Tristram Shandy: Review

IMG_3367.jpegI’ve been feeling like my review for Tristram Shandy is going to have to go one of two ways: I share what I liked about the book, or I write a 7,000 word academic essay. Fortunately for you, I don’t have time for the latter. So this might be a bit more casual of a review than normal.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a tricky book to review, anyway, because it doesn’t really have a plot. It was published as nine volumes over nine years, between 1758 and 1767, but this publication doesn’t have much to do with the meandering, digressive, and episodic form; plenty of books were published over multiple years, and they all had plots.

Okay, I admit, I’m still a little salty about the lack of plot. (Is salty still slang? Or have kids these days moved on?)

That’s my own fault, though, because I knew next to nothing going into the novel. In fact, I picked it up because last spring I worked on an early 19th-century diary written by a young American man who happened to love Tristram, and I was curious as to why he liked it so much.

Like my young diarist discovered more than two hundred years ago, it’s the novel’s very absurdity that makes it so charming. It invites us to laugh at the world, to see its comic aspects, to recognize that life is far too complex and random and strange to portray accurately in a traditional novel. And yet, it also refrains from descending into bitterness, instead remaining cheerful (but not saccharine) throughout. And once I realized that the plot was not simply forestalled but never arriving (and on purpose), I was able to enjoy Tristram much more. So don’t expect a plot. Just enjoy the journey.

The novel is not actually about Tristram, despite the very misleading title. While Tristram, as the vocal and active narrator, is kind of a character, we see very little of his life or opinions in the novel, and he almost never appears in the narrative. He isn’t even born until volume iv!

46201c899bc0e45596f544a6667444341514141.jpgInstead, the main  characters are Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle, and Trim, Toby’s butler/valet.  These three men are delightfully quirky characters, and are drawn with wonderful complexity. Walter has strange opinions about noses and names, Toby was invalided out of the army and now researches battles by building models in his garden, and Trim is a kind, loyal, soft-hearted former subordinate officer and valet and friend who also happens to know more about the world than surprisingly innocent Toby. For example, Toby (my favorite character), despite his near-obsession with military campaigns, cannot bear to kill even a fly.

I should note that while the characters are complex, they are not necessarily realisticTristram is a comic, even satiric novel, belonging to the same family tree as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and, later, Alice in Wonderland. Don’t expect Dickens or Richardson.

So, the characters are delightful, and if you let the narrator take you on a journey, you will find yourself delighted. Just don’t look for a plot.

Despite the seeming nonsense of the book, even a little contemplation of it will reveal that it has been very deliberately written and that Sterne knew full well what he was doing, even if Tristram doesn’t. It is bristling with literary allusions, allusions to (and quotations from) Sterne’s sermons, and a sharp awareness that this is a novel. Indeed, a lot of the book’s absurdity comes from Sterne showing us the limits of the novel form, which, it must be remembered, was still just a few decades old in the English tradition. One can try, like Henry Fielding does in Tom Jones, to be as realistic as possible, but a novel is still a written thing; its plot and characters imaginary.

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Tied to this awareness of the limitations of the novel is a parallel awareness of the novel as an object. Sterne constantly reminds us that we are reading a book. His book is filled with quotations and paraphrases and copies of parts of books (real and made up). And Sterne will often use creative textual methods to make a point. When somebody dies, early in the book, there are two black pages following, which serve as mourning. Later, Tristram rips out a chapter he has written, and there is a corresponding blank page in the book. The font changes in the chapter headings to make a point. I found all of this fascinating, and would like to dig more deeply into that aspect of the book (but not here).

So, while I struggled a bit at the beginning, simply because Tristram was a creature I was not expecting, I ended up really loving it. I’ve used “delight” several times in this review already, but I’ll use it one more time, because that’s what Tristram Shandy is: delightful. It ended up being a pleasure to read, and left me with some rich material to ponder in the days to come. What more could you want?

Video review, in which I explore some of these ideas in more detail, here: https://youtu.be/JnClOiiIM7Y

 

 

The Woman in White: Review

Book: The Woman in White5890
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Novel, Mystery
Period: mid-Victorian
Rating: 4/5 stars

I participated in the last Classics Club spin (#20) and it chose Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. This is my second Classics Club read. For more about the Classics Club, go here, for the background about the spin, here.

The Woman in White was published in 1860 after first being serialized the year before. It is kind of a mystery, and has strong gothic vibes. I say kind of, because unlike in Collins’ later work The Moonstone, which is trying to uncover a jewel theft, this novel begins by exploring mysterious circumstances and only really deals with solving A Mystery in the last third. The gothic vibes come from a gloomy estate home called Blackwater Park, mistaken identities, mysterious disappearances, and even more mysterious deaths, among other things.

Walking home in London from visiting his mother late one night, Walter Hartright helps a  young woman, dressed all in white, who has just escaped from an insane asylum, and where, she claims, she has been falsely imprisoned. He helps the woman to a cab and does not become further involved, but the encounter lingers in his mind, especially because the woman mentions Limmeridge House, and Hartright happens to be leaving the next day to become the drawing tutor for the ladies who currently live at Limmeridge. When he arrives in the country, Hartright asks one of the young women, Marian Halcombe, to help him try to identify the mysterious woman, and finds himself drawn into a mystery that involves not only the woman, but Marian’s half sister, Laura, and Hartright himself. There are secrets to uncover, lies to counter, lives to save. It’s hard to say more without spoiling things, but the story was very eventful and entertaining. I read about 300 pages in one sitting, over the middle of the book, because I just wanted to read “one more chapter.” You know how it goes.

Although I was eventually sucked in, I was glad to have a deadline while reading this book because it took me quite a while to get into the story. Very early on, Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie, and she is of course blonde and beautiful and fresh and innocent and it had me rolling my eyes. Laura is engaged to someone else, however, and the story really gets going after she is married to Sir Perceval Glyde, one of the novel’s villains. Once I got to this part of the story, about 200 pages in, I was hooked.

Despite my initial hesitation, I ended up enjoying the major characters a lot. Laura actually demonstrated that she was a perceptive, strong woman, which I appreciated. Marian, her half sister, is another strong woman, loyal, brave, determined, resourceful, and clever, and I’m so glad I met her. Walter also improves on acquaintance. His loyalty to Laura and Marian and his determination to do whatever he can to help them, even if there is no gain for him, helped me get over his predictable love interest. The villains are excellent, particularly Count Fosco, who I will remember for a long time. He was actually very charming and likable, which made his villainy all the more terrible, and it was great.

The story is told in as a compiled narrative, with various characters narrating the portion of the story about which they had the most experience. The frame is that after everything was over, Walter wanted to tell the truth, so gathered material from those who were involved and then wrote about his own experiences and arranged everything chronologically. So, while Walter begins the story, when he is not with Marian and Laura, Marian’s journal continues the story. There are also letters and other memoranda that are used to give various perspectives and details. It’s kind of like a dossier. Collins also does this in The Moonstone, but there is more movement between voices in The Woman in White, and I think I enjoyed that better.

While I mostly read The Woman in White for entertainment, and wasn’t looking for themes, it does raise some interesting questions about mental illness, and particularly around the lack of freedom women had when it came to being committed by their male relatives. I just spent last semester taking a course on 19th century American representations of mental illness, so these themes really stood out to me. Also, after finding out that Dickens tried to have his wife Catherine committed during their very nasty break-up in 1858 (the family doctor/friend told him “Don’t you dare!”), this felt a little like Collins was digging at Dickens with the “false imprisonment” plotline. I don’t really have anything profound to reflect on, although if I were to ever revisit works that feature mental illness for a writing project, this book would be on the list.

Overall, The Woman in White was a great book. I would recommend it to those who like mysteries, Victorian fiction, Dickens’s novels, a good plot, or who want a lot of action in their classics (just be aware that it’s action heavy for a Victorian novel; there’s still a lot of talking).

 

Classics Club Spin #20 (my #1)

Hello friends! I emerge from my school-induced blog hibernation to post my Classics Club spin list. If you’re not in the Classics Club (why not? It’s open to all!), the spin list is the 20 books below, selected from my larger Classics Club list. In a few days, the Classics Club moderators will post a number, and I will read the book which is that number on my list and post a review of it by May 31st.

There’s not a huge amount of rationale in this list. I essentially chose ones that I felt like I could read in two weeks, which is about how much time I’ll realistically have. I also only added books I already own or think I can easily find at my local used bookstore.

I don’t know if I’ll participate in every spin, but this one is timed well. My summer TBR is huge, and this will make choosing which classic to read first so much easier. I can’t wait to start digging into my personal reading/reading challenges again. Just a few more weeks!

4/22 Update: #19 has been spun! Looks like I’ll be reading The Woman in White!

The spin list:

  1. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  3. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  4. Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare
  5. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  6. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  7. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  8. Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  10. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  11. Light in August by William Faulkner
  12. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (technically a re-read)
  13. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  14. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
  15. The Mabinogion
  16. The Bostonians by Henry James
  17. Histories by Heroditus
  18. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  19. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  20. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

 

 

19 Books I’m Excited to Read in 2019

There are SO many books I want to read, as usual. Since my focus this year is to slow down, savor what I read, I’ve put together a list of 19 books I’d particularly like to get to. It may be that these books, plus my 2019 Classics Challenge, make up the bulk of my 2019 reading; it may be that I only read a few of these; it may be that I read all of these and more. But at the moment, these are the books I’d like to make a priority in this new year.

  1. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
  2. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
  3. Virgil Wander by Leif Enger (11 Jan)
  4. Lirael by Garth Nix
  5. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (3 Jan)
  6. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  7. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
  8. The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
  10. These Truths by Jill Lepore
  11. Paul in Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright (11 Jan)
  12. The Temple by George Herbert (10 April)
  13. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (an April 2019 release)
  14. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (a November 2019 release)
  15. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  16. The Bear and the Serpent by Adrian Tchaikovsky (7 Jan)
  17. The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
  18. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater (A November 2019 release)
  19. North! Or Be Eaten by Andrew Peterson

If you’d like to hear more about these books, and why they’re on this list, check out my video.

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Update: April 2019 – Maggie Stiefvater’s new book now has a name and a release date!

I am also going to mark when I’ve finished each of these books, and will link to a review if I write one.

2019 Reading Goals

But I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my reading goals for 2019, and after looking back at 2017 and 2018, and considering my school reading load, I’ve determined to set a couple of rather loose goals for next year.

  1. Aim for Slow Reading. I have a tendency to read quickly, bolting books and piling up the numbers. I’d like to work away from that for a couple of reasons.
    • I want to read some long books that I’ve been putting off because they’ll take a while.
    • I often grab whatever sounds interesting in the moment, which leads to my reading a lot of okay books that are, frankly, forgettable.
    • Speaking of forgetting, I also forget (or miss) the finer points of the good books I do read.
    • have to read quickly and at high volume for school. This past semester I ended up, out of a sheer lack of time, having a for-fun book simmering along in the background and I rather enjoyed reading a chapter or even a few pages before bed. While the quantity of my reading tanked Sept-Nov, the quality was much better, because I didn’t want to waste time with books I knew I’d only sort of enjoy.
  2. Genre/Category focuses (yes, I know technically it’s foci): In 2019, I’d like to read more classics and am participating in the Back to the Classics challenge to that end. I would also like to read more adult books, especially fantasy, historical fiction, and literary fiction. After long avoiding the previous three genres for a number of reasons, I feel like my deeper immersion into the bookish world this year has better equipped me to find the kinds of books I want to read.
  3. More Nonfiction I always say this, and then I never do. But I think part of that is because it takes me much longer to read nonfiction. By reading slower, I hope I can do better here.
  4. Goodreads Goal: 75 books
    • Since I count any whole books I read for school as well as my personal reading, I think this will be achievable (it sounds like in just one of my classes next semester, we might be reading 20 or more plays!) but also encourage me to slow down.
    • My personal reading goal is 2-3 books/month or about 1/3 of the total

And that’s it! An intense Spring semester and some over-ambitious goals in the previous years has led me to be a bit more broad and vague than before. My overall goal is to be more deliberate with my book selections and more attentive when I do read for fun.

In my next post, I’m going to list out more specifically some of the authors and books I’d like to read.