Posts Tagged ‘classics’

#CBR4 Cannonball 27: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I was disappointed. I thought the romance was rather cobbled together, and Catherine Morland seemed the most dimwitted of all of Austen’s heroines.

It improved upon the second reading, though. I think my problem with my first read was that I was expecting it to focus too much on the romance. But upon reading it a second time, I realized that the strength of this book is its emphasis on friendship, especially in regard to avoiding bad ones.

Catherine Morland is seventeen, and visiting Bath for the first time. Society in Bath is exciting, and young, na├»ve Catherine is taking it all in with much excitement. She’s overjoyed when she’s befriended by Isabella Thorpe, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in Bath. At Isabella’s urging, she begins calling her by her first name, spending all kinds of time with her, and even doing a few things that she might not have thought proper back home in Fullerton.

Isabella flatters her endlessly, but is also oddly inconsistent in her behavior. She declares that she won’t dance unless Catherine gets a partner, but soon abandons her to dance with Catherine’s brother, James. She declares that she doesn’t care at all for Frederic Tilney, but, somehow, always seems to be talking to him. But Catherine, loyal to the core, insists to herself that Isabella must have a good reason for her behavior, or must not know how her behavior is affecting others.

In the meantime, she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. Catherine likes Henry almost instantly, and she’s glad to find that she likes Eleanor, too. Eleanor’s not as flattering or flashy as Isabella, but she’s steady and likeable.

udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe, one of the gothic books that Austen references in Northanger Abbey

Catherine’s also a great reader of gothic mysteries. She longs for the excitement and romance that she reads about in these books, and her desire for adventure gets her in a bit of a pickle down the line. Austen uses this to gently encourage the reader not to put too much stock in what you read in books — even as you read hers.

The resolution of the romantic entanglements still felt a little too neat to me, but the friendship angle is still a good lesson to learn today. It’s good to have an open temperament, and to be willing to get to know and like people. But it’s also good to exercise discernment because there are many who would prey upon the unwise and take advantage of their trusting natures. Don’t become jaded, but don’t be a fool, either.

It’s a nice, little morality play, and it teaches an important lesson: don’t be blinded by flattery in friendship. A true friend doesn’t flatter, but tells the truth, whether it’s complimentary or not.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 23: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little WomenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some people might read Little Women and think to themselves that it’s outdated, old-fashioned, and out of touch. I mean, the book is basically a morality play about how to be a good, little woman and support the men, and learn how to be a real lady with manners and tact.

I enjoyed every word of it.

Maybe that makes me old-fashioned and backwards and an enemy of feminism, but I don’t care. Little Women is a sweet book about growing up and learning the ropes of life and dealing with tragedy and just loving the people around you.

Alcott used her own family as the inspiration for the characters in her books. You can see just how close she was to everyone in her family, but especially to her sisters and mother. Some people today might think that the way Alcott glorifies women in the roles of homemakers and wives and mothers is downright primeval, but I found it sweet. We’ve lost a little something in today’s culture with our constant pursuit of MORE. Look, I’m thankful to have the right to vote and work in corporate America and crack jokes in the presence of men, but I’m also a little sad that there’s so much pressure to do those things to the exclusion of making our homes pleasant and welcoming places and staying home with our kids and enjoying books like Little Women.

louisa may alcott

Louisa May Alcott

I’m not ashamed to say that I found the close relationship between the March sisters profoundly touching (esp. in light of the fact that my sister just got married, and although we both want to stay as close as ever, things are bound to change and will never be the same again). I’m not ashamed to say that I cried many tears through the course of the book (although I am a little embarrassed that most of those tears cropped up at the most inopportune times, like on the elliptical machine at the gym and whilst working the exit door at the Hurley Warehouse sale — *sob* “Thanks for coming.” *sniffle* “Bye, now.” *watery smile* “Come back soon”). I’m not ashamed to say that the romantic bits thrilled my chaste, little heart.

I loved that the March sisters occasionally bicker, but learn to forgive each other quickly. I love the lack of teenage angst. One of the things I dislike most about YA books these days is the heavy cloud of angst that obscures everything. No wonder kids are so sullen these days. Everything they’re reading (or watching on TV) is encouraging them to indulge in their angst, to become brooding and introspective and consumed with thoughts of themselves and their own problems. THOSE ARE ALL FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, YOU BUNCH OF BABIES.

first world problems

You think the March sisters didn’t have problems? Their dad was risking his life in the Civil War, they were poor and nigh-on starving, and they lived in freezing-cold Massachusetts and had maybe TWO dresses each in their entire wardrobes. But instead of moping about and whining about how their troubles affect THEM, they try to make the best of it, and try to be cheerful for each others’ sakes. And they also find satisfaction in helping others wherever they can. Now, I know that this isn’t an antidote for everything, but it’s still better than whining.

Maybe others think that Little Women is antiquated, but I love it. I love its simple depiction of friendship, love, and family, and of many of the values idealized in it.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 21: George Knightley, Esquire, Book One: Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite

Charity Envieth Not (George Knightley, Esquire; #1)Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: this book was written by a friend of mine. I read it as it was being written and gave feedback. I am thanked on the flyleaf for this service.

But I am doing my best to review it as if I were just reading any old book and had normal expectations of it. In fact, I was so afraid that I would be biased that I originally didn’t write a review at all, and rated the book only four stars, just in case the shine of knowing the author eventually wore off.

I just re-read the book for the first time in years, and I have re-rated it five stars. This book is fantastic, much more than mere fanfic, and a worthy sequel to Jane Austen’s Emma.

Emma is my favorite of Austen’s novels, mostly because the love interest, Mr. Knightley, is my ideal man. Witty, wise, thoughtful, generous, a faithful friend, never afraid to tell the truth for the good of those he loves, even at the risk of hurting them — Mr. Darcy ain’t got nothin’ on him.

George Knightley, Esquire, Book One: Charity Envieth Not is a retelling of Emma from Knightley’s point of view. We get to see what he was thinking throughout the events of Austen’s novel, and also get to take a look into the day-to-day life of a gentleman back in the Regency era.

mr. knightley (jeremy northam)

Jeremy Northam, in my favorite role of his

Cornthwaite’s book is well-written. She is very familiar with Austen’s style, but still gives Knightley a character of his own, without being too derivative of Emma (aside from dialogue written by Austen that had to be fitted into this book). We see Knightley’s thoughts and his interactions with characters that we either didn’t see much of in Emma or weren’t in Emma at all, as Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield would not have had any reason to make acquaintance with tenants of Donwell Abbey.

The book is also very well-researched. It was fascinating to take a deeper look at the responsibilities that the owner of an estate like Donwell would have had. He would have been involved in mediating grievances, making improvements to roads and bridges, in improvements to his own properties, in other matters of importance in Highbury, and would have had a full social calendar as well. Cornthwaite really did her homework, and it makes Charity Envieth Not a good primer on Regency era life as well as of the “he said” counterpart to a classic romance.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s available on Kindle, too. If you love Jane Austen and wish she had written more, this book is the next best thing to Zombie Austen.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 19: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first heard the name Yossarian on Pajiba. He’s always been one of my favorite commenters; scathing, but fair. And now that I’ve finally read Catch-22, I love him even more.

John Yossarian is a bombardier stationed in Italy during World War II. Once you complete a certain number of missions, you’re supposed to get a ticket home, but his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of missions. Desperate to leave before he gets killed, he hopes to be deemed insane in order to be excused from flying any further combat missions. The only problem is Catch-22: You can only be excused from combat missions if you’re insane, but asking to be excused proves that you’re sane.

Heller’s a great writer with a gift for the absurd. Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, and others are frustrating because they’re so convoluted. In between all the absurdity, there are moments where the reader, through Yossarian, is faced with the brutality of war, and of life in general.

It also satirizes bureaucracy. Most of us can identify with this, I think. It’s hard not to imagine that the powers that be are wasting their time on frivolous matters when the wheels of bureaucracy turn so slowly.

The book ends on a bit of a high note (considering the valleys of despair that it dwells in towards the end), but even that high note is couched in absurdity. It makes me wonder whether Heller just wanted to leave his reader smiling, or whether his point was that the only way to escape the absurdity was to embrace the absurdity.

Wait, isn’t that a Catch-22?

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#CBR4 Cannonball 18: Emma by Jane Austen

EmmaEmma by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Likeable people often have the power of making you like the things they like. When they get excited about something, it makes you want to get excited about it, too. One of my pastors is a great example of this. It’s thanks to his enthusiasm that many in our church love the Lakers, Braveheart, “Band of Brothers,” and kettle corn (I am guilty as charged of liking all of these things).

Jane Austen wields a similar power in Emma. She set out to write “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” and made generations of readers fall in love with her.

Emma Woodhouse is “handsome, clever, and rich.” She lives on the estate of Hartfield in the town of Highbury with her aged father. Her mother died when she was young, so there was never anyone to really challenge Emma, and she became used to always getting her own way. The only person that she can’t charm into doing as she pleases is Mr. Knightley, the owner of Donwell Abbey, and brother-in-law to Emma’s sister, Isabella.

The book opens with the wedding of Emma’s former governess, Miss Taylor, who is now Mrs. Weston. Emma takes credit for having made the match and is determined to make a hobby of matchmaking. When she meets the artless and beautiful Harriet Smith, she takes Miss Smith under her wing and sets out to spark a romance for her.

emma and harriet

Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Harriet (Toni Collette, who was brilliant in this role).

These days, a lot of people seem to complain that Emma is spoiled and selfish, and there’s plenty of evidence to that effect in the book. But Emma changes towards the end of the book, and what ultimately makes her a redeemable character is that she learns from her mistakes and, at the heart of it, always had good intentions despite her pride.

Mr. Knightley is also my favorite Austen hero (Mr. Darcy doesn’t even compare). He’s charming, chivalrous, clever, and, most of all, wise. He’s never afraid to tell Emma the truth, even when it hurts. He’s a faithful friend in that regard, and it’s a character trait that far too few people value in a future spouse. He’s insightful enough to see Emma’s flaws, but gracious enough to believe that she can change.

Emma is funny, touching, romantic, and really witty. It’s my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels, and I think Emma’s flaws are what make her relatable in the end.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 16: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d grown up hearing all about Treasure Island and Robert Louis Stevenson, but never really got around to reading any of his books. They sounded like books for boys to me and, despite being a tomboy, my literary tastes skewed towards the feminine (e.g. Sweet Valley Twins and The Baby-Sitters Club).

Well, I recently began my formal education in books for boys with Treasure Island. It was a fun, swashbuckling adventure, and there were parts that made me make surprised faces in public while I was reading it.

It reads a little Robinson Crusoe-y, mostly because of the language, but it’s still lots of fun.

Jim Hawkins is a young boy whose parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. When an old seaman of great belligerence and dubious character comes to stay at the Admiral Benbow, Jim’s life is changed forever.

One of the things that surprised me most about the book was the portrayal of pirates as thieves and marauders. You may ask why this surprised me, and I think it’s because pirates are portrayed in today’s media as though they’ve got their own moral code, and are good at heart. They don’t, and they aren’t. This is still true of pirates today. These men (and sometimes women) steal and kill to make a profit, and they don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want. They’re ruthless, and Stevenson portrays them as such.

captain jack sparrow

Pirate lite.

We see characters like Captain Jack Sparrow in the movies and think they’re pirates. After reading Treasure Island, I’d say that Captain Jack Sparrow is to pirates what Edward Cullen is to vampires.

Anyway, there’s action aplenty, as well as some survival stuff. I do love a good wilderness survival story.

As children’s books go, this one may be a must-read for boys, but I think it’s fun for girls, too. I may be about twenty-five years behind the curve on this one, but I’m glad I eventually got to it.

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Cannonball 1: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Another year, another Cannonball. CBR-IV is on like Donkey Kong.

Tess of the d'UrbervillesTess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ahh, there’s nothing quite like a depressing tale of ruin and social stigma to kick off the New Year.

I’d heard the title of this book many times growing up, but had never actually heard what it was about. Then, right before I started reading it, a friend told me that it was just really depressing. I enjoy a good, sad book (Of Mice and Men, anyone?), so I decided to plunge in.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles taught me that there is a big difference between good sad and bad sad. Good sad has some redemption involved that kinda makes the sadness worthwhile. Bad sad is just depressing, and even if there’s a little redemption or at least some social value, it doesn’t really make it worth how depressing the story is.

Tess Durbeyfield is a simple peasant girl who lives a simple peasant life until, one day, her alcoholic father hears from a parson that the Durbeyfields are likely the descendants of the D’Urbervilles, a noble family fallen into ruin and obscurity. Hearing that there might be some distant (and wealthy) relatives living nearby, John Durbeyfield determines that he and his family ought to get a piece of that pie and sends his pretty daughter Tess to go and collect.

What was supposed to be a golden opportunity for Tess ends up leading to her ruin (you can probably guess how. I mean, it’s a book about social stigma back in old-timey England. You do the math).

Don't hate the player; hate the game.

It was a scandalous book for its time. It involves a taboo subject, and, at the time, probably shed some light and helped people to reconsider the justice of how “ruined” women were treated. Because of this, it’s also an important work.

But, man, it’s a sad book. Poor Tess never meets a man who does right by her, from her father to her would-be noble relative, to the love of her life, to her employer. The only man in the entire book who shows her the least kindness is an old dairyman. This book isn’t really sad in a way that makes you think of noble things and want to be a better person. It makes you think of injustice and makes you despair of ever living in a world free of it.

In that way, I suppose it’s almost as important as Native Son, which was probably the best book I read in 2011. But I think Bigger Thomas was a more realistic character than Tess Durbeyfield, whose blind devotion to the man of her dreams and patience under unjust suffering make her seem rather two-dimensional to me. The way Wright wrote made me want to stand up against injustice, whereas Hardy’s book made me want to buckle under the weight of it.

I can appreciate Tess for its literary achievement, and acknowledge its social and historical importance. But I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it, or that reading it really did me any good.

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And, for what it’s worth, this is the Tom Hardy I prefer to come to mind when I hear that name in the future:

tom hardy

Cannonball 37: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair (Bantam Classic)Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first experience with Thackeray was Barry Lyndon, and I thought it was solid, but I couldn’t really understand why everyone was always praising Thackeray to the skies. Sure, it was a nice satire, but it was actually pretty cut-and-dried, and I didn’t think you could say he was the next Jonathan Swift.

Well, after reading Vanity Fair, my estimation of Thackeray is much higher than it was. He does an excellent job of writing an excoriating satire of English society. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s maddening, and, in the end, it’s satisfying.

The book is subtitled A Novel Without a Hero, and this is because neither of his two protagonists is someone you’d want to emulate. Social climber Becky Sharp is a devious and manipulative minx, and her friend Amelia Sedley is an innocent, virtuous fool.

Before you start waving a misogynist flag at Thackeray, consider also that all of the men in the book are shallow morons, too. Rawdon Crawley is an idiot who is content to coast on his wife’s intellect until he begins to suspect (way too late) that she might be pulling one over on him, too. George Osborne is a rash, young libertine. William Dobbin has a bad habit of idolizing people who don’t deserve his loyalty.

Ultimately, you’ve gotta admit that Thackeray is fair: he roasts all of his characters equally. No one is spared, not even the servants. Everyone’s got some flaw that he can poke fun at.

While I enjoyed reading Thackeray’s tale of the pursuit of vanity, and the underlying implication that chasing vanity will ultimately get you nowhere, it made me a little uncomfortable to think about what Thackeray would say if he were to write about my life here in Southern California.

There’s vanity to spare here. He’d have a field day.

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