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Review: To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

The Ramsay family travels to Skye, a small Scottish island, in the summers, their large house bursting with childish games and guests invited to stay.  Towards the end of their stay, unfortunately, six-year-old James has still not been to visit the lighthouse, but the visit is promised for the next day.  That promise is not fulfilled until ten years later, in the final stage of the novel, where the nearly-adult James finally gets his chance to see the long awaited lighthouse, when everything in his life is completely different.

On its own merits, I loved this book.  I really like the way Virginia Woolf writes.  Maybe because I’d never heard enough about her to be intimidated, I fell in love with her writing style in Mrs. Dalloway and clearly that hasn’t changed with the passing of a few years.  It takes a little more effort, but I find her writing to just flow perfectly in line with my own thoughts.  I think she captures the vagaries of the human mind better than any other writer I’ve ever read.  And the characterization here was so interesting – in so few pages she builds genuine feelings from all these characters towards one another.  And the middle section – the way time moves on no matter what happens in people’s lives – is masterful and awe-inspiring.

I found it even more interesting, though, when I started reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf.  Much of this novel can be read as autobiographical, and apparently the author and her sister interpreted it precisely that way.  I’ll have a lot more to say about that biography when I finish it, but I immediately wanted to start this over and look at it from that way.  I can already tell that this is a book which will only improve on re-reading, now that I can pick up nuances and already know what happens.  But I suspect all of Woolf’s writing will be like that.

This is only a short review, but it’s impossible to put all I felt about To the Lighthouse into words, honestly.  Her work just feels so true to me.  I immediately wanted to read it again – and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with a little patience to get used to her style.

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Review: Gawain and the Green Knight

At the beginning of Classics Month, Tasha at Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books and I challenged each other to read a book from our specialities.  For her I chose Gawain and the Green Knight, a fairly well-known classic of medieval literature.  To check out my review of Nadja by Andre Breton, head on over to her blog.

forest

The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello, c. 1470

I

Gather all and put much thought

to a tale of noble Camelot.

On New Year’s Eve the court did gather

With wine and beer and much blather

Ladies fair and knights bold

Plus Gweneviere and Arthur, we are told

When all at once, what should they see

But a walking, talking Christmas tree!

(Actually it’s a man)

Yes, ’twas a man, but green

hair green, skin green, tongue green

Of great stature and much mass

Even his horse was the color of grass

Everything green, but eyes that were red

Even an idiot could guess where this led

But not Arthur and his patriotic knights

Who thought the green man rather nice

(How stupid are they?)
The Christmas Tree spoke, and offered a game

To anyone brave enough to issue his name

Strike a blow against the green man, and when the time came

A year from the next day, the green man would do the same.

What’s in it for the knights, one might wonder

But Sir Gawain this did not ponder.

He accepted the ax, and the green man knelt

Then to his neck, a fatal blow Wawain dealt.

(He chopped the Christmas Tree’s head off)

The head rolled about, the court watching whence it should land

Dismissing the Green Man, and thinking the matter at an end

Green blood spurted out from the tree

And Gawain anticipated congratulations there’d be

But the Christmas Tree rose from where he sat

And calmly collected his body’s hat

Holding his head, he told Gawain the way to his home

To meet a year from then, and to come alone

After which he left.

II

Despite that Gawain was not too bright,

Even he knew to do what was right

Honor and chivalry demanded

He meet the Christmas Tree and be beheaded

Thus he set out in the morning

Uncertain about where he was going

A year later, and with much apprehension

For a view of reaching the Green Man’s mansion

(Which I’m guessing is in a forest)

But alas our knight knew not left from right

(re: none too bright)

Far and wide our hero did bumble

Searching for Green Man’s Green Chapel.

He was cold, and hungry, and sad to boot

When what should he spy: a moat!

Connected to a grand castle with turrets and flags

And the friendliest host Gawain’d ever had.

Almost TOO friendly.

The man himself was handsome and wealthy

With two others in residence: an old woman quite stealthy,

And a wife so beautiful she left Gawain nonplussed;

They took one look at each other and fell into lust.

Then with Gawain, a bargain the host assayed

That he would go hunting during the day

Upon his return, his catch he would giveth

And Gawain his daily claims would returneth.

Sounds like another sketchy deal to me.

But Gawain, like an idiot, pronounced his agreement

And into more trouble our hero descendeth.

But I shall say no more of Wawain’s toil

For fear that his tale I will spoil

At first I thought this story difficult to read

I did not comprehend the why of the characters’ deeds

But then Gawain met the lady, sorely tempting

And things got MUCH more entertaining.

But who doesn’t like a little romance, right?

Tis clear that this tale is all about pursuit:

of animals, women, and bravery to salute.

For while the host was hunting game,

The hostess was chasing down Gawain

Quite a dilemma for him to be thinking about

But of course not much thinking is done by that clout

Still, there’s a twist that I thought was grand

For in everything, a famous woman has a hand.

Highly recommended!

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Au Currant: 3 Great Classic Books That Are Readable, Relatable & Enjoyable (Even Today!)

classicsbuttonPlease welcome Nicole from Linus’s Blanket today as she shares a few of the classics that she loves, and why you can enjoy them too!

When Meghan mentioned that she was going to be delving into the classics this month with Tasha from Heidenkind’s Hideaway, I was very excited. Classics are often pushed as bearing a standard among books. They can be used in order to judge whether a person is well-read, and as a means of learning life lessons, problem solving and being able to navigate in the world. I didn’t feel like it helped me accomplish any of those things when I read them as a teen. After having mixed results reading classics in high school and in college, I have been dipping into them a little bit more over the past couple of years.

I have grappled with the issues of whether I find them pleasurable to read, and worthwhile in the sense that they pose relevant thoughts on issues still being examined and debated today, and if they shed any light into issues that I have encountered in my life. While some classics have threads of relevant social issues, others were a far cry from interesting me or readily accessible to read (Frankenstein, Silas Marner, The Scarlett Letter – I’m looking at you). In my search for the good ones, I have found a few that have hit the trifecta for me in terms of being readable, relatable and just plain enjoyable.

Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon – Lady Audley’s Secret made quite a splash by exploring the idea that a woman could be a serious threat to domesticity and a happy home. Lady Audley has secrets from her husband, and his son Robert Audley suspects her of being a murderess, which was unheard of for women of her social standing at the time. I found this book to be very easy to get into, and I loved the whole who dunnit aspect of the novel. Lady Audley is invested in her happiness and seizes the life that she wants by her own power, even if by nefarious means. It was an interesting to see a plausible rendition of a woman doing this in Victorian times, and even more so being that it was penned by a female author. There is more that I could say about this wonderful novel, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wants to read it.

The Great Gatsby – I remember reading this in high school, and even with the teacher giving his spiel, I still really had no idea what it was about. The most that I remembered about it was that we watched the movie in class and everyone wore that crazy flapper gear. Reading Gatsby as an adult, I was really able to appreciate the intricacies of the storyline- the class distinctions, the recklessness of the wealthy, and the love that fuels one man’s goals to become wealthy and powerful not understanding that he can never be as his beloved would wish. Even though there were no innocents in this timely story, I have to admit that I felt for Gatsby and the fact that no matter what he did he already wasn’t good enough and would never belong. He went to great lengths to get the love of his life, and it pretty much wrecked his life. This is a great read and it’s easy to relate to unrequited love, and past traumas providing the drive for great achievement.

Pride & Prejudice – I almost didn’t put this on my list because it is such an obvious choice for me (and for many!), but I also felt that to have left it off would be disingenuous. I don’t think that I have read any other book as much as I have read this one. Over the years my readings have changed and whom my sympathies lie with now are different than what they once were (right now I seem to be in Darcy’s camp, and think that Elizabeth was too hard him), but the conversational tone of the novel is so engaging and the themes so absolutely timeless that it is hard to not come back to this again and again. Who can’t sympathize with an overbearing mother, insufferable relatives, and falling in love with someone who doesn’t fit with all of your expectations, much less your families? I think it’s fortunate that in this lovely novel, everything works out in the end (as we all hope that it might in our own lives when we are facing similar situations). Pride and Prejudice is so good, that each time I read it it, I get all caught up again, even though I know exactly what will happen. Isn’t that a riot?

So how about you? Do you agree with any of my choices? What classics do you find to be readable, relatable and enjoyable?

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Review: The Warden, Anthony Trollope

Four days in, I have finished my first classic for Classics Month!

Peaceful Barchester is thrown into turmoil when the state of affairs at the warden’s hospital is called into question.  Several hundred years before, a notable aristocrat made provision for unfit working men in his will, that a hospital be built for them and a warden appointed to oversee them.  Since then, however, the land from which the hospital derives its funds has grown in profits, and one man, John Bold, decides that the warden, kindly Mr. Harding, is earning far too much money.  He and the majority of the 12 hospital patients sign a petition and take the matter to Parliament, but hadn’t counted on the warden’s reaction to their protest.

This was quite an interesting book.  I’d heard before that it wasn’t as good as later books in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, but I found a lot to like about it.  Almost immediately I knew I liked the way Trollope wrote, so almost as soon as I began I knew that I’d have no problems there.  Trollope is a talented writer and it’s easy to sink into his story.  The characters are well-drawn and opinionated, and I found myself hoping that they would show up in the later books of the series.

The book demonstrates the strangeness of Victorian society, particularly with the warden’s son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, who is a firm man in public but in private is ruled by his wife.  She is obviously wise and intelligent in many ways, and he often takes her advice to heart, but in public she sits quietly by his side, letting him talk about the conclusions they come to together.  Trollope lightly mocks this situation and I liked that he was giving voice to the women, even if they weren’t given a voice in society itself.

classicsbuttonThere is a very strong ideological underpinning behind the story of this novel.  Dr. Bold intends to do good by giving the men their extra £100 per year, rather than having the warden receive all the funds.  But the men don’t really need £100 extra per year; apparently all their needs are satisfied by the hospital, and because he was aware that there was a question before he took the wardenship, Mr. Harding had already given them slightly extra out of his own allotment, which no other warden had done before.  The men were perfectly happy before they realized that they were owed this money, but their desire for it slowly destroys all that they had previously enjoyed.  Trollope criticizes the newspaper scandals of the day by damaging the characters with them and questions whether something that seems morally right is always the right choice when considering the feelings and situation of the people in question. This is especially so given Mr. Harding’s choices, as he has to decide whether or not to continue doing something that is now regarded as wrong by almost everyone he knows, and quite a bit of the book is dedicated to his own moral dilemma. Trollope doesn’t explicitly mark any of the characters out as right or wrong, but rather allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about who is right and who is wrong, or whether it’s really that concrete in the first place.

The Warden was a fascinating little book.  I’m really looking forward to reading more by Anthony Trollope. I would definitely suggest this if you have an interest in Victorian society.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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Classics Month: March 2010

classicsbuttonClassics Month starts in just over a week!  A while back, Tasha at Heidenkind’s Hideaway and I decided we just didn’t read enough classics, so we chose March as the month to read more.  We’re aiming to read four each, challenging each other to read one classic from our own areas of expertise and reading a classic that’s new to us together.

I have quite an overwhelming list of classics to choose from.  At the moment, I’m thinking about:

The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith
Lorna Doone, R.D. Blackmore
The Warden, Anthony Trollope
Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Shirley, Villette, and/or The Professor, Charlotte Bronte
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
East of Eden, John Steinbeck (which I meant to read this month, but I don’t think it’s going to happen!)
Possibly something by D.H. Lawrence, as I have a collection of his books
And Tasha has challenged me to read Nadja by André Breton.

I think it’s going to be great!  If you love classics too, I’d love to feature you for a guest post or guest review.  Just leave a comment about it and I’ll be in touch.  And of course I’d love more recommendations for reading this month.  If it’s not too obscure, my library will probably have it, and I know I need to read more non-Western classics in particular.

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Classics Circuit Review: The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton

It’s with great pleasure that I bring to you one of my favorite authors, Edith Wharton, for my turn on the Classics Circuit!

Undine Spragg manages to convince her parents to move from Apex to New York City, where she’s hoping to make a brilliant entrance into society with a rich husband.  Undine is a deadly combination of beautiful, selfish, and ignorant, capable of turning herself into what almost any man desires the most.  She is horribly spoiled and incapable of understanding the consequences of her actions, but they are all too clear to the reader as she storms through the lives of people who wish to believe better of her.

Undine is one nasty character.  I couldn’t believe how selfish she was.  And Wharton doesn’t pull her punches, she lets us feel the impact that Undine has by focusing on several other characters whose lives she irrevocably changes, damages, or destroys.  One of the most heartbreaking passages occurs at the end and I could really see how much damage she’d done, and how much more she wanted to do.

I thought it was interesting, though, that she can be seen as completely a product of her society.  Even though her father originally was poor and became rich when she was a child, she was never denied anything, and thus sees no reason to ever be denied anything.  Her first society husband is forced to work at a career he hates and is bad at to support her extravagances even though she also receives an allowance from her father, and she still complains that he isn’t getting enough.  But he never tells her about his hardships, just like her father never told her where the money came from, so she still doesn’t seem to understand.  At times, she reminded me of a beautiful, vapid child, incapable of truly understanding the world in which she lives.  She doesn’t seem to realize that she’s hurting people.  She focuses constantly on the injustice done to her and on the jealousy she feels towards other women who she sees as having more.  She has an education, but it seems to have taught her absolutely nothing.  I had to wonder if Wharton saw society women as children given that she chose to portray this woman so much like one.

And so Undine leaves male carnage in her wake as she moves on to the next husband and the next husband.  I despised her and felt bad for her husbands and child even as I was fascinated by what she’d do next.  As usual I loved the portrait of society through Undine, and all the people wasting their time with niceties and social frivolity and missing out on the big picture.  I especially felt for Undine’s first husband, Ralph, who sees her as something pure and different and malleable, only to realize that Undine wanted to mold herself after the people he found to be fakes.  He seemed to get to the core of the society in which he could not flourish because he recognized how superficial it all was.  He sees the cracks, and through him, Undine’s other husbands, and through despising Undine, I could see the cracks too.

While this isn’t toppling The Age of Innocence from its throne as my favorite Wharton (nor Ethan Frome from #2 slot and yes, I do have a hierarchy, is that odd?), I’m definitely glad I read it.  The Custom of the Country was such an interesting book and it made me think about relations between men and women, how they were, and how they’ve changed.

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Classics Circuit Review: Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell

Today is my very first Classics Circuit tour review.  I’m loving all these posts, and have been very excited to host Elizabeth Gaskell on my blog today.  I’ve read and enjoyed three books by her, and today I’m featuring Ruth, a book to which I had a very different reaction.

When Ruth Hilton’s parents died, she was left one of many apprentices to a seamstress by her guardian, a man she only ever saw once.  Ruth, who is beautiful and kind, cannot help remembering and missing her parents, not to mention her country rambles and freedom.  When she gets to attend a ball as an amateur maid, she meets Mr Bellingham, a gentleman who is compelled by her beauty and asks her to call him friend.  Ruth’s inexperience with the world means that she accepts his friendship and somehow finds herself becoming his mistress.  His mother disapproves, and when Mr Bellingham falls ill, she seizes her opportunity and Ruth is left alone and pregnant in a Victorian world that is almost unbearably harsh on fallen women.

I am of two minds on Ruth.  The first is that I admire Gaskell’s plan for her novel.  She sets out to in a sense rescue the virtuous, repenting fallen woman from her sin.  The double standard in nineteenth century England was far more damaging and prevalent than it is today, when it seems impossible that anyone could really hate a woman simply because she was with a man before they were married, let alone torment the poor illegitimate child based on something that was not his or her fault.  I enjoyed the social commentary that this novel certainly was, and I went into it knowing that in its time Ruth had had a surprisingly strong welcome.  I knew it was exposing a crack in a changing society and in that way it was very interesting for me.

As a story, however, it wasn’t the most compelling book I’ve ever read, and I actually hope it will become increasingly less relevant as the double standard for men and women in terms of sexual activity fades away.  Most of the book really seems centered on the idea that Ruth is a perfect, virtuous woman and mother.  Had her parents lived longer and educated her on the dangers of men, it’s implied that she might have suspected what was coming when she went to London with Mr Bellingham, but as it was she’s completely blameless, not even realizing what she’s done until she is mocked on the street in Wales after she’d been living in sin for a while.  This also seems strange because her son, much younger than she was at the time of her folly, cannot have experienced the same level of education yet but is fully cognizant of Ruth’s mistake and what it means for him.  Things don’t add up.  I think the book would have been vastly more interesting had Ruth been fully aware of what she was doing, rather than seeming just a victim of a harsh society and an opportunist gentleman.

In other words, Ruth is just too perfect, and perfect in a very Victorian way, for a modern reader to sympathize with.  I even wound up liking Jemima Bradshaw better, despite the fact that she’s rich, sulky, and is jealous of a poor woman, simply because she has more layers as a character and actually believably repents of her negative emotions by the end of the novel, albeit after she is in a position of security.  I admire the fact that Gaskell was showing how a woman could make a mistake and still remain the woman she was before, that premarital sex didn’t make a woman into a despicable immoral creature, but Ruth did little else for me.

For a classic, however, this is a very easy read, and my edition was under 400 pages.  Things seem to move along at a brisk pace for the most part and it’s an interesting look at a society that has gone but still leaves its mark on our lives.  Regardless, I think I’d recommend North and South or Cranford above Ruth, if one is trying out Gaskell for the first time.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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Review: Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

I read this lovely little book for Heather’s read-a-long at Age 30+ … A Lifetime in Books.

Cranford is a story that is hard to describe.  The little town of Cranford is populated mainly by older women, mostly single or widowed.  There are a few men about, but they are largely of a lower class, whereas many of the women consider themselves of gentle birth and do their best to act accordingly, especially Mrs. Jamieson, the town’s matriarch.  The book revolves around Mary Smith, a frequent visitor to Cranford who often stays with the Jenkyns sisters, two unmarried older women who enjoy some status as children of the late rector.  Most of the chapters, however, center in on Miss Matty, the younger of the sisters, whose gentle heart endears her to the entire town.

This was not at all what I’d expected from it, and not in a bad way at all.  My previous experiences with Gaskell consisted of North and South and Mary Barton, which are both very concerned with the rise of industrialism in the north.  Cranford is much more a picture of genteel life as it might have been during Gaskell’s lifetime, in a small town where women rule all.  Each of the women is made distinct by her own actions as they socialize, like Mrs. Jamieson who is a complete snob, the elder Miss Jenkyns whose sternness overrides any other aspects of her personality, and Miss Matty, a sweet woman who is too easily led by everyone around her.

There is no real plot here.  The chapters can almost be seen as a series of little stories regarding the inhabitants of Cranford, tied together by Miss Matty’s presence.  There is a general movement towards what happens at the end but it isn’t compelling reading; this is a book to live in, to get to know the characters, to begin to care about what happens to them.  It’s short, but it accomplishes these goals with ease and opens a window into life as it was.  I was reminded mainly of a more sedate Jane Austen, less concerned with irony and overall plot but still depicting a genuine picture of an upper class society and its ills.  She does still use humor to depict the ridiculousness of their situations; my favorite is when one of characters is complimented on her lace and launches into a story of how it had a little trip through her cat’s digestive system!  I liked the book and I was completely charmed by it, but this isn’t a book for the impatient among us.

Cranford reminded me of how much I adore nineteenth century literature.  There is something so inherently appealing in Gaskell’s style, in the modest but earnest ways of her characters, and in the quiet community life that they all share.  I can’t say this is a world I’d ever want to live in, but I definitely loved visiting.

(Cover note: I have an old hardcover edition in a set of classics without ISBNs, so I chose a more recent cover for this post)

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Review: Hotel du Lac, Anita Brookner

As punishment, Edith Hope has been sent to Switzerland to stay in a quiet hotel near the end of the season.  She is to recuperate, write another romance novel under her pseudonym Vanessa Wilde, and escape the scandal she has caused.  Edith gets acquainted with her fellow guests, learning their lives up to this point, and examines the difference from her own life, a generally quiet one.  Interspersed with her memory and narrative are her letters to her lover David, who appears to be the catalyst for the scandal.  The hotel and its guests teach Edith a few powerful lessons about love and trust before she can return to London and normality.

This book has quite a number of quirky characters.  There are the Puseys, Edith’s first friends, who are thoroughly obsessed with themselves and their money; proof if any was ever needed that apples sometimes don’t fall far from trees.  There is the old deaf Comtesse, living for brief visits with her son.  There is Edith’s friend Monica, sneakily avoiding meals even though she’s been sent to the hotel to fix that problem.  Finally, there is the man in the gray suit, an intriguing but also alarming figure who asks Edith daring questions and seems a little too interested in her.

It’s hard not to spoil anything, since it’s less than 200 pages long and nothing was really starting until page 50 or so.  Moreover, I don’t know how much I have to say about this book.  It was one that quietly snuck up on me.  The ending was magnificent, though.  At its length, the book needed something to make it stand out.  This is a quiet, quaint little story.  Edith’s reason for essentially being sent away is a little old-fashioned in more or less every respect, but that doesn’t make her feelings any less relevant.

Overall, I can’t say this novel thrilled me.  I didn’t know what was so extraordinary about it that merited a Booker Prize.  It is a quiet story with a bit of a suckerpunch ending, which I have loved before, but it seemed a bit too quiet.  While the residents are interesting, Edith’s interactions with them are not the stuff of excitement, nor revealing enough to justify much attention.  I’d be interested in reading something else by this author, but I wouldn’t be too excited to do so.

Check out Hotel Du Lac on Amazon.

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Review: The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham

Beautiful Kitty Fane is unhappy in her marriage to Sir Walter Fane and resorts to an affair to satisfy her need for a more potent love.  When Walter finds out about the affair, he exiles them both to help with a cholera outbreak in a remote part of China.  Starved of the society in which she has spent her entire life, Kitty learns who she really is and what love is in this vacuum, changing and growing dramatically.

At first, I didn’t like Kitty.  She is silly and irritating with Charlie and I couldn’t imagine anyone ever leaving their wife for her, let alone marrying her.  She trapped herself in that loveless marriage and her needs are entirely her own fault.  I didn’t believe that she deserved to die of cholera as it seemed her husband wanted her to, but I did think she deserved punishment.  I really appreciated how she grew as a character when she was encountered with real suffering and need, though, and how she came to appreciate her husband through other people’s eyes.  It was easy to see how society’s expectations and entertainments molded her character and how she had to break that mold once she was exposed to this vastly different place.

I was also fascinated by the depiction of the British empire’s distant regions.  The book may be dated, but I appreciated the perspective, particularly the difference between the city and the country in China.

I think this is very worth a read and I definitely recommend it.

Buy The Painted Veil on Amazon.

Has anyone seen this movie, by the way? Is it any good? I’ve had it saved on the TiVo at my parents’ for months.

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