Category Archives: Classics

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

This book often makes it onto “best of” lists – sci-fi/post-apocalyptic, etc. I think it’s even in at least one edition of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, if not all of them.

If you don’t know (I didn’t, really), it’s the story of the very  beginnings of a post-apocalyptic society. There are two distinct parts to the apocalypse. The actual event is a green comet/meteor shower, and anyone who sees it goes blind by the next morning. The second, continual threat, is the triffids – aggressively carnivorous plants with apparent intelligence and communication skills.

Where this story excels is its depiction of the various forms of survivalist community that become established. Pretty much every iteration is explored in both “moral” and practical ways. There’s the fend-for-yourself time, the small groups of sighted and unsighted trying to forage with or without leadership, the free-love/rebuild the world society, the cling-as-hard-as-we-can-to-our-old-lives groups, the new feudalist groups, and ultimately the not-hippie commune. I put moral in quotation marks up there because it rapidly becomes clear that this book understands relative morality rather than absolute morality, and certainly doesn’t recognize any previous moral authority (church, government). It’s a very Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest world, both physically (who can survive) and mentally/morally (who can let go of their old roles/strictures/ideas, and who should be helped to survive).

Where this story really doesn’t excel is in its treatment of women. If it weren’t for Josella, the love interest, and Susan, a child who doesn’t even appear until about two-thirds of the way through, there would be no positively portrayed females. There’s even a rant about how women are lazy and too accustomed to leisure to be at all useful – except, one presumes, as breeders. One woman is completely stupid (and in shock) and simply repeats that “the Americans will come” to save them all. Even Josella, as capable as she is, is ultimately nothing more than mother and (monogamous) wife.

But the rest of the book explores such interesting scenarios that I’m able to mostly overlook the fact that the only woman-as-leader is obviously a narrow-minded failure, doomed to death as soon as the men leave. Or at least, I can put it down to time period and inadvertent, not deliberate, misogyny. I’ll also overlook the classism – the fate of the “aristocracy” is never mentioned (not even the Royal Family, in London), and theh working classes are translated into one man who switches accents based on his companions, and a brief mention of some Welsh miners who have isolated themselves. Everyone else is firmly upper-middle-class.

Oh, look, I couldn’t completely ignore it….

Despite those flaws, it’s got some fascinating stuff, and I’ll certainly be giving Wyndham another try.

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Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve been reading Anna Karenina off and on for months now. I enjoy Tolstoy’s long-form writing – okay, let me clarify: I really loved War and Peace, and still maintain that it is one of the perfect travelling books. I expected Anna Karenina to be like War and Peace, and it is in many ways.

(I had a whole thing written up, which unfortunately got lost in a chocolate/hot day scenario. I will try to recreate it as much as possible but at this point it’s been about two weeks since I finished the book and it’s been a really busy, mentally intense two weeks….)

One of the things that I think Tolstoy does very well is character. Every character – all the major characters, at least – have something sympathetic and relatable about them.  I enjoyed the stories of everyone in Anna Karenina. I enjoyed Vronsky, and Anna (even if I got incredibly annoyed with her attitude by the end), and I absolutely loved Levin and Kitty. I thought their relationship was wonderful and real and I really hoped that they would be happy.

Character is especially important in Anna Karenina because it is ultimately a book about relationships. Even more than War and Peace, the characters are connected. In War and Peace, there are several different groups of people who occasionally interact, but are mostly separate. In Anna Karenina, there are several different groups of people who are all connected in various ways. It makes it easy to get to know the key characters – Anna, Vronsky, Levin, Kitty, etc. – because you see them in a variety of situations and from a variety of perspectives. It makes it less easy to keep track of the secondary characters, especially when they are sometimes referred to with their patronymic and sometimes not. But it is about the relationships – romantic relationships, family relationships, and friendships – of all the characters, and you can’t understand the relationships until you understand the people.

Another thing that Tolstoy does is long ramblings about the state of the world – or, at least, the state of Russia. Both Anna Karenina and War and Peace include paragraphs and paragraphs about philosophical questions and cultural attitudes of the time. Anna Karenina, for example, includes entire chapters about agriculture and the state of the peasants, among other things. This is something that works quite a lot better in War and Peace than it does in Anna Karenina. You expect a book called War and Peace to be about – well, war and peace. You expect the long sections dissecting the state of the world. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, you expect to be about the people. The digressions about agriculture or education or whatever, even when they’re “subtly” inserted into conversations, seem a little bit obvious and out of place.

But the bits that are story are quite fascinating. Like I said, I totally loved  Levin and Kitty – I don’t think I’d want to know Levin in real life; he’d be a bit too serious and earnest and idealistic for me – and was so glad that their story ended well. I quite enjoyed Anna and Vronsky, until the end when she got a little bit loopy.  (“If I kill myself, THEN HE’LL BE SORRY”…..not exactly healthy, there, Anna.) I enjoyed the intricacies of society in Moscow and St Petersburg and how they were reflected in each of the characters.

When I finished War and Peace, even though it had taken me a long time, I just wanted to relive it. I don’t feel quite the same about Anna Karenina, though. I enjoyed it, but I think I like the bigger one better.

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Mapp and Lucia, by E.F. Benson

I read this book for a book club that I’m in – we haven’t had the meeting for it yet, but I’ll probably report back when we do.

I’d never heard of the book before the book club assignment. It was written in 1931, the fourth in a series although, apparently, the first three books don’t deal with both Mapp and Lucia. I may have to investigate that a bit more.

Mapp and Lucia are two middle-aged (I think) women who have for years been the Queens of their respective villages – organizing everything, knowing all the gossip, being the star of whatever event is going on whether they are hosting it or not. Lucia moves to Miss Mapp’s village one summer and, of course, there can’t be two Queens simultaneously, so a wonderful war begins between the two.

It’s comic in the way Jeeves and Wooster is comic (confession: that comparison might not have occurred to me without a brief mention of it in the introduction of the edition I have) – where you recognize the ridiculousness from outside but also the complete seriousness of the players. It also perfectly captured the way that women make war: cattiness and snobbery and drawing in relatively innocent bystanders as pawns in their games. They’re unfailingly polite, even while saying incredibly  cutting things to each other. Invitations become deliberate weapons; something as innocuous as an egg-whisk can lead to renewed antipathy.

The introduction also commented that it felt like an Edwardian setting, even though it’s between the wars (Georgie compares the outbreak of hostilities to 1914), and I think that’s true in a way. It’s timeless in that “golden age” way of late Victorian/Edwardian novels – it could be set at any point between about 1890 and 1939, and only that because they mention automobiles. I would cut it off at WW2, though, because, while women are still that catty and still use words as weapons in the same way, the practicalities of it no longer exist. The class structure that gives a framework for this world does not exist in the same way. We don’t use invitations to tea or to “musical evenings” as battles in our social trench warfare anymore.  We may use other types of invitations, but the actual logistics aren’t the same.

In fact, what it reminded me most of was Agatha Christie. It’s that same idealized village life like St. Mary Mead, the same structure of master and servant and older women ruling things ever-so-gently but always firmly.  It’s the retired army officers who cling to their time in India or Kenya as their defining moment. It’s the caricatured secondary characters, defined by one trait and one trait only (the Wyses with their Rolls-Royce, for example). It’s the world where a servant getting married means the entire breakup of a household, where an invitation to tea means acceptance or rejection, where a thirty-minute delay in talking to your neighbor means missing out on the hottest gossip of the day.

It was an entertaining book; I read it in an afternoon but didn’t feel like I raced through it or anything. It was the type of book that I could have put down at any time, but once I was reading, I felt like I might as well keep reading it. I wasn’t passionately interested in the characters or the story, but neither was I bored by them. If I get around to it, I might even read some of the other books in the series.

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A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy

Hardy is an interesting author to read. I absolutely adore his style: the writing is beautiful and evocative and emotional. However, he can be absolutely heart-wrenchingly painful to read.

The first Hardy I ever read was Tess of the d’Urbervilles which, as my old literature students will tell you, has a main character with the most unremitting bad luck of any character in fiction. Throughout the book, bad things happen to her, and she deals with them in the only way possible that will keep further bad things, or worse things, from happening, and then worse things happen anyway. But the writing is so gorgeous that even as you’re weeping for Tess (and cursing the people responsible for her situation), you absolutely love her.

And then there’s Jude. Oh, Jude the Obscure. Again, absolutely gorgeous writing, and a book I will never ever read again. There is one particular scene which is horribly inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to experience. I read it on a train in Italy, with my friends who had already read it looking on, and I actually shrieked in horror. They knew exactly where in the book I was. The mental image of that scene will never, ever leave me.

Hardy has a particular gift for making horrible things seem inevitable. There is a point in the book, the Judicture* if you will, where you know that bad things are going to happen to these characters and there’s no way they can stop it. It is the point where the story shifts from “things are fine” to “life is hell”.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is an early Hardy, and it’s pretty obvious. It’s not a bad book by any means, it’s just not as clear or refined as his later books. There are definite indications of what he will become as a writer, but the full impact is not there yet.

The indications certainly are there, though. The language is approaching the beauty and clarity of later books like Tess and Jude – I don’t have specific examples but it was certainly easy to read. The mood, while I’m sure devastating to Elfride (the main character), was not nearly as traumatic to read as Tess or Jude. But the most striking indication of his later greatness is in the themes.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is basically about a young country girl and her love life. Elfride, who just turned 19 when the book starts, is a completely innocent parson’s daughter in the Southwest of England (probably Dorset, less than a day’s journey from Plymouth anyway). She falls in love for the first time with Stephen Smith, a man whom her father thinks is unsuitable for her (he’s lower class). They become secretly engaged, and even run off to get married, but she gets cold feet at the last minute and they return unmarried. She tries to be faithful to him when he goes to India to make his fortune and prove himself, but then falls in love with Harry Knight, an older man (who happens to be Stephen’s mentor). She doesn’t tell the older man about her past, and he refuses to marry her when he finds out that she’d had a (non-physical, although he doesn’t know that) lover before. After a year or more of separation, Knight and Stephen meet, realise the truth, and go to each try to win Elfride again – only to come on her funeral procession and her now-widowed husband. They decry her as false, but leave the grieving husband in peace.

All the elements are there: love and the way society sees love; women’s roles in love and society; the clash between classes; the clash between country and city; secrecy and its devastating effect on relationships. These themes are more developed in Tess and Jude, of course, but they’re certainly there in Blue Eyes.

(You know, it’s much harder to shorten the title of a Hardy book that doesn’t have the main character’s name in it. Tess and Jude = easy. Even The Mayor of Casterbridge can easily be known by “Casterbridge”. But “A Pair of Blue Eyes”? “Blue Eyes”, I suppose. The funny thing is that apart from one incident, her blue eyes aren’t really a plot point at all. I suppose it’s just another example of how relatively undeveloped Hardy was at this point.)

Anyway: love, society’s view of love, women’s roles in love. Elfride, as I mentioned is an innocent. She’d had a brief flirtation with a local boy that, in her eyes, was just kindness, but in his eyes was true love. The boy then dies, and his mother blames Elfride and hates her bitterly. She then does everything in her power (which is not much, but enough) to destroy Elfride’s future happiness.

Then there’s the old attitude (that still hangs on, to some extent, today), that a woman should be innocent until marriage, but a man is expected to be experienced. Both Stephen and Knight (although, to be fair, Stephen got the idea from Knight) think and say that the sweetest first kiss is an awkward one, because it proves that the woman has never been kissed before. Knight even falls in love with Elfride because he believes that she has never loved anyone before. He tells her so (and then is it any wonder that she can’t confess that she has, in fact, had a previous boyfriend?). He leaves her because he can’t accept the fact that she was planning to marry someone before him (and because she hadn’t told him, but mostly it’s the fact that she’d had a boyfriend before). Knight himself, on the other hand, is considered very wise and experienced – and indeed he has thought about the subject extensively although he is a rarity who has no physical experience himself.

And, a vent: Boys. When you break up with a girl, and leave the country, and do your best to forget her, and do not communicate with her in any way for a year, she is in no way “false” when she marries someone else. When you give her no indication that you are ever coming back or that you still have feelings for her, she is not “false” when she marries someone else. When you have moved on, or at least tried to, then you have to expect that she will do the same. I know that in The Princess Bride, Westley says “Why didn’t you wait for me? Death cannot stop true love,” and it’s very sweet and romantic. But that is an idealised fairy tale and should not in any way be taken as reality. Reality is this: the woman has just as much right to move on, change her mind, and find a new relationship as the man does. When you disappear completely, you can’t expect her to wait, unknowing and unchanging, forever.

(This rant is based mostly on the book and partially on personal life events. Yeah, I’m still mad about that one. It’ll be a while longer before I’m fully over it, I think.)

The class clash, and the clash between city and country, is seen most in the character of Stephen Smith. The city is seen to be a haven of culture and experience – anyone who comes recommended from the city must be a person of worth. When Elfride’s father finds out that Stephen is not just a country boy but a lower-class country boy, all of Stephen’s education and employment count for nothing. Stephen is accepted with open arms when the parson thinks he is an architect’s assistant from London; he is essentially thrown out of the house when his father is a local labourer. Elfride even points this out – that Stephen himself hasn’t changed, just their knowledge of his parents, and if his parents had been labourers from, say, the North, Stephen still would have been accepted. But because they are aware of his low birth and his local history, he is suddenly unacceptable.

Knight, too, is incredibly condescending toward Stephen. Knight has lived in the city much longer and maintains fewer ties to the local area. What ties he does have are loose, and higher class. This makes Knight not just an acceptable suitor for Elfride, but a superior person (even though, in my mind, Stephen was much better for Elfride and more of a person that I’d like to know).

Finally, secrecy. It’s when secrets are revealed that the Judictures come in this book (although, as I’ve said, they’re not as devastating as the Judictures in Tess or Jude). Stephen’s revelation that his parents are local labourers leads to his banishment from the parsonage, and hence to his and Elfride’s elopement. The parson’s secret relationship with a local (rich) woman prevents Elfride from confiding in him about her relationship with Stephen. Elfride’s (unwilling) revelation about her previous relationship leads to Knight’s departure.  If any of those three secrets hadn’t been secrets, the story would have been much, much different. Even if the telling of the secrets had been different (well, except for the first one which is almost entirely down to the parson’s snobbery), the story would have been much, much different.

The story revolves around miscommunication, misapprehension, and misunderstandings from almost the first word. It shows signs of the greatness that Hardy achieves in his later works, without the emotional devastation that makes him painful to experience.

*Judicture = a combination of Jude (from Jude the Obscure) and juncture (the juncture of “life is fine” and “life is not fine”). Spread the word. Let’s get in the OED someday.

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Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

The more I experience Much Ado About Nothing – at one time my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies, although it has since been superseded, I think, by As You Like It – the more I am convinced of two things:

  1. Claudio sucks.
  2. Beatrice and Benedick were “together” before the men went off to war, and it did not end well. I am not sure yet how they broke up, but that’s where the root of their bickering comes from.

This is also a play absolutely filled with references and wordplay that doesn’t exist anymore. I want to do a bit more research about some of them, which may help me figure out a bit more about point 2.

Let’s look briefly at Claudio. He is one of the most shallow creatures in literature. He falls in love with Hero because she is pretty. There’s virtually no indication that he’s even talked to her before the play starts (even though most interpretations do play it as if Hero at least had a crush on Claudio pre-play). He is also far too easily convinced by rumour, insinuation, and flat-out lying that he is being betrayed. It happens at the party, when the most disreputable characters in the play tell him absolute lies that the Prince is wooing Hero for himself, and it happens again the night before the wedding  when he is led to believe that Hero is not a virgin. In both of these cases, he takes the word of people that should not be trusted – Don John and his men – and you would think he would know that they cannot be trusted, since Don John has only recently been reconciled with the Prince! He does not seek out any further proof in either case; he is so non-confrontational that he is more willing to believe ill of his friend and his love than to do anything in his own behalf! He does not deserve Hero, at all, and it’s so frustrating to watch, read, or hear.

Now on to Beatrice and Benedick. They clearly know each other before the play starts, in a way deeper than Hero and Claudio – Beatrice “promised to eat all of his killing”, there “is a kind of merry war” between them, and the best quotation: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.”

Their breakup I get from things like their mutual protestations of never marrying, especially to each other. It’s definitely a form of protesting too much, like they’re trying to convince each other and themselves. They’re also very willing to believe that the other loves them based on overheard lies and rumours, as if they had already had these suspicions themselves – but they, unlike Claudio, ultimately confront the other with this information and get confirmation. The quotation above also gives clues to it – false dice, as if there was some sort of misunderstanding, the idea that Beatrice has lost Benedick’s heart and the implication that it is a more distant losing than simply their conversation at the party.

There are a few lines that I do not have cultural context for yet, to know if they support or alter my argument: “Signor Mountanto” – is there any symbolic significance to the name “Mountanto”? There’s also a line that’s cut out of most performances that I’ve seen/heard: Beatrice says “He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.” I….have no idea what that means. What is a “jade’s trick”, that Beatrice accused Benedick of using? Why does Benedick refer to Hero as “Leonato’s short daughter”? There are others, I am sure…..I will need to do a closer rereading and some research.

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A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster

Okay, I’m kind of cheating here. I haven’t (re)read this recently.  But I was talking with my best friend the other day about the classes we’d taken in college and realized that it had been ten years, almost exactly, since I’d read this book for the first time. And since it is my stated favourite book of all time, I thought I should write something to mark a decade of its being in my life.

It was J-term of my freshman year, and I was taking Reading Fiction. It was the perfect class for me: it combined my favourite professor with my favourite activity (reading books and then talking about them). I don’t remember exactly what else we read in that class: A Lesson Before Dying, I think, and at least one other.  I do remember A Room with a View.

It’s not the absolute best book ever, as many critics have pointed out. Most don’t even consider it Forster’s best book – they usually pick Howards End or A Passage to India. But I just fell in love with A Room with a View. It could be that I identified quite strongly with Lucy – she was about my age, wide-eyed and eager to learn but with a strong sense, almost an oppressive sense, for what “should” be done (stimulated, of course, by Charlotte and Cecil and, to a lesser extent, her mother and Freddy). She also was an amateur musician, who used the piano in particular as a way to find an emotional balance. Sound familiar?

Three years later, when it came time for me to decide on a project for my senior paper, I decided to write about A Room with a View and the other “early” works of Forster (i.e. everything except A Passage to India, which I didn’t finally get through until last year sometime), and the way that they used specific musical pieces as themes within the books as well as structure. It probably wasn’t the most innovative thing ever, but I noticed that each of the books featured music in a significant way, usually a particular piece or style of music, and that piece or style of music was also reflected in the structure of the book.

When I was thinking about doing a Master’s degree, I thought about the periods of literature that I enjoyed and was obsessed with: medieval literature, especially Robin Hood, and early 20th century literature with Forster. That’s why I decided to do the degree I did – the idea was that by studying both periods, I could more easily narrow my interest.  Well, I certainly did  that: I realized that Forster was essentially the only one of that era that I wanted to study further, but I was fascinated by the many, many works of Middle English that I encountered.  I realized that I was more interested in Virginia Woolf, for example, when she was writing about Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen when I could compare her to Forster,  and Joyce not at all.

I recognize that it’s not the best book ever. The film version is certainly not spectacular, although it’s not bad. It’s a bit obvious with some of the symbolism (like, say, the view).  But every time I read it, I find more things to analyze and enjoy in it.  Like Forster’s use of light and shadow with George, for instance. It has entered my consciousness in a lot of ways – I don’t have it completely memorized, but I know it well enough that passages of it go through my head simply by seeing the title.  I also kind of annoyed my companions when we were in Florence by pointing out places that were significant from the book. I freely admit that Santa Croce was one of my favourite places in Florence not just because of the artwork and the tombs and the Dante statue, but because it was the church that Lucy went to with her Baedeker.

It’s been a couple of years since I last read A Room with a View; it may be about time for me to read it again.

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Austenland, by Shannon Hale

Austen-based literature, especially based on Pride and Prejudice, is surprisingly common. I suppose a lot of that is due to the 1995 BBC adaptation and the 2005 movie. It’s all essentially Austen fan-fiction, and some of it is quite good. There are sequels, there are prequels, there are stories that focus on one of the more minor characters, and there are stories about people who, for whatever reason, relive one of the stories. Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which is based on Persuasion, are probably the most famous of these. Austenland and another book that I read last year called Me and Mr Darcy are both about women who go on vacation in order to actually relive Pride and Prejudice.

These books have a lot in common. They’re both perfectly fine books that are quite entertaining and they are more than just simple retreadings of the Pride and Prejudice plot. Another thing they have in common is something incredibly annoying: their heroines, in spite of claiming to be obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, have absolutely no memory of the first, oh, two-thirds of the book. Both of them complain about the man with whom they have a tense verbal relationship and say things like, “If only he could be more like Mr Darcy!”

Do they not remember the book? Elizabeth hates Darcy for the first part of the book. When he proposes she is genuinely surprised because she thinks that he hates her just as much. They banter, they insult each other, they misunderstand each other both deliberately and inadvertently. How can people who claim to be so obsessed with P&P look at a bantering relationship – especially one that uses almost exactly the same words as P&P – and NOT see it as a Darcy relationship? Honestly, if the main character is that clueless about the book and story that has been touted as her favourite, it makes me trust and like her a little bit less.

There are good moments in Austenland: Jane has a believably hard time letting go of her modern self and following the ‘rules’ of Regency England – something I think a lot of time travellers underestimate is the difficulty of letting go of the modern assumptions that make us who we are. And I had to laugh at the piano playing scene:

With professional suavity, Jane arranged her skirt, spread out the music, poised her fingers, and then with one hand played the black keys, singing along with the notes, “Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her, put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”

She rose and curtsied to the room. (p.111)

I think that showed great poise and humour and, as a pianist myself, I appreciated it.

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