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).

 

Oresteia: Review

51C7XYdMalL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI’ve been meaning to read this trilogy of ancient Greek plays, by Aeschylus, for ages, and I was delighted when one of my classes this semester forced me to actually do it. This is one of the books on my Classics Club list; the first one I’ve completed! Click the link to see the whole list of classics I’ve committed to read in the next five years.

Aeschylus is the oldest example of Greek drama (and therefore western drama) that we have. His plays are quite different from contemporary ones, or even early modern ones, so I recommend finding an edition that has an introduction which discusses the ancient Greek theatrical tradition. Basically, these plays were written for a festival in honor of Dionysus.

The Oresteia is about the death of Agamemnon at his return from the Trojan War and the events that follow. Is it spoilery if I summarize the whole plot of a 2500 year old story based on an even older myth? Actually, I think this is one of those cases where knowing the story beforehand is helpful. If you don’t want to know anything, skip to below the line for my thoughts.

On his way to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to ensure safe passage and his wife, Clytemnestra, is understandably angry. While Agamemnon is gone for ten years, she starts an affair, and when Agamemnon returns, she murders him. Play 1, Agamemnon, focuses on Agamemnon and Clytemenestra’s, erm, marital problems, and ends with his murder.

6917129-M.jpgIn play 2, The Libation Bearers, Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, comes home from the foreign country where he’d been for a while, and meets his sister, Electra, at their father’s funeral and decides to avenge his father’s murder by killing his mother, even though this will bring the Furies, the ancient goddesses of justice, on his head for killing blood. Apollo has commanded him to do so, and promised protection. [side note, Orestes is where the name of the trilogy comes from]

In play 3, The Furies, Orestes flees to Athens and asks for a trial, defended by Apollo and arbitrated by Athena herself. Athena wins (of course) and the Furies become the Erinyes, the Kindly Ones, protectors of Athens.

On the surface, this play can seem very sparse. Each installment is short, about 40 pages of verse in my edition, and there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action. Digging deeper, with the help of footnotes and good introductions, shows that there’s a lot of complex questions about justice, politics, and religion being discussed. The “eye-for-an-eye” revenge cycle represented by Clytemnestra and the Furies is the “old way,” which is remade into the new way of justice by fair trial.

9780199537815.jpegSomething else I found very interesting was the way Aeschylus used his chorus. If you’ve ever studied ancient Greek drama, you probably learned that the chorus is  supposed to be some anomalous group like “the people” or “the elders,” and this is how Sophocles (Oedipus Rex and Antigone) uses them. But Aeschylus uses his chorus much more complexly. They are the “elders” in play 1, but in play 2 they become the Libation Bearers of the title, and in play 3 they become the Furies. This shift from old men to old women to goddesses is very interesting to follow, especially when you factor in that these plays were performed on the same day, with the same group of people (all men, probably). Essentially, the chorus moves from being that more traditional group of commentators to being a major group of characters by the last play. It is also interesting to see how much power, both good and bad, women are afforded in this trilogy. While Agamemnon and Orestes are the main characters, their lives are both intensely shaped and influenced by the women around them.

Like a lot of Greek drama, the Oresteia has a lot to say about big topics that makes it still feel relevant today. It’s a pretty quick read for an ancient classic, and I definitely recommend it.

Recommended editions: Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Hackett

Update 5/29: I now have a video review up, where I go more in-depth into the history and backstory of the trilogy. Check it out at https://youtu.be/RSoZJDU9MAU

Adam Bede: Review

Adam Bede by George Eliot
4 stars

It is our habit to say that while the lower nature can never understand the higher, the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience, often with bruises and gashes incurred in taking things up by the wrong end, and fancying our space wider than it is.

AdamBede1-420x620.pngThis story follows Adam Bede, a young carpenter who lives in rural northern England, and the people who form his community in this village where he lives. Adam is a diligent worker and a good friend, who often judges too harshly and responds to the faults in others with anger instead of mercy. As the story opens, he is working for a local business owner and is admired and respected by his community, but several circumstances in his life are preventing him from doing all he wishes to do. One of the things he wants to do is marry a girl named Hetty Sorrel, but he doesn’t feel like he has enough financial stability to do so. While Adam is working through his own life circumstances, Hetty meets and falls for Arthur Donnethorne, the young squire who is a friend of Adam’s. Conflict ensues.

This is not a story about a love triangle; Eliot is too complex for that, even in this, her first novel. Instead, this is ultimately a story about sin and sorrow. While a weaker work than Middlemarch, the things that I love about Eliot are still evident in Adam Bede. Her focus is always on character. What makes people tick? What are their flaws? How do those flaws impact their actions?

In Adam Bede Eliot is exploring the impact other people have on our lives. While in stories the main character tends to have to address problems that are due to their actions, Adam must work through problems that are caused by the actions of Arthur and Hetty. This is a less common kind of story, but a common human experience. If the people around you deeply wound you, how do you respond? And more importantly, how ought you respond? Adam’s initial responses are unhealthy (ahem, literal fistfight, actual hatred), but eventually, with the help of some friends, he shapes his heart towards forgiveness, and in doing so, helps Hetty and Arthur find repentance and forgiveness, too.

19426099176.jpgI continue to be amazed how well Eliot draws characters, how vivid and life-like they are. Even the minor characters, like Mr. Irwine or Bartle Massey, are so real. I do think the characters, generally, and Hetty, especially, aren’t as multi-dimensional as, for example, Rosamond Vincy or other figures later in Eliot’s career, but still excellently done. In addition, the plot was a little unevenly paced, and the action got rather dramatic at times. But as I want to emphasize, these are really only flaws in comparison to Middlemarch, which I think is one of the best English novels full stop, so they are minor flaws. As a first novel, especially, it’s marvelous. Eliot is a mature writer who rewards mature and attentive readers with an enormous feast of richness and truth.

As is happening more and more with classics, at first it took me a little bit to get into this book, and I read it casually around other things for a couple of weeks. I enjoyed it, but was okay with putting it down for a few days. And then I read the last 150 or 200 pages in one sitting. I kept telling myself “one more chapter” until I realized I was just going to finish the book. I think classics in general invite a longer settling in, they spend more time introducing and developing characters before diving into the plot. And the result, at least here, is that afore-mentioned richness.

Related to that reaction of mine, another aspect of the book I loved is that although we neither see or are told about some of the central actions in the book, Eliot manages to make us aware that they’re happening anyway, through small details that I think make those actions feel weightier (the little pink handkerchief — !!). Her choice to withhold details creates tension and a sense of dread in a very subtle and sophisticated way. There was a moment near the end where I actually gasped out loud, and then realized I’d been holding my breath, because the tension in that moment was so acute and so subtle. I thought I knew what was going to happen and had accepted it; turns out I hadn’t.

I identified a lot with Adam, being similarly good at doing the right thing, but sometimes struggling to be merciful when people don’t meet my own standards. The next time I read the book, I’ll be paying more careful attention to his development, because I know I’ll be able to learn a great deal from him. However, of all the major characters, it’s Hetty that I think about the most. I do think Eliot was right to name the book after Adam, because the book is ultimately about him, but Hetty plays a large role. Poor girl.

51UfiU57zXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg(The next paragraphs flirt with some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know more, look away!). Eliot shows us that Hetty is a vain, selfish, and empty-headed young woman. She wants nothing more than to be admired and liked, but doesn’t actually like or care about other people very much. She literally spends hours in her bedroom looking at herself in the mirror and daydreaming about getting pretty dresses and basking in the attention she gets from men.

This shallowness of character means she can’t really imagine how others think or feel, or see the world in a perspective outside of her own very limited one. And she can’t think complexly enough to anticipate potential consequences of her actions, or to recognize social realities that might deflate her daydreams. She really doesn’t see why Arthur will never consider her seriously as a potential wife. I compared her to Rosamond Vincy earlier because I think she is an early version of the kind of character Rosamond is, too. But while Rosamond has some redeeming moments, Hetty really doesn’t, although she does have a moment of repentance. Her poor character leads her to make bad decisions (it’s true her experience is not only her fault, but she’s certainly not a victim, and definitely makes things worse than they could have been), and then to not know how to deal with the consequences, leading to even worse decisions. While there were plenty of people from whom she could have sought help, and indeed who invite her to come to them if she needs help, her desire to be liked is stronger than anything, and so she is too proud and not imaginative enough to see these avenues that are open to her. And this leads to some pretty tragic consequences.

One of the reasons I wanted to think about Hetty more in this space is because I think her plot and character arc are one of those circumstances where it is all too easy to read with modern eyes and miss what the author is trying to say. Would things have been different for Hetty now? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that she would have had a better story; she would simply have made different kinds of mistakes, because it’s her character that Eliot is concerned with.

What Hetty has to learn is that her actions have consequences, not only for her, but for those around her who care about her: her cousin, Dinah, her aunt and uncle, and Adam, who loves her. This ripple effect also offers Adam the opportunity to grow; he realizes he didn’t know Hetty like he thought, and must work through his anger towards forgiveness. I think the fact that Adam has enough depth to recognize his flaws and choose to do the difficult personal work required to become a better person (and it is genuinely difficult – he suffers) is what makes him the protagonist of the story.

I definitely recommend reading Adam Bede, although I think it wouldn’t be the best introduction to Eliot — start with Middlemarch or Silas Marner. In addition to being a little weak (for Eliot), the country folks speak in a dialect that takes a little getting used to.

But as a discussion of sin, sorrow, anger and forgiveness, I think it’s a marvelous book and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

As a side note, while searching for the images I’ve included here, I stumbled on a very excellent analysis and discussion of Adam Bede. I recommend reading it.

Favorite Books of 2018

I read SO many wonderful books in 2018, it was hard to narrow this list down! But after a lot of thought, here are my 10 favorite books of 2018.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

IMG_2075.jpegDorthea Brooke longs to do something great in her life that will allow her to make the world better. She imagines herself marrying a man who will do something famous, a man like Pascal or Milton. Or Edward Casaubon, a neighbor who is working on the Key to All Mythologies. Dorthea marries him, full of idealistic dreams, and quickly is disappointed. She then must grapple with her ideas and ideals, trying to understand how she can fill her new role as Mrs. Casaubon.

Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor just arrived in Middlemarch with dreams of making some kind of medical advance. He is a good doctor, but not the best judge of character. He marries Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful, and ultimately vain and selfish woman, and finds that to keep her happy, he might have to change his own plans for his future.

Middlemarch is about much more than these characters; the cast is large and the story really is about the town of Middlemarch. Eliot’s themes focus on questions of religion and vocation, and of the importance of doing our best to know the other souls who live around us. Dorthea, for example, must learn how she can pour her religious idealism and passion into making her own time a better place. Eliot suggests that had Dorthea been born in a different time or place, she might have joined a convent and done great religious work, becoming another Saint Theresa of Avila. But that path is not open to her in early Victorian England, so Dorthea must discover what path is available. The tragedy of Rosamond is that she does not wish to try to understand other people; they should know what she wants, and deliver it. But in the few moments where she does put herself in someone else’s shoes, she effects great good.

Eliot’s brilliance is in her characters. They are real, vivid, and wonderfully rounded. The characters you like have serious flaws, the characters you dislike have good qualitites. Her descriptions and meditations and comments are brilliant, vivid, and often humorous. Middlemarch really is one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

IMG_0631.jpegJoe Kavalier moves to New York, fleeing Prague from the encroaching Nazi threat at the last possible second. He there meets his cousin, Sam Clay, who is about his age. Sam is an ideas guy, and when he realizes Joe can draw, he spots their opportunity: With his stories and Joe’s drawing, they can start writing a comic book together. In 1930s New York, the Golden Age of comic books is just getting underway, and Joe and Sammy are on the ground floor of the phenomenon.

While the story does follow their business and creative successes (and failures, and setbacks), Kavalier and Clay is really about the two boys. Quiet and intense, Joe falls in love with Rosa, and also struggles with anxiety over his family’s situation back in Europe, and eventually develops survivor’s guilt. Sam is enthusiastic, outgoing, and friendly with everyone, but begins to realize that he’s not attracted to women.

The novel follows these two cousins over roughly twenty years, as their experiences in the first few years of their partnership have long waves. I really loved the characters, and loved watching them grow from their late teens to middle age. Chabon did a marvelous job of allowing his characters to grow and age without becoming something different from themselves. It was a marvelous story, and well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

IMG_1610.jpegGilbert Markham is a young English gentleman farmer. His little community is set to gossiping when the beautiful and secretive Helen Graham and her son move into Wildfell Hall, the old home of the area’s squire. Gilbert and Helen become friends, but when rumors begin to spread about her, Gilbert asks Helen for the truth. She gives him her journal to read, and what follows is the account of a young woman who believes she can change her husband, but learns how wrong she is. Helen’s husband is verbally abusive, an alcoholic, and an adulterer. The story is really Helen’s; the bulk of the book is about her experience coming to terms with her horrible marriage and working out how she can deal with her marriage while still holding true to her own personal principles. I didn’t always agree with Helen’s perspective, but I could always admire her. It is a marvelous story. I read it quickly, staying up until the wee hours to finish it, something I rarely do with classic fiction. I believe this is one of, if not the first English novel to address topics like alcoholism and terrible marriages, and even though so many things have (thankfully) changed, I think its treatment of these topics is very timely.

(Also, fun fact: Anne had heavily researched the medical and psychological impact of alcoholism and the book is very accurate based on the latest research of her time)

The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

41xPxQ0Qr-L._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis is a long poem divided into – you guessed it – four quartets, each named after a place: “Burnt Norton,” “East Corker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” I had studied “Burnt Norton” in an Eliot class, but hadn’t read the rest of the quartet, and this really isn’t a work that should be read in pieces. In October, I picked it up and slowly worked my way through it over a weekend, reading and re-reading each section as I went along.

This is also not a poem for beginner poetry readers. I love Eliot, and have read a lot of his works. All of them are challenging, and this one is a doozy. That said, it was absolutely worth working through, and is a poem that I’ll understand better each time I read it. I’m not quite sure I can really describe the poem; it has a narrative I can’t repeat, themes I only vaguely grasp. It’s elusive and slippery on purpose, and makes more sense on reflection, at a distance, than while you’re actually reading it. I think that Eliot is mainly trying to make sense of incarnational time. How can an event in time also be out-of-time and for all time? Really, such a complicated topic deserves a complicated poem.

So why did it make my top 10 list? Because I’m so proud of myself for wrestling through it and beginning to understand. And because it is a stunning poem. Even if you’re not quite sure what he means, exactly, Eliot’s use of language is beautiful, evocative, and so, so skilled.

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

IMG_2256.jpegThis is one of the oldest works of Western literature, and Wilson’s translation gives it a freshening that I think it really needed.

The poem follows Odysseus, trying to get home from the Trojan war. He is blown off course, and then angers Poseidon, making it a really hard task, one that ultimately takes ten years. On the journey, he meets all kinds of mythical characters and challenges, many of which are still part of our cultural vocabulary (Circe, the Sirens, the Cyclops…). The story also follows his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, who are waiting for Odysseus to come home. A host of suitors, sure Odysseus is dead, want to marry Penelope, and they are rudely eating them out of house and home.

I’ve read this story before, but never imagined it would make my top 10 list. Wilson’s translation is just fantastic. She has dispensed with the traditionally highfalutin’ language and padded descriptions in favor of a lean, fast-paced, but still beautiful translation. I was amazed by how quickly I read this, and how much I enjoyed it; even sections I had previously found tedious were now entertaining. Furthermore, Wilson chose to let her translation reveal the “problematic” elements of the Odyssey; for example, instead of quietly translating various words as “servant” or “maiden” or so on, she uses the more accurate term: “slave.” Several translators had also chosen adjectives with negative connotations to make certain characters seem worse than the original portrayed to make the protagonists look better; Wilson refrains, instead pointing out the moral ambiguities of the poem in her introduction.

Speaking of the introduction, that section, and the translator’s note, were very informative and worth reading. I also appreciated that her notes in the back contained a summary of each book (chapter); very helpful for first (or second or third) time readers.

Circe by Madeline Miller

IMG_0643.jpegThis novel is difficult to summarize without spoilers, so I’ll just say that it follows the life of Circe, from before her birth to — the end of the book (she’s immortal, you know, and #spoilers). Circe grows up in the palace of her father, Hyperion, generally ignored until she discovers she has a different kind of power from the other immortals. Her ability to control the qualities of plants and manipulate the natural world earns her the title witch and banishment to a solitary island. The turning point of the novel, although not the climax or the end, comes when Odysseus and his crew visit her.

This is really a story about identity. Circe doesn’t really fit anywere, and, forced to be alone, she slowly, over a long time, comes to understand and accept herself. Miller’s knowledge of mythology and the ancient world is scholarly and extensive, and as a result although this is essentially a mythology re-imagining, it feels very real and very grounded. And Miller’s prose is just gorgeous.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

IMG_0502.jpegMerrick Tremayne has been invalided out of the British East India Company, where he was a botanist and basically a smuggler. But he is asked to join one last expedition to Peru to recover Cinocha cuttings. The Company is having problems with malaria in India, and wants to begin a plantaion there so that they have easy access to quinine, the only cure for the disease. Merrick is asked to go not only because of his prior experience, but also because his family has connections to a Peruvian town called New Bethlehem. When Merrick arrives in New Bethlehem, he begins to learn what those connections are, and discovers the world is a little more magical than he thought.

This is another book where the characters are the biggest draw. While there is plenty of action in The Bedlam Stacks, it is Merrick and Raphael who kept me reading. I love this genre, historical fiction with just a touch of magical realism, and this one was the best of the three or four I read last year. It was, overall, a lovely story with lovely writing, and I can’t wait to see what Pulley does next.

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

911ER8Bm6NL.jpgThis fantasy novel is the beginning of a series. Maniye is the daughter of a Wolf chieftan and the Tiger queen he had killed after Maniye was born. In this fantasy world, the Iron Wolves control the Crown of the World, and Maniye’s father, a secondary chief, has his eye on the head chief role. When Maniye learns that he plans to marry her to the man who killed her mother as part of his plan for personal advancement, she runs away. In her running, Maniye meets many people, both from the Crown of the World and from the Sun River Nation to the south. As it turns out, there may be something much bigger brewing…

The aspect of this book that sold me was the world building. It is so incredibly nuanced and unique; I’m constantly blown away. Tchaikovsky has considered his world down to the metals used in weapons and the different cultural habits of each tribe. In this world, each person is born with a human and an animal soul, which is determined by their birth. So, the members of the Wolf can shapeshift into wolves, the Deer into deer, the Bear into bear, and so on. But Maniye has two souls, Tiger and Wolf, a fact she works hard to keep secret, and one which might tear her apart.

I will say that the plot and the characterization in this book was weaker than many of the others listed here, although still very good. Also, the story took a while to get going. In the end, the worldbuilding more than made up for any flaws. At the moment, I’m reading the sequel, and so far enjoying it even more.

Strange the Dreamer/Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Strange-the-Dreamer-Series-Covers.jpgI’m cheating a little and counting these two books as one, since they are essentially two halves of the same story.

Lazlo Strange is an orphan who works in his country’s national library and learns all he can about the maybe-mythical city of Weep. Hundreds of years ago, this city was an important one in the world, but then suddenly all contact with and from it vanished. When Lazlo was a child, the name of the city also disappeared, and people took to calling it Weep.

One day, a delegation from Weep arrive at the library, looking for help to a particular problem. Lazlo is thrilled, and although he isn’t picked to be one of those who are brought to Weep to work on the problem, his knowledge of the language and the friendship he develops with the leader, Eril-fane, leads to his inclusion.

Lazlo’s history and all that I’ve described takes about the first third of Strange the Dreamer, and to talk about any more would be too spoilery. Suffice it to say that what had caused Weep’s problems, and what causes problems still, is not what anyone expected, and Lazlo is more helpful than he imagined. Muse of Nightmares picks up exactly where Strange left off, and finishes the story.

Weep’s history is marked by violence and subjugation, from which they were only recently freed, and memories are long. The fear, hatred, and sorrow caused by their past is still fresh, and while the delegates are brought to solve a practical problem, it is this emotional problem that the book is more concerned with. Can a cycle of hatred and vengeance be broken after so much suffering? And how?

Taylor’s writing is beautiful, and these were definitely my favorite YA books from this year (and the only ones to make my top 10). While not perfect, I liked that she tackled themes that are important and relevant, and did it in a way that was nuanced and compassionate. Lazlo is the hero, but his heroism is that of a kind man, a loving human, not a warrior. Love and communication, understanding and kindness are what win the day, and we desperately need more of those things.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

IMG_2246.jpegI kind of picked this book up on a whim at the used bookstore, and then immediately kicked myself for not grabbing the rest of the trilogy. This is another fantasy, of the old-fashioned kind.

Although from the Old Kingdom, Sabriel has grown up at a bording school in Ancelstierre, which is a (mostly) non-magical realm that feels like Edwardian or early 1920s England. At school, she has learned a little magic, and her father, the Abhorsen, has taught her more. When he fails to visit on her eighteenth birthday, Sabriel realizes something is wrong, and travels to the Old Kingdom for the first time to find him. She quickly discovers that even with her training, the Old Kingdom is very different from the world she knows, and that her father’s disappearance is even more serious than she had imagined. Joined by a talking cat named Mogget and a man named Touchstone, she journeys through the kingdom-without-a-king to find her father.

This is such a wonderful fantasy. It doesn’t try to do anything too wild, but is itself very well. The Charter Magic and the Old Kingdom are well drawn and still, months later, the world is very vivid to me. I love Mogget so much, and Sabriel is admirable for her determination, her kindness, her willingness to grow.

The story’s themes include friendship and life and death, and it does get a little dark at times. But because it is a good-and-evil story, I was okay with that darkness, which is never glorified. It was just so satisfying and enjoyable to read, and is one of those books I wish I had discovered ten years ago. I have since bought the rest of the trilogy, and am excited to dive back into this world.


I am interested by the fact that, although the largest percentage of my reading last year was YA, there are only two YA books on this list (Strange and Muse). The rest are from the adult age category, and consist of an old favorite genre (fantasy) (2), classics (4), and a surprising number of more literary works (3). I’m looking forward to seeing how my reading develops in 2019.


Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite reads in 2018? Let me know in the comments!

Most of the pictures here (except the cover-only images) are from my Instagram account WiththeClassics. If you haven’t already, go check it out!

May 2018 Favorites

Hello friends!

I haven’t been writing much lately, because I’ve been busy with school, and also because I started a BookTube channel (that’s YouTube about books)! Right now I’m mostly posting random content while I discover the shape of the thing I want it to be, but I’d love if you checked it out: WithTheClassics

I read 14 books in May, and loved many of them, so I thought I’d share my favorites with you here. I did a full wrap-up that will be on my channel in a few days, and I talk about all of these books in various May videos, so if you’d like more of my thoughts, check them out.

In the order I read them:

The Bedlam Stacks | Natasha Pulley

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Merrick Tremayne is an ex-East India Co smuggler, trapped at home in England by an injury. He’s recruited to travel to Peru to help steal cuttings of the tree that produces quinine, the only treatment for malaria. He is asked because of his smuggling experience, his hobby as an amateur botanist, and his family’s history in that particular part of Peru. But once he arrives in New Bethlehem, he realizes that things are not what they seem.

This book is historical fiction with *just* a touch of magical realism, and it’s a lovely mix. It is a lyrical, beautiful book, the kind that burrows into your heart and then declares its staying forever. Although action-packed, the focus is on Merrick and the choices he makes as he learns more about the unique place his grandfather and father had come to love, and that action-packed plot is quite character-driven. It left me with warm, fuzzy feelings and everyone should go read it.

Circe | Madeline Miller 

35959740.jpgI feel like people have been slow to pick this new release up, and they need to get a move on! Circe is about the titan goddess by that name, the one whose best known for being a witch and turning men into pigs in the Odyssey. Beginning with the circumstances of her birth, Circe narrates her life for us, telling both a fascinating tale and contemplating her choices and actions. It’s a wonderful, unique retelling.

This book was so refreshing to read after all the YA retellings I’ve experienced lately. Not that I’m knocking them, but this one, being literary fiction in addition to a myth retelling, had a lyricism and depth the YA ones don’t. Circe is a fascinating, complex woman, and Miller doesn’t hesitate to show the heroic and problematic aspects of other mythological characters; Circe lives a long life and meets a lot of people and gods along the way. But aside from the tour through mythology, it is Circe herself, and her struggle to understand her long life and to find meaning in it that makes this such a wonderful read.

City of Brass | S.A. Chakraborty 

32718027.jpgAn adult fantasy that (nearly) avoided any kind of romance (*insert clapping hands emoji*). City of Brass then gets even better by being rooted in Middle Eastern mythology. Here be Genies, although they’re called, more accurately, Djinn or Daeva. Nahri is a thief living on the streets of Cairo in the early 1800s when she accidentally summons one of those Djinn. He realizes that she’s more than just a street thief, and takes her to Daevabad, the titular City of Brass. The only thing is, Daevabad is in the middle of its own political problems, and the arrival of the last surviving member of one of their most powerful families, accompanied by one of the most feared and hated Djinn in thousands of years, does not improve things.

City of Brass is an essentially political novel, which I liked. It was a nice change from the sweeping epics I’ve read lately. The magic system is well-done, and not dumbed down. The characters who are magic do magic; they don’t run around and explain everything. My favorite aspect of this novel is the characterization. Every major character has his or her own desires, and the conflict arises from the clash of those desires. It works brilliantly, especially because everybody’s actions make sense. There are no villains here, just people trying to do their best. My only issue with the book is that it IS a trilogy, and definitely reads like a part I. There’s no awful cliffhanger, but the plot and character arcs feel unfinished.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay | Michael Chabon

12679626.jpgJoe Kavalier escapes Prague in 1939 by the skin of his teeth and comes to live with his cousin, Sam Clay, in Brooklyn. When Sam realizes Joe can draw, he pitches a comic book to his boss, and the rest is history. Told over 15 years, and against the backdrop of the early days of WWII, mostly, and of the Golden Age of comic books, this thick novel is nevertheless surprisingly intimate. It remains focused on Joe and Sam, who both have strong, well-drawn and dynamic characters.

Basically, I loved everything about this book, and it is one of my favorites now. Funny in a lot of places, sad in a few, really sad in another few, poignant, thoughtful, and all-around entertaining, it feels like an heir to the great Victorian novelists. It’s the kind of story I think modern literary fiction is lacking sorely. To try to say more would force me to be spoilery, and coherent, so just pick it up while you’re grabbing The Bedlam Stacks.

Now excuse me, I’m going to go read everything Chabon has ever written, and throw Natasha Pulley’s other book in the pile while I’m at it.

On Stress-Reading and Some Recommendations

IMG_0367.jpgI don’t know about you, but I definitely stress-read.

I mean, I read all the time, and when I’m REALLY stressed, I do tend to watch Netflix instead of reading, but a step below that is stress-reading.

This is what I do when I’m at the end of a semester, usually. Books that fit this category are usually re-reads, or familiar authors. It’s like eating comfort food, but with books.

I noticed this semester that I actually turn to a particular genre, as well: detective fiction. In particular, I binge- read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, although I’m non-discriminatory in my author choices–new, old, I’ll take anyone. As long as it’s not thrillers or horror. Those are NOT relaxing.

For example, at the moment I’m listening to a full cast adaptation of seven of the Hercule Poirot stories. I’m also reading Still Waters by Vivica Stein, a contemporary Swedish novel featured in Amazon’s translated books series.

It seemed odd to me that I turn to detective fiction at the end of the year (I find murder relaxing? Is that a problem?), at least, until I thought about it for a little while.

Although Dorothy Sayers is a little bit of an exception, generally detective stories are focused entirely on the plot, and aside from wondering “whodunnit?” there’s not much else. That is, these books don’t really have highly rounded characters (though they certainly may be enjoyable ones), or even the most perfect prose. Thus, they offer the perfect solution to the words-weary English-grad mind: compelling stories that take little mental effort to read. You can try to figure out the mystery, of course, but you don’t have to expend a lot of energy on it. Also, you know how the story will end, in that you are very sure that the murderer will be caught and everything will be explained. When I’m frantically writing analytic essays and am worried about grades and due dates, this easy, assured reading is, indeed, relaxing.

So I thought, in light of this discovery, here are a few recommendations of classic murder mysteries, ones I love enough to re-read because they’re just so much fun.

Agatha Christie:

Unknown.jpegMurder on the Orient Express. I mean, if you haven’t read this yet, what have you been doing? The Orient Express gets stuck in a snowdrift and one of the passengers is murdered. Only one of the twelve other passengers in the first-class cars could have done it, but who? The twists and turns of this novel keep me going even after I know the murderer; it’s marvelous. THE classic.

And then There Were None. Ten people are invited to a remote house on an otherwise deserted island. Their hosts never show. Then people start dying.

Apparently Christie set out to create the most perfect, watertight crime in this novel, and it is so good she had to reveal the murderer in a (kind of hokey) epilogue. The slightly horror vibe here is great, and again, the reveal is stunning.

The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd. What’s brilliant about this novel is you’re really sure it’s one of Christie’s typical “murder in the English Countryside” novels until it’s absolutely different from all the others. I’m not even going to say anything else. This was so genius.

Dorothy Sayers:

isbn9781444797435.jpgWhose Body? The first of her Lord Peter mysteries. A middle-class man finds a dead body in his bathtub, and at first it’s thought he’s the missing Levy. Except he’s not. So who is the dead body, and where’s Levy?

Introducing Lord Peter, this is, in my opinion, the most typical of Sayers’ mysteries, but start with this one because they only get better from here.

Murder Must Advertise. An ad man is killed, and Lord Peter is invited by the owner of the agency to go undercover and solve the mystery. I love this one because Sayers had previously worked in advertising, and aside from a compelling mystery, she gently satirizes advertising, a satire which is surprisingly relevant today. Apparently the ethos of ads hasn’t changed much from the 1920s. Also, the agency employees are delightful characters.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I’m enjoying Still Waters. I was a little annoyed with the prose until the mystery got going, and now I don’t mind it as much. It is very much a typical Swedish detective story; the main detective is ruggedly handsome with a sad past and all the ladies want him but he doesn’t notice them…. you know. That kind of book.

How about you? Do you turn to a particular genre or particular authors when you’re stressed? What’s your book comfort food?

Classic Re-Reads: Sense and Sensibility

Even though I’m a pretty fast reader, reading classics takes time, (especially when one decides to tackle a beast like Anna Karenina). So here begins an occasional series of classics I’ve not only read and enjoyed, but re-read. These works are comfort novels for me; stories I revisit as comfort food.

When I decided to begin this series, the first novel that sprang to mind was Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Less famous than Pride and Prejudice, I think I prefer it. (Not that I don’t love P&P!). Oddly, I only have one copy of this, unless you count the kindle version. I guess I spent many years borrowing from one library or another.

IMG_0059.jpgSense and Sensibility was Austen’s first published novel. It follows the Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. At the beginning of the story, their father dies, and their half brother John inherits everything. Thanks to his greedy, selfish, social-climbing wife Fanny, the Dashwood women, which include their mother Mrs. Dashwood, find themselves unwelcome in their own home. John is convinced by his wife, in a scene that is equal parts hilarious and depressing, that his deathbed promise to his father to provide for his sisters and stepmother really just amounts to giving them a Christmas present now and again. So the women now face a future of relative poverty.

They move to a cottage owned by Mrs. Dashwood’s distant relative Sir John, although not before Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, comes to stay at their old home and makes an impression on steady, responsible Elinor. At their new home, Marianne makes an impression on Colonel Brandon, a steady, responsible, honorable man she sees as old and boring. She prefers Willoughby, the dashing nephew and heir of a nearby estate owner.

Despite being romantic (obviously, it’s Jane Austen), the novel focuses on the relationship between the sisters. Elinor is the POV character; our impressions and observations are filtered through her. Both she and Marianne experience heartache and – almost – tragedy, and grow up a lot over the year or so the novel follows, learning not only to understand themselves better, but also to understand each other. Despite challenges, they grow closer and gain a deeper and more relationship as sisters. Of course, they get a happy ending with the guys, too. It IS Austen, after all.

The Sense and Sensibility of the title are, of course, Elinor and Marianne, and Austen examines the advantages and disadvantages of both attitudes. Marianne, dramatic and romantic to the extreme, thinks that nothing could be better than dying tragically of a broken heart. Her actions are modeled on the (then) new Romanticism, valuing emotion and feeling about rationality, and she eventually must learn to temper her wild emotion. But Elinor doesn’t escape growth either. She is quiet, steady, rational and hides her emotions as much as her sister shares them. But this nearly causes her to miss out on love. Thus Elinor must learn to be more demonstrative, to let others in, to share her feelings.

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This novel also holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first real introduction I had to Austen’s work, through the 1996 film starring Emma Thompson as Elinor. Although personally I like the early 2000s BBC adaptation for most of the characters (Alan Rickman will always be Colonel Brandon to me), it is still a beautifully and carefully made adaptation, and I’ll always be grateful for the introduction to Austen that it provided.

But ultimately, despite the great plot and the history, Sense and Sensibility is a comfort re-read for me because of all of Austen’s heroines, it is Elinor with whom I most identify. She has helped me understand myself better. As a heroine, she is not as witty as Lizzy or as vibrant as Emma, and the heroes of this book, too, are quiet, even shy. But it’s nice to read about people that aren’t extroverts, or smoldering, fabulously rich gentlemen (I’m looking at you, Darcy). I like that Elinor is strong without being pushy or aggressive; she shows introvert me a quiet strength I feel like I can aspire to.

 


Film poster from wikipedia page; other image is mine.

Mildly Epic List of Classics

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My last list was a bit of a beginner’s list; books to help you dip your toe in the ocean of classics. This week, I want to write (much) longer list of mostly novels and plays, with some short stories, long poems and essays, organized by time period. Lyric poetry will get its own list (someday).

 

 

Notes about the list:

  • Instead of literary period I’m just going to go in half-centuries.
  • These are all books I’ve read (and liked) or want to read, and isn’t meant to be exhaustive (that would be a really long list). If I miss your favorite book or author, put it in the comments!
  • A * denotes a book that some might find challenging, due to style usually.
  • I’ve just listed one book by each author, usually my favorite one, or the best known.
  • I’ve tried to include authors that get overlooked, and avoid super-well-known books that are recentish and still commonly read (like 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird)
  • Within the time range I haven’t gone in any particular order.

1900-1950s

  • Mrs. Dalloway Virginia Woolf
  • Tender is the Night F Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Sun Also Rises Earnest Hemingway
  • The Quiet American Graham Greene
  • Wise Blood Flannery O’Connor
  • Howard’s End D. H. Lawrence
  • The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce*
  • Father Brown Stories G.K. Chesterton
  • Till We Have Faces C.S. Lewis

1850s – 1900

  • Our Mutual Friend Charles Dickens
  • North and South Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Moonstone Wilkie Collins
  • The Bostonians Henry James
  • My Antonia Willa Cather
  • The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
  • Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
  • Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
  • Lilith George MacDonald
  • Walden Henry David Thoreau35_1hb.jpg

1800s-1850s

  • Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen
  • Frankenstein Mary Shelley
  • Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
  • Silas Marner George Eliot
  • Ivanhoe Sir Walter Scott
  • The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings Washington Irving
  • Any collection of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe
  • The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Moby Dick Herman Melville* (or, for a taste, try a collection of his short stories)
  • Faust I Goethe

1700s

  • Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
  • Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift
  • Pamela Samuel Richardson
  • Life of Johnson James Boswell
  • Essays by Thomas Paine
  • Rape of the Lock Alexander Pope

1600s

  • Paradise Lost John Milton
  • Tartuffe Moliere
  • Revenger’s Tragedy Thomas Middleton
  • Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan
  • Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys
  • Of Plymouth Plantation William Bradford

1500s

  • Macbeth William Shakespeare
  • Doctor Faustus Christopher Marlowe
  • Utopia Thomas More

1400s

  • The Morte d’ Arthur Thomas Malory
  • Decameron Boccaccio

1300s and earlier

  • The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Beowulf 
  • The Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri

Myths and Folktales (oral traditions, collected at various times) images.jpeg

  • Brothers Grimm
  • Mabinogean (Welsh)
  • Icelandic Sagas
  • Perrault’sFairy Tales
  • Andrew Lang’s colored Fairy Books (i.e. The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book)

 

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This post was published accidentally incomplete; I’ve deleted the original, updated it, and am re-publishing it now.
Image sources:
  1. http://www.businessinsider.com/25-america-classic-books-to-read-2014-1
  2. http://bookriot.com/2014/01/01/illustrated-guide-buying-classics/
  3. http://www.patriotinstitute.org/great-books-classic-literature-101/

Reading Classics: Accessible Books

Now that I’ve talked about how to read classics, I thought I’d give you a few lists of classics to read. First, I’ll give a list of more accessible books, and then in another post a list of books by time.

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I should explain what I mean by accessible.  To do this I’m going to pick on Virginia Woolf, an author I actually love. Just thought I’d say that first 🙂 If you just want the list, scroll down.

Woolf is an author who is interested in what people are thinking, and because of this writes stories in which not much happens. She also tends to jump in and out of people’s heads, writing from first one, then another, then another character’s point of view, sometimes just for a few sentences. Although she does all this masterfully, if you are used to contemporary, plot-based, straightforward stories, this can be confusing. So I would class Woolf as a “less accessible” author. That is, I wouldn’t recommend she be the first classic writer you read.

As a different example, sometimes a writer can be less accessible because the time in which they write is further removed from us. So, Shakespeare is the ideal example. His plays are amazing, and his language is part of what makes them so; however, because it’s 400 years older, it’s just different enough to feel confusing at first.

So I would class Woolf and Shakespeare as “less accessible” authors. That is, I wouldn’t recommend they be the first classic writers you read. Though if you’re just inspired to read Macbeth or Mrs. Dalloway, go for it! Motivation is 8/10ths of it anyway.

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Now, the random list of more accessible books, in no particular order. Usually anything by the named author is good. The list is based on my own reading, and I’ve tried to include a variety of kinds of books:

Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien

The Time Machine H.G. Wells

Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tom Sawyer Mark Twain

Peter Pan J. M Barrie

Silas Marner George Eliot

Ethan Frome Edith Wharton

My Antonia Willa Cather

Cranford Elizabeth Gaskell

Whose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers

The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde