Reviews

Persuasion by Jane Austen: Review

Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote a review. I wish I had a good excuse, but I really don’t. What can I say, life just kept getting in the way. Which is why I’m only just getting around to writing this review for Persuasion even though it’s been weeks since I read it. It’s been long enough that I’m tempted to just skip this review and move on to some other books I’ve read since, but now that I’ve started reviewing Jane Austen’s novels I feel the need to finish, and so without further ado, we begin.

I’ll be honest, I was not enthusiastic about reading this particular Austen novel. From my memory of my first read through three years ago I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like it. That just goes to show how much a bad class can influence your perception of the subject. When I first started reading the Persuasion this time around I was enjoying it about as much as I though I would. I was frustrated constantly frustrated by Anne and her apparent lack of a spine, and I couldn’t bring myself to like Captain Wentworth that much because of how fickle he seemed, but, as usual, Austen drew me in.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Austen was a master of characterization. Her characters are so deceptively simple at first that it can take a while to realize just how intricate they are. Not to mention that Austen’s characters grow and develop a lot throughout the novels. There is almost always a lesson that they learn (or sometimes fail to learn) that causes the character to change or at the very least get to know themselves better. That’s the case in this novel. Although Anne Elliot starts out looking like this sweet and completely passive heroine, when the novel ends I feel that Anne has not only grown stronger, but that a lot of her growth comes from learning to trust herself and understand her own worth.

Although I ended up rooting for and liking Captain Wentworth and Anne by the end, and even though I’m a sucker for romance, I don’t know if I’d say that their relationship is my favorite part of the novel.  In all honesty, I think that the best part of this novel is probably Anne’s family. In typical Austen fashion our heroine’s family is a bit, umm, unique. In Pride and Prejudice you’ve got a perpetually improper and effusive mother, an eccentric father, and at least one completely uncontrollable sister. In Emma you’ve got her hypochondriac father and sister. And in Persuasion you have an undeservedly proud, ridiculously showy, and remarkably unfeeling father and sisters. The extent to which Anne’s family, especially her father and older sister, will go to maintain their image and importance is quite comical at times. The way that they are able to deceive themselves into almost anything so long as it boosts their ego is honestly hilarious at times. Even more so in the case of their cousin, Mr. Elliot. The way that those three go about scheming around each other, each convinced that they command the upmost respect from all around them, while meanwhile none of them really have any clue what’s going on is like the best soap opera I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen many).

I’m pretty sure I had a lot more I wanted to say about Persuasion when I finished it, but of course I can’t remember anymore. However, I can say that, as always, Austen did not let me down and this is a 5/5. This is one of Austen’s shorter novels so if you’re wanting a bit of a quicker read definitely give it a try, just remember that it can take a while to really get into it so once you start you’ve got to give it a fair shake. I’ve got a few other books to read before I get to them, but I’m hoping to finish my Austen read through by the end of the year, which means Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park reviews will be coming up in the next couple months. I’m hoping I have the same experience with them as I did with Persuasion and I end up liking them better the second time around.

 

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Reviews

Emma by Jane Austen: Review

The first time I read Emma was a couple of years ago while I was doing a semester abroad in Ireland. I was overjoyed when I walked into the first day of class and learned that the major author I was going to spend the semester studying would be Jane Austen. My joy did not last long. That was one of the most disappointing classes I’ve ever taken because it was so incredibly poorly taught. The one thing that I can say in favor of that class is that it finally induced me to read all of Jane Austen’s novels whereas before I had only read Pride and Prejudice. For that reason alone I am grateful to the class.

Although that class familiarized me with all seven novels it did not teach me to like them all. I loved Pride and Prejudice already, and Northanger Abbey was lovable on first sight, but my relationship with some of the other novels started on rocky footing, and Emma is included in that. The professor for that class had some very strange ideas about Austen and her writing, and the way she ran her classes left no room for discussion or debate. So I dutifully trudged through each novel only half appreciating what I was reading because I was reading for stuff I could use to craft essays specifically suited to this professors taste (since she didn’t really leave room for writing any other kind of essay). With all that being as it was, I did not like Emma the first read through. I found the character shallow and unlikable, and I pretty much left the novel behind a quickly as I could. I don’t know if it was because it’s better on a second read through, or just because I’m not reading with that professors ideas looming over my head, but I really loved Emma this time around.

During this read through of Emma I think I finally figured out what I love so much about Austen’s novels. If you’ve read some of my other reviews then you may have realized that few things bother me more in a novel than a good plot with underdeveloped characters. Characters make or break a novel, you can have the best plot in the world, but if you’re characters aren’t well developed and believable it’s not going to be worth reading. Austen’s characters are some of the best I’ve ever read and that’s what I love so much about her writing.

Austen’s novels take place in limited settings, with very little “action” as we would consider it. And yet they aren’t boring, in fact, they’re completely absorbing, and it’s because Austen’s characters are so good. I could go in depth into all of the different characters in all seven novels, but since this review is technically about Emma I’m going to try and restrain myself. I think Emma is actually a superb example, possibly the best, of what Austen does so brilliantly with her characters. What I found during this read through was that the characters were all vivid and alive, all so believable, that I actually felt like I knew them, and, in a way, I do. Austen’s characters are people, real people that we know. The best way I have to explain what I mean by that is that the characters are caricatures, but not just caricatures since that suggests a certain lack of depth and exaggeration, which definitely is not the case here.

It’s as if there are two layers to each character. The first layer is the base, the fundamental caricature of a certain type of person. Then the second layer is the the unique individual traits, background, and feelings that make each character unique. My favorite example is Miss Bates. The character is so simple and so beautifully done, I feel like I know her, like I understand her. Even more importantly, because her character seemed so familiar to me I was able to understand and relate to Emma’s feeling towards her. That’s the second thing that makes Austen’s writing and characters so wonderful. They’re emotions and actions are so believable and relatable that you feel like you know them and can sympathize with or understand their actions.

Those two things, or rather the one overarching thing, the characters, are what make Austen so brilliant and why I love her so much as an author. Her character Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice once has a conversation about how she loves to make a study of peoples’ characters, and I think that was a little bit of the authors personality slipping into her character. I think she must have enjoyed watching and studying people, finding their idiosyncrasies, their faults, their virtues, and working out how those things all fit together to make a person, and she used that. I also think she must have been very good at it, and that, in turn, made her a fantastic author.

I’ve gone on enough about the characters, but really that’s the best part of this novel. That being said the plot is also top notch, and quite funny as well. Without giving away to much the entire plot is basically made up of characters whose faults and failings cause them to get themselves into some unfortunate messes. Watching the characters dig themselves into holes and climb back out again is quite entertaining. Even if sometimes you do want to reach through the pages, grab Emma by the shoulders and shake her until she realizes how foolish she’s being.

I had a pretty good segue I wanted to use here, but, since using it would give away to much of the story, instead I’m just going to make this awkward transition into my last point. In my review of Northanger Abbey I’d said that I was still trying to decide between Henry Tilney (from Northanger) and George Knightly (from Emma) for my second and third favorite Austen hero (Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is obviously my first favorite). Having now reread both novels I’ve decided that Henry Tilney wins out in the end. It was a tough decision. The problem with all the Austen heroes is that they are all so perfectly suited to the heroines that when you read each novel you think that that hero is the perfect guy because of how perfect he is for her, but when you read the next novel you think the same thing all over again. But Henry won in the end because, when I really thought about it, he’s the one I would rather know personally and who I think would be more fun to have a conversation with. Although, when it comes to which one has more merit as a person, I think George Knightly would be the winner.

5/5 in case you couldn’t tell. Also read it, read it, read it. It’s so good.

Reviews

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: Review

I believe I’ve mentioned in some previous posts how fond I am of Jane Austen and her novels. So it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that I love this one. It’s only the second time that I’ve read it, but this read through confirmed for me that it’s worthy of being my second favorite Austen novel (Pride and Prejudice being the first, of course).

Northanger Abbey is the funniest Austin novel in my opinion. That’s not to say that it’s the laugh out loud kind of funny, but rather that it has a lot of clever jokes and hidden meanings that make it a delight to read because Northanger Abbey is a satire of the Gothic type novel that was very popular during Austen’s time. That being said you don’t have to be knowledgeable about Austen or Gothic novels to be able to enjoy the humor in this satire, yes, there would probably be some stuff that you miss if you’re completely unfamiliar with the genre, but you will absolutely still be able to enjoy the book. I would highly recommend reading the notes as you go though. Normally I’m not a fan of foot notes or end notes unless I’m reading a book for a class, because I feel like always checking the notes to get things explained is an unnecessary interruption, but, in this case, I definitely recommend reading the notes because they help you understand and enjoy a lot more of the humor in the book. For example, if you don’t know what Blaise Castle is, you’re missing out on a big part of the joke in that chapter.

If you’re thinking right now that you shouldn’t read Northanger Abbey because there’s no way you can be bothered to read the notes, I want to change your mind. Even without those extra insights it’s definitely still worth reading. Catherine, the heroine, is the most endearingly naive heroine I’ve ever read. Normally a character like Catherine might get on my nerves, but Austen wrote her so well, and she tries so hard, that I have to love her in the end. Not to mention Henry Tilney, the clever hero who always has something witty to say. He’s definitely in my top three for Austen heroes, and I just need to reread Emma so I can decide between him and George Knightly.

As much as I love the character’s in this novel, my favorite part is actually Austen herself. One might even call her a character in this novel because she breaks the fourth wall on several occasions. In a lot of books that wouldn’t work, but in this one it’s perfect. Northanger Abbey is completely self aware. It’s a satire and it knows that, and the author knows, and the reader knows. Pretty much the only ones who don’t know are the characters, and that’s a lot of what makes it so funny. I’m not going to spend to much time trying to convince you that this is a totally awesome aspect of the novel, because I could never do it justice, and you should just read it for yourself to find out how good it is. I will throw in that the last few pagers are actually my favorite, and the ending sentence is hilarious, specifically because of how Austen breaks the first wall, and sort of makes fun of her own novel and characters.

I could continue to go on at length about this novel, I could write an essay on it, in fact I think I did once. I could even go into my well rehearsed rant about how poorly this book was taught to me in school and how it’s still lovable anyway, but I think I’ve said enough. I give this a 5/5 of course, and highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. Normally I don’t include quotes in my reviews, but today I’m actually going to end with one because of how much I love it:

“we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”  Jane Austin, Northanger Abbey.

Reviews

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (Being the First Jane Austen Mystery) by Stephanie Barron: Review

I need to preface this whole review by saying that Jane Austen is one of my all time favorite authors. I have read every single one of her novels (I’ve read Pride and Prejudice twice already this year bringing my total up to something like fifteen of sixteen). I studied Jane Austen’s literature extensively in school and have written multiple essays about her. This book was actually recommended to me by a professor after I wrote about Jane Austen as detective fiction in his class (it sounds weird, but I pulled it off and got an A no less). It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading this first of Stephanie Barron’s novels featuring Jane Austen as the ‘detective’ because, as much as I love Jane Austen, I’m really not that big a fan of detective stories. Given my background with Jane Austen you might imagine that I had mixed feeling picking up this novel. Would Barron do Austen justice? Would it be authentic to the times? Would the story actually be good or was Barron just trying to attract attention to a mediocre novel by using Austen’s well known and respected name? Having read the novel my feeling are mixed, but enough of this intro stuff, lets get to it.

The first few chapters of the book had me enthralled. I was, to put it bluntly, ridiculously excited, because in a very few pages I began to realize what kind of game Barron was playing at. Sprinkled throughout the pages of this novel are dozens of hints, references, and nods towards Jane Austen’s own novels. Character names, places, the personalities of the characters, there were so many things I could point to and say “AHA! I see which Austen character this is based on!” or “This is the conversation that is supposed to ‘inspire’ such and such scene in this Austen novel.” It became something like a treasure hunt, trying to pick out the specific bits that made direct references to Austen’s own  writing. It was this aspect that really got me reading and remained one of my greatest pleasures in the novel throughout. However, after a while the novelty of what Barron was doing started to wear off and I began to pay attention to the novel itself.

The plot of The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor didn’t hold a lot of interest for me for the first half of the novel or so, but eventually I did start getting invested in the story and trying to figuring out who the culprit was and all that. Unfortunately the story was somewhat predictable, at least in the bigger aspects of the plot. I knew who’d done it, who seemed to have done it but was really innocent, and such and such, way before the big reveal at the end, but I still enjoyed reading the story to see how Barron would have all of her characters figure it out. Still, on the rare occasion that I do read detective fiction I prefer for the plots to be slightly less predictable.

It’s about time that we start coming to my major problems with this book. The novel is written in the form of a journal that was supposed to have been kept by Austen herself and that details the events of the unpleasantness that she is witness to, and involved in, at Scargrave Manor, and that’s where Barron really starts to go wrong. Since the novel is written from Austen’s perspective it, of course, needed to try and imitate her voice, and Barron did a commendably decent job. However, although Barron used Austen’s typical language, phrasing, and syntax relatively well, you could still see the more modern narrative style coming through. Had the novel been narrated from a third person perspective I think this would have been perfectly acceptable, but, since it was supposed to have been written by Jane Austen herself, it ended up seeming false and inauthentic. Even had her writing style been a complete and perfect imitation of Austen’s, Barron’s attempt would still have fallen short because of the necessity of weaving into the narrative information that we, as modern readers, needed to know but that Austen would never have included because of it being perfectly understood in her time without the need for further comment. Barron does save herself from some of this by using footnotes to explain some of the more historical information. At first these footnotes added to the authenticity that she was going for as they were presented in the guise of editor’s notes and explained such things as social class and geography or the like. Then Barron took it too far. The notes started turning to the “history” of Austen’s life. Claiming that this character in Barron’s novel was supposed to be the inspiration for this character in Austen’s novel, and that kind of thing. It was all lies. Had the foot notes been restrained to actual historical information relevant to the story it would have been fine, but I take great issue with Barron trying to twist Austen’s actual life story for her own literary aims. I understand that it’s fiction, and if this had been done to an author that I liked a bit less then I might not care, I might have even thought it was clever, but as it is I found it incredibly wrong that Barron would corrupt the history of an amazing author for her own benefit.

At some point during the novel, around when I started getting more interested in the plot and more frustrated by Barron’s false footnotes, I started trying to read the novel as just another historical novel with a detective plot rather than as anything connected to Austen, her work, or her life. While I could manage to do that I found the story to be a fun read. That, combined with the fun I had picking out all of the little Austen treasures (the real ones based on Austen’s work, not the fake stuff that Barron was making up), kept me from actually disliking this novel. It certainly won’t be ranked among my favorites, and I likely won’t continue with reading the following books in the series, but I did enjoy this book in the end.

Final recommendation. If you like Austen, and you like detective fiction, you should give this book a try. If you read this book without a strong familiarity with Austen’s works then you miss out on a lot of what makes this novel worth reading, but, on the other hand, you could probably enjoy it just for the plot and historical aspect. Final rating 2.5/5 stars. If I were rating just plot or quality of writing then I’d have rated it higher, probably 3.5/5, but I’ve got to take that extra point off for those frustrating footnotes.

Reviews

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: Review

A while back I decided that I was going to start reading my way through classical literature, even the stuff that never held any interest for me, because I think that classical literature is pretty important. Towards that end I made myself a reading jar in which I put the names of a long list of literary texts that I want to get under my belt. A Tale of Two Cities is the most recent book that I drew from my jar, and I was not excited to read it. I read Dickens’s Great Expectation in college, and I was not a fan. Dickens is, to put it bluntly, very long winded. Rumor is that he was paid by the word, although a quick bit of research seems to indicate that this is not the case and he was actually paid for something like every thirty-two pages that he wrote. Either way, it was in his best interest to write in as lengthy a way as possible, which can make his novels a bit hard to get through.

It’s been a couple years now since I read Great Expectations but I remember it as being ceaselessly wordy, and the story seemed to drag pointlessly on when it all could have been wrapped up so much sooner. You can see why I was dreading A Tale of Two Cities, but I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Unlike in Great Expectation I found that in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens makes excellent use of his wordy style to create an artful, witty, and engaging narrative. Yes, he goes on at length in certain scenes and about certain occurrences that really could have been abbreviated considerably and still done their job very well; however, his way of talking round and round a subject turns in to a kind of double edged wit where he gets across the point of what he is trying to say without ever actually saying it. It’s this style that really sets the tone for the novel, and I really came to enjoy it. That being said, the convoluted paragraphs and run on sentences did get tiresome and hard to follow at times, but once I got into the style I was able to manage without too much trouble.

The characters in A Tale of Two Cities are also a great improvement on those that I remember from my last Dickens novel. I actually liked a lot of these characters. Certainly they have that quality that you often find in classic literature of being pretty one dimensional and seeming more like caricatures than real people, but that actually worked quite well with the story and the style of the narrative. Without a doubt the best character was Sydney Carton. I liked him right away and was never sure quite where the character would go, out of the whole cast he was the only character that I really felt could surprise me and the one I was most invested in.

The plot itself was interesting, if exaggerated and somewhat unrealistic. For the most part, not knowing much at all about the book before I picked it up, I wasn’t able to predict where the plot would go. In the last few chapters I was able to figure out how it was going to end, and, when I figured it out, I realized that there had been clues pointing towards this very conclusion throughout the novel that only made sense after I figured out what was happening, and I thoroughly enjoyed putting the pieces together. I am still not sure whether I only figured it out so late because I wasn’t paying enough attention, or if Dickens did it that way on purpose. For my pride’s sake if nothing else I’d like to give the credit to Dickens and his top notch story telling.

All together I was very satisfied with this read. The story was interesting, the characters were beautifully crafted, and the writing was very well done. This is a solid 4.5/5 with half a point taken away for being confusing sometimes. I highly recommend you give this a read if you haven’t already, after all, you can never read too many classics.

Reviews

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: Review

Minor spoilers in this post.

Wow, okay, so I’m pretty sure that, at just under 1500 pages, this is the longest book I have ever read. In any case it’s definitely the book that it’s taken me longest to read. Due to extenuating circumstances, like a busy schedule and having to return the book to the library and wait several weeks to get it out again, it took me just over two months to finish The Count of Monte Cristo. Even as long as it is it wouldn’t have taken me nearly as long to read it except that it is a really dense book, not the kind of thing I could typically sit and read for hours on end, but something that I’d read a few chapters at a time and then put it down and do something else for a while. That being said, this is the best book I’ve read in a long time.

Where to even start? There is so much going on in this book that there’s no way I’m going to be able to talk about even half the things I have to say about it. To begin with, the structure of the story was pretty amazing. It takes place over many years, 25 or so I believe, and during this long period of time Alexander Dumas tells a lot of stories. The main character is Edmond Dantes, otherwise known as the Count of Monte Cristo, and  the story follows Edmund from when he is an innocent youth on the verge of promotion and marriage, through his false imprisonment, all the way to the end of his quest for vengeance on those who wronged him. Although the story follows Edmund through his various trials and projects, the story is really “about” so much more.

Revolving around Edmund throughout the novel are the stories of many other characters. There are stories within stories within stories in this novel, and yet all of it eventually relates back to Edmund and his quest. The way I think of it is that he’s the linchpin that is keeping it all together, and it is truly an amazing structure for a novel. We get to see so many different people, their circumstances, their history, and yet none of it is superfluous. In the end everything leads back to the Count and all of his plots, plans, and schemes. Just the structure of this complex web of characters and stories and the way it all relates and comes together in the end would be enough to fill half a dozen blog posts or more, but I will restrain myself, not least because the book would not have been half so good without the constant exciting discovery of how everything fits together.

I loved the characters in the book, particularly Edmund Dantes/the Count. From the very first chapters I found myself thinking how intricate the characters were. Everyone has their own plans, their own motives, and Dumas somehow manages to show it all without the reader ever feeling overloaded with too much information. I found the characters believable and engaging, and even the seemingly most minor characters were superbly put together. No one was black and white, and, although everyone served a purpose, not one character felt to me as if they’d been hastily thrown together just to fit a needed role.

One of the best things in this novel, and something that I would love to discus at length, is the moral ambiguity. There are, of course, characters who are clearly good and characters that are clearly bad, but the most interesting characters are much harder to place. The best example of this is the Count himself. I won’t give away to much but the biggest question is whether Edmund Dantes was justified in pursuing his long crusade to get revenge on his enemies. Certainly those who wronged him deserved to be punished for what they had done, but was he right in taking the law into his own hands and the things he does, the plans he sets in motion, to orchestrate their downfall? This question gets even more interesting if you look at how the novel ends (which I won’t talk about here because I refuse to spoil such a good book).

In case all the praise I’ve just heaped on it wasn’t clear enough I would absolutely rate The Count of Monte Cristo a 5/5, and I highly, highly recommend reading it. It is a commitment though, definitely not the book to pick up if you want a quick, light read, but if you give it a try you won’t regret it.

 

Reviews

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka: Review

I’ve never really been all that interested in Kafka. I read some of his stuff in university, but never thought I’d pursue his work beyond what I was forced to. Honestly, whenever I thought of Kafka, which wasn’t often, I’d always be reminded of those pretentious kids, you know the ones. It seemed like in every English class I had doing my undergrad there was always at least one student in the class who had somehow managed to read every classic, and form opinions about them, before they even graduated high school. Or so they would make it seem. I can remember one guy in particular who was really into Kafka, and would bring him up all the time. Now, I have nothing against being really into an author, I myself am an avid Jane Austen fan, but you can take things too far. But all of this is beside the point. Anyway, I probably never would have picked up Kafka on my own if it hadn’t been for my failed attempt to read Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami earlier this year. I ended up giving up on that novel, but, as one might expect from the title, there were some references to Kafka, even in the small part of the novel I did read, and that got me interested.

I’ve actually been working on a collection of Kafka’s short stories, but I decided my thoughts were too varying throughout to review it as a whole, so instead I’ll be doing a couple of reviews of his more famous works. And now, on to what I actually thought of “The Metamorphosis.”

Well… well, this is on the stranger side of things I’ve read in my life, though actually not the weirdest by far. I had the same problem with this short story as I found myself having with pretty much ever other story in the collection I read, which is that I feel like I’m supposed to be taking some kind of lesson out of the story, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what it is. Unless it’s that you shouldn’t lock up your son/brother just because he mysteriously turned into a massive cockroach like creature over night. But somehow I doubt that’s what Kafka was going for.

Surprisingly I actually really enjoyed reading “The Metamorphosis” it’s one of those stories that manages to blend realism and the fantastic without detracting from either or making either the more dominant element. I absolutely loved the matter of fact way that Gregor, the human roach, takes everything in stride. It’s both tragic and hilarious in a this-is-so-funny-but-I-can’t-laugh-at-it kind of way. Almost as good, and really very related to Gregor’s take on things, is the way we, as the reader, can see how completely inaccurate Gregor’s interpretation is of the things going on around him, and yet, even though we see the truth, his view seems perfectly valid, if also sadly misguided. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate a narrative like this that is so well written that it is able to give every characters’ perspective without ever actually changing perspective or stating what it’s doing.

There’s not a whole lot I can say in regards to plot. It’s a short story and there isn’t enough of it for me to be able to talk about parts without giving away the whole thing. But, I can say that I wasn’t able to predict the end at all, and, at the end, I was pretty much left with just as many unanswered questions as I had when I started, but somehow I was okay with it. This is absolutely not the kind of story that I would have ever pictured myself reading, much less liking, yet here I am. The whole story is about seventy pages and can be read in just an afternoon, so I would definitely suggest giving it a try. 4/5 stars.