Friday, November 20, 2015

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevski

Original Publication Date1868-9 

  Genre: Topics: mental illness, good vs. bad, how crappy life can be for decent people, 19th century Russia

  Review by : Anachronist

Returning to Russia from a sanatorium in Switzerland an epileptic young man and also a descendant of one of the oldest Russian lines of nobility, Prince Myshkin, finds himself enmeshed in a tangle of love. He is torn between two women—the notorious kept woman Nastassya whom he pities and the pure Aglaia whose soul he finds beautiful. Add to the mix Rogozhin, a man obsessed with one of them. In the end, Myshkin’s honesty, goodness, and integrity are shown to be unequal to the moral emptiness of those around him. He must fail and return to Switzerland.

My impressions:
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, 26, arrives in St. Petersburg, Russia, by train. The nominal purpose for Myshkin’s trip is to make the acquaintance of his very distant relative Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchina, and to make inquiries about a certain matter of business. He is alone but full of hope and the best intentions. He also likes other people, never judging them unfairly, even those who clearly have erred.  Overall he has too much compassion for this cynical age. He believes every person, trusts all, feels the pain of the suffering unfortunates. A result? Most of his compatriots decide very swiftly he has no common sense. Simple? Ill? Just terminally gullible? An Idiot? Or a Saint? That question only you can decide. Still be warned: the drama spans over 660 pages and is hardly easy to follow. Or to solve.
I read this one for the  first time in my teens and it all went right over my stupid, empty head. Well, I understood that Myshkin was simply too good and too honest for the world around him but I could hardly grasp why. Was it only because of his illness, a trait he shared with the author himself ? Was it also because he was practically a stranger in Russia, a country never famous of fair treatment of strangers? Why was it so important at all? Now I see I was too young to understand the complexity the of author’s mind. Dostoyevski created The Idiot to force us to think about our lives and our choices; the answers to all these ‘whys’ might vary from person to person.
The characters, none of them “all bad” or “all good” are very much life-like; in fact there is not one single person in this entire novel that I didn’t feel both sympathy and contempt for at various stages. What’s more the author himself felt obliged to punish practically every major lead in the end and the worst fate was allotted to Aglaia who had to marry a Pole. Why it was such a cruel punishment? Dostoevski hated Poles because he was of Polish descent himself and he loathed that fact, go figure why. Anyway if you encounter a Pole in his novels you might be absolutely sure it will be a villain and a scoundrel.
Apart from that The Idiot is brimming with philosophical inquiry into people’s lives, society, culture, and history. Immutable, transcendent ideas about which Russian writers always grapple. The authors of the foreword/afterword reveal and underscore dozens of themes in the book. They discuss mechanics and perspectives and symbols. They discuss Russian history and the Russian concept of suffering, and how these were adroitly parsed among the characters. And how the characters themselves represented the unique attributes–in splinter form–of the Russian whole.
Final verdict:
Let me quote here, uncharacteristically, the letter of Dostoevsky himself who  outlined his own goal, concerning The Idiot:
“The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man. There is nothing more difficult in the world and especially now. All writers, not only ours, but even all European writers, who have merely attempted to portray the positively beautiful, have always given up. Because the task is immeasurable. The beautiful is an ideal, but this ideal, whether ours or that of civilized Europe, is still far from being worked out. There is only one perfectly beautiful person -Christ – so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, already an infinite miracle”
If you are intrigued by such a premise you won’t be disappointed by the novel itself.

 Download The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky at Project Gutenberg|

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Northanger Abbey

Original Publication Date: 1817
Genre: Novel
Topics: Gothic Parody, Romance
Review by : Becca Lostinbooks
Download Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

The Characters

John is egotistical, presumptuous, vindictive, and boring as watching paint dry.  To top it off he is as oblivious to Catherine's indifference as Catherine is to Isabella's own egocentricities.

Catherine is young, innocent, shy, and naive and dense to a fault, but kind-hearted.  She has a huge imagination, which Austen uses to tell the story.

Henry is gentlemanly, humorous, and kind.  Quite the charming flirt, as well.  And he understands muslin "ever so well", which is apparently "much to his credit, I'm sure." Okaaaay.

Isabella, in contrast, is an overt flirt, as well as vain, disloyal, and an opportunist.
The Setting
Catherine was involved in the same Regency world full of dances and proper socializing that is in every Austen novel.  The abbey was the interesting part, as were Catherine's imaginative scenarios.  The problem, for me, is that while the book makes fun of gothic novels, as this is a parody of the genre, there is hardly enough time in the gothic Abbey for Catherine to truly get creeped out and twist logic as much as she does.

The Plot
I like that Austen did something different with this novel, but I am not sure I enjoyed it as much as I was hoping.  I did not care for the characters much and I think that took away from some of the enjoyment of it.  Catherine was sweet, but soo annoying.  I did hope for the very obvious ending, but unlike Austen's other novels, I did not enjoy so much the journey to get there.  I think it would've been much more satisfying if I cared much about Catherine.
I did like the time Austen spent on whether people should read novels, on the debate of a good imagination, and the importance of the heart over wealth.

Have you read Northanger Abbey?  What were your thoughts on it?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Review: Countess Vera, Or Oath of Vengeance by Mrs Alex McVeigh Miller

countess veraOriginal Publication Date: 1888

Genre: Dime Novel

Topics: Abandonment, secret marriage, bigamy, premature burial, REVENGE!

Review by : Chrisbookarama

Leslie Noble finds his wife of one day dead in her room. Dead! Unwilling to live with a man who does not love her, she committed suicide. Vera Campbell had agreed to marry him to escape her Cinderella-like life of servitude to her aunt Marcia Cleveland and cousin Ivy. After her father abandoned her and her mother, they had nowhere else to go and were dependent upon their ‘kindness.’ Seventeen years of heartbreak were too much for Mrs Campbell, with her last breath she begged Leslie to marry Vera. This was the result.

Shortly after her funeral, Vera’s father (now an Earl) has returned to claim his wife and child, who he mistakenly left to fend for themselves. Too late! Both are dead. But when he unearths his child to gaze upon her face one last time, he discovers that she isn’t dead at all. He whisks her off to England to make up for lost time.

Vera keeps the secret of her marriage to herself, vowing to never remarry. She of course falls in love with a wealthy American. Angst! Then it appears that her husband has died. Yay! But just when happiness is within her reach her father dies and commands her to make an Oath of Vengeance against her cruel aunt. REVENGE!

chuck norris
Chuck Norris approves of your Oath of Vengeance

I’ve never read a dime novel before, which is a shame because this one was fun! Dime novels were cheap entertainment for the masses in the late 1800s-early 1900s. They were a lucrative business at that time. Louisa May Alcott herself wrote a few to make ends meet. The plots were sensational and usually featured a young heroine in peril.

This heroine in peril is Vera Campbell. She doesn’t have much in the personality department, but she does have ‘dark flashing eyes’ and an Oath of Vengeance. Her Aunt Marcia is the worst. She is the most evil of aunts. She could rival Cinderella’s stepmother.

cinderalla stepmother
It's an Evil Off!

The writing is not great, and apparently neither was the editing. The transcriber has a list a mile long of spelling and grammar corrections. The plot is super soapy. It’s like Days of Our Lives but with an ending. It is bonkers with premature burials, bigamy, murder-plots, poisons, and kidnappings. I loved it.

Mrs Alex McVeigh Miller (not her real name) wrote at least 80 dime novels (12 found on Project Gutenberg). A look at the synopsises reveals that some are similar in plot. Reading them could get monotonous. So, I’ll proceed with caution and space them out.  Who can resist a title like The Fatal Birthday though?

If you can put up with third person past tense, cheesy dialogue and repetitive phrases (dark eyes everywhere), you’ll enjoy this potboiler.

Download Countess Vera, or The Oath of Vengeance by Mrs Alex McVeigh Miller at Project Gutenberg

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Girl of the Limberlost

Original Publication Date: 1909 
Genre: Novel 
Topics: Coming-of-age, romance 
Review by: Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings

 A Girl of the Limberlost 
by Gene Stratton-Porter

How did I miss this book when I was younger? It’s like a slighter darker version of Anne of Green Gables, and I loved every second of it.

Published in 1909, the story is about a young girl named Elnora who lives in the country. She is going to high school for the first time, but her lack of social skills and money makes the way difficult. Her whole life has been spent on her farm with her cold, unloving mother. Her father died in the Limberlost swamp the day she was born and her mother has resented her ever since. 
Elnora is such a unique character. She is stubborn and driven to succeed. She's fiercely intelligent but incredibly compassionate. She is patient, giving her mother the benefit of the doubt for years. She's a hard worker, willing to make money to achieve her dreams. She has self-respect and is willing to sacrifice in order to find true happiness. She reminded me a little bit of Jane Austen’s Lizzy Bennet, particularly in a scene where one woman comes to talk to her about her possible engagement. 
There is so much I loved about this book. There's a fantastic female lead who isn't just trying to win a man. The plot focuses on relationships with her family and friends and pursuing her dreams. She stands up for herself even when she doesn't fit in. She's a problem solver and isn't overwhelmed when a slight obstacle gets in her path.  

Kate Comstock, Elnora's mother, is a fascinating character. She’s so oblivious to the pain she causes her daughter because she’s trapped in a prison of grief. She has one of the most drastic changes in attitude and overall character development that I've ever read. The way it's done it's completely believable, but it's still a 180 and it was so satisfying to see her relationship with Elnora change throughout the book. 
I love how the romantic aspect of the story played out too. Elnora protects her own feelings and isn’t swayed the moment Philip gave her a second glance. She waited until she was sure he didn't want anyone else and she was not just a consolation prize. That’s so unusual to find in a novel, especially one written more than 100 years ago. She wanted someone who loved her deeply, not someone who settled for her in a moment of passion.  
BOTTOM LINE: I fell hard for this novel. Elnora is so determined and intelligent, she’s definitely become one of my new favorites. The book is chocked full of wonderful characters, including her Uncle Wesley, the young ruffian Billy and even her selfish, detached mother becomes a character you care about. 
Originally posted at Avid Reader's Musings

Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: THE RAIN-GIRL by Herbert George Jenkins

book cover the rain girl Original Publication Date: 1919

Genre: Romantic comedy

Topics: Depression, suicide, family, society            

Review by heidenkind:

Recently home from the trenches of WWI, Richard Beresford finds that he simply cannot deal with stuff anymore. Not his former job at the Foreign Office, not his family, not the whole getting-up-in-the-morning and getting-dressed thing, or eating or reading or hobbies or anything at all. So he decides he's just going to wander around and be tramp. His very proper family is horrified, but he ignores them, sells all his possessions (aside from his books), and starts off across the countryside. No sooner can you say survival skills, however, than he comes across a manic pixie dream girl sitting on a gate in the rain, happy as you please. Richard is enchanted with the young woman and becomes obsessed with finding her, even though he only knows her by his nickname for her: The Rain-Girl.

You might recognize the name Herbert George Jenkins from another of his romantic comedies, Patricia Brent, Spinster, which Liz reviewed here a little over a year ago. As much as I enjoyed Patricia Brent, Spinster–and I did enjoy it a lot more than Liz did; I thought it was a charming and delightful Cinderella story–The Rain-Girl is much better. While Patricia Brent, Spinster, was a tad predictable and suffered from a surfeit of incredible coincidences, The Rain-Girl is much more grounded and goes to some surprisingly dark places while still maintaining the clever dialog and humor of a comedy.

Richard is obviously suffering from what we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome. He wants to check out of life, by which I mean he no longer cares if he lives or dies, and is in fact leaning more towards the latter. There are moments in The Rain-Girl where Richard is perilously close to committing suicide, and there are conversations between him and his cousin, Lord Drewitt, where they argue that they should have the right to kill themselves if they like–after all, it's *their* life. If you can't end it went you want, what can you do?

All this probably makes The Rain-Girl sound like a downer, but it's not. Richard doesn't really want to kill himself, he just doesn't know to cope with life anymore, at least not until he's faced with the challenge of finding the Rain-Girl. Lord Drewitt, who's in the book quite a bit, is filled with sarcastic quips and clever bon mots, and his mother–Richard's aunt–adds a nice bit of spice to things trying to keep her son and nephew in order.

Basically, The Rain-Girl is a really fun book even if Richard has some serious shit to deal with. The world is the same one occupied by the main characters of Patricia Brent, Spinster–Lady Tenegra even makes an appearance–so if you enjoy novels set amongst English high society, this one's your jam.

As for the eponymous Rain-Girl, I called her a MPDG in the summary, but she's really not. I expected her to be, but Richard's attraction goes deeper than that even in the beginning. He likes her because she's interesting and different and doesn't fit in, kind of like how he feels he doesn't fit in anywhere anymore; and he admires her ability to enjoy something that's usually considered bad, like the rain. She's also not a "girl," but a woman whose quirky exterior belies a very serious and independent character.

Basically, if you enjoy historical romances, I think you'll really like The Rain-Girl. I really wish more of Jenkins' romances were available!

Download The Rain-Girl by Herbert George Jenkins at Librivox|Internet Archive

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Original Publication Date: 1891  
Genre: Novel
Topics: Morality, sexual standards in gender
Review by: Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings

Tess of the D'Urbervilles   
by Thomas Hardy

Rarely have I ever had such a visceral reaction to a book. I have read a few other Hardy novels and so at this point I expect tragedy. But this one still blew me away. It broke my heart in so many ways, but Hardy’s writing made the whole experience oddly beautiful, despite the inevitable disaster that you know if coming.

The brilliance of his writing is just breathtaking. The scenes he creates are incredibly beautiful. Alec is such a brilliant villain because of the very fact that he is so relatable to different men. As Hardy himself says, Tess’ own male ancestors probably did the same thing to peasant girls. It's so horrifying and common at the same time and Alec has no real understanding that what he's doing is wrong. He knows what he wants he decides he's going to take it. There's no consideration for anything else.

Tess’ family is poor, but they discover they are descendants of a wealthy local family. She is sent to befriend the family and see if they can improve her own family’s situation. She meets Alec D'Urbervilles and soon her life is changed forever. I can’t say too much more without spoilers, except that it’s a powerful book, but not a cheery one. 

I’ve never hated a character as much as I hated Alec. He is a rapist, a manipulator, and worst of all, he honestly doesn’t think he’s done much wrong in the first half of the novel. At one point Alec says something about how Tess shouldn’t have worn a certain dress and bonnet because it made her too pretty. The “you were asking for it” mentality was present even back then when dress was far more modest. It was so frustrating and infuriating. He manipulated every situation, forcing her to be alone with him, to rely on him for help, etc.

His condescending nicknames made my skin crawl. When he calls her “Tessie” or “my little pretty” it made me nauseous because she was shrinking away from him and begging him quietly to stop touching her. She said again and again that she did not love him and she was scared of him. She never feels comfortable with him. From their very first interaction, as he makes her eat strawberries from his hand, she is uncomfortable and wants to go home immediately. There was no infatuation only a feeling in her gut that he was not someone to be trusted.

On top of that, Angel’s absurd double standard for his actions and her actions was infuriating. The worst part is that both men, the “good” one and the “bad” one share the same mentality about the situation. Both blame Tess but never themselves. The same attitude is around today, even though women have many more options, they are often shamed when they are sexually assaulted. 
The book is split into different phases and the second one begins after the infamous event. Tess is so broken; she's not even scared of Alec anymore because he's already done the worst to her that he could possibly do. She's resigned to her fate and full of sorrow. I kept thinking about how many other women over hundreds of years have gone through the same thing and are just completely broken afterwards and no one understands why. The man took something from her that she did not want to give and society treats it as if he didn't really do anything wrong. They justify it and say things like, maybe she gave off the wrong signals or put herself in a bad situation. It's just horrible.  **SPOILERS OVER** 
BOTTOM LINE: This is not a cheerful book. Every time Tess’ situation improves, heartache is just around the corner. But Hardy deals with it in such a raw and personal way that it is relevant even a century later. His writing transcends the subject matter and I’ve learned that I’ll read whatever he’s written.

** My Penguin Clothbound Classic edition discusses the different versions of the novel that were released. The original release presented a much harsher version of Hardy. Apparently he toned it down and made him more appealing in later versions, which is interesting.

“‘I shouldn’t mind learning why the sun do shine on the just and the unjust alike,’ she answered with a slight quaver in her voice. ‘But that’s what books will not tell me.’” 
“The beauty or ugliness of a character lay not only in its achievements, but in its aims and impulses; its true history lay, not among things done, but among things willed.”

Originally posted at Avid Reader's Musings

Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: The Ladies' Paradise (Au bonheur des dames) by Emile Zola

the ladies paradise Original Publication Date: 1883

Genre: Literature/fiction, romance-ish

Topics: Business, modernity, women, consumerism            

Review by heidenkind:

Forced to leave her childhood home in Normandy, orphan Denise Baudu arrives in Paris with her two younger brothers, looking for work in the shop of her uncle. Unfortunately, her uncle is less than welcoming–ever since The Ladies' Paradise opened across the street, he's struggled to keep business going, and the last thing he needs is more mouths to feed. With no other option to make a living, Denise gets a job at The Ladies' Paradise and experiences the not-exactly-cheerful life a 19th century clerk. Meanwhile, The Ladies' Paradise continues to expand, threatening the established shopkeepers on the Rue de la Michodière.

It's well-known Zola based The Ladies' Paradise on Paris' real-life first department stores, the Bon Marché and the Louvre shops, and if you think retail has changed a lot in the last 132 years, all you have to do is read this book to realize you're completely wrong. The Ladies' Paradise could just as easily be, and its owner Octave Mouret a more dashing and romantic Jeff Bezos. All the modern rules of retail apply: selling at no profit or even a loss just to get people in the door; spreading related departments out so customers have to walk through the whole store to get the items they came in to shop for; accepting returns even when the item is obviously used; the customer is always right; advertizing everywhere; sales treated like events; customers buying stuff just because it's cheap; and the drive to grow bigger and crush the competition even when it's not necessary or practical to do so.

And if you've ever had a job in retail, you'll surely sympathize with Denise's work-related woes: the physical labor involved in walking around the store, helping customers and stocking items; the annoyance of spending a bunch of time helping a customer only to have them walk away without buying anything–indeed, you get the feeling they didn't intend on buying anything, they just wanted someone to wait on them–the social hierarchy of a store, the cliques, the lack of job security and the fear of being fired; the way female employees are treated.

i love my job face

Zola does an excellent job of painting a picture of a modern department store. Each chapter is themed around capturing different aspects of the store or the employees' lives. For example, one of my favorite chapters was Chapter Six, wherein Denise is fired for visiting with her worthless brother while at work. But before that happens, the employees grab lunch in the cafeteria, and I swear to god it sounded exactly like high school. Horrible, mass-produced food is served in staggered lunches, and the employees spend all their time bemoaning their meal while talking about what they'd rather be eating. Not to mention the social minefield of the lunch tables.

What I'm saying here is that Zola, no surprise, really knew his stuff. He knew how these new department stores, symbols of modernity, worked from the lowest stocker up to the management and owner, and he knew what the lives of their employees was like. The Ladies' Paradise isn't just a setting in this novel, it's the main character and an unstoppable force, rendered with almost microscopic attention to detail.

Unfortunately, all the characters in The Ladies Paradise who are, you know, actual characters and not department stores, are not developed very well at all. That especially includes the main character, Denise. She has no personality, no motivation, and she's basically just a plot element to give the reader a believable entree into The Ladies' Paradise. Her two personality features are that she's kind and innocent, of the unbelievably stupid variety. If this was a Colette novel, Denise would have hooked up with one of her numerous admirers in chapter two and let him buy things for her so that she could eat and stuff. But unfortunately The Ladies' Paradise is not a Colette novel.

Some things that simply do not make sense about Denise:

  • Why doesn't she hook up with Henri Deloche? She likes him, they're adorkable together, he's devoted to her, defends her honor, and wants to marry her. Yet she refuses. NO EXPLANATION GIVEN. Literally, she's just like, "Hey, I can't explain it! I feel really bad about my inability to provide even the barest minimum of a reason, though, does that help?"
  • Why does Denise continue to be so nice to her uncle WHO BASICALLY THREW HER OUT IN THE STREET after writing her inviting her to come work in his shop? I'd be like, "Va te faire enculer, I hope TLP crushes you!"
  • However, given that she *does* inexplicably still treat him like a beloved family member, and that the other traditional shopkeepers like Bourras and Robineau were kind to her and took her in when Mouret and TLP unceremoniously tossed her out on her ass after making her life miserable for months and months, how can she justify her loyalty to The Ladies' Paradise? "She was secretly for the big shops." Really? I can see accepting that the big shops are going to win in the end, but you're actually rooting for them? Makes no sense WHAT.SO.EVER. Unless you're, like, a terrible person.
  • In Chapter 8, Mouret convinces Denise to return to TLP, and the other employees' attitude toward her undergoes a complete one-eighty. Suddenly they all accept and respect her. Again, no explanation given.

Don't even get me started on the whole affair between Denise and Mouret. After she returns and everyone falls in love with her because she's sweet, innocent, etc., Mouret makes it clear he like-likes her and invites her to his rooms after work for "dinner." Denise is confused until someone explains to her using small words that Mouret wants to make her his mistress. She gets all upset that he would want to sleep with her without marrying her and stands him up. Okay, fine. Stick to your guns, girl.

But then... at the very end of the book, Denise is planning to leave TLP and return to her home in Normandy, which gives Mouret all the sad faces, and her friend Pauline is like, "How cruel you are, to make him suffer so! ...Do you detest him?" Which is when Denise admits, with a tortured aspect, that she doesn't detest Mouret–actually, she really truly loves him.

Pauline is like (I'm summarizing here), "Why didn't you sleep with him then? Oh, it's because you were trying to trap him into marrying you, obviously."

Denise: "Marry me! Oh! no! Oh! I assure you that I have never wished for anything of the kind! No, never has such an idea entered my head; and you know what a horror I have of all falsehood!"


Really, Denise? I mean, you initially refused to sleep with him because he didn't propose, but the thought of marriage never entered your head and you're totally not holding out now just because you want him to marry you, really? Why do you keep refusing to sleep with him, then?


Anyway, The Ladies' Paradise is an okay book. I think it's worth reading, it just doesn't have an actual plot or any character development to speak of. For a "realistic novel," it was pretty hard to buy into the characters' actions. Not one of Zola's better books, in my opinion.

Download The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola at Project Gutenberg [French–This is another annoyance, why isn't the English version on PG and Librivox?]|Project Gutenberg Australia [English]|Internet Archive [English]

And, for your enjoyment...