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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. I know that's ridiculous considering how many new books I'm reading, but I'm most happy when I'm deep in a Trollope.

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.

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review 2016-10-28 00:00
The Last Chronicle of Barset, Barchester #6 by Anthony Trollope
The Last Chronicle of Barset - Anthony Trollope,Helen Small

The Last Chronicle of Barset is a novel about Privilege, and how when you have Privilege you suffer more than common people, whose lives being always terrible, are used to it and don't feel pain. Trollope goes to great lengths to prove to the reader that starving in a hovel doesn't compare to the exquisite pain of not having a new pair of evening gloves. Trollope may have an upswing in popularity in the next four years.

Josiah Crawley had first made an appearance in Framley Parsonage as a poverty-stricken curate of a poor district, far away from the usual comforts enjoyed by the clergy in these novels. Crawley's situation has improved in some ways, since a few of his children have died, but shame is about to come down on his head. He would almost rather the family be put out onto the streets than take assistance from concerned friends.

Crawley's final shame comes about at the start of the novel when a tradesmen, a butcher, pressures Rev. Crawley to pay a bill and so he pays with a banknote that...it appears he's stolen! He cannot account for how it came into his possession. It is the talk of the county and, unfortunately, is spoiling his daughter's chances of marriage with a son of the Archdeacon.

Jane Crawley is too noble by half to let herself marry the man she loves and drag the Grantly's into shame, but like so many other Trollope heroines, she is suspected of the lowest motives and never given information she has every right to possess until the last minute. Her story is a decent one, but the heart of the novel is in the slow fading of Septimus Harding, the former Warden, and Lily Dale, whose continued refusal to ever marry at the end 'The Small House' is tested. She is thrown up against all the former heroines of Barchester, each one, yes, even Miss Dunstable, washed of personality by marriage.

This novel was not as rewarding as others by Trollope, but it at least tied up any loose ends and it did justice to more characters than not. The majority of the authors attention was already turning to the politics of London rather than the clerical gentry that were the heart of the Barchester stories.

Previous: The Small House at Allington

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review 2016-03-03 00:00
Can You Forgive Her?, Palliser #1 by Anthony Trollope
Can You Forgive Her? - Anthony Trollope,Kate Flint,Andrew Swarbrick,Norman St. John-Stevas

This is a novel that is a labor of love for the reader, if they have any compunctions about the pace or the scale of a Victorian novel they should steer clear of this at any cost. However, for the reader willing to invest the energy and the time, Can You Forgive Her is a rewarding experience and is a triumph of social critique. Trollope displays rare insight and sympathy for a woman's situation and her options in the mid-19th century.

"What should a woman do with her life?" Alice Vavasor asks this question of herself near the start of the novel while thinking of her engagement with the unimpeachable John Grey. In deciding whether she should marry Grey and have him be the object of her life as opposed to being alone or marrying her cousin and furthering his career with her money, she is the woman who the reader has to decide to forgive. Trollope broadens his scope to include a few other examples of conduct to consider. There is Alice's cousin Kate Vavasor, the sister of the man Alice was engaged to once before, who has devoted her life to her brother and the care of her grandfather; there is her aunt Mrs Greenow, recently widowed and seeking a new husband under the pretext of finding a husband for Kate; and most importantly there is Glencora Palliser, a cousin of Alice's on her mother's side, who was pressured into marrying Plantagenet Palliser as opposed to the man she loved in The Small House at Allington by her relatives to preserve her fortune. Taken together the novel goes to great lengths to examine the why's of society's rules. Trollope is by no means a radical, but he's no mysogenist and his female characters here have more life in them then the men, something very few of his peers, male or female, can boast.

Alice starts the novel safely engaged to John Grey, but in her youth Alice had been in love with and engaged to her cousin George, but after some disgraceful "wild" behavior on his part she honorably withdrew. With Kate's help the two are friends again and at the start of the novel the three are set on touring the continent. Her relations on her mother's side are opposed to George Vavasor as a chaperon, but Alice hates to be told what to do and resents any interference in her personal life, whatever the motive. Her motivations can be selfish, but she is guided by her sense of justice and right as opposed to propriety. The reader will be sorely tested by her indecision and inability to make up her mind. The problem with Grey is his perfection. He is wealthy and interested in academic pursuits, whereas Alice believes in politics and the necessity of seeking public life to promote the greater good. Grey is in an ivory tower and Alice dreads boredom and doubts her ability to provide the companionship Grey deserves. Her cousin George on the other hand seeks a seat in Parliament and only lacks the money to get it, did I mention Alice has a small fortune at her disposal?

Kate is Alice's best friend as well as her cousin, but she pounces on any doubts Alice has towards Grey. It is her fondest desire to see the two people she loves best be joined in marriage. She willfully ignores her brother's less desirable traits, but sees Alice as a source of redemption to her beloved brother. She is older than Alice, but has no desire to marry. She has little money but is willing to put it all behind her brother's campaign. In order to save some effort on my part I'll gloss over Mrs. Greenow's social triumph as a widow - very Dickens with two suitors competing for her very rich hand - and the question if she will marry again for comfort or charity? It raised some good points about the hypocrisy of mourning rituals and a woman's purpose in life, but I see it as fluffy potatoes to Alice's steak and Lady Glencora's asparagus. Metaphor!

Lady Glencora is spoiled and impetuous, but in many ways she is the Alice that Trollope wouldn't have been allowed to celebrate. Married at the behest of her relatives, she still acknowledges feelings for her old suitor, pretty boy Burgo Fitzgerald. Her husband has political interests that demand immaculate social performance and he appears to have no time for her as a person, especially as she hasn't been able to produce an heir yet. She is racked with guilt and in a mad fever of rebellion against the tacit edicts of her husband and society triggers one of the most shocking scenes in the body of Victorian literature - clutch your pearls and have a seat please -



She gambles a napoleon in the gaming rooms at Baden! The wife of the heir of a Dukedom no less. You can see the apprehension of her cousin beside her.

Have you ever seen the like? I don't approve of graphic images in reviews, but I needed to impress on readers the severity of Lady Glencora's actions. She deals with her situation with equal amounts of humor and self-pity. Her dilemma of how to live with the man she is married to consumes a deal of energy in the novel. Her unhappiness is an example to Alice and potentially readers to relenting to the pressure of expectations and appropriateness as opposed to feeling.

The novel ends happily and with most of the conventions of society vindicated, but not after a great deal of questioning and challenges to the assumption that what is socially acceptable and what is right are one and the same. Proceed with caution, but I felt my time was well spent.

Next Palliser novel: Phineas Finn

But I'm finding that Trollope had such a relationship with his characters that they carry on in dozens of novels, if only to populate the drawing rooms of other plots. I'll have to read every Trollope novel if I want to properly follow....challenge accepted?

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