Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

I got started on Thomas Hardy with Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and have since read one or two more. Hardy tells a good story and his books are worth reading simply from that perspective. I choose The Woodlanders because I like the woods and thought that might interest me in itself. However, it had little to do with the book itself except to lend the characters an occupation and a place to live.

Again, the story was a good one, but this book irritated me a little because of the moral of the story, so to speak. Hardy addresses several issues, one of which is the education of women outside of their own class level. His Heroine, Grace Melbury, is the daughter of a timber merchant who felt the need to give her a good education and spent quite a large sum of money doing so. The results were that Grace was indeed, well educated, however, that particular education hurt her chances in the world by making her too good to marry her intended, Giles Winterbourne the cider maker, and not good enough by right of birth to marry a gentleman. This puts her in a precarious situation where her wants and needs can never be met. In the end, she marries the local doctor, who really only wants to possess her and ends up breaking her heart. Grace’s ensuing trials lead her to the conclusion that she would have been better off marrying Giles, who, despite his lack of education and position, really did love her. What Hardy is saying, in effect, is that educating women outside of their class is a poor choice, which, in this day and age, is a difficult concept to swallow.

Another “lesson” that sticks in the throat is Grace’s turnaround in the end. After Giles leaves the scene, Grace happens to pick up a religious volume and chances to re-read the marriage vows. Having read them, she realizes how lightly she had taken them at the time and to just what she pledged herself. She feels she has not kept those vows, but that having made them, she should keep them. This is a decisive factor in her choices at the end of the novel. It helps lead her to make a decision, which few modern women of sense would have made.

As with most of Hardy’s novels, the ending isn’t a happy one, rather it’s realistic. It reflects life as it most likely would have happened and leaves the reader neither with an ideal to reach, nor a true tragedy. As often is with life, the ending leaves everyone not quite happy with their outlook on the rest of their lives. This kind of ending may have made Hardy a happier man, but I think it kept him from being a truly popular writer, in the likes of Jane Austen, who tells a good story and leaves the reader with a happy outlook on life. That’s not to say that his books are not of the same quality, they just won’t appeal to the masses through the ages as much as happier endings might.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Time Machine

I know, I know, another one already. I either seem to go through books like mad, or not at all.

This was an interesting book from several different viewpoints. The first is that today we see what last century envisioned for our future. Wells tended towards a more idealistic, although not perfect, view of how the world would develop, whereas today, many of our futuristic visions tend to be more industrialist and doom/gloom than idealistic. His version also didn’t include space travel, which for us seems to be a given. The second is that although he could travel in time, it was still a fairly linear type of travel. The Time Traveller moved in time, but not space, so whenever he went was simply the same place in space only a different time. It’s nothing like the Tardis which goes through virtually every dimension. Finally, it was all fairly simplistic in both design and execution. There were no mentions of how the machine was powered, how it was built, the materials were nothing that weren’t widely used in the rest of life and no sort of special protection was used for the traveller himself. Since his time, we’ve moved on to make things much more complicated and realistic, which is logical considering our standpoint in relation to travel in general, space or otherwise.

Wells seemed less interested in plot in this book than in making the reader confront the future from a different standpoint. In his version of the distant future, humans have become so intelligent that they no longer needed their intelligence and therefore reverted to an almost pacifistic, childlike innocence. It’s an interesting thought. Usually we consider the future to be a place of advancement in which humans become more intelligent and more advanced, yet retain the negative sides of the human character as well. Wells assumes that humans will eventually reach the point where they become so intelligent that their baser characteristics will be abandoned, leaving humans happy and carefree, obviating the need for intellectual and material advancement thus leading humanity to a happier, but less industrial future. He does avoid making the future a utopia by introducing enemies, however, these enemies are not fought, but feared and avoided, a war being out of the question as it would render the humanistic advances null and void with its necessity of learning how to cause destruction and death.

All in all an interesting book with more thought food than plot.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

I don’t care for American Literature, never have. Yes, that is an odd statement to begin with, considering that The House of Mirth is a very American novel, but it’s true and knowing that is important to understanding anything I say about it. American lit has never been my thing, but I keep trying to like it. After all, I am American and maybe one day I’ll find something which I truly feel is fantastic.

The House of Mirth is about a New York socialite, Lily, at the turn of the century who has the upbringing and the grace to carry herself well through society, but not the money. She becomes something of a social parasite living off her friends and relatives who are glad to have her, her social skills and her pretty face around. The story follows her path through this society. At first she does fairly well and her “friends” expect great things from her because they all assume she will marry for money and continue on in their society in the role of a married woman. Yet Lily, though she knows the rules, cannot seem to abide by them herself and her refusal to subjugate herself to society eventually leads to a downward spiral in her social status, helped along on the way by some of her “best friends”.

I spent the majority of the novel thinking “stupid woman”, which is really still true. Lily lives in and abides by all of society’s rules of restraint and moral order, playing along in order to keep her social status, but refuses to use the tools the same society gives her to help herself along. It’s something like one boxer having gloves while the other is using bare fists with knuckle rings, even though both opponents have the same equipment available to them. Lily lets herself be kicked and punched, but refuses to do the same in return. This might be her subconscious wish to be able to live outside of society while still enjoying the benefits of a luxurious life. Her greatest failing is, perhaps, that she cannot reconcile herself to living without the luxury yet also cannot pay the price for enjoying it.

The first two-thirds of the novel annoyed me to no end. Then it got better. A lot better. Not that my opinion of Lily changed much, but the sorrows she undergoes and the lessons she learns, although too late, are touching. The end itself show how sharp the contrast between the class levels really is, on all levels; monetarily, emotionally, and morally – morals and monetary status not always correlating as one would expect.

My final opinion? It is a good novel. It’s not good enough to make me a huge fan of Wharton, but this particular book throws up a lot of food for thought and it would be interesting to discuss since there are many ways in which it could be interpreted. I doubt I’ll ever read it again, but I might brave more of Wharton’s works another time, despite my general dislike of American Lit – in which since it’s a victory for Wharton.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

OK, I know, three books in one day, but I’ve just not had the time to blog about them yet. I did start Nicholas Nickelby in Oct., but didn’t finish it until November. The Screwtape Letters isn’t long and The Book Thief was one of those you can’t put down until your finished. That makes for a lot of books at once.

The Screwtape Letters was a philosophically interesting book. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to sit down and formulate arguments, agreements and general discuss. I probably agreed with as much of it as I disagreed, or rather with the principles behind the book. It is, of course, based on Christianity, as all of C.S. Lewis’ books are, and argues the best ways of undermining Christians and their beliefs from a demonic point of view. It’s written by Screwtape, an upper level demon, in the form of letters to his nephew Wormwood. In his letters, Screwtape gives his nephew advice on how to secure a soul for the ranks of hell. Lewis’ intention was to show Christians how the enemy works as a different form of learning how he should behave and react to temptations. It’s a sort of Know Thine Enemy treaty, although he does use the same viewpoint to show weaknesses within Religion, the Church and society, which is where the letters become philosophically interesting. Some of his points are debateable, but most only from a standpoint of belief in religion.

Lewis apparently had quite a difficult time writing the letters, which perhaps explains why there aren’t more. He first found it interesting to write from the perspective of the “enemy”, but slowly that strain of thinking began to pull at his morale and he was glad to finish them. I think that was a fully understandable reaction, even from the viewpoint of a non-Christian. After all, very few humans are truly evil and trying to put yourself into the frame of mind to think as evil does over a prolonged period would depress most people.

It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s certainly interesting for anyone who cares to dwell on the merits, advantages and disadvantages of good and evil and/or Religion. In that sense, it’s food for thought.

The Book Thief

Excellent book. Really, really good. This is the story of a little girl in Nazi Germany who has little in the way of material goods, but learns to recognize the power of words, for good or for bad and becomes a “book thief”. The novel itself is narrated by Death, who is neither good, nor evil, human nor inhuman, but who cannot help but be moved by the story of this girl. He remains aloof during the telling, but the fact that it’s Death telling it at all means the story stands out from the many he sees. He follows Lisle’s progress through life during the war noting her friends, her enemies and telling the story of how she learns to see through the things that seem to be to what is behind the façade. She lives in a world which is increasingly falling apart by the seams, but still manages to find room to be a child while learning how to survive and how to make the most of what she has or hasn’t got.

Saying more would give the story away, but I will mention that the book is a good introduction to both World War II and the Holocaust. It’s sad, but not overly scary, even for youngish children, although there is a bit of non-gratuitous language in it. It also has its happy moments that the reader realizes will never be fully erased, even in the wake of such massive destruction and loss.

Again, it’s a great book which I can recommend to anyone. It might not be a "Classic" yet, but I'm sure it will be with time.

Nicholas Nickelby

This was a really fun book. There are heroes, heroines, villains, and unsavoury characters aplenty throughout the story and the twist and turns it takes before coming to it’s conclusion are enough to keep you wondering just what was going to happen next. The book was originally released as series released on a monthly bases for which even the Americans were clamouring for the next instalment. It’s easy to imagine them waiting for the next episode to reach them and then sitting around together reading, discussing and conjecturing about what would happen next. In some respects, it’s quite like a popular soap opera in which the viewer can’t wait to see what dastardly plans the villain will come up with next and just how the hero(ine) will get themselves out of a seemingly impossible situation.

Despite all of the hardships they suffer, the Nickelbys remain cheerful and are ready to do what they must to survive, which keeps the reader rooting for them. Their kind heartedness and refusal to discriminate against people who aren’t in the same class as themselves are not only pleasant to read about, but are also the reason they are able to elevate themselves in the end. Without the help of people who are either as or more down trodden than themselves, they would have remained penniless and unable to thwart their evil uncle’s plans. In general, it’s Dicken’s usual style of pointing out human and social faults while showing the reader the means to remedy them, or at least make them bearable. I found myself thinking as I was reading that Dickens must have been a very kind hearted man, otherwise he could not have praised the advantages of kind heartedness and generosity and make convivial company seem so inviting.

The other thought that kept crossing my mind as I read, was that Ralph Nickelby could have been Scrooge for all of this evilness, hatred and greed. I wonder just how long his chain was when he finally died and if he was ever able to stop roaming the earth, or if he’s still there, trying to escape his heavy burden of sin.

All in all a good book which I can recommend to anyone.