Book Review: Hard Times by Charles Dickens (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

(Four Stars)

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls noting but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Stinging indictment of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get materialists of his time and ours. Though he wrote it a century and a half ago, Dickens’ critique of hard-nosed realists  true today.

“The only difference between us and the professors of virtue or benevolence, or philanthropy—never mind the name—is, that we know it is all meaningless, and say so; while they know it equally and will never say so.”

Probably not Dicken’ best story–it lacks the clear central character, the redeeming (if not sticky sweet) ending and the sentimentality of other tales–but Hard Times may be the most–dare I say–Christian of Dicken’s stories. Beyond the numerous references and allusions to the Bible, Hard Times is also a story of Continue reading

Book Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

(Five Stars)

“There certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.”

Austen at her best. Gone is the self-assured heroine of earlier novels who sweeps all before her; enter the humble waif who must learn the ways of the world and society on the fly. Fanny’s internal dialogue sets Mansfield Park apart from Austen’s earlier works. It’s still Austen, but it grips the soul of the reader.

“Her consciousness of misery was therefore increased by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy. Fanny’s relief, and her consciousness of it, were quite equal to her cousins’; but a more tender nature suggested that her feelings were ungrateful, and she really grieved because she could not grieve. Her cousins, on seeing her red eyes, set her down as a hypocrite.”

The reader gains a more mature critique on the corner of society which Continue reading

Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

(Three Stars)

“Provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she never had any objection to books at all.”

Not published in Austen’s lifetime. The Victorian’s loss is our gain. A pleasant enough story enhanced by insights given into Austen learning her craft as a writer.

“She was so far from seeking to attract their notice, that she looked back at them only three times.”

I enjoyed this more than my first reading almost a decade ago. I greatly appreciated Austen’s character and plot building. Most readers will have wearied of Catherine’s fair-weather friends long before she does herself, but that’s the point. We are taken deep into the hopes and fears (and what passes for thoughts) of our protagonist to see how she grows.

“To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Not only aware of literary conventions of her time, Austen pauses occasionally to analyze them.  Several times she breaks the fourth wall by addressing her readers in the first person.

“You know, my dear Catherine, you always were a sad little scatter-brained creature; but now you must have been forced to have your wits about you.” said her mother.

That Austen couldn’t sell this manuscript in her lifetime enhances rather than degrades our impression of publishers of her day. Frankly, this isn’t very good; it is fascinating for its revelations of Austen’s first efforts. Other fragment, we are told, were even worse. But that a seclude young woman of limited means could see, understand and communicate so well, speaks for her singular talent.

“The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, and hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.”

Book Review: Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan

(Three Stars)

“He took special pleasure in disappointing expectations.”

A monumental work, in both the positive and negative senses. Like many modern biographers, Kaplan includes all manner of trivia and tangential material to pad the overall product. The result is boring to read, but fascinating to reflect on.

William Gladstone reported Dickens remarked that while his “faith in the people governing, is, on the whole, infinitesimal; my faith in The People governed is on the whole illimitable.”

“All crisis was a spur to creativity, all fiction a mirror of imaginative distortion in which the model of his own life became a portrait of his culture and his world.”

Charles Dickens was that rare man who was Continue reading

Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Four Stars

“You know the secret which is the key to my life.”

Unexpectedly good fiction. As deep and introspective as the best modern storytelling though written 150 years ago. Nineteenth century England produced many treasures apparently hidden to American readers by the glare of modernity. A mystery and a romance, of sorts. Based, as they say today, on a true story.

“Life is such a troublesome matter … that it’s as well even to take its blessings quietly.”

Braddon takes the reader deep into both male and female characters. That all is not as it appears is obvious, but what it turns out to be Continue reading

Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy (Three Stars)

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Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy

Three Stars

“It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved,” Queen Victoria

An exhaustive history of the many men who shoot at Queen Victoria. While they varied in background, their motives were surprisingly (and sadly) similar … and usually had nothing to do with injuring the queen. Paradoxically, Victoria was only injured once, and the incident wouldn’t be in the book had Murphy stuck rigorously to his title.

“[Oxford] was pleased to find himself an object of so much interest.”

No bit of related trivia is too small or unrelated for inclusion. Therefore, the reader is subjected to the history of all the other monarchs shot at, the life history of the police, prime ministers, cell mates, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Irish, with a cameo by P. T. Barnum. It’s that kind of book.

“Before, the Queen’s popularity stemmed from her doing; now, it stemmed from her simply being.”

Runs counter to several popular images. Victoria, for example, is usually seen as a shy, reclusive lady. Murphy explains when that image if and when it didn’t, and why. England’s modern image is of an almost gun-free nation. That certainly wasn’t true in the nineteenth century when even paupers could purchase pistol most anywhere.

“Victoria’s personal courage and her unerring sense of her relationship with her people were responsible for it all.” (It being “universal and spontaneous outpouring of loyalty and affection”)

The late nineteenth century seems to have been open season on royalty. Murphy relates several parallel shoots taken at other monarchs. By 1918, all the monarchies of central Europe were no more.

“Trust in her subjects was instinct to [Victoria.]”