If you're like me, you like well-written books but you're a little skeptical about classics. The question in your mind while reading reviews is somethIf you're like me, you like well-written books but you're a little skeptical about classics. The question in your mind while reading reviews is something like: "Okay, so it's great literature, so it paints a complex portrait of mid-19th-century England, that's great and all, but is it FUN? Will I actually enjoy my time with this book?"
My answer is yes.
So I'll talk about the plot. It's not a fast-paced modern thriller, but it is fun and engaging. There are mysteries and secret identities and midnight dashes across the countryside. There are murders and suicides and spontaneous combustions (okay, one of those). There is a court case at the center of the plot, but the book is about so much more than that. It's a complicated, sprawling story, and at times you'll wonder how all this could possibly fit together, but in the end it does so remarkably well. So don't worry about being entertained.
Dickens is famous for his vivid characterization, and Bleak House is no disappointment in that regard, either; even the minor characters are colorful. About half of this book is narrated in first person by Esther Summerson, and the other half by an omniscient third-person narrator, and at first I found Esther cloying. But she gets better. Dickens keeps in mind her limitations as a narrator and often makes us read between the lines and come to our own conclusions--too bad more authors don't give readers this much credit. At any rate, in the end I found Esther convincing and more complex than she initially appears. Most of the other important characters are also excellently drawn (Sir Leicester and Inspector Bucket stand out), although a few (like Ada) are oddly flat given their prominence. My biggest reservation while reading this book was that some of the minor players are characterized almost entirely by their eccentricities, and as a result seem so bizarre that I wondered how they could function in the everyday world--but in the end, I was convinced.
Many people have criticized Dickens's female characters, and yes, he does idealize the housewifely types, while women with other preoccupations don't come across so well. But I'm just not worked up about it; although he was writing in the mid-19th-century, he has female characters with strong personalities and positive, plot-relevant relationships with each other, which puts him miles ahead of even many modern male authors.
The writing itself is very good and yet accessible by 19th-century standards; while slower going than modern novels, it's clear and non-pretentious. I also enjoyed the detailed setting and vivid descriptions, which provide a full picture of Victorian England without bringing the plot to a halt.
Finally, there's lots of social commentary in this book, addressing everything from domestic violence to self-absorbed "do-gooders" who produce more noise than results. It speaks either very well of Dickens, or very poorly of humanity (perhaps both?) that so much of this is just as relevant today as in 1853. Reading this for the first time as a law student meant I found the legal aspects especially interesting, as well. One scene in particular stands out, in which Esther observes proceedings in the Court of Chancery. She knows it's widely disparaged and that these lawsuits ruin people's lives, but what she sees is everything running smoothly and everyone getting along well, with no acknowledgement of the real-life consequences or the wider picture. It's a disconnect that's just as jarring in the modern world--definitely food for thought.
Overall, I found this book enjoyable, insightful and good literature. The Barnes & Noble Classics edition has some helpful footnotes, although its endnotes are generally useless and too frequent. The length may seem daunting, but it's absolutely worth the effort. This is definitely my favorite of the four Dickens novels I've read, and one of my favorite classics, period....more
It's doubtful that any book will ever be chosen as The Great American Novel, but those looking for one should certainly try All the King's Men.
I don'It's doubtful that any book will ever be chosen as The Great American Novel, but those looking for one should certainly try All the King's Men.
I don't read many classics these days, but discovered this one when it was assigned in high school English. Then I had to read it twice to feel like I really had a grip on it. (Yeah, I was that kid.) It was worth it, though, as this is one of the most masterful novels I've ever read.
For starters, Robert Penn Warren is great with language; it will come with no surprise that he was also a poet. Some of the passages in this book demand that you stop and admire his skill with the English language, and that's not something I do often. But his knowledge of language is complemented by a knowledge of the world: this isn't one of those dry classics full of long-winded philosophical musings or descriptions of trees (although the former at least is present), but a fascinating story in its own right. It centers on Jack Burden, the right-hand man to governor Willie Stark, who is based on a 1930's governor of Louisiana, Huey Long. There is a fair bit about politics here, with the focus on demagoguery and the corrupting influence of power much more so than specific political issues. But that is balanced by the story of Jack's life, jumping backward and forward in time; to me that enhances the story rather than confusing it, but I won't deny that this novel requires a great deal of concentration.
The characterization is excellent, and Warren's depiction of human relationships is nothing if not intense. He does a similarly wonderful job evoking various settings. My only criticism is that too many of the characters tend to talk as if they were philosophers or mind-readers (character A can only inform character B of what B thinks, feels or believes so many times before I start to roll my eyes). Still, in a novel this brilliant, that's a minor flaw.
This is a must-read for those interested in classics, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in American Literature (with a capital L) or who is looking for a challenging book, because believe me, this isn't an easy or quick read. If you're up for it though, it's worth the trouble, because All the King's Men is a true masterpiece. ...more
This is the first Hemingway novel I've read, and I recommend it. For Whom the Bell Tolls covers a period of three full days during the Spanish Civil WThis is the first Hemingway novel I've read, and I recommend it. For Whom the Bell Tolls covers a period of three full days during the Spanish Civil War, following (primarily) a young American professor of Spanish working as a guerrilla explosives expert on the Communist side (although, as we discover, not a Communist himself). The book is well-written, as one would expect of a classic, although not quite as terse as I expected given Hemingway's reputation... but certainly missing the flowery language of many earlier classics, and I suppose that's the point.
On the merits of the story alone, this is a good book. It's a war story, but don't read it for the action scenes, which are few and far between--far more time is spent getting to know the characters, their lifestyle (living in a cave in the mountains behind fascist lines), and their relationships. There's some backstory dealing with the start of the war and some philosophizing on life, love, the morality of killing in wartime, and so forth. Philosophizing in a novel generally bores me, but kudos to Hemingway for writing these passages the way a person's internal voice (well... mine anyway...) would actually sound; Robert Jordan's thought processes sound like they come from a rational, self-aware sort of man in a war zone rather than an author writing essays in the comfort of his home. There are a couple windows on the "larger picture" as well; my favorite section of the book deals with the myriad difficulties one of the guerrillas has getting into and through territory controlled by his own side.
The characters here are quite well-developed, especially the protagonist... although his love interest, Maria, seems like little more than a vehicle for masculine wish-fulfillment most of the time (except for the priceless scene where she informs him that she's too sore for sex). At least there is another, much better-developed female character to balance that out. Descriptions, while not flowery, are quite vivid. I learned a bit about Spanish culture and history, although my feeling is that Hemingway was writing for an audience who already knew the basics of the war; his story is a microcosm of the conflict, requiring readers to do more research to really understand it.
I would have liked to see a bit more resolution at the end (who survived the day, at least?), but my only real gripe is Hemingway's direct and sometimes inaccurate rendering of Spanish dialogue. His goal--trying to give readers a feel for the Spanish language--is reasonable, but it results in characters saying stilted things that sound ridiculous in English, and sometimes are just plain incorrect. For instance, they say "rare" when they mean "strange," that they don't want to "molest" someone when they want to avoid annoying them ("raro" in Spanish means "strange," and "molestar" means "to annoy"... one would think that a writer like Hemingway must understand the concept of false cognates). And while I understand his use of the "thou" form in an attempt to show the difference between formal and informal forms of address in Spanish, he uses it inconsistently, and statements like "I love thee" in a novel set in the 20th century are just bizarre. For me the translation quickly became annoying and distracting, jolting me out of the story as I found myself translating characters' statements into Spanish to make sense of them.
Still, if you can get past what another reviewer has aptly called the "goofy English," this is certainly a worthy read. Lovers of classics are likely to approve all of Hemingway's editorial decisions, and for the rest, this is a fun way to get to know one of the most famous literary novelists of the 20th century. Even if you didn't like classics in school, this one is worth a shot. ...more
I'm not a big classics reader. I look for books that provide great stories and characters--that provide entertainment, not just material for study. I'I'm not a big classics reader. I look for books that provide great stories and characters--that provide entertainment, not just material for study. I'm pleased to report that War and Peace works on all fronts, that it is honestly a great read. It's a long book but absolutely readable and worth the effort.
As most potential readers probably know, the book deals with several Russian families from the years 1805-1812 (particularly that last one, when Napoleon invaded Russia). Really, it seems to deal with nearly every aspect of life at the time--there are battles, of course, but also plenty of daily life, parties, hunting, courting and so on. Some readers argue that there's too much here, but I think it's all enjoyable and useful in some way provided you're comfortable with long books. The time devoted to character development, scene-setting and so forth definitely pays off, and the chapters themselves are quite short, so something new is always happening.
Really, this book deserves its superlatives, and there's not much more I can say that hasn't already been said. I will add that this book taught me a lot about war; most novels gloss over the confusion of battle, for instance, but it's clear that Tolstoy learned a lot from his war experience, and probably does a better job writing about it than any other novelist I've read. This book will leave you with a better understanding not just of how war worked in the 19th century, but of how it works in general.
On a related point, many of Tolstoy's insights into human nature are just astounding. This is someone who really understands how people operate. I can't even count how many times I reacted to some statement with, "hey, that's so true! Why have I never read that in a book before?" High praise indeed.
I will note, though, that in the second half, Tolstoy does include several essays on "The Inevitability of History" and takes time away from the narrative to discuss his philosophical views. Usually they last no more than a few pages, and as they're set off in separate chapters, they can be skipped entirely if the reader so chooses. A considerable amount of time is also spent with minor, unnamed characters, when Tolstoy looks at the situation of the army, or in Moscow, or what have you, and no main characters happen to be there. These sections are well-done, but it does mean that especially later on, the narrative spends quite a bit of time away from any main characters. Whether these aspects of the book thrill or annoy you will depend on what kind of reader you are.
On Dunnigan's Translation:
This is the only translation of War and Peace that I've read, but I did look at several before deciding which one to read--when the book is this long, which translation you read is important! I highly recommend this one, particularly to American readers who don't speak French, and people who are reading it for non-academic purposes, for the following reasons:
1. There is quite a bit of French in Tolstoy's original. Here it's almost all translated, with only a few words and phrases left in French for flavor or because the language being spoken is important. Other versions leave it untranslated in the text and include footnotes, but when I sampled one I found it tiring. When an entire conversation is in French, Dunnigan simply tells us that it's in French.
2. The characters' names remain in Russian. One or two of the other translations Anglicize them, which seems silly to me. "Andrei," for instance, is not that difficult a name--no need to call him "Andrew."
3. Dunnigan renders peasant speech into standard (American) English. Tolstoy originally used local forms of speech which some British translators decided to translate as Cockney accents. Dunnigan's choice may have less flavor, but it doesn't call attention to itself or give a false flavor to the characters' speech.
4. No endnotes, and minimal footnotes. If you'd rather miss a few allusions than feel like you have to flip to the back of the book to look something up every couple of pages, this is a plus. If you want a more academic experience and background on the text, though, this may not be the edition for you.
Finally, for those who are thinking about reading War and Peace but a little intimidated--don't be! Yes, it's long, but it doesn't feel like it. The story is great, the characters incredibly lifelike, and the language not nearly as dense as many people expect from classics. This one is a classic for a reason. ...more
I know, heresy, how could I not like this? It's a classic! I think I'd have liked it when I was 14, but it's so transparently manipulative and melodraI know, heresy, how could I not like this? It's a classic! I think I'd have liked it when I was 14, but it's so transparently manipulative and melodramatic that I really couldn't take it seriously....more
Like everyone else, I read this in school, and do not recall having strong feelings about it. This year I decided to re-read it, alongside Go Set a WaLike everyone else, I read this in school, and do not recall having strong feelings about it. This year I decided to re-read it, alongside Go Set a Watchman, for the sake of having an informed opinion about both. This is such a well-known book that there’s no need for another review of it; what follows are some thoughts from this time around. There may be spoilers.
What struck me right away is Lee’s craft: her writing and storytelling (not the same thing) are both excellent. I have a habit of reading the openings of books when I first bring them home, and sometimes several more times before actually starting to read them, just to whet my appetite. I tried that with this book and didn’t stop for more than 50 pages. The story is compelling, every scene comes vividly to life, and yet there’s an impressive economy of language – at some point I realized I was moving through the book more slowly than expected, not because it’s difficult to read (it isn’t) but because every word is important. It is simply a pleasure to read.
And yet, I did not fall in love with the characters the way many readers have. I am not generally a fan of stories told through the eyes of young children (even though Scout is recounting events from an adult vantage point, and I enjoyed her voice), and Scout, unsurprisingly for a 6- to 8-year-old, feels a little unformed, at the margins of the real story. At times it felt I was reading a father-son story from the wrong perspective. It was distancing.
Whatever else this may be, it does not read like a YA book; novels written before that marketing category existed generally don’t. Scout is too young for teen fiction, and the book isn’t really about her. One never loses sight of the fact that the other characters in it all have lives that don’t revolve around her; that is a sign of good writing, of course. The book does have a tendency to provide explicit moral lessons, generally through Atticus, but I took these scenes less as moralizing at the reader than as a portrayal of a harried single father looking for teachable moments in difficult situations. And the book doesn’t make everything explicit: did I realize as a kid that Mayella was sexually abused by her father, that Tom Robinson definitely wasn’t climbing a fence, that the sheriff’s true concern for Boo isn’t an excess of cakes?
Of course, some of the book’s biggest moral lessons have to do with race, and on that subject there are ways the book has aged very well and ways that it hasn’t. Make no mistake: this book is all about white people. The central conflict is between educated, fair-minded white people, who are nonetheless paternalistic in their attitudes, and the rest of the white community, who, as Atticus observes, lose their heads over race. Black people are almost incidental to this conflict – the only semi-developed black character is the housekeeper, Calpurnia, and it’s a white man, Atticus Finch, who’s positioned as Tom Robinson’s savior.
With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, there has been talk about Atticus’s (and Lee’s) views on segregation. It is interesting that this book, published in 1960 and known as a seminal book about race in America, barely addresses what was the great moral and political issue of the day. It is also interesting that, in the early draft (that being Go Set a Watchman), she did – that early version was set in the 1950s, but by Mockingbird it had become historical fiction, taking place in the 30s. That could be viewed as a cop-out: it’s always easier to be on the right side of history when you’re writing about the past. And yet, the funny thing is that while the great issue of Harper Lee’s day has been resolved – no more legally enforced segregation – the issues she reached back into the past to write about – inequality in the criminal justice system; black men being shot by white officials under suspicious circumstances – are still absolutely timely in 2015.
Then too, readers would be mistaken to think that Lee could only see the most egregious forms of injustice; there are subtler observations, too. Scout notices, for instance, that white people driving back from the dump use black residents’ yards to turn around in. And Calpurnia and her son work menial jobs despite their evident intelligence (she taught him to read using Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England). When Lee does address segregation, it’s in the context of white people crossing the color line, never the other way around – but it’s evident where she stands. And in that context, I don’t believe Atticus, as the moral center of the novel, is a segregationist in his final incarnation.
I won’t be reading about Atticus’s earlier incarnations, though, because in reading this novel, I realized that Watchman is superfluous. We already have Lee’s final product, the excellent novel that was the only book she ever meant to publish. I am satisfied to have enjoyed it as Harper Lee intended, and I’ll leave it at that....more
Re-reading as an adult a book you enjoyed while young is always an interesting pursuit. This book has been extensively reviewed – and I agree with theRe-reading as an adult a book you enjoyed while young is always an interesting pursuit. This book has been extensively reviewed – and I agree with the general opinion that it is excellent – so this won’t be a standard review, but rather my observations this time around (full of SPOILERS).
I first read Jane Eyre for school at about 14, and like most girls in my class, loved the first two sections of the book – Jane’s childhood and her romance with Mr. Rochester – but felt that it lost its way in the final section. The boys tended to dislike it throughout, and I wonder now if its being full of women is part of the reason. It surprised me to find the first section devoid of males, except for a couple of brief and unpleasant appearances. Throughout the book, there are only two or three men who matter; Jane moves in a mostly female world, as makes sense for her time and station. Still, it’s a surprising Bechdel pass from a 19th century novel and a romance at that, and I enjoyed reading about the relationships Jane forms with the many secondary female characters who cross her path.
But my opinions on the three sections of the book have changed dramatically; this time around, the third section seemed the most important and my favorite. Jane’s childhood is still compelling, but she now comes across a little too put-upon. It’s no stretch to believe that an introverted young cousin might be disliked in a boisterous home, and that’s how the adult Jane, narrating the story, understands it, but that and her initial months at Lowood feel almost over-the-top. I can believe a school like Lowood would have existed, but it sounds bad even for the time – still, I enjoyed seeing it reformed after the sickness; the sequence of scandal followed by belated institutional change is apparently not a new one.
Then Jane grows up and shows good sense and initiative, which I always appreciate in book characters, and then we’re on to the romance. I wasn’t sold on this as an adult, though Bronte handles its development skillfully. Rochester is twice Jane’s age, extremely manipulative, and the first man to give her the time of day in her entire life, so she’s going to marry him? Not to mention his hiding the first wife in the attic. While that is of course extreme, I consider it a warning sign generally if someone has nothing good to say about their exes. What kind of partner is a person going to be if the most he can do to acknowledge his role in the failure of his prior relationship is “I was an idiot to marry that shallow, uncultured and demented person”? Admittedly, Bronte was working with different cultural expectations about marriage – likely in her time the spouse had to be absolutely hideous for an audience to sympathize with a character wanting out.
Which brings us to the book’s most glaring flaw (yes, there are also some melodramatic and unlikely elements, but you can roll with that because Jane is so down-to-earth). The portrayal of Bertha is pretty much “OMG, what a hideous, African-looking person! Who behaves like an animal and has no sense or feelings whatsoever!” Yikes. Other non-English people are not treated quite so badly, but are still criticized for all their non-English qualities. Most of this comes from Rochester, who has a habit of dating non-English women and then breaking up with them for not being English. But Jane also talks more than once about the virtues of an English education in improving the French (and therefore flighty and fashion-obsessed) character of the young Adele. Someone remind me how the UK ever got into the EU?
Otherwise, Jane shows rare good sense even compared to many modern heroines, so back to that. She realizes that continuing to live with the guy who nearly tricked her into a bigamous marriage is a bad idea and flees Thornfield. I liked this part, because who hasn’t wondered what would happen if you were cast out in the world with nothing? And how interesting to see how that might have played out hundreds of years ago. This is where Jane comes into her own: she achieves her independence both by modern standards (finding a job by which she can support herself) and then by 19th century ones (inheriting enough money to live comfortably on). Yes, she gets lucky – to my younger self there was too much coincidence toward the end – but this time her success in the village school convinced me that one way or another, she would have made it. And she meets people and sees other options that life has to offer, so that when she finally returns to Rochester, I was okay with it. This time she is coming from a position of strength rather than dependence, and makes her choice freely. So what would have been a creepy story had the first wedding succeeded turns into one in which the characters earn their happy ending.
At any rate, this is delightful reading – not only is Jane a strong character, but she has a strong voice, and despite the 19th century language, the prose is compelling and very readable. It flows so smoothly that it got into my head and I even found myself thinking in archaic language once or twice. So, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and had a bit of a book hangover after finishing. Definitely recommended to those who haven’t read it already!...more