Category Archives: Classic

*** Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

You may have many reasons not to read Gone With The Wind: (1) it’s too long (2) it is more history than plot (3) it’s racist (4) I already saw the movie. Let’s discuss.

(1) Wouldn’t you rather have 1000 (almost 1100!) pages of fun than just 250 pages of fun?

(2) There is a lot of history in this book! I’m no historian but if someone qualified could check that the facts are correct, it would be a great idea to assign it to American History classes. Much more enjoyable than a dry textbook, and a masterful demonstration of the impact of wars on the civilian population, not to mention the after-war, aka Reconstruction period. And of course lessons can be drawn for more modern conflicts, especially the need to allow the losing side to keep some dignity.

(3) Even the saintly Melanie Wilkes never thinks for one moment that slavery may be a problematic institution, and the way African-Americans are addressed, treated, and talked about is often appalling. The book is plenty sexist as well, with what we would now call spouse abuse pretty much tolerated and viewed as normal. Perhaps we can view both racism and sexism as expressions of a time and place rather than a prescription for us today.

(4) Gone With The Wind was the first movie I saw unchaperoned, with my favorite cousin, so I remember it very well, including our great surprise to discover that movies could have intermissions. But the book! It pulled me along, page after page, even though I knew very well Scarlett’s fate (or I thought I knew: I did not remember what happened after that intermission very well at all). It pulled me into another world in which I heard the canons of the Union, I saw the gaudiness of Scarlett’s Atlanta mansion, and I felt the contempt of the old guard for her. It’s much more than a few movies lines. It is an intricate story with characters that are not just complex, but also evolve over time. And it’s an excellent portrait of women and how they adapt to circumscribed roles.

In brief: pick it up and start reading. (Thank you Lyn for suggesting this book to me.)

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** Stoner by John Williams


Stoner is the story of William Stoner, a lonely professor at a small midwestern university, estranged from his parents back at the family farm, married to a harpy, and unable to play the basic political games required to thrive in the English department. Of course it will not end well. The quiet narrative matches the hero’s quiet life and we get to inhabit his mind. Sadly, the character of his wife makes no sense. I could maybe see what he saw in her: beauty, the belonging to the educated class he was craving for, but what would she see in him?  It spoiled the story for me.

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*** Emma by Jane Austen


So I said I would read the original Emma, and I did. I even managed to read a big part of it while flying to the UK, to put me in the mood, as it were. And I’m happy to report that the original is wonderful. It’s not entirely clear to me why we 21st-century denizens can find the lives of idle upperclass 19th-century folks so fascinating, but we do get caught up in the grave decision of who should open the ball, not to mention who should marry whom…

Emma, the main character, is a spirited and occasionally misguided young woman — but after all, she is only 20! But she may not be the most interesting character. Her father, a timid, worried misanthrope, frets during the entire story. Miss Bates is an accomplished (and mocked) motormouth, and we get to eavesdrop on her perfectly rendered prattle. And Mrs Elton, a self-centered snob, provides a counterpoint of unending jabbering, but with a queen-bee venom. Delicious, despite the various racist commentaries and the obviously dated views of young women’s opportunities. Today, Emma would be embarking on a powerful career instead of being chided by Mr. Knightley in prelude to marrying him. I just gave away the end but you knew it already, right?

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** David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The massive and classic David Copperfield clearly shows its roots as a serial: it feels like a soap opera, albeit one with proper grammar. An abused child, an unerringly honest man despite being surrounded by shady characters, a perfect husband to a pretty silly first wife (why did he ever choose her?), David Copperfield the man gets to be a little irritating with his saintness. As for David Copperfield the book, choose it only if you can swallow 1000+ pages, perhaps on a very slow, slightly boring vacation?

 

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** Armadale by Wilkie Collins


As announced a couple weeks ago, Armadale is the Wilkie Collins novel I liked least — but that does not mean I did not read it avidly. At over 700 pages, it features (take a deep breath): an illicit romance, a stolen child, two men with the same name, a couple of stolen fortunes, two shipwrecks, a corrupt doctor, and, best of all, a wicked heroine who seeks to ruin an entire family.

I’m not giving anything away as every plot twist is heavily announced and foreshadowed in solid 19th century style, all based on a shared dream, no less. That was too much for me!

That said, the heroine is stupendous. In modern times she would be a scheming CEO (spying on the competition rather than the simpleton Armadale), snorting cocaine (she has to make do with laudanum in this story) and enjoying her male conquests (she needs to pretend to be perfectly chaste here, so she stops at bigamy). I’m always amazed of how modern Collins’s themes can be.

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** A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Miss Marple stars in A Murder Is Announced, which starts, unsurprisingly, with the announcement that a murder will be committed, and it is — unleashing a torrent of family secrets, more murders, all under the watchful eye of Miss Marple, who seems able to conjure up enough bodies to make her a suspect!  The ingenious denouement required more twists in the family tree than I would have liked, but still a great story, and one that subtly shows the food rationing and other struggles of Britain right after WWII.

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** After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

In After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot is called to investigate an accusation of murder that’s made at the funeral reception by the eccentric much younger sister of the deceased, a sister who is promptly murdered herself, a prelude to more disorders. In a classic move, he invites all family members back to the palatial family home for a weekend of scrutiny during which we see all the little and large secrets exposed to reveal the vile, unexpected killer. Must drink good tea throughout the reading and not expect to get a good night sleep if interrupted after the gruesome second murder.

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** The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain

Want a good dose of depression to start your week? Pick up The Postman Always Rings Twice, a noir novel that claims to have started the genre. It’s a no-hope-whatsoever story with a crude premise (bump the husband so the wife and the lover can get together), a despicable “hero” (the lover), and a tragic ending (death all around). The story pulled me in but I could never get over the weak woman character, who is inexplicably attracted to her loser lover and seemingly unable to make her own way in life. (Perhaps I should keep in mind that the book dates back to 1934!)

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*** The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I was enthralled by The Woman in White, a 19th century novel that reads like a mystery novel and features a forced wedding, a dastardly aristocrat, an illegitimate birth, a kidnapping and internment in a psychiatric asylum, the torching of a church, and  twists and turns until the very end. I just loved it, all 700+ pages of it, for its non-stop action, its clever use multiple narrators, and its  very modern picture of a strong woman character (alongside a conventional, overwhelmed, powerless woman, whom she rescues).

Pick it up for your summer reading. It’s a gem that deserves recognition (and there’s a free version for Kindle users!) I am planning to read Collins’s other books and I am puzzled by why he is not better known.

 

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** Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

Miss Hargreaves is a reprint of a 1939 novel with a heart-stoppingly intriguing premise: a young man invents an old woman, Miss Hargreaves, and after he writes to her on a lark he is stunned to discover that she will travel to meet him, and she’s just like he made her up to be, down to her pet parakeet. Unfortunately, we never get even a hint of how the imaginary could ever match the real so the story is rather tiresome and frustrating past the initial stunning reunion, despite good supporting characters, including a remarkable absent-minded bookseller father.

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