Predictably, I didn’t love this book like I did The Odd Women, though once I got into it, I did enjoy it. And usually I avoid books about writers andPredictably, I didn’t love this book like I did The Odd Women, though once I got into it, I did enjoy it. And usually I avoid books about writers and writing, finding them too navel-gazing; despite that, and the fact that it is a 19th century novel (published 1891), I read half the book in a single day.
This book follows several characters involved in various ways in the changing London literary scene. Edwin Reardon is a sensitive artist determined to write meaningful novels, to the chagrin of his wife, Amy, who has to pay the bills. His friend Jasper Milvain, on the other hand, will write anything for money and churns out articles like there’s no tomorrow; when the family runs short on funds, his sisters Maud and Dora start turning out commercial children’s books as well. Meanwhile Marian Yule spends her days ghostwriting for her father Alfred, a critic who blames his lower-class wife for success passing him by.
While the book follows the struggles and relationships of these characters, it is really about literary life in late 19th century London. This period seems to have begin the beginning of the modern literary world: universal primary education was new and meant books could be marketed to a mass audience, and so much material was being published that a book needed strong marketing to succeed. New Grub Street even includes reviewers praising works by their friends and panning that of their nemeses. I wasn’t always entirely convinced by Gissing’s portrayals: his hack writers, for instance, cheerfully proclaim that they are hacks working solely for money; but it seems to me that in real life all writers think well of their own work, no matter its actual quality. (Even romance, the most formulaic of all genres, apparently only appeals when the writer shares the audience’s fantasies; cynical authors have tried churning out admitted crap to manipulate a gullible audience, without success. But perhaps Gissing anticipated that, as Edwin’s experience with commercial fiction is similar.) At any rate, the largest part of Gissing’s bitterness is reserved for the plight of starving artists, and issues of money and class. This is a realistic novel about characters whose lives are shaped by their access (or lack thereof) to money and society – not restful reading, but it feels much more immediate and contemporary than the work of other Victorian writers.
Gissing keeps the story engaging, though it is a bit longer than necessary, and suffers from occasional melodrama toward the end. The weaving together of several stories is not always artful, with the book sometimes rewinding the clock to catch up on another character. On the other hand, the way minor characters’ stories play out in the background, getting complete arcs despite rarely appearing on-page, is skillful. And the plot doesn’t develop the way you might think; one of Gissing’s strengths is avoiding the traditional marriage plot in favor of a more complex and nuanced view of relationships.
The characters are believable, their stories interesting, and the setting well-drawn. Despite the contemporary feel to the discussions of books, there is always something to remind us how much times have changed; for instance, Edwin, who is supposed to be a sympathetic character, has no interest in his baby son and even resents his claim on Amy’s attention – a lack of paternal feeling that bothers exactly no one, not even Amy. Meanwhile, the writing is good and very readable for a classic, with plenty of dialogue and twists to keep readers invested.
So, then, I would recommend this novel – but after The Odd Women; I suspect this one gets more play these days because the people who make those “1000 books” lists are writers. But if there was ever a book to make you glad not to be a writer, this is it!...more
I am sorry to say I simply didn't get this, despite all I have heard and read about it by brilliant people who loved the book. It isn't that I dislikeI am sorry to say I simply didn't get this, despite all I have heard and read about it by brilliant people who loved the book. It isn't that I disliked the book, or that I didn't understand the basics of what's going on; it is that on that fundamental level where a reader connects with a book, through its plot, its characters, its writing, something, I got nothing. Leaving it unrated, because there is no rating that I can give....more
A saccharine, yet strangely readable, children's book about a little Swiss girl who transforms the lives of nearly everyone she meets. I'd read this oA saccharine, yet strangely readable, children's book about a little Swiss girl who transforms the lives of nearly everyone she meets. I'd read this one as a kid but remembered too little to count it for my world books challenge without a re-read. The beauty of the mountain and Heidi's love for it are vividly depicted. Spyri doesn't talk down to her child readers, and I wouldn't have guessed this to be a translation without being told (though there are some ways of writing that passed in the 19th century but wouldn't today: "'That would be all very well if he were like other people,' asseverated stout Barbel warmly"). It continues to surprise me that so many favorite children's books are so old, and yet children have no trouble with them, while adult classics are more difficult and less widely read. This one is probably best enjoyed by readers of an age to readily identify with Heidi, but despite some idealization and religious messaging it was a pleasant enough read as an adult too....more
This is a book about a blonde woman trying to hide the fact that she is Actually Black, while meanwhile trying to connect with her African-American heThis is a book about a blonde woman trying to hide the fact that she is Actually Black, while meanwhile trying to connect with her African-American heritage, and everyone around her (black and white) taking this situation completely seriously and trying to help her hide the fact that she is Totally Black from her racist husband, who has no clue (and also is less Aryan-looking than she, but Totally White nonetheless). Thank you, literature, for reminding us that the real world can be as weird as any dystopia.
But in other ways, Passing, though published in 1929, feels modern. It follows the relationship between two women: Irene Redfield lives in Harlem with her husband, a doctor, and two sons; she looks biracial and can “pass,” but generally only does so with strangers, to get into segregated restaurants and the like. Clare Kendry is the aforementioned blonde, a childhood friend of Irene’s who comes across as manipulative and drawn to danger. Though the novella is told in the third person, it feels very much like one of those first-person friendship stories, told through the eyes of the duller friend about the more unconventional and daring one. Irene longs for security, and her marriage is the inverse of Clare’s; while Clare feels stifled by her husband’s expectations, Irene is the one doing the stifling, keeping her husband in his respectable job in New York while he dreams of moving to Brazil.
This is a valuable book historically, as a window into a time when society was obsessed with the idea of pale-skinned people being Actually Secretly Black, by virtue of one great-grandparent or something. At the same time, Irene's experiences of racism seem both modern and quite unlike the way the past is portrayed in modern novels; it troubles her, but neither monopolizes her life nor causes her to fear for her safety. And in the way she tries to keep knowledge of lynchings and the n-word from her children, one can see a modern parent avoiding discussion of the same word and police shootings.
On its literary merits, this is an interesting story, told in a modern, readable style. (The Modern Library edition has long explanatory endnotes that are not strictly necessary, but informative nonetheless.) Irene is a very credible character, with conflicting and sometimes less than admirable motivations, but I had more trouble with Clare; perhaps the author intended to leave us wondering what she really wants. Unfortunately, the end is melodramatic and improbable – before starting the last chapter, think of the most bizarre and sudden cop-out you can imagine. The actual end is worse. (view spoiler)[Clare's husband appears to confront her at a party. They stare at each other. Clare then randomly falls out a sixth-story window to her death. The end. (hide spoiler)]
That said, overall this is a pretty good book, and it’s so short that there’s little reason not to read it. While the specifics of the time period Larsen wrote about have fortunately passed, the concept of denying part of oneself in exchange for social acceptability is still relevant, and likely to remain so.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Have you ever read one of those novels full of doom and gloom, peopled with characters trapped by their own twisted, thwarted passions, and thought thHave you ever read one of those novels full of doom and gloom, peopled with characters trapped by their own twisted, thwarted passions, and thought that with some energy and common sense their problems could be easily resolved? That is what Cold Comfort Farm is supposed to be about – taking a farmful of such isolated, romantically tormented folk and letting Flora, the brisk, no-nonsense young cousin from the city, sort them out. It is supposed to be a hilarious parody; unfortunately, apart from a few mildly humorous moments it did not tickle my funny bone. Perhaps the problem is that I haven’t read enough of the novels it mocks: Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Mary Webb. Though I’ve read Wuthering Heights and a couple Hardys, my poster child for the type of novel described above is One Hundred Years of Solitude, written decades after this one.
At any rate, this is a strange novel, as parodies usually are. Though published in 1932, it is set in “the near future” – apparently the 1950s, though it looks a lot like the 1930s, with more advanced communication and transportation, and with no WW2 in its past. It takes aim at farm life, at overly emotional and melodramatic folk (people at Cold Comfort are forever throwing themselves down wells out of despair over something or other), but also at city folk, particularly if smug and pretentious. There’s a male novelist who sees sexual imagery in everything and is convinced that Flora won’t kiss him because she’s inhibited (actually it’s because he’s unattractive), and when Flora is in London she considers taking her cousin to see an avant-garde play, described as “a Neo-Expressionist attempt to give dramatic form to the mental reactions of a man employed as a waiter in a restaurant who dreams that he is the double of another man who is employed as a steward on a liner, and who, on awakening and realizing that he is still a waiter employed in a restaurant and not a steward employed on a liner, goes mad and shoots his reflection in a mirror and dies. It had seventeen scenes and only one character.”
There is also quite a bit of lampooning of purple prose, in the form of describing everything in a ridiculously overheated manner (the “best” passages, meaning the most purple, are marked with asterisks). For instance:
“Amos looked at her, as though seeing her for the first, or perhaps the second, time. His huge body, rude as a wind-tortured thorn, was printed darkly against the thin mild flame of the declining winter sun that throbbed like a sallow lemon on the westering lip of Mockuncle Hill, and sent its pale, sharp rays into the kitchen through the open door. The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers. The cold beat in glassy waves against the eyelids of anybody who happened to be out in it. High up, a few chalky clouds doubtfully wavered in the pale sky that curved over against the rim of the Downs like a vast inverted pot-de-chambre. Huddled in the hollow like an exhausted brute, the frosted roofs of Howling, crisp and purple as broccoli leaves, were like beasts about to spring.”
If you are laughing by now, you should read this book.
At any rate, I suspect my reaction has something to do with the book’s age; what might have seemed sensible and a happy ending in 1932 don’t seem like such a good idea in 2014. For instance, Flora’s “solution” for her 17-year-old cousin, Elfine, is to get her hastily married off to a pleasant but slow-witted son of the local gentry, by dint of giving her a makeover, talking her out of her favorite pasttimes (long walks in the Downs and writing poetry), and cautioning her not to appear too “brainy.” As a recipe for long-term happiness, what could possibly go wrong?
But ultimately, this is a novel that’s just too bizarre – from a cow’s leg randomly falling off and getting lost, unnoticed by the elderly manservant, to the tyrannical great-aunt whose dialogue consists almost entirely of “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!” – for the story to stand alone for those who don’t find it funny. And Flora achieves her goals too easily, once she begins dragging her relatives one at a time out of their ruts, for there to be any real suspense. This is really more like 2.5 stars, because it is easy and light reading and in that sense not unpleasant, but it isn’t a book I’d personally recommend....more
Okay, guys. I have a confession to make. I hope you’ll still be my friends.
I’m not a fan of Jane Austen.
For starters, I’m not much of a romance readerOkay, guys. I have a confession to make. I hope you’ll still be my friends.
I’m not a fan of Jane Austen.
For starters, I’m not much of a romance reader. I do have romantic buttons, but they’re small and hard to find. I need some passion—by which I don’t even mean sex, but emotional intensity. Austen’s books are a bit.... bloodless.
Now to keep my literary feminist cred, I know that even if the romances don’t make me swoon, I ought to love these books for the social commentary. The problem? Said commentary consists of detailed depictions of the social lives of the independently wealthy. Few topics bore me more. I had the same problem with The Great Gatsby. No matter how worthy these novels may be, complete disinterest in the subject matter is a high hurdle.
Reading Persuasion crystallized all this for me. Of course, you shouldn’t judge Austen’s entire body of work by Persuasion; of all her books, this seems to inspire the most polarized opinions. (A lot of people hate Mansfield Park, too, but few consider it their favorite. Persuasion is either at the top of people’s Austen lists, or at the bottom.) There's good reason to believe that it wasn't even finished. Still, I came down on the “hated it” side.
Plenty of intelligent people have already written about the problems with this novel (this Slate article is a good example). Anne is a passive, tiresomely angelic character. The cast is divided into three basic categories: People We Are Supposed to Admire, whom we are told possess refined manners, sensible dispositions, intelligence, and self-awareness; People At Whom We Are Supposed to Chuckle Wryly, who are foolish but harmless; and People With No Redeeming Qualities Whatsoever, who are described in such terms as:
“The real circumstances . . . were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved. . . .”
Which doesn’t actually tell us anything about the Musgroves’ son except that Jane Austen’s judgment of him is very poor – which is why I’ve categorized the characters as I have, because I know more about what Austen wants me to think of them than about the people themselves. That’s not incisive observation of human nature, it’s just shoving opinions down our throats.
Also, I was, um, bored. Take out keen psychological insight and all you’re left with is a stultifying story of wealthy young people with nothing to do but hang out with the same tiny social group all the time, for whom a grand adventure is a tame little beach trip. I know we are supposed to feel for Austen’s heroines because if they can’t catch a husband to be dependent on, they’ll have to either find a job as a governess or a blood relative to be dependent on. And sure, having so few options sucks, but you need outside knowledge of Austen’s world to really feel for them. There’s no sense of immediacy to the problem of the heroines’ futures, no chilling examples of what's in store if they're unsuccessful to spur them on in their husband-hunting. In a way it seems this serious backdrop is something added by fans to try to make the romances bigger and more important than the way they are actually presented in the books. Of course finding love is important to most people, now as well as then, and I don't object to the novels' being structured around romance as I do their being built of mundane social engagements, but it isn't exactly shown as a matter of life and death.
All that said, the romance here isn’t bad. There’s a sense of simmering passion between Anne and Captain Wentworth that I don’t remember from Austen’s other novels; it’s there in the way they hardly speak but are so physically aware of one another, in a way that seems unusual for Austen, whose characters are often scarcely physical beings at all. And the letter at the end is definitely swoonworthy. Still, I’m glad the book had only 200 pages....more
I've been at this one for a month and only gotten 225 pages into it, out of 712. Enough. There are too many books in the world for this.
This isn't a hI've been at this one for a month and only gotten 225 pages into it, out of 712. Enough. There are too many books in the world for this.
This isn't a horrendous book, but I see little to explain why it's survived from the mid-19th century. The characters are not particularly engaging, nor the prose impressive, nor is there any particular insight into human psychology or behavior. It might be ideal for someone studying 19th century British politics, but this meandering trek through the life of an Irish politician is far from gripping, as it seemingly chronicles everything its hero does. A tough modern editor would probably cut half of it, and the book would be better for it.
Also, those publishers who make money off repackaging classics in the public domain? Wow - I am not impressed. The first edition I tried, the Everyman, had a bucketload of typos all within the first few chapters - really? You get the text for free, don't have to pay royalties, don't even have to edit it, and yet you can't be bothered to do a strong copyedit before rushing off to make money on it? That's not to mention the spoiler-laden endnotes that plague most of the editions, including the Everyman. Who in the hell would add an endnote, when a political issue is referenced in the first chapter, saying "at the end of this novel, this issue causes Phineas to [major decision redacted in case some of you still want to read this]"? Do you think just because this is an old book, we all somehow know the ending through cultural osmosis? Because people just talk about Phineas Finn all the time, amirite? Sometimes I think classics publishers actually hate reading.
Also, most of the editions restart the page numbering halfway through, because it was apparently first published in two volumes. Morons....more
This is an astonishing book: a subversive, feminist take on marriage and women’s roles in society, written by a man in the 1890s. I suspect that’s notThis is an astonishing book: a subversive, feminist take on marriage and women’s roles in society, written by a man in the 1890s. I suspect that’s not a coincidence, that a woman couldn’t have gotten away with this book and its criticism of Victorian marriage and Victorian men. And to round out the praise, it is also an excellent story, with fascinating and believable characters, that had me turning the pages as quickly as any contemporary novel.
Late 19th century England had a marriage market in crisis – the country had many more women than men (presumably due to colonization), yet there was no provision for the “odd women out”; in society’s eyes a woman’s life was worthless if she failed to marry. The problem is considered so severe that a male character in this book urges marriage on his friend as a charitable duty, to save some poor woman from spinsterhood. This is the backdrop to a story primarily about two women, though not the two you’ll see in the blurb or the first chapters. Alice and Virginia Madden are our prototypical Victorian spinsters, who after their father’s death are forced to make their living as a governess and a companion respectively: work they find unfulfilling and precarious. They mope quietly in the background of this novel, too plain to hope for husbands and too timid to break out of their roles, serving as the example its other women react against.
Anyway, on to our real protagonists. First, Rhoda Nunn, now one of my favorite literary heroines. Like her friends Alice and Virginia, Rhoda is not pretty and was forced to make her living at a young age; unlike them, she is independent, bold and uncompromising, and went about learning the skills she needed to find work with dignity. When the story opens she and her friend Mary Barfoot are running a typing school for young women, enabling them to make a decent living. Rhoda and Mary are active feminists and represent different sides of the movement, Rhoda the militant who dislikes the idea of marriage, Mary the gentler side whose goal is helping others. Of course Rhoda’s world is shaken when she starts to fall for Mary’s cousin, the charming Everard.
Our other heroine is Monica, the youngest and prettiest of the Madden sisters. Monica is briefly a student at the typing school, and picks up some feminist ideas without quite realizing it, but at heart she is a conventional woman afraid of becoming an “old maid.” So when a wealthy older man begins to stalk her, she marries him in spite of her misgivings, and her story is one of trying to negotiate the boundaries of a Victorian marriage, in which her husband expects to rule her in all things.
As you can see from the above, while this book has the drawing-room conversations and reticence about sex you’d expect from a Victorian novel, otherwise it’s unlike anything I’ve read from the 19th century. It engages frankly with issues of class and gender, and I loved reading about the early feminist movement. First-wave feminism is known for being exclusive, and we see the characters thinking and arguing about that: should they include poor women? What about “fallen” women? (Women of color do not come up, and the book is much less progressive when it comes to race. The n-word pops up twice – jarringly, in contexts not meant to be offensive.) Exclusivity wins out in the end, but it’s important to see that it isn’t without debate; at any rate I can hardly blame these women for it, given where they started and how much we owe to women like them.
But it is also simply an excellent story, well-written and very readable, with an engaging plot that grabbed my attention and didn’t let go. This is not a story you’ve read before; there’s genuine suspense regarding the outcome. The characters are realistic, three-dimensional people, all of them with strengths and flaws, and it’s a great strength of Gissing’s writing that different readers can come to wildly different conclusions about them. You don’t have to be especially interested in feminism to enjoy this book, though if you are it’s a real treat.
I do have a couple of reservations, for which it gets 4.5 stars rather than 5. One, the will-they-or-won’t-they between Rhoda and Everard in the middle of the book is drawn out a bit too long. And two, there’s a bit too much unnecessary female jealousy, some of it bizarrely retconned into an otherwise beautiful scene. However, I forgive all of this in light of the end; this book can’t be intelligently discussed without talking about the ending, so my interpretation is included below. But I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to know before reading the book, so be warned.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
So, this is basically the most feminist ending ever. First off, Rhoda rejects Everard in favor of devoting herself to her work. Name me one other novel, please, whose heroine chooses herself over an acceptable man! Some critics have seen this as pride getting the better of her, and causing her to lose out on romantic love and motherhood. But every choice in life means giving up the alternative, and given Rhoda’s immediate regrets when she initially agreed to the marriage, this seems to be the choice that will bring her the most happiness. And I doubt this couple would have worked out anyway; sparring might make exciting courtship but the endless power struggle would have lost its luster. And the way Everard thinks about marriage, in terms of conquest and domination, is in no way attractive; when he says he wants a strong woman, he means the submission of a worthy opponent. He doesn't care about Rhoda herself nearly as much as the excitement of the chase. I admit to getting a little caught up in the romance myself, but on reflection the misunderstanding really was fortunate for them both.
And Monica. A lot of reviewers have interpreted her death as a punishment for considering adultery, and yes, the "unfaithful" woman's death is a common trope in Victorian novels. However, this is not a moralistic novel, and Monica never actually cheats, so it’s hard to see why Gissing would have felt the need to punish her. And look at the simple cause-and-effect: Monica dies giving birth to the child she conceived with her husband, not in any way related to her potential affair. Had she rejected Widdowson, she would have lived. That’s right: marriage killed Monica, not immorality. I told you this book was subversive....more
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best classic novel you’ve never heard of. Correct me if I’m wrong.
This book is set in the early 1930I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the best classic novel you’ve never heard of. Correct me if I’m wrong.
This book is set in the early 1930s in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. It’s an ensemble piece, structured around the activities of local government and the ways they intersect with the characters’ lives. Most versions of the cover feature Sarah Burton, the fiery, progressive new headmistress at the local girls’ school, and she’s one of the most important characters, but there are others: the elderly alderwoman, Mrs. Beddows; the gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, and his troubled daughter, Midge; the bright but impoverished teenager, Lydia Holly; the hedonistic but devout preacher, Councillor Huggins. South Riding follows these characters (and more*--it’s a story about an entire community) over two years, with chapters alternating among various characters.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and Holtby has a clean style that keeps the story moving and focused on the most interesting moments in the characters’ lives. I’ve seen this book criticized for the space devoted to mundane aspects of adult life--the book focuses as much on the characters’ working lives as their personal ones--but that’s one of the reasons I loved it. It avoids well-trodden novelistic paths: most of the characters are middle-aged or older, and first love doesn’t appear even as a subplot. In large part it’s a novel about work and why it matters; anyone who hopes to make a difference with their career will empathize with Sarah Burton’s struggle to make a difference in her school and her occasional doubts about whether her work is important enough in the scheme of things.
But there are many poignant and relatable stories that come out of the characters’ relationships with their work, from the sad case of Agnes Sigglesthwaite, who meant to be a researcher but wound up a miserable science teacher, to the fervent socialist Joe Astell, who takes a cushy job on the county council due to illness and sometimes has trouble relating to the very people he’s trying to help. On the whole it’s a positive and hopeful book, but there is a lot of illness and dying here; the author was terminally ill when she wrote it, and it’s hard not to imagine something of Holtby in Astell, who is desperate to accomplish his work before illness keeps him from it. On the other hand, one of the saddest subplots deals with Lily Sawdon: she is one of the few characters with no real occupation, and perhaps as a consequence, decides her duty as a wife is to hide her sickness from her husband, even at the expense of getting treatment.
South Riding is a character-driven book, and works brilliantly, because the characterization is brilliant. Holtby has the gift of creating fully-formed, memorable characters within just a few pages, characters with all the complexities and foibles of real human beings, and at the same time, people who are easy to sympathize with and like. Sarah Burton is especially memorable: she’s a spinster in her late 30s, but she’s not a damaged or pitiable figure; she’s energetic and optimistic, sociable and engaged with other people. Also a standout is Mrs. Beddows: as the South Riding’s first female alderman, she’s expected to be colorful and allows people to believe outlandish stories about her, but in reality she’s more conventional than that, a worldly-wise grandmother who finds happiness through community involvement--and through the attention of Robert Carne, whom she views as a combination of attractive male friend and spiritual son-in-law. I could go on to describe most of the cast, because they are all excellently-realized characters drawn with exceptional psychological insight, but nothing I say will do Holtby’s writing justice.
Another amazing thing about this book is just how modern it feels, despite being published in 1936. By virtue of its focus on interesting, varied female characters--as well as interactions among them--it’s one of the most feminist novels I’ve read, and indeed Sarah’s feminism would need little updating for the 21st century. An author writing this story today would no doubt be condemned as anachronistic, but since it really is an old book, I’m happy to praise it for being just as relevant now as when it was written. The same goes for the politics. This isn’t a book about politicking, but it is a story involving local government during a time of economic depression, and Holtby’s progressive beliefs do shine through in the way the characters think about their world and the effects of their decisions. For me that’s a plus; literature should deal with big ideas, and the structure of society and purpose of government are certainly that. The fact that these topics are controversial means authors should engage with them, not ignore them.
I do have one issue with the book that bears mentioning. The plot doesn’t fit together quite as well as most ensemble pieces; Holtby perhaps got a little carried away with her ability to write great characters, and spent disproportionate time on some secondary players. Alfred Huggins is the chief offender here (I’ve called him a protagonist above, because of the number of chapters starring him, but he has little interaction with or impact on any of the others), followed by the Sawdons. Also, I doubt many people will read South Riding for its language alone: Holtby has the good journalist’s ability to get to the heart of the matter without excess verbiage, but her use of words is rarely memorable.
In sum, an excellent book, and one that spoke to me much more than classics usually do. I’ll be keeping a copy on my shelf, and I hope some of you will give it a try too!
*Please don’t be intimidated by the character list at the beginning of the BBC edition. It includes everybody who’s ever mentioned in the book, but you won’t have to remember all of them....more
This 3 stars is really 3.5, and is more personal reaction than attempt at an objective rating. This is a good book. And I liked the first half of it,This 3 stars is really 3.5, and is more personal reaction than attempt at an objective rating. This is a good book. And I liked the first half of it, in which our narrator, Esther, is doing a fancy internship in New York City. She feels lost, she's not sure what she wants to do with her life, she worries that the only thing she's good at is winning scholarships and prizes. I can relate to that and I think a lot of women can (and men too - but I read somewhere that women have a harder time making a successful transition from being good at school to doing well in the workplace). It is also interesting just reading about life in what's presumably the 1950s; things have changed a lot while staying remarkably the same in some unexpected ways.
However, the second half the book, when Esther suddenly loses touch with reality, mostly lost me. I didn't understand it. Perhaps that's more my failing than Plath's, which is why I warned you this is a personal response. But it didn't make much sense to me, and in the end the book left me a bit cold....more
So I had been having a terrible time finding some piece of French literature that I could stand for my world fiction challenge. (French films drive meSo I had been having a terrible time finding some piece of French literature that I could stand for my world fiction challenge. (French films drive me nuts too.) But I was pretty sure I'd read something by Zola in college, and so after yet another book didn't work out (well--I checked Candide out of the library, only to realize it's not actually set in France--argh!), I finally dug around and figured out which one. You'd think that with such a dramatic plot, I'd have had more than the vaguest memory of it....
Nope, sorry, no review. I have nothing to say about this book. It involves the justice system, and trains....more
Fortunately, I did not have to read this book in grade school, because I would not have gotten anything out of it at the time. I actually own a copy tFortunately, I did not have to read this book in grade school, because I would not have gotten anything out of it at the time. I actually own a copy that once belonged to my high school, but avoided it for years. I think this was because I misread the title as “Silas Mariner,” and assuming it to be a classic about seamen, associated it with Moby Dick. And obviously, I didn’t want to read anything like that. As it turns out, Silas Marner contains neither essays showing off the author's research, nor mariners. Silas is, in fact, a weaver.
This short book tells the story of a man who more or less withdraws from life after a crushing betrayal, to be eventually reawakened through his love for a child. It’s a sweet story, at times saccharine and with some all-too-convenient plot elements, but still, it’s a good one. The writing, of course, is excellent, sometimes sarcastic, and peppered with incisive observations about human nature. For the most part, the characterization is excellent; I fully believed in the Raveloe villagers, and even the minor ones are distinct and realistic.
But then there is Eppie, the original Pollyanna--so perfect she’s more plot device than person. Even when she misbehaves, she does so adorably; as a toddler she never throws tantrums, and as a teenager she’s never for a moment rebellious or selfish or withdrawn. She’s a fantasy child, with none of the human foibles the other characters display, and it’s because of her that the later part of the novel sometimes becomes saccharine.
Overall, though, a sweet, enjoyable story from a gifted writer. I decided to try this one before Middlemarch, and it’s good enough that I’m eager to try Eliot’s major work....more
This one's going to be more personal response than review. There will be rambling, and spoilers. If you like, skip to the end and tell me what you thiThis one's going to be more personal response than review. There will be rambling, and spoilers. If you like, skip to the end and tell me what you think about villain protagonists!
What I really like about this book is the language. Mostly because so much of the slang comes from Russian, and my year of college Russian pretty much never comes in handy (I learned tons of grammar, but not enough vocabulary to actually, say, have a conversation or read a newspaper, so of course I've lost most of it). Burgess is actually a really careful writer and so everything you need to know, you can figure out from context, and pretty soon you'll be reading along as if you'd been using these words all your life. It's pretty cool. It makes me wonder if maybe I should give Sea of Poppies another try, but then that book has a 40-page glossary. A Clockwork Orange does not have any glossary and if you look one up online you're doing it wrong.
Also, it is pretty engaging. It helps that it's less than 200 pages long. Doing a 100-book challenge this year means I'm all about the novellas.
And Burgess does do a good job with the dystopia. It doesn't feel outlandish the way some dystopias do. The dystopian elements are much more understated--out-of-control crime, to which the government responds by hiring ex-cons as police officers, and so on.
Overall though, I can't say I particularly liked this book. For one, the rather heavy-handed thematic elements felt completely irrelevant. A large chunk of the book deals with the protagonist, Alex, who's convicted of murder early on in the book, being conditioned to be non-violent, and the moral implications of being good because you're forced to rather than because you choose it. Frankly, I didn't care about Alex's free will. He gave up the right to make choices for himself went he went around murdering, raping, assaulting and robbing people. As far as I was concerned, getting out of prison at all was far better than he deserved.
So, I hated Alex. I've given this some thought and realized that my feelings about villain protagonists break down strictly along gender lines. And Alex is, essentially, a bundle of all the worst elements of the stereotypical alpha-male psyche, with none of the good mixed in. He feels the need to dominate every group he's a part of. He's careless and leaps into things without considering the consequences. He takes his family (in this case, his parents) for granted, making demands of them without ever considering them as anything other than people there to provide for him. For that matter, he's utterly lacking in empathy or concern for others in any respect. (Okay, that's not so much a stereotypically male trait as just plain sociopathy, and I'm not sure if sociopaths are predominantly male or not. But I'm also not sure if Burgess intended Alex to be a sociopath, given the final chapter's conclusion that this was all some teenage phase he went through.) And most importantly, he revels in aggression, which is his response to everything from boredom to annoyance to being short on cash.
What's scary about this character is that Burgess apparently found some wish-fulfillment aspects in writing him--really, this is a male fantasy I didn't want to know about. Although, in all fairness, enjoying a fantasy and wanting to live it are two entirely different things. I'll admit to reading Gone With the Wind with great enjoyment, and that Scarlett O'Hara appealed to something in me, which doesn't at all mean that I want to go out and seduce men for kicks or make money through exploitation and deceptive business practices. Nor does it mean that a fear of not being able to get away with it is the only thing stopping me from doing those things. So, okay, guys, I don't hold Alex against you. But I still hate him.
And then that 21st chapter.... I can see why the initial American publisher excised it. Alex suddenly decides, at the ripe old age of 18, that he's aged out of criminal behavior and he wants to go have a baby. Um, right. Because that's totally when the urge to settle down kicks in. The story is that the publisher felt that chapter was too optimistic, but I'm not seeing a whole lot of that.... Alex still feels no regret, no empathy, he's just gotten bored by spending every night committing random acts of violence. He's no less selfish than before. Will he really not turn aggressive again the next time things don't go his way? Can he possibly have a healthy relationship? I doubt it. At least Burgess didn't award him a girl at the end.
Maybe I'll clean this up into a real review later. In the meanwhile....
What's your experience with villain protagonists? Are there examples of the opposite gender that you've liked/sympathized with? Does it depend on whether or not the character is sexually aggressive? Would anyone like to recommend me a well-written book with a non-sexually-aggressive male villain protagonist that I might like?...more
I enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairlyI enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairly indifferent to symbolism and other literary devices (maybe I’ll develop more appreciation for them eventually, once my school days are far enough behind me). And I have the feeling that if I were a lover of literary devices and critical essays, I’d give this book 5 stars. As it is.... a solid 4.
The basic plot: the young, unnamed narrator receives a surprise proposal from an older man, Maxim, and moves with him to Manderley, his enormous estate. But no one can stop thinking about his recently-dead first wife, Rebecca, and there’s something increasingly ominous about all of this....
The plot is compelling and suspenseful without falling too far into horror, and I quite enjoyed reading it. The narrator in particular is incredibly well-realized; her shyness and self-consciousness have turned off some readers, but I found her so completely believable and relatable that this didn’t bother me a bit. The secondary characters are also vivid and realistic. Maxim and Rebecca, however, gave me a bit of trouble. Maxim is rather distant for much of the book, and I was never quite sure who he was. As for Rebecca....
(view spoiler)[I am still trying to work out my reaction to Rebecca. Part of this is my unique experience with the book--I let a friend spoil me years ago, thinking I’d probably never read it, and she interpreted the book very differently; her view was that Rebecca is slowly revealed to be a villain, such that the reader understands and accepts Maxim’s murdering her. To me, it seemed we get very few hints of Rebecca’s imperfections before being simply told that she was a sociopath (although that word isn’t actually used), and so I never had any visceral response to her nor thought Maxim’s actions excusable. In part this may be because times have changed; a large part of what’s supposed to make Rebecca so awful is her rampant adultery, which just isn’t as horrifying today as it may have been in the 1930s.
All that aside, I’m not entirely comfortable with the juxtaposition of the good-hearted, timid narrator whose life revolves around her husband with the sociopathic Rebecca, who’s dynamic and has a life and doesn’t need men (but seduces and manipulates them for fun). It’s not uncommon for early-20th-century novels to portray “good” women who are shy and let love dominate their lives, while the “bad” ones want more and do more (and not caring for men, in these cases, always means engaging in romantic relationships with them anyway, but in selfish and destructive ways); a rather unfortunate worldview that we’ve hopefully gotten past today. At least there is the more confident and also good-hearted Beatrice to balance things out a bit. (hide spoiler)]
At any rate, the author does a great job with the setting--which reminds me of an old movie--and with atmosphere and suspense. Everything from the weather to the plants on the estate is imbued with potentially sinister, anthropomorphic qualities. (Occasionally I had my doubts as to whether weather actually works as described, but it makes for good storytelling.) And the writing is, indeed, very good throughout. I’ll leave you with a passage I particularly liked:
“I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me, someone I had known at school, who would say: ‘By-the-way, I saw old Hilda the other day. You remember her, the one who was so good at tennis. She’s married, with two children.’ And the blue-bells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me.”
It takes a very good book for me to start marking passages I like, and I’d recommend this one. But it’s probably best if you don’t spoil yourself first!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Finding this cover was a blast from the past! This book was pretty weird to re-read as an adult (especially since I'm kind of obsessed with Wicked--boFinding this cover was a blast from the past! This book was pretty weird to re-read as an adult (especially since I'm kind of obsessed with Wicked--both the book and the musical--yes, entirely possible). But I hadn't forgotten Greg Hildebrandt's gorgeous illustrations. This one scared the bejeezus out of me when I was 4. And there was a really beautiful one of Glinda that I can't find anywhere. Now I will have to track down this actual book--it's far better than Denslow's original artwork if you ask me. (Seriously, take a look at some of these pictures in the preview here.)...more
I've never been a huge fan of Jane Austen, even though it seems like I should be. This book was well-written and, for the most part, engaging, but I dI've never been a huge fan of Jane Austen, even though it seems like I should be. This book was well-written and, for the most part, engaging, but I don't feel like I have enough of an opinion about it even to rate it (and, uh, that's not usually a problem for me).
A lot of the ratings seem to turn on what people thought of Fanny. For people who dislike the book, the reason is generally her conspicuous lack of awesomeness--she's timid, shy, and self-effacing, she's not witty, a walk in the garden exhausts her, and she doesn't ever do much of anything. ("I cannot act," she says, in response to her cousins' request that she take a part in a play--but this pretty much sums up her role in the book, too.) At the same time, it's clear that Austen thinks a good deal of her--the girl's practically a Mary Sue. She grows up overlooked and emotionally neglected, but she's still sweet as can be and loves everybody, even those who don't deserve it. Plus, she's always right and everybody else has to admit it in the end. She reminds me a bit of Esther in Bleak House, except Esther I'm not entirely sure we're supposed to take at face value, and Fanny I think we are.
Fanny's redeeming quality is that she sticks to her guns (incongruous a metaphor as that is). Even when it's not cool, and despite her dependent status, she won't go against her principles. Unfortunately, she doesn't distinguish between morality and the stultifying sense of propriety at the time, so one of her two big stands is against her cousins and their friends putting on a play. (The other one, dealing with her love life, is more interesting and I liked the way that turned out.) I've read some reviews that made me think she spoke out against the corruption in her society, the fact that her family's money depends on slave labor in the Caribbean--and that would've been cool, but actually nobody ever mentions this. (I hear the movie is totally different so maybe that's where this meme came from?)
Anyway, I also noticed here just how little physicality there is in Austen's books. There's not much description, nor physical action in the scenes. They're all dialogue and exposition. This contributes to how limited and stultifying her world feels, to me--although it's not her fault we're used to more cinematic writing these days.
This all makes it sound like I didn't like the book. In fact, I read through it in a few days and am sure it's a good literary effort. And it sounds like I disliked Fanny--but I don't really have strong feelings about her one way or the other. Guess I just didn't "get it."...more
It’s hard to review a classic, so I’ll keep it brief. As others have related, this book is about a young Englishwoman who, following an undisclosed faIt’s hard to review a classic, so I’ll keep it brief. As others have related, this book is about a young Englishwoman who, following an undisclosed family tragedy, picks up and crosses the Channel to make her living as a teacher in the fictional city of Villette. As one would expect from a classic, it’s very well-written, and I’m sure there’s plenty to analyze that I didn’t even catch. So I’ll move on to what I liked best about it.
Above all, Villette is a brilliant character study. Lucy Snowe and the people around her (and their relationships with each other) seem real in a way that’s rarely seen in fiction. There’s a lot of variation in how readers react to these characters, but to me Lucy made a lot of sense, and was in many ways very relatable even though the book was written over 150 years ago. It’s very much a character-driven book; there’s not a lot of plot, but the book kept my attention regardless (in fact, monopolized my attention over several modern books in my to-read stack). It’s also a very melancholy book. Lucy isn’t happy, she’s disappointed by the people around her, and she definitely doesn’t get a fairytale ending. (view spoiler)[Now that I've read it I can't figure out how people think it's "open-ended" with regards to M. Paul's survival. It's not open-ended. Lucy doesn't choose to spell it out, but from context and the way she narrates the rest of the book it was very clear to me. (hide spoiler)] This aspect of the book is probably what impressed me the most: most authors with lonely protagonists give them wonderful, caring, supportive, long-suffering best friends by the end of the book, but life isn’t always like that. And Lucy’s love interest is a very flawed person as well--as is everyone in this book, really, which is what makes it good.
But while I certainly recommend the book, I can’t say I recommend the Signet Classics edition. First, there are an awful lot of typos. Second, the French dialogue is translated only in endnotes in the back of the book. I can only assume that the person who made this publishing decision has never enjoyed getting lost in a book in his/her life, or else assumes everyone who reads classics knows French (but don’t think because of that the book has only academic value and can’t be enjoyed!). Third, and I never thought I’d say this, but a few explanatory footnotes other than the translations would have been helpful. For instance, I had to Google “Labassecour” to figure out that it’s the name of Bronte’s fictionalized version of Belgium (and enough readers mistakenly think the book takes place in France that I’m clearly not the only one to get confused). So, I definitely recommend the book, but try for an edition that’s actually had some work and thought put into it, if you can.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I’m afraid this review will not be popular with fans of the author, or those who see classic literature as unassailCaution: Spoilers and Snark abound!
I’m afraid this review will not be popular with fans of the author, or those who see classic literature as unassailable. But after slogging through this book (especially so soon after discovering Villette, a truly excellent classic!), I feel obliged to warn potential readers, and let those who were disappointed with the book but wary about criticizing a classic know that they aren’t alone.
So, then: a recipe for North and South:
- Add one romantic plotline borrowed straight from Pride and Prejudice, only the leads’ arguments are about labor relations. Also, after the disastrous proposal scene, don't let him write a letter and so keep the relationship on hold until the last two pages. (Thesereviews lay out many more similarities between the two books that I have not repeated here.)
- Add some poor families/dying children borrowed straight from Dickens, only keep the deaths off-page.
- Add at least 6 character deaths, almost all off-page. The deaths and subsequent grieving can substitute for a plot throughout the second half of the book.
- Add 1 Mary Sue, otherwise known as Margaret Hale. Everybody must worship Margaret. Include sentences such as “Martha, like all who came in contact with Margaret.... felt it a pleasure and an honour to forward any of her wishes.” Ensure that even Lady Catherine.... sorry, Mrs. Thornton.... is melted by her lovely eyes and straightforward demeanor. Have characters berate each other for not singing her praises enthusiastically enough, then report the incident to Margaret with concern. (I am not making this up!) Also, describe her constantly. Like when she meets the leading man for the first time. Don’t describe him, describe her! Again!
- Add many interior monologues by the leading man detailing his feelings for Margaret. Think you have enough? Try doubling that. We want to know EXACTLY how in love with her he is.
- Add a handful of goofy, melodramatic scenes and startling coincidences. (I shudder when I think of that riot scene....) While these may threaten any feelings of authenticity the plot may have had, at least they'll keep it moving when you run out of deaths.
- Add 4 cups of tedium. Mix well.
- If you are Penguin Classics: sprinkle useless, spoiler-laden endnotes (such as, after Margaret shares her views of a subject in Chapter 1, “Margaret painfully revises her view of X after the deaths of A and B”) throughout. This is super easy to do because all you have to do is find really obvious points in the text and spell them out.
Voila! North and South.
In all fairness, and the reason I at least give 2 stars: there is some decent characterization here, particularly of the minor characters. There are some passages that make me think the author might have turned this into a decent social satire a la Jane Austen. And I’m willing to admit that the book might have been ahead of its time on some issues, like workers’ rights, although the bookjacket gave the impression there would be more of a social justice ethos, when it seemed to me just repackaged Dickens (who was its publisher) plus a strike. But was it ever a slog to get through! There just was not much tension in this book; even the romance wasn’t interesting until the last two pages, and by then it was too late.
So: apologies to any who loved this book and were offended by my irreverent treatment, etc. As for me, I’ll just read more Jane Austen. Or better yet, Charlotte Brontë....more
This is a fun, charming little book, written in a sort of loose diary format from the perspective of a girl living in 1930’s rural England. Most of itThis is a fun, charming little book, written in a sort of loose diary format from the perspective of a girl living in 1930’s rural England. Most of its appeal is in Cassandra’s voice, which is very strong, and its portrayal of a coming-of-age story that’s enjoyable and lighthearted, but without being dumb or shallow in retrospect.
Cassandra and her family live in an old castle, and they’ve been sinking into poverty since her author-father hasn’t written anything for years. Much of the book focuses on the romantic escapades of Cassandra and her older sister Rose, when two eligible young American men move in nearby. But the book isn’t a romance; it’s a story about growing up, and Cassandra wrestles with her relationships with family members, her (lack of) religious beliefs and her writing skills--she’s keeping a journal as practice for writing a novel, which neatly explains the inclusion of scenes and dialogue in someone’s diary.
The book starts out a bit slowly, but gets going after about 50 pages and is an entertaining read. “Charming” is probably the best word for it. Cassandra stands out for her mix of intelligence and naïveté; she’s quite perceptive about people, but doesn’t know much about life. She feels real and authentic (minus one problem that I’ll get to later). It’s interesting to see all the other characters through Cassandra’s eyes, because several are not very nice and yet everything we hear about them is filtered through Cassandra’s deep-seated affection for them. The book makes excellent use of voice and perspective and never forgets who is telling the tale. And the writing style is good, but believable coming from a 17-18 year old girl. Some episodes are downright amusing, and the book does a good job recalling what it’s like to grow up.
My biggest problem with the book was that I experienced a lot of dissonance regarding Cassandra’s (and Rose’s) actual age. Cassandra is 17-18 and Rose 20-21, but both felt 3-4 years younger. A lot of that is probably cultural and as a historical fiction reader I should be used to this, but I think the fact that the book is set in relatively modern times actually made this worse. There’s the way people around Cassandra infantilize her--their constantly referring to her as a “child” (even her significantly-older love interest does this, which is creepy) and, for instance, asking if she’s old enough to attend a dinner party (why wouldn’t she be?) had me picturing her as about 12. And then, neither she nor Rose seems to have any future plans; Cassandra has no thought of leaving home; neither has any work experience or marketable skills; neither has ever thought herself in love or so much as kissed a boy. (Rose, whom we’re told is beautiful, “first realizes” her power over men during the book. I know they live in a remote area, but surely she’d encountered male attention before?) So, Cassandra’s experience of being 17-18 felt more like my experience of being 15. Which surprised me a bit, because we think of ourselves as growing up slowly in the U.S. these days. On the bright side, though, the fact that I can relate to Cassandra’s experiences at all speaks well of the book.
Possibly I just read this book at the wrong age (mid-20s). It’s probably best read by either teenagers a few years younger than Cassandra, or adults decades removed who want to look back nostalgically on their teen years. One of the things Smith does very well here is write a book that can appeal to both kids and adults; perhaps because it was written before the “young adult” genre was born, it’s appropriate for young readers without ever feeling patronizing or whitewashed.
Also, I read the edition with the movie cover, but disliked it so intensely that I'm listing the hardcover edition so I don't have to look at it again....more
This will be a personal reaction, not a proper review. And yes, 4 stars, which for a book of the stature of Middlemarch, translates as, “This is veryThis will be a personal reaction, not a proper review. And yes, 4 stars, which for a book of the stature of Middlemarch, translates as, “This is very good, but I was disappointed.”
Middlemarch is the story of a number of people in an English town in the early 1830s, written decades later with the benefit of research. There’s the idealistic Dorothea, who wants to do good in the world; the equally idealistic Lydgate, who wants to reform the medical profession; the careless but good-natured Fred; the evangelical banker, Bulstrode, who has a dark secret; and many more. Several storylines intersect throughout the novel, which touches on politics, religion, medicine, social change and a good deal more.
Eliot has a reputation for writing great characters, and yes, the characters here are all distinct, complex and believable. And yes, the writing is genuinely insightful, and when the narrator (as she often does) comments on some aspect of human nature, it’s likely to be something you’ll recognize, perhaps something you hadn't quite put your finger on before. And yet, it is a long and slow-paced novel, taking a lot of time for scene-setting and extended metaphors, and also a rather didactic one; I felt the characters were explained more than shown, smothered under layers of authorial intent. I never felt much connection to this story, though it did become more interesting as it went. While I recognize Eliot’s talent here, it’s not a book that captured me and I find myself with little to say about it.
However, my lukewarm response may not predict yours. First, I enjoy strong writing and complex characters, but am less interested in more academic aspects of literary writing, such as classical references, symbolism, or extended metaphor; those who eat all that up are likely to love this. And second, I’m just tired of reading about well-to-do, repressed English country people in the 19th century; I think I’ve reached the point at which, however insightful an author’s vision may be, it loses its luster by focusing on this particular milieu. Within that setting, Eliot’s scope is much broader than, say, Austen’s, but for all the books that have been written about it, this society is simply not that interesting. On to something else, and maybe in 20 or 30 years I’ll reread this and like it more.
On the edition: I read the Penguin Classics version, which is fine. Endnotes are somewhat more numerous than necessary, but at least they don’t spoil anything....more