Annoying Encounters of the Literary Kind Tuesday, Nov 20 2012 

Let’s face it: when you read a lot, you’re going to meet some characters you love and others that you, well, don’t like so much. Sometimes you’re not supposed to like these characters; their irritating qualities are meant to prove a point or demonstrate the themes of the book. Then there are some characters that the author wanted you to like, but you just can’t. Here, I have compiled a list of some of the literary characters that have annoyed me the most—some of them were destined by their creators to annoy readers, while others just couldn’t convince me to like or care about them. Feel free to share your most annoying literary encounters in the comments!

Mrs. Bennet, Pride & Prejudice

There are worse, crueler parental figures in classic literature, but I’m not sure any of them are quite as annoying as Mrs. Bennet. She spends the entire novel whining about her “poor nerves” and obsessing over finding rich husbands for her daughters, all while being too stupid to realize she’s embarrassing said daughters and possibly scaring away potential suitors. To make matters worse, Mrs. Bennet also constantly indulges her youngest daughter Lydia, raising her to become an obnoxious, selfish young woman with no regard for her own family. Lydia could’ve easily gotten her mother’s spot on this list, but since her horrid behavior is largely her mother’s fault, Mrs. Bennet is the most annoying character in this novel.

Ashley Wilkes, Gone with the Wind

Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes endures a lot of hardships over the course of Gone with the Wind, but don’t expect to feel all that sorry for him. Weak and indecisive, Ashley is barely able to cope with the realities of post-Civil War life and never stops being hopelessly impractical. Most famously (or infamously, if you prefer), he claims to return Scarlett O’Hara’s love for him but marries his cousin Melanie to fulfill his family’s expectations. He then spends the next twelve years being emotionally unfaithful to Melanie and leading Scarlett on about his feelings for her. What Scarlett ever saw in Ashley Wilkes, and why she obsessed over him for so many years, I will never, ever understand.

Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby

I guess since Daisy Buchanan is meant to symbolize the American Dream’s failure to bring happiness to those who seek it, she was bound to be an annoying character. Still, when I read about the way she toys with Jay Gatbsy’s feelings and refuses to do anything the least bit unpleasant (from attending a funeral to paying attention to her own child), I wish I could reach through the pages and smack her in the face. There is more to life than fancy clothes, fancy houses, and fancy parties, but Daisy is too shallow and too lazy to look for any of it.

Percy Weasley, Harry Potter series

Uptight and arrogant, Percy Weasley is basically that know-it-all kid who made everyone else in the classroom roll their eyes all through their school years. After graduating from Hogwarts, he becomes so loyal to his new employer, the Ministry of Magic, that he severs ties with his own family when his father disagrees with the Ministry over the issue of Voldemort’s return. Despite this, he continues trying to boss his brothers around from afar. Although Percy eventually makes amends and reunites with his family, his love of authority and overestimation of his own intelligence will always make him one of the more irritating characters in the Harry Potter universe.

Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

If Holden Caulfield were a real person, I would go out of my way to avoid him. While I understand that a lot of readers identify with Holden’s teenage angst, it troubles me that so many make him into their literary hero. He is a superficial hypocrite who judges everyone he meets and accuses them of being “phonies” without ever really getting to know any of them. I’m sure Holden’s judgmental nature and perpetual complaining are intended to make some sort of point, but that doesn’t make the character any less annoying. Anyone so unable to accept growing up and so unwilling to change his rude behavior shouldn’t be deemed a role model.

Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, Twilight series

Once I realized how shallow and abusive this blockbuster paranormal romance really was, I decided not to finish the series and stopped recommending it to people. Both characters lack personality, and their relationship seems to be based largely on Bella thinking Edward is gorgeous and Edward liking the way Bella smells. What is far more annoying, though, is that Bella gives up her individuality and her friendships in order to be with Edward, and her entire happiness revolves around him. Edward, meanwhile, is a controlling boyfriend whose treatment of Bella is stalker-like and emotionally abusive. It’s hard not to think that readers only let him get away with it because he’s described as being so good-looking. In my mind, this series is not a great love story, but a four-book public service announcement for the kind of relationship young people should learn to avoid.

Linton Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights

There are plenty of disturbing characters in Wuthering Heights (to this day, I’m not sure if I love the book because of these characters or in spite of them).  However, Linton Heathcliff, the son of Heathcliff and Isabella, outdoes everyone else in this novel when it comes to being downright annoying. Linton is a selfish, perpetually whiny young man so weak that he allows himself to be manipulated into marriage to Cathy Linton. He then proceeds to treat Cathy terribly, even though she (inexplicably) loves him. Linton is just as full of hatred as his infamous father, but isn’t nearly as interesting to analyze. For a literary character, that is simply unforgivable.

Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, The Scarlet Letter

Fool that I was, I kept hoping Reverend Dimmesdale would own up to his affair with Hester Prynne and accept Pearl as his daughter. Instead, he privately tortures and makes himself ill over his guilt, forcing Hester to face the scorn of the Puritan community alone and destroying any chance at happiness either of them might have had away from Boston. As is often the case in classic literature, Dimmesdale has to be annoying and a disappointment; otherwise, there would be no point to the story. Nevertheless, his failure to take responsibility for his actions is downright infuriating.

Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca

Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper at Manderley, home of Maxim de Winter, and without a doubt the scariest entry on this list. She remains devoted to the late Rebecca de Winter and is determined to make the second Mrs. de Winter’s life a living hell. She becomes angry at any change Mrs. de Winter attempts to make to the house and does everything she can to ruin her employer’s new marriage. Mrs. Danvers’ obsessive loyalty to Rebecca’s memory is creepy enough, but when unsettling secrets begin to emerge about Rebecca, it becomes even more disturbing. I am not sure whether it’s better to think that Mrs. Danvers was fooled into loving Rebecca or if she admired her mistress because of her true nature, but either way, her rude, malicious behavior toward others deserves a swift slap in the face.

Lucy Snowe, Villette

Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is a brilliant, though not enjoyable, character study of a rather unlikeable character. Lucy Snowe is intelligent, but she is also repressed and narrow-minded. She refuses the reader access to her innermost feelings and showing contempt for anything that does not fit her worldview—the most prominent example being her disgust for Roman Catholicism and insistence that Protestantism is the only right way to God.  Again, considering the themes of the novel, Lucy is not really meant to be likeable, but her self-righteousness and secretive nature made it impossible to sympathize with her at all.

Is there anyone I missed? Do you disagree with my choices? Sound off in the comments or at @AnnasBookCorner on Twitter!

 

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The House at Riverton by Kate Morton Sunday, Oct 7 2012 

When teenager Grace Reeves comes to Riverton House as the new housemaid in 1914, she is reminded often of how fortunate she is to work for such an excellent family. What Grace does not know when she arrives at Riverton is how caught up she will become in the lives and dramas of the Hartford family, particularly sisters Hannah and Emmeline. Over the years, Grace remains devoted to Hannah, who trusts and confides in her. Then, in 1924, life for the family is shattered when a handsome young poet shoots himself at a Riverton House summer party, and only Hannah, Emmeline, and Grace witness the tragedy.

Decades later, Grace is in her late nineties and living out her final days in an English nursing home. She has remained largely silent about her life in service and that terrible summer night for decades, but when a young director making a film about the poet’s death contacts her, memories come rushing back. Finally, as she nears death, Grace confronts the secrets of the Hartford family that have haunted her for a lifetime.

The House at Riverton is almost as addictive as Downton Abbey and a must-read for fans of the acclaimed British series. While the characters are all fairly conventional for a novel like this, they are still interesting and have complicated relationships with one another. It’s a suspenseful read with more than a few surprises, and Kate Morton is subtle enough to plant certain ideas in the reader’s mind without making the book too predictable. The housing and fashion details of the early 20th century are rich and a lot of fun, but they never overwhelm the novel. The focus is very definitely on the characters and the events that shape them.

This is mostly a light, escapist read, and the drama and suspense are what will catch your interest and keep you reading. However, The House at Riverton does shed some light on issues that are explored more deeply in some other works about the era. World War I is featured prominently, with soldiers’ “shell shock” (better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder) coming to the fore through the character of Alfred, a footman at Riverton House. One thing that becomes very clear in the novel, much as it does in Downton Abbey, is how exacting the standards of those in service could be. Servants, especially those of high rank and considerable experience, were sometimes just as pretentious as their employers, if not more so. Disdainful comments about other servants and even an employer’s family and associates were quite common, albeit risky.

When it comes to life in service, though, the book has the most to say about the devotion many servants felt toward their employers and the challenges that loyalty presented. Grace is so loyal to Hannah that she feels a familial obligation toward her, and it becomes impossible for Grace to imagine leaving her position even when it is perhaps no longer the right place for her to be. Hannah’s troubles and secrets become Grace’s own, and they haunt the former housemaid for the rest of her life. While Grace is both thrilled and honored by Hannah’s trust in her, their closeness doesn’t change the reality of the huge class difference between them. Hannah does seem to care sincerely about Grace, but she also always has the upper hand in their relationship, and there is little Grace can do if her employer becomes angry and no longer wishes to trust or be kind to her.  This highlights something discussed in other books, TV shows, and movies about life in service: no matter how dedicated and close servants became to their employers, there was always going to be a distance between them. While it was understandable that servants would come to see employers as their own family (those who worked in service were prohibited, or at least strongly discouraged, from marrying and having children), such feelings could be very dangerous, both practically and emotionally. It’s hard not to wonder whether Grace could have saved herself much heartache and stress over the course of her life if she had been somewhat more detached from the Hartford sisters.

The House at Riverton offers a great escape into another era and offers plenty of insight into life upstairs and downstairs. If there’s a Downton Abbey shaped hole in your heart right now, this book will help fill it, though it may also make you all the more anxious for next season to hurry up and get to America already!

10 Reading Suggestions for the Twenty-Something Woman Thursday, Sep 27 2012 

Thanks to Twitter, today I came across this list of books every girl in her 20s should read. While it includes two novels I love (Pride and Prejudice and The Joy Luck Club), I was taken aback, as a woman in my 20s, at how many self-help books and “chick-lit” novels about shopping it included. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with reading such books, but I couldn’t help thinking that many reading women my age might be looking for something more substantial, which is why I was glad to find this list via Twitter soon afterward. Inspired, I decided to come up with my own list of books I think many twenty-something women would appreciate.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

Despite the title, this is no dating self-help manual. Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories explores a wide variety of uncomfortable themes, including violence, racism, greed, and religious faith. Even if you don’t agree with all of O’Connor’s conclusions, it’s impossible to ignore the difficult questions raised in her sparse yet powerful prose. She was a woman unafraid to write about the same disturbing characters, settings, and themes as men; A Good Man is Hard to Find and her other works demonstrate a talent that has frequently been overlooked in favor of male 20th century writers.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Set in the not-so-distant future, The Handmaid’s Tale is a frightening cautionary tale about what will happen if political freedom and women’s rights are lost to totalitarianism. Offred, once a woman with a job and a family to love, is separated from all she’s ever known and earned after an extreme group of theocrats overthrows the U.S. government. This is a call to action for women of all ages, but especially the young, to take seriously their safety, health, and freedom. You can read my recent review of this book here.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Set in late 20th and early 21st century Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of Mariam and Laila, two very different women eventually married to the same abusive husband. Though unsure of each other at first, Mariam and Laila form a strong bond, setting in motion a heartbreaking but beautiful story of love, family, and sacrifice in the face of their society’s never-ending challenges. Beautifully written and strikingly relevant, this novel presents what is easily one of the most powerful friendships in contemporary literature.

Washington Square by Henry James

In 19th century New York City, rich but unsophisticated Catherine Sloper leads a lonely life under the thumb of a father who constantly berates her. She falls hopelessly in love with Morris Townsend, failing to see that he only wants to marry her for her family’s fortune. It’s not one of the most exciting novels you’ll ever read, but there is something very satisfying about Catherine’s journey away from insecurity and a need for male approval and toward a more independent life. Also be sure to check out The Heiress, the excellent 1949 film adaptation of the play based on Washington Square. It’s one of those rare cases where the movie is even better than the book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

In the Old Testament, much is said about Jacob’s many sons, but there is only a brief and violent passage about Dinah, his only daughter. In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant crafts a story of Dinah’s life and gives voice to other women largely ignored in the Book of Genesis. These women form their own society within the one dominated by the men of their family, where they support one another through difficult times and defy many of the beliefs of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. This is a gorgeous and moving novel that brings a forgotten character to life and questions the restricted, simplistic view of women in the Bible.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After marrying the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter following a brief courtship, the unnamed narrator returns with him to Manderley, his country estate. There, she immediately finds herself living in the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, the charming and beautiful Rebecca. Soon, the second Mrs. de Winter is also caught up in the mysteries and secrets of Manderley—and of what really happened to Rebecca. The romantic suspense is the main draw here, but Rebecca is also an exploration of the challenges a woman faces when married to a much more powerful man, as well as of the frustration of being compared to other women in beauty and sophistication.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Chances are you already read this classic in high school or perhaps college, but if it’s been a while, I encourage you to give it another read. I read it three times between eighth grade and college graduation and found something new and deeper in it every time. Jane herself is a sympathetic but flawed heroine, torn between her love for the brooding Mr. Rochester and the possibilities of a freer life away from him. Her life story is not only a legendary romantic melodrama, but also a powerful commentary on the place of women, orphans, and the poor in the early Victorian era. Whether you’re a student of literature or simply enjoy a great story, this one is worth a second, third, or even fourth look. (Bonus: read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys for a postcolonial take on Jane Eyre and a look at the shortcomings of the book’s 19th century feminism.)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The lesser known of two novels by the least known Brontë sister, this book was considered coarse and controversial when it was first published in 1848. A feminist work in a time when feminism didn’t have a name, it tells the story of Helen, a woman abused by her alcoholic husband but strong enough to fight back for her own sake and for the well-being of her child. Though its questioning of Victorian social mores and English law horrified some critics at the time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was revolutionary in its brutal honesty about marital abuse, and it remains relevant for women today.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

In Renaissance Florence, Alessandra Cecchi is fascinated with art and shows a talent for drawing. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of this interest and discourages her from pursuing it, eventually forcing her into an arranged marriage with a much older man. Despite this marriage and the turbulence in her city, Alessandra finds ways to explore her love of art and her attraction to a gifted painter employed by her family. It’s a lighter read than most on this list, but historical fiction fans will undoubtedly enjoy the incredible Renaissance detail, and it certainly provides an interesting story of a woman finding her place in a world where she’s told she doesn’t belong.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ll be the first to agree that this classic love story never gets old, but it’s not about getting your “happily ever after” through “sass and perseverance.” It’s about questioning the typical standards for women and marriage during Austen’s time, and about finding love through personal growth, forgiveness, and learning to be less judgmental. And please, when you’re finished with the book, skip the good-but-nothing-special 2005 film adaptation and go for the 1995 miniseries instead; it’s much longer but also much better and more faithful to the book. You can find more of my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice here.

Feel free to share some of your own reading suggestions below.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff Tuesday, Sep 25 2012 

In the early 1970s, a small, idealistic group forms a commune on the land surrounding an abandoned mansion in rural New York State. They call the commune Arcadia, and here they plan to live off the land and free themselves of the greed, inequality, and complexities of the outside world. Ridley Sorrel “Bit” Stone is the first child born in the commune, and it is through his eyes that we see Arcadia. Bit is a quiet child always considered small for his age, but from early on he is smart and observant. No detail of the world of Arcadia escapes his notice, including his mother Hannah’s depression and his father Abe’s disagreements with Handy, the commune’s charismatic leader. Despite its flaws and failing ideals, Bit loves this world in which he grew up and can’t imagine ever living outside it.

When Bit is a teenager, however, conflict and tragedy tear Arcadia apart, and he is thrust into the outside world for the first time. The rest of the novel is about Bit’s adulthood in a world completely unlike the one of his childhood. He certainly adjusts to urban life as best he can, but for better or worse, Bit is never completely free of the influence of Arcadia—and especially not the influence of Helle, Handy’s charming but unstable daughter.

Arcadia is a short yet somewhat slow novel, though Lauren Groff wisely highlights important periods of Bit’s life rather than detailing every single year and event. While the measured pace might make you anxious for something more to be happening, it makes a lot of sense. This is a novel about seeing and appreciating the world around you and keeping your connections to loved ones strong, and in order to do these things, you often need to slow down everything else in your life. It is meditative and driven much more by characters and themes than by plot. While the plot occasionally stretched my suspension of disbelief, I never stopped enjoying the vivid details of the Arcadia, its inhabitants, and its aftermath. I found Bit Stone to be an insightful and sympathetic protagonist and liked the big cast of characters, though they did sometimes become difficult to keep straight in my mind.

I think what pleased me most about Arcadia and what says the most about Lauren Groff’s writing is that while there is certainly a somewhat whimsical tone to the book, I never found it overdone. While I criticized Vaclav & Lena last year for being too “cute” and self-consciously quirky even as its plot became more serious, Lauren Groff manages to avoid that trap in Arcadia. She consistently writes in the present-tense and uses very descriptive language from beginning to end, but she also knows when to employ a more fanciful voice and when to use a more realistic one. As a result, she is able to keep a magical, otherworldly atmosphere in the novel without sacrificing believable characters and relationships.

Arcadia never comes to a definite conclusion as to whether one should choose a life in the country communing with nature or a city life more connected to the “real world.” Such a conclusion is unnecessary, though, and would take away from the point of the book. Bit’s lives in the country and the city both have their problems; neither one is free of arguments or disappointments. What his story demonstrates is that life can be difficult no matter where you live, but it can also be beautiful, whether you’re a hippie on a rural commune or a resident of the nation’s biggest city. There will always be fascinating details to discover, new people to meet, and relationships to build and rebuild. It’s a lovely message from an equally lovely novel.

 

The Great American Novel: Is There Such A Thing? Wednesday, Sep 19 2012 

The idea of the Great American Novel dates back to 1868, when John William DeForest discussed the concept in an essay for The Nation (you can read part of the essay here).  DeForest defined the Great American Novel as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” After dismissing the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne as potential candidates, he named Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “nearest approach to the desired phenomenon,” but seemed discontent with that choice as well.

Over 140 years after DeForest’s essay, there is still no consensus on the Great American Novel, and new books enter the debate every decade. The potential Great American Novels I probably hear cited most often are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but the list of contenders is quite possibly endless. Cases have been made for The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, among many others. Ask anyone of a literary mindset what they consider to be the Great American Novel, and they will most likely answer with the one they learned the most from, the one that they believe changed their lives, or even the one they simply enjoyed the most.

This brings me to the first issue I have with the Great American Novel: like every other art form, literature is subjective. All readers approach a book with differing points of view about genre, character, writing style, and what literature is generally meant to accomplish. What one reader sees as a beautifully written, insightful novel, another sees as a boring tome with irritating characters. I do not believe it is possible to name any piece of literature definitively as “the greatest” and transcendent of nearly all literary biases and arguments.

Even the concept itself could be considered subjective. Should the Great American Novel extol the virtues of the nation or expose its flaws? Should it celebrate or criticize the American Dream? Does such a novel have to define the American spirit and experience throughout the entirety of U.S. history, or does it just have to capture the atmosphere and issues of the time in which it was written?

These questions lead, finally, to the main reason I do not believe in the Great American Novel. America has changed a great deal since DeForest wrote his essay, but even in the 1860s, it was hardly a homogeneous society. Experience of America has always depended a great deal on race, gender, class, and where one lived. As the nation has become larger and more diverse, this has continued to be true. The contenders for the Great American Novel (at least the ones I have read) capture some aspect of U.S. history and the American experience very well. I found The Great Gatsby a brilliant portrait of the excesses of the 1920s and the frequent failure of wealth to bring true happiness, while The Grapes of Wrath offers heartbreaking insights into the financial and emotional strain of the Great Depression. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird both explore racial themes and realities about growing up. These are all important novels, but not one can completely define America or its people by itself.

In a 2010 article for The Daily Beast, author Malcolm Jones wrote, “The authors who have caught America on paper best did it incrementally, not all at once. It’s the sum of Twain and Wharton and Faulkner that delivers their versions of America, not any single book.” This quote and the article make an excellent point; any writers who too self-consciously attempts to write the Great American Novel could ruin their own productivity, not to mention end up with a novel too bogged down with themes, characters, and plotlines to be coherent or meaningful to readers. Besides, America is such a diverse and complex place that its story has be told in increments by an equally diverse group of writers. No author and no book can say everything there is to say about America as a whole, or even about American in a particular time and place. Like literature itself, America is very subjective.

For as long as there is a United States of America and for as long as there are novels, I am sure the debate over the Great American Novel will continue. I am also sure that authors will continue to attempt writing it. Those aren’t necessarily bad things; the discussion is still interesting, and as an aspiring writer myself, I can understand an author wanting to take on that challenge. All that being said, I think there are so many great American novels (with plenty more to come) that we don’t really need one Great American Novel. Why single out one novel when there are so many important and incredible American stories to tell?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Thursday, Sep 13 2012 

It is the near future, and the United States no longer exists. The country is now the Republic of Gilead, and the democratically elected government has been overthrown and replaced with a totalitarian theocracy. First Amendment freedoms no longer exist, and anyone considered “undesirable” is banished to the outskirts of civilization, where they are certain to die within a few years—if the leadership of Gilead doesn’t execute them first.

One of Gilead’s most prominent characteristics is its subjugation of women, and that is the focus of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the story’s narrator, was once a woman with a husband, a daughter, and a job in a library. Now, she is separated from everyone she cares about and is no longer allowed to use her real name, have her own money, or even read. In the strict, highly stratified society of Gilead, Offred is a Handmaid, one of a class of women whose sole purpose is to have babies for the Commanders of the Faithful and their wives. Once every month, Offred is subjected to “The Ceremony” that she must hope will result in a pregnancy; every month that she does not get pregnant brings her another month closer to life being over, literally and figuratively. In between these ceremonies, Offred copes with a world where women cannot pursue knowledge, where sex is no longer about pleasure or love, and where spies and secret police may overhear anything a person says. Like the other Handmaids, Offred is no longer an individual, but a piece of property deemed interchangeable with any other woman of her rank.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a fun read (which you probably already concluded from that plot introduction), but it is riveting and terrifyingly relevant. Atwood’s prose is beautiful and descriptive, but never flowery. There is a sparse, dispassionate quality to it that makes Offred’s world seem all the more frightening and full of despair. Atwood writes in the voice of a miserable woman unable to express her misery openly or do anything to change it.

Even though it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale feels very timely now. It serves as a grim reminder that the progress made for women’s rights over the last century cannot and must not be taken for granted; the same is true for the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The dystopia in this novel is not an outrageous speculation that could never happen; it is what reality might look like if some of the more extreme views in our society were able to take hold and become the law of the land. For women especially, it is an important cautionary tale. In her earlier life in the United States, Offred was often indifferent to or even uncomfortable with the feminist activism of her mother, and she took her freedoms as a given, a guarantee that would always be there. Now, in Gilead, her body and mind are no longer her own to control, and she remains complacent because she fears retaliation, both against herself and against her lost family. She misses that former life, even the most mundane and unpleasant things about it; she had never taken the time to appreciate them before. At the same time, however, it is suggested that some of the more extreme feminist attitudes of the pre-Gilead era may have helped the religious right gain a foothold and to manipulate women into thinking that theocratic rule would protect them and improve their lives. Nevertheless, Atwood’s main criticism is of the right-wing extremists who took away women’s rights, and her warning is that the freedoms women have gained must continue to be appreciated and fought for every single day.

Brilliant and engrossing as it is, this is definitely a depressing novel. What makes it so disheartening is that it is not a story of democracy triumphing over totalitarianism or feminism overcoming patriarchy. Instead, it is a story that demonstrates how people become complacent under an oppressive regime and questions whether resistance would be at all successful. Danger and uncertainty are constants, especially for Handmaids like Offred, making her reluctant to join the small group of risk-takers who hope to take Gilead down.

The sharp social critique and beautifully haunting prose of The Handmaid’s Tale make it a modern classic and one of the most important novels of our time. Its harsh message and unhappy tone make it difficult to stomach sometimes, but I consider it essential reading for young women like myself—and maybe even for everyone else. It is a novel of a world we do not want but could possibly see, and a reminder that we must embrace our freedoms and fight back when anyone tries to take them away.

1876 by Gore Vidal Wednesday, Sep 5 2012 

Before beginning my discussion of 1876, I very strongly recommend that you read Burr—also by Gore Vidal—before you read this novel. Not only is Burr a great read, but it also features the same protagonist, Charles Schuyler. Many of the references made in 1876 will make much more sense if you have already read Burr. With that suggestion out of the way, here’s my review.

1876 is the journal of Charles Schuyler, a renowned writer returning to his native United States after living in Europe for over thirty years. Accompanying him on the journey is his beautiful daughter Emma, a widowed European princess.  As Schuyler takes in the many changes in his hometown of New York and the U.S. at large, he is determined to secure a new marriage for his daughter and rebuild at least some of the fortune he lost in the Panic of 1873. While Emma charms American high society, Schuyler keeps busy as a newspaper writer, covering American politics, the Centennial Exposition celebrating the country’s 100th year, and his impressions of America as a returning expatriate. Soon, he finds himself caught up in the political intrigue and corruption of the era, culminating in one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. As usual, Gore Vidal places his fictional central characters right alongside real-life figures, including Mrs. William Astor, President Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, rival Republican senators Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine,  Democratic presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden, and more. (Be prepared for an irreverent perspective on some of these historical figures, especially Grant and Twain.)

For history buffs and political enthusiasts, this is an especially great novel to read during an election year. It brilliantly details the chaos of the 1876 presidential race and the corrupt practices that were the norm for both major parties, from the stealing of public funds to civil service patronage to the buying of elected office. One thing that really stands out in 1876 is just how much has changed in the political process since that time. Unlike today, political parties’ conventions were about selecting a presidential nominee, not just officially nominating one, so the events were often extremely unpredictable and competitive. Campaigns were often just as vicious, if not more so, and shocking rumors about the candidates were common (this novel includes one about Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes having once shot his own mother). And even the contested 2000 presidential election cannot compare to the one in 1876, which involved questionable returns in numerous states and went unresolved for months. You may find yourself wondering if today’s political scene is as bad as you thought.

For less politically minded readers, 1876 still offers plenty of great material. I always enjoy reading about historical New York City, and it is especially amusing to think that Fifth Avenue was once a newly stylish place to live and that building a mansion near Central Park was considered a strange idea. The most fun, though, comes from the viciously witty commentary on America’s 19th century high society, especially in New York. Through the narration of Charles Schuyler, Vidal not so gently mocks the conventions and pretensions of the era and the rivalry between the “old money” and the “nouveau riche.” I often found myself laughing at Schuyler’s thoughts about the wealthy families and their friends, especially Mrs. William Astor and her overly devoted, social climbing companion Ward McAllister.

Reading 1876 feels a lot like reading delicious political and societal gossip from another era, all while remaining historically accurate and informative. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie Sunday, Aug 12 2012 

Saleem Sinai is born at a very exciting time—the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, to be exact, the very moment that India becomes an independent nation after decades of British rule. As he grows up, Saleem finds out that being born at such an important and historic moment has its consequences. From birth to adulthood, his hopes, dreams, personal tragedies, and even physical health are linked to and reflected in national events, to the point that Saleem even feels personally responsible for much of India’s postcolonial history. As if that were not enough, he also learns that he has telepathic powers that connect him with the other “midnight’s children,” all born within that first hour of Indian independence and possessing magical gifts of their own. Among those children is an enemy who will haunt Saleem for years to come.

Midnight’s Children was one of the more challenging ones I’ve read in a while; I was struck while reading it by just how little I knew about India. That limited knowledge, I am guessing, is why it took me some time to understand many of the symbols and themes present in the book. However, the challenge was well worth it. This is a fascinating and imaginative work, and not quite like anything else I have ever read.

The magical realism that Salman Rushdie is known for is perfect for a novel about 20th century India. As Saleem Sinai tells not only his own story, but also the stories of his parents and grandparents, the reader is presented with a picture of a nation that faces an ever-present conflict between its own ancient traditions and the British forces of modernization. Rushdie also perfectly presents two very common views of India (at least among Westerners): India as a magical land filled with mysteries and mysticism, and India as a real country facing real social, political, and military problems. The India in Midnight’s Children isn’t one or the other; it’s fully, definitely both.

What I consider to be best reflected in the magical realist elements and the saga of Saleem and his family is the fact that India is incredibly diverse and complex. For outsiders who don’t know much about it, it can be easy to forget that India is anything but a monolithic society. The country is one of the most populous in the world, and its citizens speak many different languages and practice numerous religions. That diversity and the challenges it presents shine through brilliantly in Midnight’s Children, and it is not very hard to see why Saleem often feels so overwhelmed by the moment of his birth and his inescapable connection to his homeland’s history.

While the history of postcolonial India is a huge part of the novel, it was hardly the only thing that stood out to me. I always enjoy novels that are fictional or fictionalized characters’ autobiographies, and what makes this one especially distinctive is that Saleem willingly acknowledges that he is not a reliable narrator. He is aware that he doesn’t always remember historical events and dates accurately, and he even admits that not every aspect of his story is completely true. As a result, Midnight’s Children becomes an interesting reflection on memory and whether how we remember things is more real to us than what actually happened. As with any fictional memoir I read, of course, I also find myself questioning how much we can believe the stories real people tell about their lives—not so much, in this case, because I think they’re being intentionally dishonest, but because they may be telling what they want to or can remember rather than what really happened.

Along with its strong thematic content, Midnight’s Children is an incredibly vibrant, gorgeously written novel filled with compelling characters and a few twists in the story that I did not expect. It is not one of the easier novels I’ve read in my life, but any effort I had to put into reading it was more than worth it, and I think it would be for anyone who chooses to read it.

Midnight’s Children covers so many decades and is so loaded with history, personalities, and details both realistic and magical that it almost feels impossible that a film adaptation is being released this year. I hope I get a chance to see this film and find out if it’s anywhere as captivating as its source material.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Monday, Jul 30 2012 

 

In what may seem like an odd paradox to some, I am not a particularly big fan of Jane Austen but consider Pride and Prejudice one of my favorite books. While it has one or two of the same flaws I’ve found in the other two Austen novels I’ve read (Emma and Sense and Sensibility being the books, and an overly quick ending after a rather slow-paced story being the big flaw), I think Pride and Prejudice is where Austen’s strengths are best displayed, making it her most intelligent and entertaining work.

Even in the novels I didn’t enjoy as much, I have always been impressed with Jane Austen’s characters, and the leads in Pride and Prejudice are probably her best. Elizabeth Bennet is my favorite literary character and easily one of the most important women in fiction. Though not exactly radical or rebellious by today’s standards, Elizabeth refuses to conform to all the expectations of a young woman in the Regency period. She is determined to marry for love (a relatively rare and new concept at that time) rather than settle for a marriage of financial convenience, and she is unafraid to show her intelligence and independent way of thinking, even in front of those who disapprove.  Charming and witty, she stands out among all the other women around her, including much wealthier ones. Unlike many of the other characters in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is willing to acknowledge her own flaws—namely, judging people too quickly and too harshly—and makes an effort to overcome them.

Then, of course, there is the handsome and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has become one of literature’s most beloved romantic heroes. That status is hard to understand when the reader first encounters Mr. Darcy; he appears aloof, judgmental, and snobbish. Even when he first falls in love with and proposes to Elizabeth, he obsesses over the difference in social status between them, which only worsens the tension between them. However, like Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy is willing to admit that he is wrong and let his pride get in the way of better judgment, and he makes amends. Eventually, Elizabeth visits Pemberley, Darcy’s beautiful country estate, and gets to see who Mr. Darcy really is: an honest, generous man who cares deeply for his family and friends. As if that were not enough, he also defies his wealthy aunt in continuing to pursue Elizabeth, demonstrating that he no longer considers class difference such a barrier to true love. By the end of the novel, it is clear why Mr. Darcy has become a sex symbol for bookworms like myself (though Colin Firth’s iconic portrayal of Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries probably also has something to do with that).

Like her popular heroine, Jane Austen wasn’t especially radical or rebellious—by 21st century standards anyway—in writing Pride and Prejudice. However, through her distinctive characters and endlessly clever dialogue, she gently criticized the conventions of her day regarding wealth, class, love, and marriage. Even if Pride and Prejudice did not shatter the ideas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when it was first published, it does reflect the changes in practice and attitude beginning around that time. Jane Austen must have been supportive of such changes; the novel clearly suggests that difference in social status should not be a barrier to love, and that marriage should be more about love than convenience or money. Although humorous in its own way, Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying her daughters off to wealthier men highlights the unfairness of the era’s inheritance laws and the precarious financial position of women. Less funny, of course, is the marriage of Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte to the Bennets’ irritating cousin Mr. Collins. Charlotte does not appear particularly enamored with her new husband, but has little other choice if she is to have a secure future.

The presentation of such ideas in Pride and Prejudice suggests a very early form of feminism on Jane Austen’s part. While she still presents marriage as an ideal to which women should aspire, her most famous novel expresses a belief that a woman should marry a man she loves, not a man her family or society demands that she marry. While Mr. Darcy is certainly a wealthy man who will provide Elizabeth with security and a wonderful lifestyle, Elizabeth marries him for love. She follows her heart, and in the process she too defies Darcy’s pretentious aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and frees herself from the annoying, ill-fated machinations of her mother.

Although Pride and Prejudice has something of a fairy tale ending, with the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth and Jane and Mr. Bingley, the journey to that happy conclusion has more depth than the average fairy tale. Darcy and Elizabeth each make mistakes and are very harsh toward one another earlier in the novel, and it takes a great deal of learning about themselves and each other to improve their relationship, and to finally come around to forgiveness, friendship, and love. Jane and Bingley’s story doesn’t have the same level of depth or coverage in the novel, but the two still deal with separation, disappointment, and misunderstanding. They manage to move beyond all that to realize they still love each other and want to marry. Couples who must overcome obstacles in order to find lasting love and happiness have become commonplace—even cliché—in the romance genre, including in romantic comedies, but I cannot think of any other book or movie that has ever done such a story so well.

There is much more that could be discussed about how love, class, family, and environment in Pride and Prejudice and the impact they all have on the characters’ lives. While I do love the novel for its sharp look at the conventions of its time and the literary discussions and questions it inspires, what makes it one of my favorite books is the wonderfully written love story between two wonderfully written characters. That love story is exactly what has given the book such wide and lasting popularity (it was first published almost two hundred years ago!) and has made its numerous film adaptations so successful. Elizabeth Bennet is still one of the greatest heroines of all time; her wit, intelligence, and insight set her apart from many other fictional women, even contemporary ones.  There is something refreshing, even now, about such a smart woman getting a happy ending and a central role in a romance, rather than just being the clever but secondary character in such a story. And while Edward Cullen and Christian Grey may be getting more attention among readers right now, it is doubtful that either will have the lasting power of Mr. Darcy, who impresses readers not just with good looks, but with a willingness to change and an unshakable love for his family, his friends, and the woman he wants to marry. What could be more romantic than two such great people living happily ever after?

 

 

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin Tuesday, May 8 2012 

Downton Abbey fans who miss the hit period drama as much as I do will want to give Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress a try. This novel will at least partially fill the void until the Crawleys and their servants return in late 2012 or early 2013 (depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside).  A review blurb on the front cover of my paperback edition said as much, so needless to say, I was intrigued right away.

Originally published in the UK as My Last Duchess, The American Heiress takes place in the 1890s and tells the story of Cora Cash, heiress to a vast flour fortune. Cora is a beautiful, charming young woman who is the belle of New York and Newport, and she is widely believed to be the richest girl in America. However, Cora’s domineering mother wants a title for her daughter, and such a thing cannot be found in the United States, even for the wealthiest people. So, Cora travels to England to join the growing number of American heiresses seeking husbands among Britain’s titled aristocracy. Early on in her stay in England, Cora meets the handsome, mysterious Ivo Maltravers, Duke of Wareham. The two are soon engaged and married in a lavish New York wedding.

Of course, Cora’s marriage to Ivo is no fairy tale. Cora finds her new husband mercurial and difficult to understand, and it is hard not to wonder if he loves Cora or just her money. To make matters worse, Cora is irritated by her new mother-in-law and overwhelmed by the traditions and rules of England’s centuries-old aristocracy, where the servants can be as snooty as their employers. As more secrets and traps emerge, Cora often feels lonely and confused, sometimes even longing to return to America. If she is ever to be happy in her new life, she must become stronger than the shallow young woman she was when she first arrived in England.

The American Heiress is not a great literary work that offers in-depth analysis of the class systems of the late 19th century. However, it is a very entertaining novel, and I think it might offer a better understanding of women like the Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (whose name, incidentally, is also Cora) and what they went through early on in their marriages to British dukes and earls. As any good historical fiction book should be, it is full of vivid detail of the clothes, houses, and social lives of those lucky enough to be rich in the 1890s. I loved reading about the incredible gowns the women wore and the lavishness of the Newport parties. Those details alone make the book a worthwhile read if you’re just looking for something fun. I can only imagine how magnificent a film adaptation of this book would look.

The characters, though not particularly multidimensional, are well drawn and interesting enough to keep readers’ attention. While I would have liked to see some more significant development in Cora herself, I found her to be likable and was rooting for her as life in England got more and more frustrating. The most compelling character, I thought, was Cora’s African-American maid, Bertha Jackson, who faces challenges that neither Cora nor most of the other characters can truly understand. Bertha’s subplot is a bit sloppy at times, but Goodwin does a good job of conveying how isolated Bertha often feels; it’s clear that even Cora, who feels like a shut-out foreigner through much of the book, cannot fully grasp what life must be like for her maid. As for the Duke, Cora’s new husband, he is an intriguing but often irritating figure. While I pitied him for the difficulties he had faced in his life, I was also constantly wary of him and sometimes even wishing ill on him. I think Goodwin may have been trying to channel some of the romantic or Byronic heroes of British literature when she wrote this character, but Ivo is no Mr. Rochester, and he’s certainly no Mr. Darcy. Nevertheless, he is a very suitable central male character for a novel like this one.

I believe this book will prove a fun, escapist read for historical fiction fans. It takes place earlier than Downton Abbey and doesn’t have nearly as many characters, but anyone who enjoys the show’s beautiful sets and costumes and its captivating drama will find much of the same to appreciate in The American Heiress. Don’t be surprised if, like me, you start casting that hypothetical movie adaptation in your mind before you finish reading it.

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