This book is long and somewhat literary, but not at the expense of being engaging. I'm enjoying the writing and the characterization a lot, and I high...moreThis book is long and somewhat literary, but not at the expense of being engaging. I'm enjoying the writing and the characterization a lot, and I highly recommend it to people who are willing to read something a bit more demanding but worthwhile. I haven't finished it yet, so we'll see if that changes, but so far, so good.
Update -- I finished it. It was long, but I didn't mind because I enjoyed it; I never felt like, "Am I still reading THIS?" the way I felt with "One Hundred Years of Solitude."(less)
It's always a little embarrassing when you're reading something for the first time, and everyone you mention it to says, "Oh -- I read that when I was...moreIt's always a little embarrassing when you're reading something for the first time, and everyone you mention it to says, "Oh -- I read that when I was fourteen." Well, better late than never, and truthfully, I don't think I would have fully appreciated this book at fourteen. Like many classics, the language is a little flowery compared with contemporary lit. As I've grown older and a little more patient, my tolerance for that has grown and I'm glad I read this as an adult.
There isn't much to say that hasn't already been said, as it feels like everyone but me read this ages ago. In the unlikely event that you haven't read this yet, pick it up -- it's a great story, with great writing and characterization, etc., etc. One of the classics worth reading, from someone who feels that many of them are overrated.(less)
One goodreads reviewer put it well -- this book was a pleasant read, though not a gripping one. As with many classics, it was slow-moving in general,...moreOne goodreads reviewer put it well -- this book was a pleasant read, though not a gripping one. As with many classics, it was slow-moving in general, especially at the beginning with lots of detailed, elaborate stage-setting including lengthy descriptions of the characters, some of whom proved to be marginally relevant. As I told Ariella, the author was probably invested in keeping the story slow-paced because it was serialized in a magazine; more words and installments add up to more money (I believe this is true of many nineteenth-century classics). I also wonder whether readers were more patient back then, before our instant-gratification-driven society of faxes, e-mails, airplanes, etc. Nowadays, standards of writing are very different and the author at the top of his form is one who can say more in fewer words, which may be a sign of the times. I always wonder whether nineteenth century classics are overrated (at least by our standards); certainly they wouldn't be published today without a major hatchet job. Does that reflect badly on the books, or on us?
Gaskell also broke that cardinal rule of writing, "show, don't tell." Although I give her credit for creating richly layered characters, I would have preferred to learn about them more through action/dialogue and less through detailed narrative. I did think the character of Cynthia was interestingly complex, and I liked the fact that, although Molly was meant to be sweet and naive, she still had a mouth on her and a nose for fakeness.
I also thought the Roger-Cynthia romance was interesting, and I wondered about the unidirectionality of that relationship. Is it possible to be so enamored with someone who really doesn't care all that much about you? What does it say about you, and about the depth of your relationships, if you can pledge endless love to someone when clearly, the bond is mostly in your mind? Was Gaskell merely saying that men are stupid and easily led, or was it a reflection of the times that Roger perhaps did not expect to have a deep relationship with a woman, and was satisfied with a pretty face and an engaging manner?
I also thought that, in describing Cynthia, Gaskell did an interesting character study of the charismatic individual who's constantly winning people's love effortlessly, and never genuinely returning it. I guess we all know people like that, although probably not very well since I don't know if they're actually close with anyone. I thought it was interesting that Cynthia had a conscience, on the one hand (surprisingly), and that its influence on her behavior was limited, on the other (less surprisingly). She was clearly a better person than her mother was, and certainly more likeable (maybe because she was less transparent), but she did raise that old question for me about whether girls who are natural flirts are responsible for leading guys on and then dashing their hopes, or whether it's simply the girls' personality and can't be helped, and the guys should be smarter. I thought that was an interesting question for Gaskell to explore, although the answer wasn't clear (is it ever?). As an aside, I always have that question about relationships which later prove to be one-sided, even same-sex friendships. If you think you're great friends with someone, and then discover that they didn't return your deep feelings of affection, is that their fault for being fake, or your fault for being clueless and overinterpreting their friendliness?
Anyway, although this certainly was a slow and draggy read, I did eventually get caught up in the story and it provided interesting characters and much food for thought.
During the 1890s, apparently, a surplus of women and shortage of men resulted in the phenomenon of “odd” (as opposed to even, or paired-off) women – w...moreDuring the 1890s, apparently, a surplus of women and shortage of men resulted in the phenomenon of “odd” (as opposed to even, or paired-off) women – women who, for whatever reason, were not succeeding in finding a spouse. The question is, in a pre-feminist world, what were these women supposed to do? In this novel, Gissing’s female characters represent a few of the contemporary choices – withering away in unfulfilling jobs as governesses and companions, wallowing in hypochondria or alcoholism; marrying for security rather than love and then ending up in unhappy marriages; or, having rejected or given up on marriage, developing oneself and embracing education and a career.
The latter option, of course, was considered very controversial when this book was written. One of the book’s two plotlines focuses on Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, single women themselves, dedicated to creating this possibility for other single women by running a trade school for them. Rhoda is particularly anti-marriage and resolves to remain single all of her life in commitment to the greater good of all women (wishing to serve as a role model for women choosing not to center their lives around marriage and family). This resolve is challenged by Mary’s cousin, Everard, who woos Rhoda initially as a lark but eventually in genuine passion, which Rhoda rejects at first but ultimately can’t help returning.
The other plotline follows one of Mary and Rhoda’s students, Monica Madden, who quickly rejects the possibility of developing a career and chooses instead to marry a much older man with a great deal of unrequited passion for her. Hoping to achieve security, she finds herself miserable with him and drawn to another man, much to her possessive husband’s chagrin.
At first, I found this book highly polemical. Dialogues between Rhoda and other characters who debate with her appeared to be thinly veiled excuses to present contrasting views of marriage and protofeminist ideas. I actually didn’t mind because I found this interesting from a historical/sociological perspective, but I wondered how I would have felt had this not been the case – agendas and Ayn Randish dialogue-cum-diatribes usually detract from the quality of a book.
Eventually, though, the complexity of the plot and characters deepened and became more of a focus. Monica seemed a superficial twit at first, but in time displayed some real strength in her struggle to find her way in an unhappy marriage. Her husband, Edmund Widdowson, was a very three-dimensional controlling husband as opposed to a pure villain and their relationship was not simplistic. Rhoda went from being a militant robot to being a woman caught between her ideals and her emerging passion, genuinely conflicted about her choices.
Another thing that struck me about this book was its parallels to present-day life – the more things change, the more they stay the same. The “singles crisis” is a hot topic in the Orthodox community lately. Young Orthodox adults in today’s world appear to be having more difficulty finding someone with whom to settle down despite socioreligious ideals of early marriage and parenthood, and debate abounds as to the possible psychological or sociological explanations for this. It was interesting to read about a similar phenomenon in the 1890s and to see some parallels. Although our context is different in a lot of ways, many of the struggles are the same – women who never thought they’d have to develop themselves outside of marriage struggling to cope with that reality; men using very compelling arguments in an attempt to convince women to agree to a “free love” union outside of formal marriage, etc.
This is a good book for anyone who wants to think about these issues, and who appreciates (or can tolerate) 19th century-style writing. The appendices at the end were interesting as well.
"Lord help me, I'm just not that bright." (Homer Simpson)
Lots of people have raved about this book, including my friend Dena who read it for a class s...more"Lord help me, I'm just not that bright." (Homer Simpson)
Lots of people have raved about this book, including my friend Dena who read it for a class she took in Science Fiction at U of M. Although I'm not usually a sci-fi fan, I figured I'd try it, especially since she was offering to lend it to me and a free English book is not something you turn down easily in Israel.
I tried. Really, I did. I gave it way, way more than the usual 50 pages I force myself to read before judging a book -- I finally gave up around p. 180 or so. This book is apparently deep and intelligent, which is why I kept pushing myself, but apparently, too deep and intelligent for the likes of me (see above).
The plot, from what I could tell (and it wasn't easy) is about someone from earth visiting another planet in the hopes of including this planet in a growing union of worlds. What makes this new planet unique is that its inhabitants can change their gender, as opposed to being defined by one gender or another (which, I guess, is what makes the book something of a feminist classic although I didn't get a whole lot of feminist insight from it). The narrative is dry and extremely disjointed. It usually reads like a long, boring travelogue, occasionally interrupted by old legends of the planet. Lots of detail and description; not much dialogue or action. Maybe there was psychological complexity somewhere in there, but I just couldn't get past the turgid prose.(less)
No book is perfect, but this one came close for me. I loved Cassandra, the protagonist -- a genuinely funny and sharp seventeen-year-old girl who is t...moreNo book is perfect, but this one came close for me. I loved Cassandra, the protagonist -- a genuinely funny and sharp seventeen-year-old girl who is the quintessential chick lit heroine in many ways, setting the tone for that cliche while simultaneously rising above it. Cassandra and her impoverished family, oddly enough, inhabit a large castle originally rented with the earnings from her father's great, and thus far unrepeated, writing success. Now that her father appears to be suffering endless writing block, the family is nearly starving.
Cassandra's mother is dead, and her father has remarried. Cassandra's stepmother, Topaz, is another interesting and three-dimensional character -- an 29-year-old artist's model who seems flaky in many ways but is deeply devoted to her husband and step-children. Rose, Cassandra's beautiful 20-year-old sister, despises their poverty and dreams of a way out, while Cassandra and her younger brother Thomas are more accepting of the situation. The last member of the household, Stephen, is a young man who works for his room and board (such as it is) and suffers deep and unrequited passion for Cassandra.
Enter the insanely wealthy Cotton family from America, who has just inherited the estate on which Cassandra's family's castle is situated. The Cottons have two eligible sons, and the intrigue begins. Lest you think the plot is predictable, though, be forewarned -- it isn't.
If I wanted to nitpick, I could. I did occasionally have to suspend my disbelief in certain minor places. But I don't care. Those places were few and far between, and the overall story and characters were so great to read about that it didn't matter. This book managed to be light and funny, and profound and wise at the same time -- how often does that happen? The situations were surprisingly complex, as were the characters, but it never felt ponderous or slow. I wish there were more books like this.(less)
This was an interesting precursor to Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (I believe some of Gilbert's...moreThis was an interesting precursor to Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (I believe some of Gilbert's reviewers made references to it). Siddhartha, a young Indian man, follows a classic spiritual quest trajectory: monastic asceticism --> disillusionment with that --> hedonistic self-indulgence --> disillusionment with that --> true self-discovery and meaningful spirituality. One could argue that it's symbolic of the developmental path of adolescent fired-up idealism to adult practicality to mid-life crisis and ultimate discovery of one's values. Or if you want to take it even further, the idealistic hippie 1960s give way to the materialistic yuppie 1980s which give way to the disillusioned 21st century. Okay, maybe that's a bit of a stretch -- the book was written in the 1920s. On the other hand, that might speak to the universality of the trajectory described in the book.
I liked the ideas, but I had mixed feelings about the execution. Some of it felt like pseudoprofundity, especially in the final third, and I never fully empathized with Siddhartha as a character. Although I didn't feel quite as disengaged as the reviewer who described the book as "blah blah blah samana, blah blah blah kamana...," I have to admit that Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, for all its imperfections, engaged me a lot more than this book did, even though objectively speaking Siddhartha is undeniably a higher quality book. That said, Siddhartha was short and interesting and overall, I'm happy I read it.(less)
I could just end the review here. I almost feel like reviewing this book would cheapen it, because there’s so much here and I don’t think...moreOh. My. God.
I could just end the review here. I almost feel like reviewing this book would cheapen it, because there’s so much here and I don’t think I could possibly distill it into just a few paragraphs. Not to mention the fact that goodreads is full of articulate, insightful reviews of this book that capture most of what I would say as well as things that hadn’t occurred to me. But I’ll give it a shot, because I’m still trying to digest the experience that was this book.
The main thing that hits me about this book is that it works on every possible level. It’s a great idea for a story – a criminal fakes insanity to get out of going to prison and ends up raising hell on the psychiatric ward. The plot, after a slow start, moves quickly with an increasingly palpable tension that builds up to a horrifying climax with no clear loser or winner. The characters not only serve as well-drawn multi-dimensional personalities in their own right but challenge your understanding of sanity vs. nonconformity vs. insanity. The narrator, Bromden (a chronic patient on the ward), is unreliable but also reliable somehow. He views things through the highly creative lens of paranoid schizophrenia and oddly, his sometimes fanciful depictions manage to ring truer than they might have had they been written more conventionally.
But that’s just on the most superficial level. There are so many layers to this story. McMurphy is probably one of the most complicated heroes I’ve ever read about. He is, in fact, a criminal whose moral code is ambiguous at best. He doesn’t especially love his fellow inmates; in fact, he exploits them at times. His defense of them appears to be at least as much about defying authority in general as it is about protecting the underdog and fighting injustice. This is no Disney movie where the hardened criminal proves to have a soft heart underneath and does a total 180. This makes it all the more touching when McMurphy does show genuine kindness to the inmates.
McMurphy’s shock upon discovering that many of his fellow inmates are in the hospital voluntarily raises profound questions about why we choose the systems and authorities to which we then submit unquestioningly. And on an existential level, what does it mean that McMurphy, ne’er do well that he is, jolts the inmates out of their stupor and does more to normalize them than the years of hospitalization, medication, and therapy have done?
I could go on, but I don’t want to be here all day and there are still some things I have to think about. So I’ll just note the irony of my having tried this book twice in the past and abandoning it because it was difficult for me to get into. And I’ll also note that while I sometimes feel guilty reading fiction when non-fiction is theoretically a more productive use of my reading time, I don’t regret a single minute spent on this book. (less)
Now this is what a "novel of ideas" should be -- a book where things actually happen to three-dimensional people, as opposed to a thin plot serving as...moreNow this is what a "novel of ideas" should be -- a book where things actually happen to three-dimensional people, as opposed to a thin plot serving as a flimsy excuse to write lots of lofty dialogue between puppets. Alex, our "humble narrator," is one of the most despicable fifteen-year-olds you could ever hope to meet in fiction. The plot and central questions of the book revolve around his society's efforts to rehabilitate him by classically conditioning him to react to violence with physical illness. If his free will is removed so that he no longer engages in destructive acts, have we done a very good thing or a very bad thing?
Burgess also gets points here for his creative use of language, inventing a slang just foreign enough to be effective but not so foreign as to be completely alienating to the reader.
For discussion: in my edition, Burgess writes that he was originally forced to leave out the 21st and final chapter, included in my version. For those of you who read the edition with the 21st chapter: which ending works better?
I did remove a star because the book's dark nature was a bit hard to take at times, and I had some unanswered questions. But if you can take the violence and aren't put off by the foreign slang, it's short enough and offers you something to think about.(less)