Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Regular Read: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady SusanLady Susan by Jane Austen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the most best things about Jane Austen’s books is her social commentary. Her books are, for the most part, lighthearted in tone, but they also brought to light serious issues of that day and called into question the justice of issues like entail, social status, and the politics of courtship and marriage. She packaged her social commentary in a delightful narrative filled with plenty of wit and romance because a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

But she doesn’t do that in Lady Susan. Unfortunately, without the wit and romance, Austen’s social commentary is like watching an episode of “The Real Housewives of Regency Era England.”

Lady Susan Vernon is a calculating, manipulative social climber who cares nothing about anyone but herself. A widow in her late twenties with a daughter who is of an age to be married, she likes to keep her daughter far away and plenty of irons in the fire. Among her admirers and potential suitors are a married man, her brother-in-law’s brother-in-law (her brother-in-law’s wife’s brother), and a young man that’s she’s actually trying to manipulate into marrying her daughter.

Her lies and scheming are just plain ugly to behold. Some may argue that Austen’s showing that Lady Susan lives in a society that forces her to be manipulative in order to survive, but I think that’s a load of King George’s shorts. Austen doesn’t paint Lady Susan in at all a sympathetic light. Even Emma, a character only Austen herself was supposed to like, is miles more likeable.

The scheming and plotting sucked any joy out of the book for me. And everyone else’s helplessness to withstand Lady Susan’s machinations were just as annoying, if not more so.

It’s an epistolary novel, so you also lose Austen’s delightful asides and observations; you only get to hear the direct perspectives of the characters. It’s a pity that the characters are so yucky.

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#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, naïve 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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#CBR4 Cannonball 12: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker 1897 editionDracula by Bram Stoker 1897 edition by Bram Stoker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I imagine that, when it was first published, Dracula probably kept a lot of people up at night. The idea of the undead rising up as evil killers in the night must really have thrown people for a loop.

But I am not a Victorian socialite. I grew up watching horror films that my parents didn’t know I was watching. I startle easily, but I don’t scare easily. And I have to say that Dracula didn’t really do much for me.

If you’ve lived under a rock for the last hundred years or so, here’s the synopsis: Jonathan Harker, a young lawyer, is retained by the mysterious Count Dracula. While there, it becomes apparent that there’s something a little off about the Count, and things soon get dangerous. In the meantime, Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray, is corresponding with her best friend, Lucy Westenra. Lucy is proposed to by three men in the same day, and accepts one: Arthur. But, in the meantime, Lucy contracts a mysterious illness. Arthur calls in his friend and Lucy’s former suitor, Dr. John Seward, to cure her. Seward, unable to find the cause, calls in his colleague, Dr. Abraham van Helsing. It seems that van Helsing has some inkling of what’s plaguing Lucy, but is reluctant to say. We eventually find that Jonathan’s imprisonment and Lucy’s illness are connected.

dracula

I'm sure Bela Lugosi was a terrifying Dracula for his time.

Parts of it were quite quaint, actually. It’s almost laughable how Dr. van Helsing, the vampire expert, keeps everyone in the dark about the existence of vampires. Instead of telling Seward & Co., “I think Lucy’s being stalked by a vampire. Here, let’s keep some garlic in her room and see if she gets any better,” he simply brings in the garlic flowers and tells no one how important they are. Instead of telling Seward, “I think a vampire is coming and sucking her blood at night. We should sleep during the day and keep awake at night to protect her,” they keep falling asleep and Lucy keeps getting weaker.

But the fact is that none of us live in the late 19th century, and you just can’t go back. Unless you’ve lived a very sheltered life and scare very easily, Dracula probably won’t do much for you.

I guess it’s a groundbreaking work in the horror genre. But I’ll never forgive Bram Stoker for being the precursor to Twilight.

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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

My Ten Favorite Books of 2011

I finished a Baker’s Cannonball (that’s fifty-three books) for CBR-III, but I only really finished forty-eight in 2011. But that’s plenty of books from which to choose a Top Ten.

10. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
y: the last man

This is actually a graphic novel series in ten volumes, and not a single book. But it’s a graphic novel, so it’s a quick and fun read. The premise of the story is that a mysterious plague has caused every male organism on Earth to die: except for Yorick Brown, an aspiring escape artist, and his helper monkey, Ampersand. It explores a lot of gender issues, but does so in a witty and interesting way. There are plenty of meta references and jokes, and a few parts even made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I’m reading.

But this is a graphic novel series for grown-ups, and not a comic book for kids, so be forewarned that there are some squicky parts that prudes like me don’t appreciate, including some nudity.

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
things fall apart

Culture changes with every generation. The dominant people of one generation can quickly become obsolete and shunned by the next. Things Fall Apart explores what happens when someone cannot let go of the past in order to adapt to the future. Okonkwo, the most powerful man in a remote Nigerian village, is unable to change as the times do, with tragic consequences. This book is a quick read, but a heavy one.

8. John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain H. Murray
john macarthur: servant of the word and flock

Iain Murray is, in my opinion, one of the finest biographers of our day, and certainly the foremost Christian biographer of our generation. His proto-biography of John MacArthur is a brief but encouraging look at the life of one of my spiritual heroes. Murray himself reminds the reader that a full biography can’t really be finished until the subject’s life and testimony are complete, but this is a great glimpse at what that full testimony will look like when it’s ready to be written.

I can only wonder who will write Murray’s biography when he is gone.

7. John Adams by David McCullough
john adams

John Adams is an historical figure who doesn’t get much play time in the American classrooms of today. But he’s certainly one of the most important patriots who ever lived, and historian David McCullough brings him to life in the pages of this book. Adams was a man of deep integrity and passion, and I appreciate that McCullough chooses to write about men of character instead of those who lived more glamorous and superficially exciting lives.

6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
high fidelity

This is a book that will speak to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and pined after someone they couldn’t have. Hornby has a knack for writing about common human experiences with a humor and with that makes them seem somehow glorious because of how pitiful they are. Rob Fleming is everyman, and laughing at his romantic misadventures helps you to laugh at your own.

5. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
the hiding place

One of the few books I re-read in 2011, I was surprised at how much richer this book was for me upon re-reading it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate God’s love and care for His children since I first read it back in high school, but I was very personally encouraged by this book, and the testimony of Corrie ten Boom’s life, especially in how God used her time in a German concentration camp during WWII to teach her more about His power, grace, and love. This is a book that I’ll keep in my heart for the rest of my life.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
extremely loud and incredibly close

I hear that the movie version of this book is retaaaaahded, but don’t let that stop you from reading this beautiful, tragic, poignant book. One of the first novels to be set against the backdrop of 9/11, it came under some fire for being “manipulative” because of its setting. But I think time has been kind to it, and I found the story of young Oskar Schell’s search for a way to make sense out of life after losing his father in the 9/11 attacks to be profoundly moving.

3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
black swan green

What High Fidelity is for relationships, Black Swan Green is for growing up. Jason Taylor is unpopular, unconfident, and uncomfortable. His parents are on the verge of splitting up, the girl he fancies fancies the class bully, and, to make matters worse, he has a stammer that makes King George VI look like Cicero. He’s the Rob Fleming of junior high, and David Mitchell writes this semi-autobiographical character with honesty, compassion, and feeling. It’ll make you look back on the miserable memories of junior-high awkwardness (if you have them. I have them in abundance) with fondness — not because they weren’t really miserable, but because that misery shaped you into the person you are today.

2. Native Son by Richard Wright
native son

Native Son may well be one of the most important works of American literature. It’s well-written, thought-provoking, and harrowing. It tells the tale of Bigger Thomas, a black man ironically forced into a terrible situation by the kindness of people in a class oppressing his own. Part of me wants to say it’s a sad story, but it’s also a very cold story. Wright himself described it best when he said of its creation, “I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

1. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller
prodigal god

I guess you could accuse me of copping out because I put a Christian book at the top of my list. But while this book may not change the world at large, it certainly changed my life, and my view of God’s love and grace. We’ve all heard the story of the prodigal son, and we think that the word “prodigal” means “lost” or “wayward.” But what it really means is “wastefully extravagant,” and Keller posits that the real prodigal in this story is the Father, who lavishes his love and riches on a son that doesn’t deserve it. I can’t even write about this book without being moved to tears because I know that God has given me so much more than I could ever hope to deserve. Because of His prodigal love, all the riches of heaven are mine, and there’s not a thing I can do to lose it or earn more of it. This book is a must-read for Christians who want to glimpse into the depths of God’s love for them.

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What were your favorite books of 2011?

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