Archive for the ‘Victorian’ Category

Book #77: Elective Affinities

All problems with Social Darwinism aside, I kind of like it when people apply scientific thinking to people. People obviously don’t behave like molecules or ions or anything, but it’s an interesting way of looking at things to pretend that they do. That’s why I thought that Goethe’s Elective Affinities was pretty neat.

When I read this book, I had to dig deep into my high school years and draw on things I learned in Mrs. V’s advanced chemistry class. I had to think about balancing chemical equations, molecular bonding, and chemical reactions. Thank goodness “Mama V” taught us so well.

In chemistry, elements react with each other to form molecular compounds. Sometimes, though, even though compounds are already formed, when a new compound is added to the mix, both original compounds split up, as elements in each are attracted to elements in the others.

It’s something like this:
AB + CD –> AD + CB

Ladies and gentleman, here in this book, I give you the first-ever double displacement human reactions.

The story centers around four people: the couple Eduard and Charlotte, on their second marriage, able to be together after their first spouses were finally out of the picture; Ottilie, Charlotte’s teenaged, orphaned niece, and the Captain, Eduard’s childhood friend.

When Eduard and Charlotte invite the Captain, who has fallen on hard times, for an extended stay and then decide to take in Ottilie, who is having trouble at her boarding school. Given what I’ve told you above, you can probably figure out what’s going to happen in the book.

Bonds form, break, and are re-formed. The characters must deal with these changing bonds and the consequences that come with them.

Though generally, applying scientific principles to people doesn’t work out so well, I appreciate Goethe exploring this concept and I had fun tagging along and looking into it myself. Given the fact that you know the general premise of the story pretty quickly, it’s fun to try and guess how things will happen and in what way bonds will form and be broken.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Joseph Andrews

Book #63: Oliver Twist

I read Oliver Twist when I was a kid. It wasn’t the real version, it was one of those abridged, kid-ified versions with a picture on every other page. I remember I liked it a lot, because I was at that age where kids love orphans and things. At the time I was also devouring The Boxcar Children series. Every kid has that stage when they think orphans are cool and kinda sorta think maybe it’d be a bit fun to be an orphan, right?

No? It’s just me?


Well, anyway. I went into Oliver Twist knowing the story because I’d read a kids’ version, and also because my grandpa, who often plays piano for musicals, accompanied his town’s childrens’ theatre’s production of the musical Oliver!

I read this book with all the freakin’ songs from that show in my head.

Sitting there, reading along about how Oliver drew the lot and so he had to go ask for more food and then:
Oliver, Oliver! Never before has a boy wanted more! Oliver, Oliver! Ol-liv-er!

Oh, now Oliver’s working for the casket maker? My, how grim…
If you’re fond of overeating, that’s your funeral! [That’s your funeral!]
Starve yourself by undereating, that’s your funeral! [That’s your funeral!]

He’s met the Artful Dodger and he’s going to meet Fagin. Classic scene!
Oh dear…
Coooooooooooonsider yourself one of the family! We’ve taken to you SO STRONG!

And of course, running through the whollllle thing was Oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah, that’s how it goes! Oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah everyone knows! What is the cause of his shiny red noooooose??? Could it be oooooooooom pah pah?!

Should I mention that I saw this musical TEN YEARS AGO? And that I have never listened to the soundtrack since. Apparently those songs were locked, deep, deep, DEEP in my subconscious, just waiting for me to read Oliver Twist again so they could burst forth.

Makes me really glad I didn’t watch Les Mis before I read the book. As it was, I just occasionally had I Dreamed a Dream stuck in my head.

All that said, Oliver Twist was a fun re-read, although I’m not sure I got much more out of it than I did when I read it as a kid, though it did make me wonder how many other random songs and things are locked deep in my subconscious, just waiting for the right trigger to pop forward again.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Master

Book #57: Great Expectations

I’m becoming a Charles Dickens fiend.

I never liked him that much until after college, and now I’m not sure why. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by him for this project (which, I suppose, is only two books. But whatever).

Somehow, I made it through sixteen years of education without reading Great Expectations. This is an even bigger accomplishment (or lack thereof?) because my father really likes Dickens. But anyway, somehow I hadn’t read this book until now.

What struck me most about Great Expectations was the book’s simplicity. It’s written in fairly straightforward language, without many added twists or details. Since I’m used to books like A Tale of Two Cities and the dreaded Hard Times, this was surprising. Great Expectations seemed very ‘trimmed down’ to me. There weren’t many flowery sentences, huge philosophical musings, or sentences that went on and on and turned into mazes that you couldn’t really find your way out of.

I liked that.

I was able to focus on the plot and enjoy. I liked the characters and I was really interested in the story, first and foremost. Usually with Dickens, even though I like him, I’m so “busy” with other aspects of the book (good quotes, confusing sections, important stuff to analyze) that the plot and the characters become secondary, other than when I need to analyze them for other purposes. In this case, it felt like Dickens just let Great Expectations be. Sure, there was important stuff to think about, but thinking about it didn’t detract from the book for me.

Great Expectations, for mehad a lot of the same quality as Ray Bradbury books. The symbolism and “real” point were there. They weren’t obvious, but they were easy to find and understand in a way that makes reading really fun.

Rating: *****
Up Next:
 Jack Maggs

Book #43: Howards End

I enjoyed E.M. Forster’s Howards End.

It’s a novel with a lot going on in it. There are lots of different conflicts. There’s the conflict of class and money and society stratums: from the lowly bank clerk who dreams of reading, to the semi-priveleged sisters who enjoy reading and debating and discussing freedoms, to an even older generation of landed, moneyed, privileged families. Further, Howards End boasts the conflict between a materialist and an idealist who wind up getting married.

The plot centers around two English families in the early 20th century. One is composed of the two Schlegel sisters, Helen and Margaret, who live in reasonable comfort and enjoy reading and engaging in intellectual and moral discussions. Both sisters are extreme idealists. The second is the more prestigious, well off Wilcox family. The Wilcox family owns the estate Howards End, around which much of the book seems to take place.

I say “seems to take place” because, although the majority of the plot does not take place at Howards End and it is rarely mentioned, the characters keep being drawn back to the place. Underneath everything that is happening, there’s Howards End. It’s the undercurrent that keeps pulling the characters back together through the years.

I really liked Howards End. The writing is nice, most of the characters had depth, and I enjoyed a lot of the social commentary and observations made by the Schlegel sisters. Forster captures the social tensions in early 1900s England very well in Howards End. Urban life is on the rise; idyllic country life is fading into the background, and through all of this is the question of the country house Howards End, pondered by the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels.

Rating: *****
Up Next: In Cold Blood

Book #39: Jude the Obscure

I was not expecting to like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

By this point, I’ve very clearly established that I don’t much care for Victorian literature. I also don’t really like novels that reflect on women, whether it’s their position in society, their subservience to men, or whatever else. It’s not a topic that has ever interested me.

But for some reason, I found myself enjoying Jude the Obscure. Basically, as a boy, Jude Fawley falls in love with the idea of academia. He dreams of going to nearby Christminster and studying to become a cleric or something of the sort. The problem is, being from a poor family in a time when scholarships do not exist, Jude has no hope of ever entering a college. His problems are furthered when he enters a bad marriage that “ends” after just two years. However, he falls in love with his cousin, Sue. Then, of course, scandal and moral problems follow them wherever they go.

This book kind of reads like a soap opera. There are four “main” characters and they trade partners several times. Jude and Sue love each other and want to live together like they’re married. But this is, I’m guessing, one of the earliest emergences of the anti-marriage, “it’s just a piece of paper” mindset. They nearly get married several times, but can never go through with it. At the last minute, Sue always has misgivings, and always finds a way to get Jude to go along with her.

The trouble for Sue is that she is a “modern” woman stuck in a world of Victorian ideals. She wants to be able to protect herself against her husband’s whims, and also wants to be more in control of her own fate. Jude, too, wants to live the life he wants, rather than the life society wants him to have. He wants to go to college and get an education. He also wants to divorce his first wife and be with Sue, but without getting married.

Jude and Sue face many challenges as they try to fight society and live their lives together. Both get divorced from previous spouses. Sue is kicked out of school for not behaving like a woman should. Jude loses his job several times as a result of whispers about his and Sue’s life. They are, several times, forced to move to a new town in hopes of escaping their reputation.

Overall, Jude the Obscure reads very well as a commentary on the restrictive society in the Victorian age. However, I should say that a review I read says that the book contains one of the most “unexpected endings in all of literature.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I will say that the resolution leaves the book off on an interesting note.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Godfather

A Tale of Two Readings

So, life got really busy and messy and exciting and fun the last few weeks, which is why I haven’t been writing (or reading) as much. But I’m back and I have a punny blog title and I’ve got stuff to say. Let’s do this!

This was my second time reading A Tale of Two Cities and the biggest thing I noticed was how much easier the book was to read this time around. As a junior in college, I remember that it took me FOREVER to read one chapter. The sentences were dense and sometimes they were long and they were packed with imagery. This time, I was much better able to understand what the words were saying, so it gave me way more time to enjoy the beautiful writing. The same thing happened last year when I read 1984 for the first time since I was sixteen.

The thing is, Dickens DOES write beautifully. I forgot that when I read Hard Times. But in A Tale of Two Cities, he strikes a really good balance between narration and commentary. The imagery is SO good. And I love, love, LOVE how he gets other senses involved in the narrative. You can HEAR the tumbrils rumbling over the cobbled streets. Many times, I could TASTE the wine spilled in the streets or being drunk in the Defarges’ shop. I was really, really IN the story.

Also, practically none of the really beautiful bits seem over-written or melodramatic. Instead, they just make you stop and think before you read it again and smile.

For example:

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. no more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submurged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, forever and ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?”

It’s just…MAN, that’s just the most beautiful thing. “It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, forever and ever, when I had read but a page.” Just…can we just take a minute to appreciate how WELL Dickens writes?

I’m sure that, at sixteen, I struggled to even understand what he was saying in this passage. There is certainly no way that, at that age, it made me stop and read it over and over again, thinking about what it means in terms of human relations and individuality and connections. But this time I did.

We can never know anybody fully, not even the people we love the most. Even when we try to get close to them, start to get to know them, or even THINK we know them, we don’t fully. And then they die. We all die, never really knowing anybody and with nobody really knowing us. But Dickens uses such great words to say that that it doesn’t seem wholly depressing or crushing.

Just wonderful.

I guess the moral of the story is you should reread the books you read when you were younger.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Trainspotting
(which I’ve already finished. Someday I’ll be caught up on blogging. Someday.)


Book #33: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of books, it was the worst of books, it was the age of reading a lot, it was the age of never reading at all, it was the epoch of quality blog posts, it was the epoch of kitschy and cheesy blog posts, it was the season of Deep Thoughts, it was the season of Stupid Ramblings, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, I had everything to look forward to, I had nothing to look forward to, I was going direct to book blogger Paradise, I was going direct the other way – In short, I’m reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

"A Tale of Two Cities" book cover

I’ve read this book before, but it’s been awhile.

As in, I read it my junior year of high school, so it’s been six years (MY GOD, I’M OLD).

I remember enjoying it, actually. But I also remember not fully understanding it. I DO remember remember a lot of symbolic (and maybe actual) wine flowing through the streets. It made me crave grape juice.

I also remember taking the AP European History test that year. There was an essay question on the French Revolution, and I’m pretty sure that everything I said was stuff I remembered from A Tale of Two Cities. I was such a good historian back then, huh?

(Don’t answer that)

Also, at my last English Department Halloween Party, the theme was Literary Villains, so I went as Madame DeFarge. I had to knit the entire time. One of my professors asked, “Are you SURE she’s a VILLAIN? Why do you think that?”

I stammered something about, “Well, uh, because, y’know…because…well she’s just kind of AWFUL, isn’t she? Don’t you think so?” I didn’t want to have to admit that I hadn’t actually read the book since high school. I never like admitting I don’t know things. Thankfully, the professor accepted my answer and mentioned that she agreed, but thought that it was an interesting costume choice.

I said that I’m terrible of thinking up costumes and I had a scarf I had to work on anyway.

And that’s all the experience I have going into A Tale of Two Cities.

do for sure remember most of the skeleton of the plot. But I’m curious to see what I think of the book now.

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