Posts Tagged ‘cannonball read’

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 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 17: Fables, Volume 13: The Great Fables Crossover by Bill Willingham

Fables, Vol. 13: The Great Fables CrossoverFables, Vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover by Bill Willingham
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was the last Fables volume available at my local library, and I wish it had been better.

This volume is a crossover of all three of the Fables comics: Fables (original flavor), Jack of Fables, and The Literals. If you haven’t read any of the Jack of Fables comics, and I didn’t, it’ll be a little jarring to be introduced to so many new characters all at once.

At the Farm, the Fables are trying to regroup and figure out what to do. Mister Dark’s presence in NYC is affecting them, causing people give in to the darker parts of their natures. For Bigby and Beast, this means a knock-down, drag-out brawl. For Rose Red, this means sinking into a deep depression.

When Jack Horner calls, claiming to know how to prevent the end of the Fables, Bigby and Snow take off to see how valid his claims are.

The volume was rather disjointed for me. There’s a lot of meta references, which get to be just a little too twee after a while.

At least the artwork’s back to being good again.

Hopefully, my local library will get Volume 14 in soon. And, hopefully, Volume 14 brings Fables back to its usual levels of ossomness.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 14: Fables, Volume 11: War and Pieces by Bill Willingham

Fables, Vol. 11: War and PiecesFables, Vol. 11: War and Pieces by Bill Willingham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is it. The Fables have gone to war with the Empire.

I was a little conflicted about this volume; it’s a fun read, sure, but I was a little disappointed that, after ten volumes of build-up, the war was finished in a single volume. That didn’t seem like enough, and it seemed like a bit of an abrupt resolution to the main issue of the series so far.

The tale is told well, however, and it’s lots of fun watching the action unfold, and seeing the Fables’ strategies playing out. As in any war story, there’s heroism and tragedy. There are battles and plenty of action. There are victories and defeats.

But it did feel rather condensed. I guess, though, if the war wasn’t a long one, there’s no reason to drag it out for the likes of me.

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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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#CBR4 Cannonball 11: Fables, Volume 9: Sons of Empire by Bill Willingham

Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of EmpireFables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire by Bill Willingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sons of Empire was a little up and down for me, but the little bonus at the end brought the volume as a whole back up to solid ground.

The Fables are continuing to prepare for the possibility of war against the Adversary, and the Adversary is now preparing his hostile takeover of the mundy world (that’s our world, y’all). This is especially tough for Pinocchio, who still loves his friends back in Fabletown, even though he’s under a loyalty enchantment to his father, Geppetto (also known as the Adversary).

Here’s one thing I don’t get: the wooden soldiers Geppetto creates to people his armies are so disdainful of “meat” people (humans). Yet, they hold their “father” in such high reverence. It doesn’t make sense to me that they’d think so ill of meat when their own beloved father is meat.

Snow & Bigby continue rearing their rambunctious brood of sons and daughters, and the kids are growing and learning all the time.

There are two special treats at the end of this volume. The first is a Christmas special, and we get to see the Wolf family take a special trip back to the Homelands to visit Grandpa: the North Wind. He and Bigby have a strained relationship, and we get to peek behind the curtain and see why.

By the way, the Wolf kids/cubs are absolutely adorable. Good job, artists.

The second special treat is especially fun. Over the years in which Fables has been in publication, readers have sent in thousands of questions. Willingham and the writers chose eleven questions to answer in one-page comics. Some of them are absolutely hilarious. This segment alone elevates an otherwise unremarkable volume.

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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?

Cannonball 53: Black Hole by Charles Burns

Black HoleBlack Hole by Charles Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t very popular in high school. I wanted desperately to hang out with the cool kids, but they avoided me and ignored me. My unpopularity was a disease that they didn’t want to catch.

Charles Burns makes social diseases of this sort the literal premise of Black Hole. In the novel, there’s a sexually transmitted disease (which I recently heard is now called a “sexually transmitted infection.” Apparently, it’s not a “disease” unless there are symptoms) that manifests in strange ways. Some people with the disease are able to hide the symptoms: skin that sheds like a snake’s, webbed fingers and toes, a tiny mouth that whispers what you’re really thinking. But others are forced into hiding because the change in their appearances is grotesquely apparent, and there’s no hiding that they have the disease.

Burns takes a raw look at the world of adolescent friendships and the very real pain they cause. Teenagers do crazy things, but it’s often because they’re feeling pain and isolation, and they don’t know how else to cope. Burns follows this pain and isolation — sometimes obvious, but sometimes hidden — to conclusions that may seem farfetched, but are disturbingly common to the reactions that many of today’s teens have to their own perceived social “diseases.”

Now, I have no problems admitting that I’m quite the prude. There’s quite a bit of nudity in this graphic novel, and it was jarring for me. When I come across graphic scenes in books, I can usually skip ahead to where the coast is clear. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and I often unwittingly read entire scenes at a glance that I would have preferred to skip. It would be naïve of me to blame the author for that, and I’m not. But I do want to warn my fellow prudes that Charles Burns puts the “graphic” in “graphic novel” with this one.

Black Hole is a novel that will get to you. It’s jarring, raw, and poignant. It’s not something you’ll forget in a hurry, and that’s both a good and a bad thing.

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Cannonball 52: 1776 by David McCullough

17761776 by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a wonder that America exists at all.

When you consider how outmanned, outgunned, and outstrategized these thirteen upstart colonies were when they declared war on England for their independence, it’s scary to think how close this country came to missing its birth.

David McCullough is one of my very favorite biographers, and his 1776 is a gripping, exciting read about how the United States of America united its states and became America.

He describes in detail the gritty battles, the hardships faced on both sides, and both the strategic decisions and happy accidents that won the war.

One of the things I really appreciate about McCullough is that he doesn’t limit himself to reciting facts. He’s telling a story. It’s a true story, but he interprets the facts in a way that helps you to see what Washington was probably thinking when he received this dispatch or that letter. He’s not only telling the story of the Revolutionary War, but of the people who fought it. He really brings history to life on the page.

I still like his biographies the most; McCullough’s at his best when he immerses himself in a person’s life. But his telling of the story of the birth of our nation is a must-read for history buffs and patriots.

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