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review 2020-01-06 23:09
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett

'A Little Princess' is the story of young Sara Crewe. She is brought by her father from India to be boarded and educated in London at a select school. Her father arranges for her to have a ridiculous abundance of luxuries - which, somehow, don't spoil her - and special priviledges from the headmistress. When Sara's father's fortune goes South, Sara is stripped of her fripperies and made to work as a drudge. Through it all she stays true to her friends and keeps up her spirits through imaginary games.


This took me by surprise, the story's language is uncluttered and straight-forward. The modern young reader may need to have some contextual talk about the classism and mild racism present (Ram Dass' 'soft, oriental tread'). I personally have little qualms about offering this up as a classic that stands up to modern scrutiny.


Where the book really loses points is after Ram Dass informs his employer of the sad conditions the two little girls live in in the attic, they elect to only offer Sara magical comforts such as a lit fire and a soft mattress. It's a good thing that Sara is who she is and shares her good fortune with Becky, which makes up for this bit of snobbery, but it took me out of the story.

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review 2019-01-31 19:55
He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
He Knew He Was Right - Anthony Trollope

I had fallen in love with Trollope's writing with his 'Chronicles of Barsetshire', particularly 'Barchester Towers' which had all of the social comedy I wanted from a period novel and a broader portrait of life in England in the mid-19th century. Trollope wore his prejudices proudly and his biases were as informative for me as a historian as any impartial work of the era could have been. As I read further into the series I was impressed further with the depth of his characters, particularly his occasional nuanced characterization of women in his era. There were always one or two at least who were rewarded even for bucking the conventions of society, and even those who were caricatures of female vanity or shrewish are excused by the narrator, because of the narrow confines they as women must inhabit to avoid ridicule.


I was talking about this to a customer, perhaps about a year ago, who asked if I had read 'He Knew He Was Right." I said I hadn't and she said she'd be very interested in hearing what I had to say about it. Well, a year or so later I've finished it and I'm not sure what to say.


The central plot is the deterioration of the marriage of Louis and Emily Trevelyon. They are a happy, prosperous couple with a healthy young boy when Louis has a seed of doubt about Emily being visited so often by an old friend of her father's, a man with a lingering rakish reputation despite his age. Louis tries to maneuver Emily away from this acquaintance, and even orders it to stop, but her resistance to the suggestion and scorn at the order - obeying it only to the letter - leads to open distrust and eventual separation.


This disagreement and refusal to compromise ruins both of their lives and almost certainly the life of their son. Houses are given up, scandal is spread through London and wherever either Trevelyon or his wife go. Emily's stubborness rests much on her pride and her Victorian refusal to even touch on the subject of impropriety in conversation until its too late. Trevelyon's insistence becomes more and more adamant and leads to madness. Tied into this mess are Emily's sister Nora, who must make her own decisions about love in the shadow of the terrible example of her sister and brother-in-law, and their whole family who must endeavor to fix this situation or make the best of it.


Nora's two beaus are Charles Glascock and Hugh Stanpole, the former the heir to a peerage and grand estate, the latter a gentleman who makes comparatively thin means writing for a radical newspaper. Each of these gentlemen connect the Trevelyon's marriage plot to happier plots involving young ladies making happy marriages. Hugh's sister Dorothy in going to live with a wealthy maiden aunt inhabits practically her own novel full of botched proposals, village gossip, and just desserts.


There is a lot going on in this lengthy book and it is full of the period detail and social commentary I adore from Trollope, but plot-wise it runs out steam about halfway through. The rift between the Trevelyons is intractable and ends up covering the same ground repeatedly. The marriage plots of Nora and Dorothy are finalized so quickly there is little to do but wait for the wedding, which, on the page, isn't as compelling as you'd like. Other marriages and character arcs are also wrapped up while the reader still has hundreds of pages to go to hear the same loops of conversations and social necessities pass by.


It frankly baffled me. Trollope has never stinted on words in the novels I've read, but there was never this feeling that much of it was so...unnecessary. In doing some reading I found a reference to the novel in Trollope's 'Autobiography' that shows that Trollope was disappointed in the novel:


"I do not know that in any literary effort I ever fell more completely short of my own intention than in this story. It was my purpose to create sympathy for the unfortunate man who, while endeavouring to do his duty to all around him, should be led constantly astray by his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others. The man is made to be unfortunate enough, and the evil which he does is apparent. So far I did not fail, but the sympathy has not been created yet. I look upon the story as being nearly altogether bad. It is in part redeemed by certain scenes in the house and vicinity of an old maid in Exeter. But a novel which in its main parts is bad cannot, in truth, be redeemed by the vitality of subordinate characters."


I appreciate his honesty there. I would go further than saying it is only sympathy for Trevelyon that is lacking. This novel tries to tackle a heavy issue and doesn't quite manage it. Trollope didn't have the vocabulary to dismantle the toxic masculinity that led Trevelyon to becoming unhinged in the way he did. There are some other commentaries about women that I read as thin satire, but was still distasteful to read. Without the fun or interest of other subplots to shore up the devastating weight of the central arc, I would have been unable to finish this novel if I hadn't read 80% in airport terminals last week. I will read more Trollope, but I don't think I can recommend this one to anyone except diehard fans.

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review 2018-07-27 04:46
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Middlemarch - George Eliot

'Middlemarch' is the daunting 5th novel from George Eliot. It primarily concerns the lives of the gentry and middle class, but showcases Eliot's dazzling ability to create worlds. The English novel typically had large supporting casts of characters and depended upon depicting shades of rural life, but Eliot was a master of crowd-work. Her four major plots are punctuated by extended sequences of social calls, gossip, and plain conversation that reverberate through the main text and give it life. I hesitate to call many of the characters minor not merely because of the their place in the plot, but in because how deftly they're drawn. These characters have layers. No matter how small their role is in the plot, like Miss Horner, or even a barely mentioned Mr. Clintup, have history and lives going on behind the scenes. They also have subtle social relationships with each other.

I read this novel at breakneck speed, perhaps 12 hours altogether over two evenings and a morning, and that allowed me to really experience the close relationships between many of the characters. Eliot provides vast insight into the inner lives of her characters, but also in their differing outer relationships with each other including all of the misunderstandings that create the two 'main' marriages of the plot, and, more cunning, the relationships which possess understanding. Dorothea and Casaubon; Lydgate and Rosamund; as fraught as their whole situation is, it was the relationship between Camden Farebrother and his family, Mr. and Mrs. Garth's mutual recalculation of their lives in the wake of Fred's note coming due (without Mrs. Garth knowing beforehand!), and even Trumbull, the auctioneer, being bequeathed a gold-headed cane seemed to be punctuation to a long-told joke.

Maybe I'm still worn out from all of that not sleeping so I could read 'Middlemarch' in time for the book club, but everything in this meandering novel is significant. It is not significant with the everything is an allegory way either. Eliot raised the bar again with her research, giving 'Middlemarch' an impeccable timeline and even mined 40-year-old medical journals for Lydgate's benefit. I loved this.

This novel merits the reams of words that have been written about it. She is rapidly becoming my favorite author. I was disappointed by 'Silas Marner' and my appreciation for 'Romola' is (mostly) academic. I had a bad time of it in college when I had to read this for the most boring man ever to scrape a chalkboard, but I'm so glad that I gave it another chance. Many serial novels suffer from how they were written, even with polish and editing, there's usually something disconnected. I'm including Thackeray and Dickens in that criticism, among others. Eliot was a planner and the end-notes of my edition repeatedly referenced her process. Read it in a glorious rush the way I did, or in your own serene time, but this one is worth it.

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review 2018-07-17 01:55
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Moby Dick (Vintage Classics) - Herman Melville

I've been trying to read 'Moby-Dick' for years, abandoning it many times since high school. When asked to set up a book club for those wanting to tackle the big classics, I couldn't do anything but pick the most large, 'uge, magnificent book ever written.

And, having finally finished it, it's OK. I see why people invest so much energy into this work and enjoy parsing it out, but in the end I would have preferred a little more sailing adventure and less arcane mythological references and asides. Melville had a plan and he followed through with his deconstruction of the novel by constructing an even larger novel around its architectural corpse.

There were passages of brilliant intensity and longing, rewarding humor, wide progressive streaks on race, relgion and sexuality, and romantic squeezes in the spermacetti, but the dull implacability of much of the novel was too intense for me. We were quite torn up about the book at the meeting, but we all agreed that the foreskin helmet was awesome.

'Moby-Dick' is something you have to read for yourself, if you want to. Like with everything, I suppose, your mileage may vary and you might not want to invest the energy needed to break into a novel like this, and that's OK. I gave it a solid 65% of my attention and appreciated it, but its not for everyone.

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review 2018-06-09 05:15
The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci by Dmitry Merezhkovsky
Leonardo - Dmitry Merezhkovsky

I read this on the recommendation of a friend whose taste in literature is even more antiquated than mine.

Merezhkovsky follows the life of Leonardo da Vinci mostly through the lens of his time in Florence and the attitudes of the people, the politics and life in Renaissance Italy. Often the man himself fades into the background in favor of other characters, particularly his apprentice Beltraffio who goes through many struggles with his faith and the genius of a man like da Vinci. I've seen some criticism at how 'Romance' seems to be an awfully Russian sounding Italian Renaissance, but to that I say booooo. Merezhkovsky clearly did his research here, creating a meticulous image of the era as understood by scholars of the time. The philosophy and the style, I grant you, being written by a Russian, will likely be Russian. They have little to do with one another apart from setting and time-frame, but I kept turning over George Eliot's 'Romola' in my mind as I was reading this. It was a startling time. His characterization of Machiavelli and that man's relationship with Da Vinci was the most interesting historical speculation, but I'll be honest and say that the witches sabbath was just the most bat-shit crazy and unexpected bit of reading I've ever found in a novel of this period. It was pure fun.

This forms the middle volume of a thematic trilogy involving the decay of the classic tradition and its inevitable revival. I don't know if I'll read the others, but I'm intrigued.


Christ and Antichrist Trilogy


Previous: 'Death of the Gods: Julian the Apostate'


Next: 'Peter and Alexis'

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