I intended to read this entire collection before Christmas but I must admit I only got through A Christmas Carol, which I had, perhaps shockingly, nev...moreI intended to read this entire collection before Christmas but I must admit I only got through A Christmas Carol, which I had, perhaps shockingly, never read before. It is a wonderful story, as one would expect from the fact that it's been adapted so many times. :)(less)
I am a huuuuuuuge Harry Potter fan and everyone I know knows it, so naturally people were lining up to tell me this one was getting bad reviews. :) I...moreI am a huuuuuuuge Harry Potter fan and everyone I know knows it, so naturally people were lining up to tell me this one was getting bad reviews. :) I read it anyway, of course, and I quite liked it. It's not as good as Harry Potter (because nothing is -- that's right, NOTHING) but it's a well-written novel that fits right into the British tradition of books about village life and social class, as seen in the work of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, among others. In particular, it reminded me a lot of George Eliot's Middlemarch, and I see other people have made the same comparison so it seems I'm not completely out to lunch.
The Casual Vacancy takes place in a small town in England called Pagford. Pagford has financial responsibility for a council estate known as the Fields, but there is a movement in the town to shift that responsibility to the larger neighbouring town of Yarvil. Some citizens also want to close an addiction clinic that serves many of the Fields' residents. Basically, this is a story about a bunch of privileged middle class suburbanites who want the poor out of their lives (and particularly their schools). This scenario will be familiar to many North Americans via current events such as Mitt Romney's comments about the 47% of Americans who are basically leeches on society, according to him. J.K. Rowling comes at the thing from the perspective of someone who was once one of those so-called leeches, and who has seen social unrest in her home country reach the point of violence with the riots last year.
The story of the novel, such as it is, is loosely arranged around the death of a local councillor named Barry Fairbrother, who led the faction that wanted to keep the Fields in Pagford, and the election to fill Fairbrother's council seat. However, this plot is rather secondary; it must be said that this is more of a study of its characters and of the ways in which their actions ripple into the community than it is a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Many of the characters are not at all likable; Jon Stewart made a comment in his Daily Show interview with Rowling about the "Dursleys" in the story, which I enjoyed because I'd been thinking as I read that the entire novel was basically populated by Dursleys. In particular, Howard and Shirley Mollison are Vernon and Petunia reborn. There's also a Draco Malfoy figure in Stuart "Fats" Wall, a teenaged bully who experiments with the residents of the Fields in his quest for an "authentic" experience in life. Fats is, in my opinion, one of the most aggravating characters in the thing.
Fortunately, not everyone in Pagford is an asshole. There are people to root for, including Sukhvinder Jawanda and her mother Parminder, both of whom are quite likable, even if their own relationship is difficult. Krystal Weedon, the lower class girl who finds herself at the centre of much of the discussion of the Fields, is also very sympathetic. Teenager with an abusive father Andrew Price, social worker Kay Bawden, and middle-aged mother Samantha Mollison (most unexpectedly) are also among the less detestable residents of the book.
As social commentary, this is fairly biting. The sort of Monty Python-esque humour of Harry Potter is replaced in The Casual Vacancy with something more akin to the UK version of The Office: we're cringing, not laughing. Pagford's supposedly civilized society is exposed as a charade, and as I noted, many of the characters really do not come off well. Rowling's omniscient narrator presents their actions and thought processes without comment, leaving the reader to judge.
All in all, I enjoyed this. I do think it could probably have been trimmed a bit and it might suffer from having too many troubled characters. The best comparison I can think of to explain what I mean is RENT, where it seems like literally everyone has AIDS by the end and it becomes slightly ridiculous. The ending, while it undoubtedly packs a punch, is a bit overdramatic in parts.
It wasn't what I expected (somehow, I thought it was going to be a mystery) and it's something completely new for J.K. Rowling. Personally, I think she's done a great job of changing genres completely. I'm not sure I'd have guessed this was the same person who wrote Harry Potter.
This is one of those cases where I wish Goodreads allowed half-stars because I don't want to give it 3 but I'm not enamoured enough to give it 4, either. In the end JKR gets the benefit of the doubt: 4 it is!(less)
More a series of linked stories than an actual novel. You could compare this to a TV series, I suppose, in that many of the chapters are "standalone"...moreMore a series of linked stories than an actual novel. You could compare this to a TV series, I suppose, in that many of the chapters are "standalone" episodes featuring a couple of regular characters, and every once in a while there's an episode that ties into a longer ongoing story arc. What I am trying to say is that it's obvious this one was published in instalments. :)
The Pickwick Papers is fairly typical Dickens in that it features the sometimes funny, sometimes sentimental exploits of a cast of comic characters with funny names, some of whom are quite memorable (Sam Weller and his father, Mr. Jingle, Joe the sleepy boy). However, it is lighter on the social commentary than some of Dickens' other work, although the narrator does make a few pointed comments on debtors' prisons and the silliness of politics and academia. Mr. Pickwick is a likable protagonist, and I very much liked the conclusion of the novel.
I won't say this is my favourite Dickens, but it's an entertaining read.(less)
February 7, 2012 is Dickens' 200th birthday (at least, it would be if he were still alive). I read something about the bicentennial and realized that...moreFebruary 7, 2012 is Dickens' 200th birthday (at least, it would be if he were still alive). I read something about the bicentennial and realized that I hadn't read anything by him since I was in high school many moons ago. Now seemed like a good time to correct that, and Hard Times seemed like an appropriate choice "for these times." Indeed, it's hard to avoid seeing parallels between the "job creators" of now and the ones Dickens portrayed in 1854. Sample passage: "This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn't each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don't you go and do it?" (Part 2, Chapter I)
I'm glad I took this opportunity to revisit Dickens because I don't think I fully understood how funny he was when I was in high school -- funny, and also quite vicious in his satire of hypocrisy and general ridiculousness. In this case, his main target is utilitarianism and factory working conditions, and the general problems related to a lack of "fancy" in life. Mr. Gradgrind is a father who counsels children never to wonder about anything, and never to think of anything that isn't strictly factual. (Another reason I'm glad I read this: I'm fairly sure Vernon Dursley is modeled directly on Mr. Gradgrind -- surely the name of the company he works for, Grunnings, is meant to recall Gradgrind's name -- so I feel reading Dickens has enhanced my reading of Harry Potter, which is always good.) His philosophy has terrible consequences for his two children, Tom and Louisa. We also meet Mr. Bounderby, who takes an incredible amount of pride in his rise from the gutter, and Mrs. Sparsit, his servant, who takes almost as much pride in her fall from the upper class. These two are both totally contemptible, but they're also probably the most amusing characters in the book. Other important characters: Stephen Blackpool, an honest factory worker trapped in a Bates-from-Downton-Abbey-like bad marriage; Rachael, the woman Stephen really loves; and Mr. Harthouse, who is effectively portrayed as a Mephistophelean sort of bad angel on Tom Gradgrind's shoulder. All of these characters' lives connect in ways that illustrate Dickens' themes.
I wouldn't say the plot is anything special. It rambles a bit and seems somewhat random at times, no doubt due to the fact that the book was published in instalments. Most of the enjoyment comes from the characters and reading Dickens' prose, such as this lovely passage from Part 2, Chapter IX (p. 223-4 in the Broadview edition):
"The dreams of childhood -- its airy fables, its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond: so good to be believed in once, so good to be remembered when out-grown, for the least among them rises to the stature of a great Charity in the heart, suffering little children to come into the midst of it, and to keep with their pure hands a garden in the stony ways of this world, wherein it were better for all the children of Adam that they should oftener sun themselves, simple and trustful, and not wordly-wise -- what had she to do with these?"
I read Hard Times as an ode to story and reading and flights of fancy. This is a moral I'm always happy to hear, and it's something I will hope to keep in mind during our own "hard times."(less)
I've had this sitting on my shelf for a few years and I finally got around to reading it last week. Halloween -- seemed like a good time of year to ta...moreI've had this sitting on my shelf for a few years and I finally got around to reading it last week. Halloween -- seemed like a good time of year to tackle it. Also, I just saw the movie Austenland, so I was in an Austen-type mood. Much of this is word-for-word from the actual Pride and Prejudice, which naturally means it's very good. The addition of zombies works strangely well for the most part. Charlotte Lucas' fate seems particularly fitting. Overall, though, this is very silly with too many jokes about balls. I do not think I will read Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.(less)