Tag Archive | literature

Book Review: Emma

Emma, by Jane Austen

By all accounts, Jane Austen led a sheltered life.  So perhaps it is somewhat surprising that she had an uncanny ability to see deeply into the emotional lives of people.  Her six novels describe the nuances of people, and she had a gift for writing about the complex personalities of her characters and their daily lives, in a way that brought them to life.  All this despite the fact that Austen lived her entire life in only a few places, without much money or prospects. She never married, and died after a long illness at the age of 41.

Emma

Emma is no exception to Austen’s talent for character development.  She is a bright, vivacious young woman who lives with her sickly father in the small village of Highbury, sixteen miles outside of London.  She has decided that she will never marry. 

Emma spends her days socializing, taking care of her father, matchmaking for her friends, and forming opinions about all her neighbors and acquaintances.  Sometimes her meddling goes awry, as when she convinces her friend Harriet that a Mr. Elton is interested in courting her, and encourages to discard another suitor whom Emma deems not good enough.  When Mr. Elton returns from Bath with a wife, well, OOPS…  Emma continues along this way, a wealthy society girl with nothing better to occupy her time than judging everybody she comes into contact with. 

The most action in the novel are a foray to a nearby home to pick strawberries, a minor run-in with a band of gypsies, and planning a ball that almost ended up not happening.  Many describe Emma as Austen’s worst novel due to this lack of action, but it still contains the rich character development.  You still see Emma’s strengths and flaws, and find yourself relating to her cringe-worthy moments.  I mean, we’ve all been there.  You become invested in the characters.  I found myself truly wanting them to succeed or fail. 

That said, it is probably still my least favorite of the Austen novels, but I’m still glad I finally read it. 

3 stars. 

Book Review: The Testaments

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

I read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, in college in 1995; it was assigned reading in an American literature class (we will set aside the fact that Atwood is Canadian).  It was so interesting.

The book follows the idea of a United States (now called Gilead) that experiences a takeover by a totalitarian, Puritanical regime, and people are segregated into roles.  Commanders (those running the country), Wives, Marthas (servants), The Eyes (the security force).  The book focuses on the role of the Handmaid, the women who are selected to be breeders for the Commanders; a necessity because some unspecified ecological disaster has caused infertility in most people.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, and in recent years has become wildly popular, with modern-day readers drawing parallels (whether real or imagined) with the current political climate. Hulu picked up the rights and created a television series, which is very well done.

Atwood wrote a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, called The Testaments; it was published in 2019, almost 35 years after the original novel.  It picks up with the stories of Gilead, 15 years later.  An active underground continues to try to destabilize and overthrow the government of Gilead and restore the United States.  Gilead is showing cracks in the system.  It follows the stories of three individual women whose lives are woven together.  All strong women; Atwood doles out their secrets over time and reveals a backstory that the reader might not have guessed.

The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

Again, Atwood writes a novel that draws the reader in and holds your interest, but unfortunately I didn’t find it quite as compelling as the original novel.  Although I’m sure that people will be talking about both for years to come.

3 stars.

Book Review: American Gods

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

I have a feeling you either love Neil Gaiman’s writing or hate it, and that I’m kind of an outlier in that I just kind of go “meh”.

American Gods

I love the movie Coraline, but have to admit that I never read the book. And that, was basically all I knew about Gaiman when I picked up this book.

American Gods was a meh for me. I didn’t love it; I didn’t hate it.  I could easily have picked out friends that would love it and others that would hate it.  I recommended it to one friend who I think would love it (at the time of this writing I don’t think she has read it yet).

It centers around the story of the clash between the Old Gods (the ones that we used to worship from the different mythologies and religions throughout history), and the new gods that Americans worship now. Media, technology, consumerism, etc.; those are the new gods.

Shadow, a convict who is released from prison three days early due to the untimely death of his wife, meets up with Mr. Wednesday, a mysterious, seemingly omniscient man who hires him to be his bodyguard. They travel around the United States trying to gain support for their god war; in the meantime giving Shadow insight into the things that matter, the things that don’t and the fact that people these days largely don’t have their priorities straight.

I was put off by the violence. I found it unnecessary, and I thought it detracted from the overall message of learning what matters in life. I also found that the plot moved forward at the pace of molasses, which seemed odd to me given the violence. However, some of the symbolism did resonate with me, and it did for the most part hold my interest the whole way through.

Just a note: the audio-book version was performed with a full cast, and they did a great job.

If you like strange and eclectic books and movies, like Tom Robbins, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or Wes Anderson, you will probably love this.

2 stars.

Book Review: The House of the Seven Gables

I never read this book when I was younger.  I didn’t even know it was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, probably due to some mental mix-up with the Anne of Green Gables book, which seems so much more cheerful than anything Hawthorne would write.  I mean he did write The Scarlet Letter, with all those uptight Puritans.

But then I went to visit the House of the Seven Gables, in Salem, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne lived for a period of time with his relatives.  It was built in the 1600s and was the inspiration for the home in his book.  The gift shop was selling copies of the book, with a little stamp that indicated you bought it at the actual House of the Seven Gables.  And it was only $11, so I bought myself a copy.  Now I wish I would have read the book before visiting the house, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

First things first.  19th century literature is a challenging read.  Oh boy…  We think we are so smart these days with our constant connectness, but writers back then really poured in all the vocabulary words they had ever learned.  And the descriptions!  So much of the book is based on description, rather than action.

The novel centers around a cast of characters from the Pyncheon family, of whom three, an elderly sister and brother, and their barely adult niece, live in a 200-year-old home.  It was built by an ancestor of theirs and is rumored to be cursed.  The book alludes to, but never states outright, that the ancestor accused the original owner of the land of witchcraft in order to buy his property on the cheap after he was executed.  So that man did what any good witch would do and issued a gallows curse on his accuser.  I mean, even if you weren’t a witch, you are about to be executed, wouldn’t you be tempted to pop off and see if karma might have your back?

Fast forward to the mid-1800s, and the elderly residents of the home are poor and anti-social, hiding out like hermits until their young, fresh niece comes along to breathe some life into the place.  As the plot goes on, there is the constant theme of where is the money hidden, in the form of 200-year-old property deeds on long-contested land that would make the rich relatives richer and the poor ones, well, they probably wouldn’t see a dime.

So there you go.  Murder, mayhem, Puritans, witchcraft and a pretty, young maiden to save the day.  There’s a love story in there too of course, and a few twists to keep you guessing.  A good story if you can keep your eyes focused through all that prose.

Note: The photo above is not the edition I read, but this book has approximately hundreds of editions and versions and I’m lazy and just picked one of the photos instead of trying to find the version I read.  So there.