Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 8)

Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey is the first novel by Anne Brontë, first published in 1847, then re-released with corrections in 1850. As best we can tell, she wrote it before her sisters wrote their novels (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), even though they were all published at the same time. I didn’t actually realise, prior to picking this one up, that it came before The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall chronologically – though, having read it now, it seems obvious. This is Anne Brontë’s literary starter home.

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Anne Brontë drew on her own and her sisters’ experiences working as a governess to write Agnes Grey, a novel that offers unique insight into that line of work in the 19th century. The titular character works for families of the English gentry, and while on paper it seemed like a good deal (paid to live in a fancy house, eat fancy food and take care of fancy children) it was a very precarious position for young ladies without a lot of options.

In the novel, Agnes Grey is the daughter of a minister and a formerly wealthy woman who was disowned when she married below her station. The Grey family struggles financially, but they’re rich in love, et cetera et cetera. They cut all the corners and scrimp as much as they can, but Agnes is frustrated that her mother and older sister baby her, and don’t let her contribute. That’s what leads her to take up employment as a governess, figuring she could hang out with rich kids all day for pay and send the money home to help out. Of course, in reality, it’s a tough gig, and Agnes has a few hard life lessons in store.

According to her sister, Charlotte, a lot of the elements of Agnes Grey were drawn directly from Anne’s employment. The children Agnes cares for are right little shits – if you’re on the fence about having kids, this might just be the thing to tip you back to the side of freedom – so pour some out for Anne and what she must have gone through. The fictional Bloomfields were allegedly based on the Ingham family of Blake Hall, for whom Anne worked as a governess in 1839; like Agnes, Anne was fired in under twelve months, and had to kill a nest of baby birds to stop the rotten son of the family from torturing them. (The introduction to my edition gives a thoughtful heads up for animal cruelty – thankfully, the episodes are brief and the perpetrators are duly punished in the narrative, with shitty marriages mostly.)

Agnes Grey is fairly easy reading, a good classic to start with if you’re intimidated by the length and/or language of most 19th century literature. Anne Brontë writes simple, straightforward prose and keeps things moving to prevent the story from going stale. Short and to-the-point as it may be, Agnes Grey does deal with lofty themes: class oppression and mobility, subjugation of women (particularly those in caring roles), morality and character education. Still, it doesn’t address these subjects in a way that feels overwhelming or dense.

Agnes Grey was received as “more acceptable but less powerful” than her sisters’ novels at the time of its release. I can certainly see how it was less explicitly offensive to the sensibilities of the middle class, but if you read between the lines, it’s pretty scathing. The moral of the story, as I read it, is that kids are terrors and the people who care for them deserve medals. The rich treat their hired help poorly at their own peril.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Agnes Grey:

  • “There’s a reason no one knows this Bronte sister.” A. Gang
  • “The sad part is that this could have been a great parody of upper class twits if it hadn’t been bogged down by its over-serious style and author avatar. Agnes Grey is the Seinfeld of stories, 300 pages talking about nothing.” – Emily Bowman
  • “Agnes Grey seems to want to be Anne Elliot, but just comes off as a sad sack, poor me, doormat. No one forced her to be a governess, yet she insisted and then spent the book whining how hard it was…quit then.” – M. Leister

Sense And Sensibility – Jane Austen

Jane Austen novels tend to go in and out of fashion. Of course, they’re all perennially popular by general standards, but within Austen’s oeuvre there’s definite trends. I missed Sense And Sensibility‘s most recent hey-day, the peak that came with Emma Thompson’s 1995 film adaptation, but I think the time is ripe for it to come back around.

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Sense And Sensibility was the first of Austen’s novels to come out, published anonymously in 1811 (and it has never been out of print, never not once, since then). The author had been working on it since 1795, as best we can tell from what remains of her other writings. It was originally an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters, and she gave it the working title Elinor and Marianne (for the two main characters) before settling on its final form and title relatively late in the game. You can still trace the novel’s epistolary origins, though, in the gossip-y nature of its plot. A lot of Sense And Sensibility is driven by speculation about what others are thinking and feeling.

The story follows two sisters, Elinor (19 years old, as Austen was when she first started working on it) and Marianne (16 years old). They, along with their younger sister and widowed mother, are forced from their family estate by their older half-brother after their father’s death. They settle in Barton Cottage, a comparatively modest home out in the middle of nowhere, on the property of a distant relative. As you’d expect of an Austen novel, the sisters’ only hope for social progression and livelihood is an advantageous marriage.

Are you sensing a duality theme, here? The two key words of the title, the two sisters… Elinor and Marianne represent each half of the title (as Elizabeth and Darcy represented both “pride” and “prejudice”). Elinor is the one with all the sense. She’s reserved, polite to a fault, and very considered in her words and actions. Marianne, on the other hand, is impulsive and emotional, with keen sensibility as demonstrated by her passion for the arts and beauty. Austen is too clever to let it be that simple, of course. Over the course of Sense And Sensibility, you see Elinor’s sensibility and Marianne’s sense come to the fore on various points.

All that said, I really didn’t care that much about the duality and the broader themes and metaphors of Sense And Sensibility – I’m probably only thinking about it, and telling you about it, because I read the Norton edition (which is aimed at an academic audience, with endless footnotes and explanatory essays). It’s all very fascinating for other readers, studious types who are taking it seriously, but that’s not me. What I’m here for is the savagery.

Sense And Sensibility is definitely the cattiest of Austen’s novels. Elinor in particular is a straight-up hater. She might put on a polite front for other characters, but Austen reveals as narrator that she is absolutely murdering everyone around her in her mind. You’ve got to admire a girl who can filter like that!

So, on my reading, that’s the strongest recommendation I have for Sense And Sensibility: pick it up when you want to read a woman destroying people with words. I’m sure there are many other, loftier reasons to enjoy Austen’s first published work, but that’s the reason I loved it and I see no point trying to pretend otherwise.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sense And Sensibility:

  • “I heave read and enjoyed all of Austen’s published works, and decided to try an Audible version for my daily walks. Why an American would be chosen to narrate an English cast of characters I do not know. The narrator has all the charisma of an eggplant and sounds more like a YouTube robot than an animate being.” – VMT
  • “To the end, I was hopeful that Marianne would die, or perhaps become an old maid, but no. This is a *happy* ending.” – Alexander Kobulnicky
  • “People have worse problems to worry about than worrying about the problems the character has. I kept going through the story and saying, “So what? Who cares? Fix your own problems.”… If you have time to actually read this book, I suggest you spend your time doing something worthwhile instead of wasting your life on Sense and Sensibility.” – J. Lin

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers is one of those authors that really should be a household name, but few people seem to have her books on their shelves at home. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was her debut novel, published in 1940 when she was just (get this) 23 years old. As reviewers noted at the time, there is a startling gap between her youth and her ‘astonishing perception of humanity’ in this remarkably insightful novel.

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She originally called her story The Mute, but her publishers made her change it to “something more poetic”. The title that went to print is drawn from a poem called The Lonely Hunter by Fiona MacLeod (aka William Sharp): “Deep in the heart of Summer / sweet is life to me still / but my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill”.

The opening line is a corker: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” In fact, the whole first chapter will knock your socks off. As the first sentence suggests, it focuses on two close friends, John Singer and Spiros Antonapolous. They are both deaf, and communicate primarily via sign language; their disability isolates them from the rest of their community in the small mill town where they live, but they are satisfied with each other’s company.

Unfortunately, Spiros’s mental health declines rapidly. Singer is happy to continue caring for him (reviewers have likened their relationship to that of George and Lennie in Of Mice And Men), but his only living relative elects to have him institutionalised, rather than risk any liability or take any responsibility. This is devastating to Singer, who loses the only person with whom he can communicate with ease.

He moves out of the apartment they shared, finding it too painful to live among the memories of his friend, and takes up residence at a nearby boarding house. He eats at the same diner three times a day, and gradually begins to attract interest from miscellaneous lost souls, all of whom are looking for connection.

These are the “satellite characters” that we follow over the course of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. The introduction to my edition (by Kasia Boddy) offers a really helpful description of them, explaining how each of them represents a different kind of loneliness or alienation, alongside Singer himself.

Thirteen-year-old Mick Kelly confesses [to Singer] her growing passion for music; fifty-one-year-old Dr Benedict Copeland talks about his frustrations at raising the consciousness of the town’s black people (starting with his own family); Jake Blount, a twenty-nine-year-old itinerant labour agitator and drunk, reveals his plans for revolution; only Biff Brannon, the forty-four-year-old cafe owner, recognises that Singer is a ‘home-made God’ for them all… [Singer is] a blank canvas on to which just about anything can be projected.

Introduction (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter)

McCullers said that she sought to write a novel about “a character to whom other characters reveal their innermost secrets”, and by any measure, she succeeded. By virtue of the fact that he cannot hear or speak, Singer becomes a de-facto therapist for the town, specifically these four characters who have difficulty connecting with others for their own reasons. The image of a priest also popped into my head a lot as I was reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter – not that I know much about them, but something in the anonymity of hearing sealed confessions… you get my drift.

There are many pleasant surprises in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, but there’s one in particular I want to highlight. I’m amazed by the progressive politics threaded throughout the story. If you can set aside some of the archaic language (yes, there’s a few n-words that are very of-the-time, and Singer is frequently described as a ‘deaf-mute’), McCullers is streets ahead of many writers of our time, let alone her own. She writes intricate inner worlds for the kinds of characters so often reduced to tropes and stereotypes – people of colour, people with disabilities – and gives them agency. Not only that, she allows them to explicitly advocate for themselves politically, be it through Blount’s socialism or Dr Copeland’s racial activism or Mick’s proto-feminism.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this kind of pinko-leftie philosophy would lead to widespread criticism and controversy (books are being banned for less today!), but The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter rocketed to the top of the best-seller list almost immediately. McCullers’ prodigious talent superseded any qualms the reading public had about her politics; she “gave voice to those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated [and] oppressed”, in such a way that readers forgot about their prejudice. In fact, I think there’s an argument to be made that many readers over the decades have projected themselves onto the characters of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, in much the same way that the characters project themselves onto Singer – a kind of meta-genius that’s almost infuriating, and downright baffling when you take into account McCullers’ tender years and limited world experience at the time of writing.

Yes, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is an annoyingly good book. You’ll be annoyed that a woman so young and sheltered can be so wise and insightful, you’ll be annoyed that she can articulate that insight so beautifully, and you’ll be annoyed most of all that her name isn’t held aloft alongside Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s when it comes to the best literary writers of the 20th century.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter:

  • “McCullers’ book clearly contains some wonderful character descriptions, but I gave up early hunting for the story….” – D.Beyer
  • “Didn’t know this was an Oprah selection before I started it. If I had i never would’ve read it. It was true to her lousy taste.” – Kindle Customer
  • “OK so it is well written and has interesting characters, it is also depressing and boring.” – Monica K
  • “I found this book to be about as enriching as reading Karl Marx and as uplifting as reading the national enquirer.” – Darlene Riley
  • “Just look at how popular used copies are. People are desperate to get rid of this nonsense.” – Marc
  • “In the grand list of books that you will have enjoyed having read, this one ranks slightly above “Tom and Jane Go to Camp”.

    Now, I’m not going to say that this book was trite, boring, lacking in substance or otherwise devoid of anything resembling redeeming merit, because it does have its purpose. That purpose being to sit on your shelf and make it appear as though you are some kind of eruditic masochist.

    If, like me, you were forced to read this book as some sophomore hazing ritual, you will no doubt remember that this book contains very little in the way of plot and character development. The characters don’t so much grow as fester.

    I would not recommend this book to anybody, even those that I hate. People who have suicidal tendencies are warned to stay away as the most cheery portion of this book is slightly happier than a crushed puppy.

    In closing, let me just summarize: this book is bad.” – Rolf M. Buchner

Middlemarch – George Eliot

Curse the TBR jar! When I set up my low-tech book selection system for what I’m going to read this year, Middlemarch was the one book I really dreaded picking. After I facepalmed a few times, though, I had a thought: hey, at least I’m getting it out of the way early!

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Middlemarch (subtitle: A Study of Provincial Life) is widely regarded as one of the Great Novels of English Literature. It was first published in eight volumes over the course of 1871 and 1872. Virginia Woolf described it, in 1919, as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” but she was one of the very few people actually reading it at the time. It didn’t really make an impact on the literati until a book by F.R. Leavis in 1948, The Great Tradition, “rediscovered” it.

Now, before we get started on Middlemarch itself, here’s a note on the author. George Eliot is a pen name, taken by Mary Ann Evans. It wasn’t unusual for women authors to take masculine or androgynous names at the time, given the pervasive patriarchal bias in publishing at the time (ahem), but there has been particular attention paid to this author’s choice. I’ve tried to find a bunch of fancy diplomatic ways to say this, but the hell with it: basically, there’s good reason to suspect that Eliot was a trans man (or would have been, had Eliot lived in a more progressive time), and TERFs super-hate anyone pointing that out. I’ll use feminine pronouns (she/her) for Eliot throughout this review, though, for a couple of reasons. First, it will make this review consistent with all the Official(TM) sources about Eliot’s work and identity, and second, we really can’t know what Eliot would have chosen. But I want it to be clear that I’m totally open to the idea that Eliot was in fact a man (which trans men are, by the way), and I wholeheartedly support academic endeavours to uncover more about Eliot’s true identity, as best we can.

Okay, with that out of the way, here we go! Believe it or not, Middlemarch is actually a historical novel – the action takes place about forty years or so before it was published. The fictional town for which the novel takes its name was likely based on Coventry, an area where Eliot lived before she moved to London.

It doesn’t so much have a “plot” as it does a series of interweaving and interconnected stories about various residents of Middlemarch. The main players are Dorothea Brooke (who loves cottages and is disillusioned by her marriage to an older dude), Tertius Lydgate (a doctor with crazy ideas about how medicine should be a science), Fred Vincy (a privileged gambler who swears he’ll grow up if Mary Garth agrees to marry him), and Nicholas Bulstrode (a banker with a sordid past).

So, Middlemarch makes for 900 pages of who’s going to marry whom, who’s going to inherit, who’s in debt, who’s on which side of a political divide… and none of it works out the ways characters would hope. Their marriages suck, their inheritances are poisoned chalices, their debts won’t let them buy nice food, and the politics of the 1832 Reform Act tear the town in two. It all sounds very exciting, but it’s so dragged out and the characters so wooden, it’s hard to pluck out a storyline that really moves the reader. There’s a marked absence of the emotion or passion you see with other 19th century writers – certainly no tears for the reader in this bad boy.

Oh, and if you’re picking up Middlemarch for the first time, steel yourself for some anti-Semitism and racism – yeah, yeah, it’s “of the time”, but it’s still yucky.

On the upside, though, Middlemarch has a lot of really sick burns. I would’ve hated to come up against Eliot in a Twitter beef, but I would’ve loved to have sat next to her in an office.

Mr Rigg Featherstone’s low characteristics were all of the sober, water-drinking kind. From the earliest to the latest hour of the day he was always as sleek, neat, and cool as the frog he resembled.

Middlemarch

I feel a bit blasphemous saying this, but it’s true: it’s enough to get the “gist” of what’s going on in Middlemarch. I didn’t feel the need to absorb every single nuance or pore over every word. Maybe I would’ve got more out of it if I did, but a skim here and there made for a much easier read. Come at me if you must!

Initial reviews of Middlemarch were mixed, but now they’re wholly gushing. I feel like a lone reed, buffeted by the wind but rooted firm in my conviction that – like Anna Karenina – it’s just okay. I’m sure studying the novel would illuminate more of it, make it feel richer and more engaging, but as a casual reader… *shrug*. I didn’t hate it, but I’m glad to have put it behind me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Middlemarch:

  • “Hard ole English to understand. Bla, bla, bla, bla.and, yada,yada, yada.Did have some antagonist and vllians to like and hate.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Pay attention to the dimensions. It’s made for tiny hands and tiny eyes. It’s the size of a graham cracker. Great story” – Victor Gloria IV

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Tolstoy himself called it his ‘first true novel’. William Faulkner, when asked to name the three best novels of all time, reportedly answered: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina”. But still, as I approached it, I was nervous. It was first published in book form in 1878, and most editions have run to 850+ pages. This book is huge, in more ways than one.

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I spent a lot of time considering my approach to Anna Karenina. I specifically sought out this translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, as I’d heard from multiple sources that it was the most readable version. This edition doesn’t come with an introduction or anything, though, so I was forced to simply dive in with only what I’d heard about the story around the traps to guide me.

It centers on an extramarital affair, between society woman Anna and cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband (also, confusingly, called Alexei). After that, they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia (when Vronsky’s alternative career as an artist doesn’t pan out) and their lives totally unravel.

That’s the most straightforward summary of Anna Karenina I can manage, and it feels woefully inadequate. This is a complex novel, told in eight parts, with over a dozen major characters. Anna and Vronsky are the main focus, but there’s also Levin – a wealthy landowner from the sticks – who has a big ol’ boner for Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law (see? complex!). Their love story runs parallel to Anna and Vronsky’s – and, spoiler alert, has a much happier ending.

The underlying thesis of Anna Karenina (as I read it) is this: men ain’t shit. Honestly, every single one of them made me want to flip a table. That said, the ladies are hardly peaches either. The only truly sympathetic character in the whole book is Levin’s dog.

Oh, and Tolstoy did write the perspective of Anna’s nine-year-old son beautifully – such a shame that it only lasted a few chapters. I was truly baffled by Anna’s sudden willingness to abandon him to go to Italy with her lover. For the first half of Anna Karenina, she clings to her dud marriage because of the kid, because she couldn’t bear to part with him (and she knew that Alexei would get him in the divorce, with her being a disgraced scarlet woman and all). Then, without explanation, she drops the kid like a hot potato and runs off with Vronsky – but still takes her new kid with her. Savage, eh?

(I’m going to offer the obligatory spoiler warning here. For Anna Karenina. A hundred-and-fifty year old novel that has saturated popular consciousness and influenced generations of literature that has come since. If you don’t know the ending and you don’t look away now, that’s a You Problem.)

Tolstoy’s foreshadowing isn’t subtle. Trains are a motif throughout Anna Karenina, with train carriages and stations being the setting for several major plot points. There’s also a few heavy-handed hints about their danger (including a bloke being killed on the tracks early on). So, it feels kind of inevitable when, at the novel’s climax, Anna throws herself under a train. Bye bye, heroine!

But if you’re expecting a dramatic denouement, where Vronsky and Alexei come together and mourn the loss of the woman they loved or share tear-filled regrets about how they treated her or whatever, move along. Anna is barely mentioned again. Instead, Levin spends 100 pages trying to work out whether God exists before Tolstoy wraps things up.

And that’s pretty emblematic of Anna Karenina as a whole. There’s pathos galore, but before the spark can really catch, it’s snuffed out by Levin’s poli-sci philosophising. When Levin does get involved in an actual plot, it’s a direct rip-off of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (Kitty turns him down, lives to regret it, then eventually they get together and live – mostly – happily ever after.)

I’m glad Tolstoy isn’t around to read my thoughts on Levin, though, because apparently he’s a semi-autobiographical character and basically served as a megaphone for all of Tolstoy’s own beliefs and ethics. He borrowed heavily from his own life to inform Levin’s thoughts and actions (up to and including forcing his fiance to read his diaries, so she’d know about all of his sexual exploits before they married). If that’s the case, I’m telling you that Tolstoy was definitely the kind of guy you’d cross the room to get away from at a party.

I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but as far as I’m concerned, Anna Karenina is just… fine? It wasn’t the dreadful slog I was worried it might be, but it wasn’t brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same either. If you’re thinking about reading it, go ahead – there’s nothing to be afraid of (unless listening to rich guys bang on about how to Fix The Economy makes you want to bonk yourself over the head, in which case you might want to remove all bonking implements from your vicinity before commencing).

Tl;dr? In Anna Karenina, a bunch of rich Russians fuck around and find out. It’s okay.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Anna Karenina:

  • “The storyline about Kitty and Levin has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the storyline about Anna and Vronsky, and no business being in the same book.” – JJ McBear
  • “So much drivel. So much detailed nuance on every though that has ever been thunk. It was like having to many voice in my head saying to much about nothing. Tolstoy may wanna get himself to a psychotherapist.” – Katie Krackers
  • “I don’t know what the point of the subplot with Kitty and Levin is, except to make the book a few hundred pages longer and a lot more boring.” – grammagoulis
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