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Back to the Classics #3 – North and South

North and South

A Classic Written by a Woman

‘Edith!’ said Margaret, gently, ‘Edith!’

But, as Margaret half suspected, Edith had fallen asleep. She lay curled up on the sofa in the back drawing-room in Harley Street, looking very lovely in her white muslin and blue ribbons. If Titania had ever been dressed in white muslin and blue ribbons, and had fallen asleep on a crimson damask sofa in a back drawing-room, Edith might have been taken for her. Margaret was struck afresh by her cousin’s beauty.

I was somewhat nervous to read this novel, but I suppose I have been with all of the books on this list so far – that’s why they’re on the list!  I had heard a lot of comparing and contrasting of this book with the work of Jane Austen (whom I adore!) and arguments for the various merits of both.  I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but what I got was extremely satisfying.

Margaret Hale is a young woman who has grown up living with her cousin and acting as a companion towards her.  When her cousin gets married, she must return to living with her parents.  Upon returning, her father, who is a minister, has a crisis of faith in the church – he disagrees with something (we’re never sure what) that the church is doing and believes it is contrary to his actual religious beliefs.  The family moves to a fictional industrial town (based on Manchester) in order to escape any reminder of their former way of life.  Here, Mr Hale becomes a tutor, and Margaret must come to terms with the change in her social class and surroundings, particularly when she becomes involved with the local people.  These include a poor family who live nearby, and the owner of one of the many factories, Mr Thornton.

This was an excellent study of social class at the time of writing.  Its very direct in its addressing these themes, unlike Austen, and doesn’t shy away from some uncomfortable truths about the way people like Margaret (and her extended family later in the book) look, not only at poor people, but at self-made business people.  I’m writing this on the day of the birth of another royal baby, and it is clear that this is a divide that still exists in British society, though in a much different way from Gaskell’s time.  It’s not just money, it’s how you make it. This aspect of the story can be a little heavy handed but overall I think it’s well addressed for the time, and while I obviously don’t agree with everything or even much of her conclusions, it’s definitely a lot more progressive than I would have expected for its time.

There is, unsurprisingly, a religious vein that runs through the core of this book.  I was less happy about this aspect of the book, not because I don’t believe, but because I felt it was extremely clunky and kept taking me out of my immersion in the story.  For example, the character of Beth, the pious, poverty-stricken, invalid, is not only a cliche (even for the time) but absolutely vomit inducing.  I get the idea Gaskell was going for, but she laid it on far too thickly and I think it could have been done in a more convincing and subtle way (not that much about this book is subtle, but that certainly was a standout!)  Margaret’s not-infrequent religious outbursts seemed unnatural and at odds with the otherwise less-than-pious aspects of her character – I thoroughly believed in her belief, as it were, but I didn’t believe in her suddenly, almost unbidden, making these religious pronouncements when that wasn’t even what the conversation was about in the first place.

Then there’s the love story.  That was definitely a successful aspect of the book for me.  I can see the flaws – she does rather seem to jump from being antagonistic towards Thornton to having more positive feelings about him, but I don’t really care.  I also liked that his “rival” wasn’t completely vile and repulsive, just clearly not the right person for Margaret – though I feel that he had the potential to be, which is much more realistic than some of the absolutely terrible potential suitors you find in 19th century literature.   The last 100 pages in particular were a joy to me, and I was so glad about the way they came together in the end.

There are a lot of tragic elements in this book.  It’s amazing just how many people seem to die around Margaret, to the extent that, if I were Thornton, I would be extremely worried about my mortality!  I thought that perhaps her mother’s death was a little long and drawn out; however, in retrospect, that does reflect the reality of having an illness like cancer, so perhaps I was being a little judgmental. Other things that happen later in the book seem perhaps a little convenient in terms of allowing the plot to converge at a certain point, but it’s hard to discuss without spoilers and ultimately it didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the novel.

I’d certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys 19th century literature.  Ultimately, I think it’s only Austen-esque in that it was written by a woman and deals with social class issues in a not dissimilar time period.  The prose is great and while it does have some awkward and clunky moments, both thematically and in plot, I don’t see them getting in the way of the riches of character that this has to offer. I give North and South eight and a half out of ten.

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The Official TBR Challenge – Blood Meridian

blood meridian

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.

My advice for you, if you’re concerned about reading Blood Meridian because of its reputation for being a bloody, violent, and disturbing book, is to read this review of it first (there are no spoilers, but if you’re worried, just read the last part, under “Blood Meridian Charades”).  Having that in mind throughout the book adds some levity to what is probably the darkest text I have ever read.

It is, however, totally worth it.

Blood Meridian tells the story of a young man living around the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-1800s who gets caught up in a gang of miscreants who bring extraordinary violence not only to his life, but the lives of the native people around them.  At the head of this gang are Glanton and The Judge, the latter being an enigmatic man whose singular cruelty will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.

There is no way to do justice to the bleak poetry of this book.  You would think that a novel which is basically about raping and pillaging ad infinitum would be a slog but I was gripped all the way through.  Part of the point, of course, is that you do become inured to the violence – and at the point where it does become monotonous, McCarthy points out how awful it is that you could possibly become numb to this kind of suffering.  Except that everybody does.  Which of course raises questions about how we should feel about the Glanton gang.  Is it only natural that they should become inured to violence?  Should we have some kind of pity for some of them?  It’s hard to say.  I don’t think I have any easy answers, or any answers at all.

Then there’s the judge, a charismatic monolith of evil.  It would be easy for his character to become almost a laughable caricature – he not only oversees all of this horrendous behaviour, but is a child molester.  This never happens.  I can’t tell you why it doesn’t feel like this, but it doesn’t.  McCarthy is a genius – I can’t see his artistry, I can’t unpick it at all because I have no idea how it’s done.

What happens at the end?  Who knows.  I don’t know what to think.  All I know about this book is that I was immersed.  I don’t have the most visual imagination in the world, but I could see everything in this book.  Sometimes I didn’t want to, but it was there.

I have so little to say about this book, because I think you have to read it to understand.  It is extremely brutal – and it definitely isn’t for everyone.  That said, I really think that most people who like to read should give it a shot.  I give Blood Meridian nine and a half out of ten.*

*Half a point off for the dead baby tree. I mean, really?

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Back to the Classics #2 – East of Eden

East of Eden

A 20th Century Classic

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I was not expecting to love this as much as I did.

I always find it difficult to review the classics.  I partially feel like everything has been said that there is to say about them.  I also feel like my reviews aren’t “deep” or critical enough to really say anything of value.  But I’ll give it a go anyway.

I didn’t have a great impression of John Steinbeck going into this.  My mum had read Grapes of Wrath and absolutely loathed it,  which coloured my opinion of him somewhat.  Then I considered reading Of Mice and Men, admittedly because it’s short, but spoiled myself for it and was put off entirely, not because of the fact that I was spoiled, but because of the content of the spoilers – what happens in that book made me feel like he was writing misery for misery’s sake and I’m totally turned off by that.  However, Craig had read East of Eden and thought I would enjoy it, so I put it on my list of things to give a go this year.

I’m so glad I did.  If you don’t already know, East of Eden chronicles the lives of two families in a remote part of California (although one of them does not begin there) and how their lives unfold over the course of two or so generations.  As per the title, the book is chock full of biblical allegory, and the characters inner lives are often depicted in terms of a struggle between the good and evil inside them, and whether these qualities are inherent and indefatigable, or somewhat learned and malleable.

Something about this story won me over entirely.  It has its problems – the female characters are not as well drawn as the male.  Cathy, as much as I enjoyed her wickedness, is a complete caricature of a particular kind of evil woman that seems to be a trope in literature, especially that written by men.  I don’t really go into a lot of classic literature by men expecting to find realistic or fair depictions of women – and certainly the other women in this were better, despite being a little one-dimensional.  I’m glad Cathy was in the book, and I appreciate both some of the reasoning behind her actions, and the thematic role that she is intended to take in proceedings, I just wish she had been given even a touch more light and shade.

There are, however, some excellently drawn characters in here.  I was given a very clear picture of Sam Hamilton and his sprawling Irish family. I’m glad they were in the book – as someone from an Irish Catholic background they were a great “anchor” for me in a tale that largely takes place in a time and location with which I am not terribly familiar.  His story was so lovingly detailed, and I really felt invested in the direction that it takes.  The Trask family were sometimes harder to get along with, but I felt by the time Caleb and Aron were older their story really came into its own and the last hundred pages had me absolutely gripped.  I was an emotional mess by the end!

The thing you have to accept going into this book is that the actual events of the story are somewhat unrealistic, and there definitely is a slight feeling of Steinbeck writing his characters to fit the overarching theme of the narrative, but to my mind this doesn’t stop the reader becoming emotionally invested in this story.  I can imagine for some people it might spoil the enjoyment, but I felt that I once I acknowledged this was happening, I could concentrate on the other aspects of the novel with that sort of held in the back of my mind.

I would heartily recommend this book.  I can see myself revisiting it time and again, and I’ll definitely be trying some other Steinbeck on the basis of my enjoyment of this (though I’m still not going to read OMaM!)  I give East of Eden ten out of ten.

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Review #3 – Emma

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Dates: 25 – 26 January

TL,DR: I wanted to like this so much more than I did.

The Austen Project is a group that have commissioned six modern-day authors to tackle one Austen novel each, and set it in a 21st century setting.  We’ve already had Sense and Sensibility, written by Joanna Trollope, which really was almost an exact retelling of the original, except people occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally) mention things like mobile phone.  However, all the key events take place, and I always find it amusing when modern storytellers contrive to have this happen despite the obvious problems they must run into (for example, in S&S, you can hardly have the scandal be, in the modern day, that Marianne was alone with a man for all of half an hour!).  Then Val McDiarmid took on Northanger Abbey, which proved to actually be pretty good, despite VM obviously having no idea how to approximate text messages from a teenager.

And now Emma.  I’ve just finished rereading the original, as you can see from my most recent review.  Out of the three so far, this book is by far the most dear to me in its original form.  I love Alexander McCall Smith – not only is he my fellow countryman, but he, for a long time, worked in the same field that I plan to go into, although his speciality is medical law.  So I expected a fair amount from this retelling.  Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver.

The first problem is that AMS spends the first 100 pages of the novel going into life at Hartfield prior to the beginning of the original novel.  This was definitely a good idea, and there’s a lot of merit in it.  I enjoyed the story of Mr Woodhouse’s birth, some of the interaction with Miss Taylor, and, most especially, getting a snippet of John and Isabella’s courtship.  However, this comprises more than one quarter of the novel itself.  This left only 260 pages in which to tell the story of the original book in its entirety.  The “history” part often drags, with people musing on what Emma will turn out to be like, child as she is at that time.  Except this isn’t particularly interesting for the reader as we already know what Emma will turn out like!  I read modernisations like this to see the take the author has on the events as they happened in the book, not for deep insights into the characters which are pretty impossible given the nature of the retelling.

Secondly, several events from the original are omitted completely.  There’s no strawberry picking, barely any Mrs Elton, the Box Hill picnic is curtailed so as to be unrecognisable, and the events between this point and Mr Knightley’s proposal are compressed in such a way that several minor but important events are missing in action.  Again, I don’t expect retellings to be point for point faithful (although the preceding two largely have been) but I felt like it was a waste to spend so long on the “history” part of the novel only to then omit so much of what was interesting and dramatic about the original.  Characters get very little development – there’s very, very little Jane, and hardly any Mr Knightley at all!  It’s hard to imagine why he falls in love with Emma when he barely speaks two words to her throughout this version.

Worst, however, may be some of the inexplicable changes made to established events in the original.  The lesbian undertone in Harriet’s and Emma’s relationship was, I thought, almost well done at first – I mean, who hasn’t been utterly mesmerised by the sheer beauty of someone of the same sex almost to the point of wondering if it’s romantic before realising that it’s just aesthetic?  However, the weird nude drawing scene was, I thought, poorly done.  Frank pretending to be gay made absolutely no sense at all – a double bluff that just left me more confused than sympathetic.  The revelation that Mr Knightley had been confiding in Harriet, whom in this version he seemed to think abjectly stupid, was just bizarre, and that Harriet had been seeing Robert all along was even worse – Harriet herself didn’t seem to have had any idea of this until she actually said the words.

The thing is – and this is broadly a criticism of all the modernisations, though most particularly this one – is that there are easy to find analogues for a lot of the stuff that goes on in these.  Okay, no one has a ball anymore, but couldn’t they go to a posh club night opening? That’s just one example, but there are plenty of times in this book where the changes made just didn’t make sense and actually made it feel more antiquated rather than less.

It’s not terrible.  There are some great moments – the opening about the Cuban missile crisis, some of Emma’s asides are hilarious – but it’s just enough to make it as entertaining as the other entries in this series.  I give Emma five out of ten.

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Review #2 – Emma (Back to the Classics – 19th Century Classic)

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Dates: 3 January – 23 January

TL,DR: Mr Knightley still > Mr Darcy.  Discuss.

Firstly, this is my first book that I have read for the Back to the Classics challenge: a 19th Century Novel.

Let me just get this out of the way:  I love Jane Austen.  I’ve read all of the major novels.  I’m not an expert or anything, and I haven’t read much in the way of the juvenalia or Sanditon or anything, but it’s telling that I would have a hard time ranking five of those six novels in any sort of sensible order.  This one, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion are probably my favourites, but I don’t have an order in which I could sensibly put them.  Then Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey sort of bounce around somewhere below that – they both have things I mildly dislike but I don’t think I’d go so far as to find actual fault in them.  I loathe Mansfield Park but that’s down to me just plain (probably unreasonably) hating the main character.

But if I had to pick one heroine that I identify the most with, for worse and for better, it’s Emma.

I feel like she’s got a bit of that “only-child” syndrome (despite not actually being one).  She’s headstrong, and self-assured, and like a lot of people, definitely thinks she could run other people’s lives better than they could.  Unlike Emma, I’m not comfortably wealthy (or, at least, I wasn’t brought up wealthy).  So my machinations have mainly been contained to complaining archly to my boyfriend.  But, I don’t know, there’s just something about me that loves Emma’s silliness, loves how she really does think she’s doing the right thing, and how she learns to finally actually do it.

Her relationship with Mr Knightley can seem a little bit weird to a modern audience.  He’s a bit older than her, and he can tend to be a bit paternalistic towards her.  What I liked about their relationship, though, and why I tend to be forgiving towards it, is that it has a naturalness and, in particular, an honesty which I felt was refreshing.  Mr Knightley is never double-faced to Emma (or at least not intentionally.  It’s arguable that his jealousy of Frank led him to criticise him more strongly than was necessary to Emma, but I’d wager that was not consciously done, as such).  He tells her what he thinks because he respects her enough to know that she can handle it.  In a lot of ways, he does actually treat her as an equal – he knows the upstanding kind of person she can be and he expects her to live up to that.  Mr Knightley would never be rude or sullen in the mode of a Mr Darcy.

One thing I enjoyed even more this time around was the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill.  Because I was properly watching out for it this time, I noted a lot more of the clues from before Mr Knightley airs his first suspicions of the truth.  I enjoy Frank’s enthusiasms, even though they don’t always come from a place of sense.  And I like Jane a lot more than I did previously.  Also, this book has some of Austen’s best side characters – Mrs Elton is a particular treat.  She’s so excruciating that I couldn’t help but cringe every time she opened her mouth.

Emma has had several modernisations recently, including the Austen Project one I mentioned earlier, but probably more notably the Emma Approved series brought to you by Pemberley Digital, the Youtube channel that created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  It’s not as good as LBD – the characterisation and cast weren’t quite as on point – but it’s definitely worth a watch if you enjoy Austen and like modernisations of her work.  In particular, the actors who play Emma, Mr Knightley, and Frank, are really interesting, fun interpretations of what the characters could be in a modern day setting.  Harriet is a bit one note, and I had a strong dislike for their characterisation of Jane Fairfax, but I think that was mainly due to the slight change to the nature of her relationship with Emma which I felt made it deeply inappropriate for her to behave as she did.

There’s very little for me to say about this book that hasn’t been said already.  I’d encourage anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice to go here next.  Emma is a deeply flawed heroine, but I think that’s why I love and identify with her so much – even the most flawed of us can come good.  Even the most flawed of us can be loved.

I give Emma ten out of ten.

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Review #1 – Unseen Academicals

unseen academicals

Dates: 20 December 2014 – 3 January 2015

TL,DR: Even the worst of Discworld can still make me smile – but only just!

I was not a huge fan of this book.  On the face of it, it should have been a great fit for me – I love watching football, I love Ankh-Morpork, and I love a good love story.  But I was went into this book with trepidation as I’d heard “less-than-good” things about the story from sources that I trust. And sadly, those opinions were – in my opinion – well founded. This was one of the weakest Discworld titles I’ve read to date.

The story, in brief, follows the attempts of Lord Vetenari, he of the dog-bothering, to clean up the game of football and, to that end, the wizards, who have their own vested interests in the matter, are roped into putting a team together.  While all this is going on, an unlikely love story develops between one nice-but-dim couple and one equally-nice-but-less-dim couple “downstairs” in the university, as it were.

The first problem this book has is pacing.  It take about two-hundred pages (out of over five-hundred) for any of the different plot strands to begin to advance.  You know from the outset that there’s going to be difficulty getting a team of wizards to “play ball”, that there’s going to be opposition from the kind of people who think a kick about means you literally kick the opposing team about the pitch.  You know that there’s something a bit weird going on with Nutt, that Glenda is going to rise above what she sees as her station and cast off her downtrodden way of thinking, and that Juliet is going to prove to have a bit more about her than meets the eye – though not too much more.  I don’t mind a predictable plot, where Terry Pratchett’s concerned.  However, much like the forwards for Unseen Academicals, it all feels a bit flabby.  There’s plenty of dithering on the way there, and at such a lengthy page count (is this one of the longest Discworld novels?), it really shows. While it’s always fun to spend time on the Disc, it doesn’t really work when almost none of the usual magic and sparkle is there.

The second problem is the writing.  It doesn’t feel as tight and precise as it has in previous Discworld novels.  There are run on sentences and paragraphs all over the place, and I noted what felt like far less clever wordplay than I’m used to in one of Pratchett’s novels.  I’m used to feeling lost in the middle of at least five jokes I haven’t picked up on yet, but here, it often felt like the joke was either obvious, or that it wasn’t there to get in the first place.  Also, there are quite a few “oo-er-missus” jokes about gay men and balls/sex/general campness and while it doesn’t come off to me as homophobic in the slightest – bearing in mind that I’m straight so please take what I say with a pinch of salt – it’s just a bit tired and unfunny in general.  It’s like in The Last Continent where he makes several jokes about sex and the jokes are all literally “HAHAHA ISN’T SEX FUNNY?”

Finally, the characters.  For me, and this is really a personal thing, none of the characters really shone.  They’re all areas which Pratchett’s covered before – the buxom forthright girl with an understanding of the commonfolk, the special person who doesn’t know he’s special, the stupid pretty girl who isn’t really so stupid, and the complete bleeding psychopath – but that he’s done better and in more interesting circumstances.  I liked Glenda and Nutt a lot, but I didn’t love them.

It’s an okay book, really.  There’s about 350 pages of decent material here.  But I found my attention wandering a lot of the time, and, as it was largely obvious where the plot was going, I couldn’t really get invested in much else about the book.  Even the worst Terry Pratchett doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with anything really terrible, and I still like it more than Monstrous Regiment, but I really can’t give Unseen Academicals anything more than five out of ten.