Sunday, February 16, 2014

Classic Lit: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: 1854 (1962)
Format: paperback
Source: Christmas gift a long time ago
Read: for Historical Novel course
Pages: 470
Reading time: one week

From GoodReads: After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

My review: I started out enjoying this because of the characterizations. I remember a bit about Dickens' humorous ways of describing people from Great Expectations, but it seemed to come out even more in this novel, especially at the beginning. The further I read, however, the more issues I had. The results of Dickens' famous practice of publishing in magazines and therefore writing by the chapter and getting paid by the word really come out. For one thing, this is supposed to be centered around the French Revolution, yet we only reach the Revolution around page 300 of my copy. The rest is centered around what's going on in the Manettes' lives, and really, despite the funny caricatures of many characters, I found most of them rather two-dimensional and couldn't care less about what they did. Each character seems to have their specific set function in the story, and they very steadfastly adhere to that with few surprises for the reader.

In part because of such stringent paths for the characters, the plot seemed contrived by the end. We see a rather ridiculous string of events, when viewed in total, that results in the expected end (assuming you watched your Wishbone episodes as a child and remember their adaptation of the tale). The protagonists are sentimentally drawn, there are multiple climaxes and denouements for the sake of a longer story, and Sydney Carton's decision and concluding actions are moralistic. I just wasn't very impressed with an overly long novel that alternates between sentimentality, morality, and sensationalism.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Classic Lit: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Publisher: Signet Classics
Date: 1841 (1980)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased at Fifth Street Books
Read: for Historical Novels course
Pages: 415
Reading time: about a week, but this fast pace isn't recommended

From GoodReads: The Last of the Mohicans contains the classic portrait of the man of moral courage who severs all connections with a society whose values he can no longer accept. Despite his chosen exile, Hawk-eye (Natty Bumppo0, the frontier scout, risks his life to escort two sisters through hostile Indian country. On the dangerous journey he enlists the aid of the Mohican Chingachgook. And in the challenging ordeal that follows, in their encounters with deception, brutality, and the death of loved ones, the friendship between the two men deepens--the scout and the Indian, each with a singular philosophy of independence that has been nurtured and shaped by the silent, virgin forest.

My review: The Last of the Mohicans is terrible. Ridiculous. Poorly written, inconsistent, melodramatic, horribly misogynist, not to mention the inevitable claim of racist. It's so bad, in fact, that it's laughable, making it almost fun to read. I think I actually would have enjoyed its terribleness if I hadn't been required to read the last 200+ days in two days (at that pace, it was just exhausting).

Mark Twain has already written a perfectly scathing essay on James Fenimore Cooper (really, check it out - it's quite fun to read), so I think the best method for me to review The Last of Mohicans is to point out how correct Twain is in identifying how Cooper violates 18 of the 19 rules "governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction":

Cooper does, indeed, tend to "accomplish nothing and arrive in air," mostly because of the faults Twain identifies with his language and style. He is overly verbose - he needs to "eschew surplusage," in Twain's words - and his word choices and phrases are simply ridiculous. I could read through a paragraph and not always grasp what was being said, when what was being described was actually a fairly straightforward, normal occurrence. The dialogue is stilted and not always true to character; Hawkeye speaks in formal English at points and in a more characteristic slang at others; long conversations using big words and full grammar occur in the middle of battle scenes to give directions or express surprise.

The characters don't all have obvious reasons for being there. The novel is called The Last of the Mohicans, but a more appropriate title would be Watch the White Frontiersman Save the Two White Girls. If you think about it, there's not even a clear reason for Chingachgook and Uncas risking their lives to save the silly things. And, honestly, I cared not one whit for the characters and who lived or died.

On a side note, sexism is not an issue brought up by Twain, but it is a major problem. Cora and Alice are the weakest females evvvvvvvvveeeer, Alice apparently unable to bear any trauma whatsoever and Cora being morally and verbally strong but failing to ever actually do something. Their primary purpose is to be appropriately devoted daughters/sisters, express appropriate outrage at the prospect of marriage to an Indian, and need rescuing. And after all this, Cora is seen as being 'perfectly adapted' to the woodland wilderness environment, EVEN THOUGH earlier the men were bemoaning how her and Alice's 'little, tender' feet couldn't possibly bear a trek through the forest.

Oh, and the only other female character I remember being mentioned was justly 'put out of her misery and sorrow' after her infant was snatched out of her arms and murdered before her very eyes. After all, what is a woman without her child?

And then there's just the whole logic of everything, which Twain discusses at length further along in his essay, but I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Classic Lit: Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Date: 1814 (1985)
Format: paperback
Source: Mt. Airy Book Exchange
Read: for Historical Novel course
Pages: 500
Reading time: over a week

From GoodReads: Waverley is set during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, which sought to restore the Stuart dynasty in the person of Charles Edward Stuart (or 'Bonnie Prince Charlie'). It relates the story of a young dreamer and English soldier, Edward Waverley, who is sent to Scotland in 1745. He journeys North from his aristocratic family home, Waverley-Honour, in the south of England (alleged in an English Heritage notice to refer to Waverley Abbey in Surrey) first to the Scottish Lowlands and the home of family friend Baron Bradwardine, then into the Highlands and the heart of the 1745 Jacobite uprising and aftermath.

My review: Waverley started out slow, got more exciting in the middle, and then slowed down a bit until the end, but it never became a slog to read. I wasn't particularly enamored of the characters - I thought of Waverley himself as a doofus, too content to let himself be borne along in the tides of current events, and the rest of the characters seemed mere foils for whatever Scott's purposes were.

Reading this for class perhaps spoiled me as to much aesthetic or intrinsic enjoyment of the novel; while I wasn't dreading having to continue reading, there wasn't anything that stood out to me as something that I would usually discuss in a review as a like or dislike. The main topic brought up in class was nationalism, and mostly what I got from Waverley was a series of which culture Scott seemed to prefer at the moment. The Highland Scots started out strong - they're quaint, and more sympathetically drawn than the Lowland Scots. Waverley feels wronged by his English superiors, giving him a strong reason for following Jacobite sentiments. But then he has a falling-out with his best Highland friend, and other encounters begin to change his views on allegiance. Suffice it to say, by the end Waverley has undergone multiple switches in loyalty and ends up in the company of those I thought him least likely, according to Scott's initial portrayal of them, to befriend. It was an interesting story, but I'm not sure what Scott was really thinking with all of this.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Recent Acquisitions: New Semester Loot

I swear, I'm still alive. In the past week or so I've really just had time to do my readings for class (which bodes ill since I haven't even started my new job yet). At least one of my classes is on the Historical Novel, so that's at least seven reviews I'll get done this semester! Those could be the only reviews, though, because the prof for that class seemed to pick only books that are at least 500 pages long. (That's an exaggeration. The Last of the Mohicans and A Tale of Two Cities are only 350-400-ish.)

For review:
Alena by Rachel Pastan (First Look)
The Book of Ash by John A. McCaffrey (First Look)

The Memory of After by Lenore Appelhans (thanks, A Foodie Bibliophile!)

From the Honors College:
The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

From friends:
The Assault by Brian Faulkner
North American Indian Reader (Viking Portable Library) ed. Frederick W. Turner

Purchased used at Got Books:
The Cleveland/Rutherford Counties area in NC FINALLY!!!!!! has a used book store!
The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott
Don Juan by Lord Byron
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

For school:
I think I've ended up with at least two dozen books either specifically required this semester or necessary supplemental reads. Unfortunately, my early Native American lit class was canceled after I ordered the books.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Lincoln by Gore Vidal
The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650-1950 by Richard Maxwell
Wynema by S. Alice Callahan
Waterlily by Ella Cara Deloria
Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Yahgulanaas
Trickster by Matt Dembicki
Comprehending Cults by Lorne L. Dawson
Telling Stories the Kiowa Way by Gus Palmer
Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith H. Basso
Story, Performance, and Event by Richard Bauman
Orality & Literacy by Walter J. Ong
J.B. by Archibald MacLeish
Understanding the Bible by Stephen Harris