Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Read a Novel

Not quite sure why I picked up a book called How to Read a Novel when I haven't even had time to read lately, but I did. The new job is going well, but I've got a longer commute I'm adjusting to and I'm simultaneously trying to start a new marketing focused blog and co-launch a leadership blog and write a book. And my high school reunion was last night. So it's been a little crazy, and I've clearly lost my mind. I think it's because I have so much more energy since quitting my old job and so I'm going crazy starting new projects but not actually finishing anything. I've even started a half dozen new books instead of finishing the ones I was already reading. Being able to walk to the library on my lunch break isn't helping in that area either. I can walk to our large downtown library and browse and read. Unfortunately I've been doing too much browsing and not enough reading.
One book I did manage to finish this week is How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland. I did enjoy this book, but let me tell you, the title is all wrong. It should be How to Buy a Novel or How to Try to Select Novels or something. Since I flipped through it before checking it out at the library I knew what I was getting, but I can see that being off putting to people if you didn't look inside a little more closely.
Sutherland gives suggestions on what to look for in a novel when you're browsing so you can decide if it's worth devoting your limited reading time too. My favorite tip was to turn to page 69 and read it and if you like it, you'll probably like the whole book. People tend to bring their A game to page 1, and by page 69 they've probably burned out if they're going to or hit their stride.
I'll be honest, most of the rest of the advice was kind of not helpful. He mainly said that you can't really trust anything - not the flap, certainly not the quotes, not reviews, not best seller lists. So, to be honest, I didn't really feel like this book was overly helpful in doing what it was supposed to do - tell me how to select novels I'll enjoy reading. And he seems rather anti-Harry Potter so I hold that against him.
However, I liked the book. Sutherland was at his best when he just rambled about books. He packed in a ton of examples of various books, and I enjoyed reading those portions, getting his take on different things. It made me think I would enjoy reading his book reviews. I think that's really where he is strength is. And I was quite happy to note that his one book he would take to a deserted island (excluding the Bible or Shakespeare) would be Vanity Fair. That's one of my all-time favorite books! I was a little surprised because his book tastes seem to run to the more recent, uber-literary types, so I was excited about his choice and explanation.
I found it interesting that during one of his ramblings, he said he thinks all fiction readers fall into one of two camps: you like either Thackeray or Dickens. He admits you can like both (which I indeed do) but that you'll tend to read books that are more like one or the other. He said Thackeray is more conversational, as though the author is telling you a story. Dickens is more theatrical, where you sit and watch the action unfold. That probably does explain why I do prefer Thackeray, and thinking about it, I do prefer books that are more conversational, like the author is sitting next to you telling a story. Swift does this, and Picoult, and Austen, and the Brontes. Those are some of my favorite authors. The Great Gatsby. I like narrators. With Dickens, you feel a little removed from the story. It's more like watching a play/TV show/movie. That may be why a lot of people don't enjoy him as much these days. I felt that way about the works I've read (which isn't much!) of Faulkner and Woolf.
Well, I feel like this blog post was rather a nice tribute to Sutherland since it rather rambles on as well. I'm not sure if this post is helpful in determining if you'll like this book or not. Maybe if you liked the post you'll like the book and vice versa. Regardless, I hope you find great books to read this week! And let me know what you think about the Dickens vs. Thackeray issue. I'm interested to know what you think!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Anna Karenina - Part 1

Welcome to today's stop on the Classics Circuit Imperial Russian Literature tour, where I'll be reviewingAnna Karenina. Make sure to check out all of the other stops on the tour as well. I want to apologize for getting this post up late today instead of this morning. I'm trying to adjust to my new job and I haven't quite adjusted my schedule right yet. I also want to apologize for this being part 1 of a review instead of a whole review. I am only halfway through with Anna Karenina. I totally overestimated what I could get done in my time between jobs and trying to deal with all the things associated with a job change. I really just should have started it earlier though. But, it's such a big, dense book that doing two posts is probably a good idea anyway.

Despite my slowness in reading it, I'm loving Anna Karenina. And it's actually not as difficult a read as I expected. It's an interesting story with great characters. It really is a dense book though - lots of stuff going on, pages overflowing with characters, an abundance of details. And it's all meaningful. It's not a book you can read while mentally checking out. You really have to concentrate, which is something I've been lacking lately!

So, why is it worth the read? What they say is true - the Russians truly are the masters of the novel. In Anna Karenina, there are so many characters with overlapping stories that serve as a foil or foreshadowing of other characters and relationships. What surprised me so far is that despite the title and what I've heard back the book, Levin is the character I focus on the most and who seems the most alive. I'm a little bit in love with him actually. He's got his faults and certainly isn't some sort of Prince Charming/Mr. Perfect, but he's intelligent, rational, intense, insightful, and wise. I look forward to getting back to him each time the narration goes elsewhere. I'm rooting for him to live happily ever after. Hopefully his ending is a foil to Anna's!

I've also been surprised at how much I empathize with Anna. Going in, I knew she would cheat on her husband, and I expected to dislike her. I also expected that to happen much later in the book, but it happens right up front. Which makes it more interesting that I'm able to empathize with her. Tolstoy somehow makes you grasp the essence of his characters right from the start. With Anna, you instantly know she's not a bad person. You know her home life isn't happy, that she didn't chose to marry Karenin. That she deserves happiness and isn't going to get it. There is so much foreshadowing through the novel, which is another reason why the book is so dense. Every word could have an impact on later events, every action leads to reactions that resonate through the rest of the novel.

It's hard to describe the way Tolstoy crafts his novels. I feel like when I try to explain why I like them I can't come close to conveying what I mean. Clearly I'm not the wordsmith Tolstoy is. I know his books are intimidating, but I really do recommend giving them a try. Check out the Classics Circuit for other Imperial Russian writers and check back here for part two, hopefully soon!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon

It's both quite sad and satisfying that I've now read all of Jane Austen's fiction. I've out on reading Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon for years. The last time I read a new-to-me Austen novel was seven years ago, during my junior year of college when I read Persuasion. I had actually been holding out on reading that one because I thought that would finish her off, but was assigned it in one of my English classes. So I was quite happy to learn about these other three works.

Lady Susan is a complete short novel Austen wrote early in life. The Watsons and Sanditon are two fragments of unfinished novels. Together, they represent three phases of her writing styles.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, a novel written in letters. That form was quite popular in the eighteenth century, especially with writers such as Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson, both of whose works Austen enjoyed. Austen's first drafts of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were also written in this format, but she revised them later on. Which was definitely a good thing. Although Lady Susan is quite enjoyable, it's not up to Austen's normal abilities. Which is completely understandable since it's an early work, and also because the epistolary novel doesn't stand the test of time as well. Although I personally really enjoyed Evelina by Fanny Burney and Pamela by Richardson, they clearly pale in comparison with Austen's other works. They are highly melodramatic and you have to suspend you disbelief at some of the stretches the author's take to make the form work. I remember writing a paper in the same college class where I read Persuasion about Evelina and Pamela and the epistolary novel's by nature unreliable narrators. You have to think, would a young girl really write that much about a guy she likes to her guardian, a reverend? Is Pamela proclaiming her innocence just because she's writing to parents? But in Lady Susan, Austen keeps the melodrama to a minimum and has the characters write more logically, but this ruins some of the fun of that medium. You also don't get as well-rounded characters, and since Austen has such wonderfully developed characters in her other works you feel like something's missing.

I'm not saying all of that to say I didn't enjoy Lady Susan. I did. Lady Susan is a great villainess, and again is a surprising turn for Austen, but in a good way. She's selfish, mistreats her daughter, flirts constantly, pursues married men, and just generally causes chaos. It's quite fun to read about her and the other characters responses to her. But the story is only about 100 pages, so there's not a lot to dig in to.

In The Watsons, you get more of your typical Austen fare. It's very similar in style and tone to her other novels. I couldn't read about Emma Watson without picturing Emma Watson, otherwise known as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies, playing her. Emma was raised away from her family in the hopes of being an heiress, but that doesn't work out and she comes back home to her family, where some of her sisters are battling to get married so as not to become poor spinsters. Emma attends a ball and we're introduced to several young men who may vie for her hand. For just being a fragment, I really enjoyed this piece and wish it had been developed into a finished piece. In the introduction to my edition, they discuss reasons for this and don't land clearly on anything, but do comment on the fact that the similarities to both Emma and Pride and Prejudice may have caused her to stop writing it. Also, it's the only work dating from her time in Bath, and maybe she just didn't have the motivation to finish while there (she seems to have hated Bath and may not have had the creative power to concentrate there), and then she just didn't want to pick it back up years later after going to Chawton. One of the other interesting bits in the intro was a comparison of this fragment to Cranford. Having just finished Cranford, I thought that was interesting and can see that aspect of a small tight-knit community in both and that the overall tone is fairly similar.

Finally, we have Sanditon. Sanditon is the last piece she was working on before she died. Here you can see the progression from her early novels to the later novels such as Persuasion to something else. There's something darker in this fragment than her other novels, much like Persuasion has a different feel to it. But here there's a feeling that everything may not turn out alright. Mr. Parker is trying to turn Sanditon into the place to be, like Bath. There's a feeling that this might not work out so well hanging over the work. There's also a trio of hypochondriacs in the novel, who Charlotte, the main character, can't stand. Austen's own mother was a apparently a bit of a hypochondriac, and since Austen was most likely dealing her while trying to deal with her own very real illness, she chose to get her feelings out on paper.

Another interesting part of Sanditon is the introduction of a sickly, wealthy mulatto girl, Miss Lambe. I was quite surprised by her appearance, and that she is the richest of a group of students who come to visit Sanditon. I think that's a clue that something quite different was going to happen in this novel had Austen been able to finish it. The introduction says that Miss Lambe could have stepped right out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. So, it's interesting to read Austen's progression from mimicking the eighteenth-century styles, to developing her own, to then trying to build on that and keep pushing her limits and try for something that become more popular later in the century, long after her death. One can only imagine what works she could have pleased us with if she hadn't passed away so young.

If you haven't read these works because they aren't polished and two of them aren't even complete, I recommend that if you like Austen to go ahead and give them a try. It's worth it just for a little bit more Austen and to see her growth as an author through the three pieces.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


I had heard about Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson when it came out, but being an older young adult at the time, thought I was way to mature for it. :)

What's interesting is that I probably liked the book more now then I would have then. I think my 17-year-old self wouldn't have been very understanding of why Melinda stays quiet. I can't imagine not telling everything to the cops, my parents, everyone. I would have yelled at her for not standing up for herself. And I think that would have clouded my view of the book. I still feel that way now, but I'm much more understanding than I used to be. I also realize now how young 13 is and how someone of that age wouldn't stand up for themselves, especially if they aren't taught to do so. When you're younger, you tend to assume everyone grew up the same as you did, even though you know that's not true. My family so stressed standing up for yourself that I never thought to do otherwise. Whether it was standing up to second grade teacher about the assignments she gave me (which were the same ones I'd done in first grade) or today standing up to my now former boss and telling her she can't treat people the way she does, I've never had a problem speaking up. When I served on a jury a few years ago in a sexual assault case, I didn't have any problems sending the guy to jail with the maximum sentence. And I was the one to convince the on the fence jurors to do so too. Obviously those examples aren't the same as what happens in the book, and I don't mean to minimize what happens to her. And I've learned that many people aren't taught to stand up for themselves. They're taught only to obey authority, to stay quiet and out of trouble. And since Melinda's parents seem to be the type of people who would rather ignore a problem than solve it, it's no wonder she stays quiet.

I also think I would have been annoyed with Anderson's writing style as a teen. I was not a fan of modernism/post-modernism even back then, and just wrote off anyone who wrote that way at all. Although I'm still not a big fan, I appreciate those styles more now and something like Speak is just fine with me now, and I get that it works well for the story. I think the style probably speaks better to her target audience, I was just weird about things like that.

Overall, I did enjoy Speak, and it's a very quick read.