Archive for the ‘Reviews–Classics’ Category

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The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

May 5, 2010

Welcome, Classics Circuiters! The Dumas circuit is starting to wind down, so I know that many of you have already read a lot about Dumas and his books. I should start this review by admitting that I haven’t entirely finished The Count of Monte Cristo yet. I tried so hard to finish by today, but I’m only on about page 1000 of 1200. However, I would say that a thousand pages of reading material gives me something to talk about, even if I won’t know the ending for a few more days.

The Count of Monte Cristo, an introduction: Handsome, brave, but poor Edmond is beginning to live the American dream, albeit in early nineteenth century France. He’s got the beautiful fiance, the promotion, and the ailing father who has worked hard for his son to advance. But suddenly, in one fateful night, Edmond’s fortune shifts for the worse, at the hands of a few evil men.  Edmond then spends the rest of the story plotting and acting out his revenge against those who stole his life from him. A truly great set-up for an adventure story, with plenty of room for moral dilemmas!

Before I began this novel, I had already read the famous The Three Musketeers and the lesser known, short but fabulous novel The Black Tulip. I so thoroughly enjoyed them both that I was expecting to absolutely love Monte Cristo. And yet, when I first started this novel (almost a year ago during a long plane flight), I had a difficult time making it past the third-way point. I loved the first couple hundred pages, but unlike some of the previous reviewers, I really did not enjoy reading about Edmond’s time in prison. I set the book aside until last month, when the Classics Circuit chose Dumas for a spring tour. I was surprised at how quickly I could get back into the novel, and I fell in love with it all over again. I was able to seamlessly join in with Edmond’s crazy plotting, and loved reading about his ingenious attempts to trick people. Right now, I’m nearing the end of the novel, yet I’m as captivated as ever, mainly because at this point I’m actually rooting against Edmond, and I’m curious to see how Dumas solves the puzzle he sets up at the beginning: When do the well intended actions of a good-hearted person become too horrible to bear? It’s certainly an interesting question, and I hope that the ending of the book does the rest of it justice.

That being said, although I’m enjoying the novel, I can’t help but compare it to The Three Muskateers and The Black Tulip. I loved both of those novels, with very little hesitation. And I can’t stop thinking about what made them great that Count is lacking: a great sense of humor and strog(er) female characters. The Three Muskateers had me laughing on nearly every page. The Black Tulip has one of my favorite female characters ever in it. Count doesn’t really have any of these. (I know, there’s Mercedes, but she never really talks and when she does she is always so so weak. And Valentine has potential, but is never really as great as she could be. Made Villefort has the potential to be an awesome villainess, but I’m not through enough of the story to decide how I feel about her.) So even though I like the plot, and I’m enjoying the novel, as of right now, I don’t think that I could say that it’s one of my favorite Dumas novels. However, I would definitely still recommend it to people looking to read something with a great plot and interesting characters. I would just maybe recommend The Three Muskateers first.

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The Watsons by Jane Austen

March 8, 2010

The Watsons is one of Jane Austen’s earliest writing attempts, but it remains a fragment. She abandoned the book after only 40 or 50 pages. Somewhat surprisingly, the story focuses on a character named Emma and her family. Emma has been living with an elderly aunt for most of her life, but returns to her family after her aunt remarries without leaving Emma any money. Thus Emma becomes enmeshed in what we recognize as a classic Austen drama: she and her family are poor and the responsibility of providing for themselves rests entirely on the sisters’ ability to marry rich men. I found myself liking this story very much, and was actually shocked when I reached the end. I was sad that it was over, because I found myself very interested in the fates of some of the characters. In her introduction, Terry Castle postualtes that Austen may have abandoned this story because it was too dark, and Austen preferred to critique society with a wittier, gentler tone. I found this theory very convincing, since The Watsons does seem like a pretty bleak beginning for a novel. I could imagine a happy ending for maybe one or two of the sisters, but it seemed virtually impossible that the entire Watson family could conceivably find happiness. And for lack of a better description, many of the characters in The Watsons are quite mean! While I found this fragment an interesting study in how Austen’s work changed as she wrote more, I don’t know if I’d recommend this for a casual Austen fan. The story is fun, but it’s obviously surpasses by Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

I actually completed The Watsons a few of weeks ago. After a one or two week break, I started Sense and Sensibility (in a wonderful new gorgeous Penguin edition!) and I’m determined to read it slowly. This has been hard to do though, as I’ve found that I don’t remember huge swaths of the plot of this book. Even though I saw the movie relatively recently, the book just seems like an entirely different story! I even forgot that there was a third sister! More to come about that soon.

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

February 8, 2010

This year, I’m planning to read all of Jane Austen’s works in the order in which they were written. That means that I started with Lady Susan, an short, unusual novel told entirely in letters. It’s not the sort of letter writing I expected: a sequence of messages that chronicle the back-and-forth conversations between two people. Instead, the letters are mostly one-sided missives from the two main writers: Lady Susan and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Vernon. Most of the time, Lady Susan is writing to her good friend, and Mrs. Vernon is writing to her mother. Occasionally, we do get to read letters from others. But most of the time, we are reading two different views of the drama happening in Mrs. Vernon’s house. The novel opens with the news that Lady Susan will be coming to stay with her brother and sister-in-law for a while. Lady Susan’s reputation precedes her, however, as Mrs. Vernon has heard that Lady Susan is a mischievous plotter who is self-conceited and neglects her daughter. Of course, once Lady Susan arrives at the Vernon’s house, antics ensue. I loved learning about the story from two different sides: the secret thoughts of Lady Susan as she tells her friend the juicy truth, and the layers of dramatic irony that occur when poor Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother about what she thinks might be happening.

The story isn’t perfect–many of the characters are one-sided, and the plot is slightly predictable and sometimes become almost farcical. However, it was fun to see Austen play with the epistolary format. Many of her later themes show themselves in this book, most noticeably, her concern about how a society which only allows women to play the marriage game can destroy people. You know that Austen is doing some fabulous writing when you occasionally find yourself sympathizing with the villainess!

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

February 3, 2010

Today, I welcome Zora Neale Hurston as part of the Harlem Renaissance tour that is happening this month in the Classics Circuit. In her foreword, Edwidge Danticat calls Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a “brilliant novel about a woman’s search for her authentic self and true love.” That’s just about the best short summary that I could possibly find. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Although we may know her best for her novels and short stories, she was actually a trained and practicing anthropologist. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 while she was living in Haiti to research the people and culture of that country. While she was writing, Hurston was a popular writer, but she never benefited monetarily for all of her hard work. Sadly, she died penniless in a welfare hospital. For decades, her work was lost to us, because her writing was not deemed appropriate for correct political opinions of the time. But in 1975, Alice Walker published an article about her attempt to find Hurston’s unmarked grave, and ever since then, her books have been popular again. Aren’t we lucky that they are?

Hurston’s anthropological eye is one of the things that makes this novel so wonderful to read. As we learn about Janie and her adventures in Florida, it feels like we are transported to a different time and place. Hurston does such a great job of making us feel like flies on a wall. As soon as I finished reading this novel, I knew that I loved it simply for the realistic characters, the beautiful story, and the impressive writing. But once I started thinking about it more, so many questions came to mind. It’s great that Janie was so independent and didn’t care what other people might think about her actions, but why did it sometimes take her so long to stand up for herself when men were treating her badly? Why did it sometimes seem like all of the people, with the exception of the main characters (Janie, Joe, Tea Cake, Pheoby) always acted goofily? What role does family play in the culture we are reading about? Sometimes it seems so expendable to Janie, yet at other times, we hear of touching stories of families helping each other out.

There’s a lot to ponder in this book. It seems like such a brief, beautiful glimpse at an entire time, place, and people that I would so love to learn more about. I almost wish that Hurston had written a whole catalog of books just like this, Zola-style, that examined different characters in different novels.

Can anyone recommend a second Hurston book to read after this? Has anyone seen the Oprah production movie of this book? Is it worthwhile to watch?

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Howards End by E.M. Forster

February 2, 2010

Have you ever finished a book and then wanted to flip the book right around and start it again? I don’t know how I went so many years without reading any Forster. Howards End examines the relationship between two families who meet in a hotel: the Schlegel sisters (Margaret and Helen) and the Wilcox family. The two groups couldn’t be more different, yet once they are both back in England, life keeps throwing them together. Chance meetings lead to involvement in the others’ lives, and by the end of the novel, the two families are entirely intertwined with each other.

The odd thing about this novel is that although I know very well what happened, plot-wise and character-development-wise, I am not quite sure that I know what I am supposed to think about what happened. I suppose that some of that uneasiness that I feel is because I read so many heavy Victorian books and have become accustomed to an author being quite clear about the right point of view and the wrong point of view. In Howards End, however, I was never sure whether I was reading a character’s thoughts or the narrator’s opinions. In A Room with a View, it was quite clear who was supposed to be laughed at, who was supposed to tut-tutted to for being wrong, and who was supposed to be the one with the “right” thoughts. But Howards End is much more ambiguous. At certain times, it seems like Mr. Wilcox’s practical approach to life is satisfactory, but then at other times, he’s obviously perfectly crazy. Likewise, Margaret’s opinions about beauty and connecting seem so eloquent and ideally true. Yet, we see her falter several times herself.  And some of her opinions about how a woman should act around her husband change dramatically at the end of the novel. And what of Mr Bast, a lower middle class man that the sisters sort of befriend? He certainly has strong opinions about the way life should be lived, but I could never tell if the narrator was treating Bast with sympathy or contempt. This is why I wanted to reread the book so soon after finishing it–now that I know what happened, I want to read slowly so as to understand the smallest details of each character. Surely, though, one of the things that makes this novel such a great work is that raises more questions than it answers. Here is this unusual situation with all of these unique characters, and what can the reader learn from all of them? All I can say is that several days later, I’m still pondering that question, and I occasionally find myself thinking about these characters and agreeing or disagreeing with things that they thought or did. Howards End is certainly a door into a different time, culture, and society. I look forward to picking this book up again when I’m at a different stage in life to see how I may react differently.

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North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

January 13, 2010

Elizabeth Gaskell is everywhere these days. The sequel to Cranford is on Masterpiece Theatre, she swept through the blogs a few months ago on her Classics Circuit tour, and now here she is, making her first appearance on my reading list. She deserves the hype. North and South surprised me because it was my ideal Victorian novel: an interesting cast of characters, a focus on the social issues of the era, an intriguing romance, and–this is what is most unique–a strong, intelligent, female character.

North and South follows the life of Margaret, whose family is suddenly required to leave their rural home in the South of England and relocate to an industrial city in the North of England. The change of scenery requires a great deal of adjustment, which isn’t made any easier by an impending worker’s strike, which threatens to bring the town to a standstill. Whose side will Margaret take in the battle between mill owners and workers? How will her views and opinions change as she becomes accustomed to life in the North? And how will her views and opinions change the people she meets? These are the questions that Gaskell tackles.

There are so many things that I loved about this novel, but I most appreciated the character of Margaret. Who knew that hidden in the backlist of great British authors, there existed a Victorian writer whose prose was as great at Dickens but who wrote female characters who broke the archetype? Margaret is strong and independent. Even if she does spend a huge amount of time doing what people expect of a young, unmarried woman in the 1800s, her inner thoughts and outer words see that she has a much deeper character than I ever imagined. I love how she speaks her mind when arguing with Mr Thornton, one of the mill owners in town. She surprises him by her logic, her persistence, and her flare for rhetoric. Margaret’s private thoughts reveal that she is not simply ready to be the perfect Victorian woman. For example, in this passage, Margaret expresses how she feels after her father has left on a trip:

“It was astonishing, almost stunning, to feel herself so much at liberty; no one depending on her for her cheering care, if not for positive happiness; no invalid to plan and think for; she might be idle, and silent, and forgetful, — and what seemed worth more than all the other privileges–she might be unhappy if she liked. For months past, all her own personal cares and troubles had had to be stuffed away into a dark cupboard; but now she had leisure to take them out, and mourn over them, and study their nature, and seek the true method of subduing them into the elements of peace.”

Gaskell’s Margaret isn’t the Victorian woman that we read of so often. She is not a pillar of grace and perfection, content to carry the world on her shoulders. Instead, she recognizes the stress and difficulty of being expected to behave with perfection constantly. Later in the book, it comes as no surprise when Margaret announces that she “took her life into her own hands.” Indeed, it is only when she does so that she finds true happiness. This is really the ultimate consequence of the opinion she thinks over while her father is away.

One small note: I’ve read multiple times that people feel as if North and South is just a relocated version of Pride and Prejudice, because the main love story is somewhat similar: girl meets boy, girl hates boy, boy’s proposal is rejected by girl, girl eventually realizes her wrong and marries boy. My main problem with this comparison is two-fold: 1) Austen certainly did not invent this sort of love story and 2) I found the love story to be a much smaller part of this novel than it is in Pride and Prejudice. North and South has so many other plot lines and themes: the tension between workers and mill owners, the plight of the poor during the industrial revolution, the differences and similarities between rural and urban life, and the moral conundrum of choosing between telling lies and saving family members, among others. Of course, Pride and Prejudice also has many layers of social concern in the novel, but they were quite different than those found in North and South.

I’m thrilled to discover that I now have several of Gaskell’s novels to read. I’m glad that I have a copy of Cranford waiting for me on my bookshelf.

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The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

January 8, 2010

This post is part of the Edith Wharton Classics Circuit. You should check out the list of all the stops that Edith will be making on her blog tour.

Since it’s still fairly early in the classics circuit for Edith Wharton, a few biographical details might be informative. She lead quite the interesting life; a fact that I had forgotten. She was born in 1862 in New York City to an aristocratic family. She married at the age of twenty-three, but got a divorce in 1913. After her divorce, she moved to France. During the First World War, she became very active in the war relief effort and founded a charity for refugees, among other things. Her service actually earned her a spot as a Cheavlier of the Legion of Honor, one of France’s highest merits! She lived the rest of her life in France until her death in 1937. So she certainly did live during interesting and tumultuous times. I’m sure that we will learn more about her life in future tour stops, but it’s helpful for a context to her stories.

This collection of short stories, which span from 1891-1934, are selected and introduced by Roxana Robinson. They were not part of a collection published during Wharton’s lifetime. Instead, these stories were collected together because they show the development of Wharton as a writer and because they focus on New York City and its society. I felt that they really worked well as a collection. I could see Wharton’s style develop as I read them, and each story properly fit in its place.

These stories were the first time that I have encountered Wharton writing about the less privileged classes. In the other Wharton novels that I have read (all of which I have loved–I once considered her my favorite author), she typically concerns herself with the flaws in the upper classes. There were several stories, such as Mrs Manstey’s View and That Good May Come , that seriously focus on the thoughts and difficulties of the working class. Wharton does a remarkable job portraying these characters, and I hope that I can find one of her novels that explores similar themes.

I was immensely impressed with Robinson’s introduction to this book. While I wouldn’t recommend you read it before the stories, the insights that Robinson provides into the stories and their relation to Wharton’s life are invaluable reading after finishing the stories. In fact, I read the introduction in chunks, usually reading different sections as I finished certain stories. After finishing the introduction, I felt like I had just taken a crash course in literary criticism about Edith Wharton!

Anyone who is interested in getting a taste of Wharton’s writing but who is hesitant to commit to one of her longer novels should find this book a helpful introduction. These stories are filled with Wharton’s trademark social insights and skillful prose, but they are perhaps more accessible to the modern reader.To provide a sense of Wharton’s writing style, this post ends with a few sentences from one of my favorite stories in the collection, The Journey. This is such a haunting story. A woman is on a long train ride with her ailing husband. As they travel, she reminisces about their relationship.

A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead in life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.