t in the greatest place going into this book (I’ve been just feeling kind of blah this month), but this ending definitely did not help. I was honestly kind of glad I didn’t fall in love with these characters, because then the ending would have hurt so much more than it did.
All in all, this was just kind of fine. I don’t know that war stories are my cup of tea. So I do want to read some more Hemingway, because I do enjoy his writing. At least I think I do.
Another reading experiment in the books. Not gonna lie, I went into this with a vibe of daisies and a cool seventies color palette in my brain, and I kind of wish I hadn’t because that was not at all what this was. And yes, daisies have absolutely nothing to do with these books and the seventies was basically the only decade we didn’t cover here, so I have no idea where that came from. But I definitely decided to do this experiment in June because I thought it would be perfect for summer. Now that I’ve read all of the books, I think this group has more of an autumn vibe.
Either way, this was pretty fun. I read a bunch of books I probably wouldn’t have gotten to for a very long time (or ever). While I kind of wish I hadn’t read Still Life with Woodpecker, the others were mostly entertaining.
I’d love to hear what you thought of this reading experiment! Should I do more like this one where I read books recommended by a single person? Let me know in the comments!
Also, I recently opened a bookshop, where you can go and buy books and also shop my curated collections of my personal favorites AND all of the books I’ve read for my reading experiments, including this one! I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, and you get to support your choice of indie bookstores – it’s a win all around!