Posted in Fiction

George Eliot’s Silas Marner

Silas Marner

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction.  We see no white-winged angels now.  But yet men are led away from threatening destruction; a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

George Eliot’s short novel Silas Marner has always had the reputation (at least in my circles) as being the epitome of boring Victorian British novels.  It’s been a result of this reputation that has prolonged my reading of it; however, I finally did and I have to say that, in my humble opinion, the reputation it seemed to have earned is completely unwarranted.  In fact, I think it’s become one of my favorites.

With parts sad and parts heartwarming, it’s been a while since I’ve read a novel with such vivid scenery and characterizations.  Because of the time period in which it was written and is set, I couldn’t help but attempt to make comparisons to Charles Dickens – especially A Christmas Carol.  However, Eliot’s miserly Silas Marner is world’s apart from Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.  As the result of a tragic betrayal, Marner is banished from his hometown and makes his home in a little cottage in Raveloe.  A weaver by trade, he makes a living selling his craft to the people of the village.  While he doesn’t become rich, he spends his lonely days counting his money.  He is not mean-spirited like Scrooge.  He simply is afraid of being hurt again by people.

The theft of his money inadvertently brings him into society in an attempt to find who stole it.  The people of Raveloe, who up to this point have considered him somewhat odd, find a little sympathy for him if not his money.  After he spends Christmas Day alone, a small girl wanders through the open door of his cottage to fall asleep by Marner’s fire place.  Eliot’s image of Marner’s gold money coming back in the form of a golden child is spot on – without being too sentimental or too much like a fairy-tale.

Another difference between Eliot’s story and Dickens’ story involves the portrayal of class differences.  The vast ocean between the rich and the poor in many of Dickens’ stories is only a small stream in Eliot’s Silas Marner.  Neither the rich nor the poor are set up to be hated by Eliot.

Anyone interested in a story with a happy ending, check out Silas Marner.  This is the first of Eliot’s novels I’ve read, but I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Has anyone else read Silas Marner?  How about George Eliot’s other works?  Has anyone else heard negative things about a book that ended up becoming a favorite?

Posted in Fiction

A Christmas Carol: Book or Movie?

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed many great literary film adaptations; but I’m biased toward books.  No matter how wonderful the film, I’m likely to say “The book was better”.  Saying this is usually less a result of my critical skills and more a result of the fact that I’m simply a book person.

The monthly meme question for The Classics Club for December touches on this topic:

What is your favorite memory of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Have you ever read it? If not, will you? Why should others read it rather than relying on the film adaptions?

A Christmas Carol falls into the category of stories I heard and saw first through film as a kid.  I didn’t read Charles Dickens’ actual words until I was an adult.  In the case of this story, I think the many film versions, from George C. Scott to The Muppets to Jim Carey, stand as a testament to the brilliance of Dickens’ words and ideas.  Dickens’ incorporation of ghosts as a catalyst for Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption has been a feast for the imaginations of filmmakers everywhere.  I love seeing the incarnation of filmmakers’ imaginations on the screen (big or small),  but in reading the story, I get to keep company with the imagination I enjoy the most: my own.


Posted in Books in General

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall “To Be Read” List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books on my fall “To Be Read” list.  I have to admit that I did a decent job of getting through my summer TBR list.  I only missed one:  Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.  Guess which one is first on my fall list?  I also have an abundance of authors from Indianapolis, IN, one of the handful of cities/towns I consider home.

1.)  Bleak House by Charles Dickens:  I was less than thrilled with Hard Times so I think I’m a little hesitant to get started on this one.  My copy has a great preface by Vladamir Nabokov, though!

2.)  Armageddon In Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:  I just started this one.  So far, it’s typical Vonnegut (an Indianapolis native) – very funny.  

3.)  The Fault In Our Stars by John Green:  Another YA novel that I’ve seen all over the blogosphere.  As he’s from Indianapolis, also, I thought I’d give him a try.

4.)  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes:  A book I read as a kid that I’ve decided to re-read.  A nostalgia read-along is being hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

5.)  Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: As mentioned previously, Vonnegut is an Indianapolis native.  I’m going to re-read this one in honor of Banned Book Week at the end of September.

6.)  Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman:  Brent led a book group I attended when I lived in Indianapolis.  He has written several books about Quaker traditions that I’ve found fascinating.  I’m looking forward to reading his latest book.

7.)  The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson:  This is another book of Robinson’s essays of which I’ve found to be very thought-provoking.

8.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

9.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

10.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Posted in Fiction

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

We are now ready to tackle Dickens.  We are now ready to embrace Dickens.  We are now ready to bask in Dickens.  In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room.  In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.

This is the first paragraph in an excerpt from Vladamir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature that I found in a preface to my copy of Dickens’ Bleak House.  I think I would have enjoyed having Nabokov, author of the infamous Lolita, as a professor (it also reminds me that banned book week is coming up).  The rest of this lecture is just as amusing, but informative.

But this post isn’t about Bleak House or Nabokov or Jane Austen.  It’s about Charles Dickens’ short novel Hard Times.  In spite of it’s brevity, it seemed to take me a long time to read.  Part of the reason could have just been me, but I would put a little of the blame on the novel, itself.

My understanding (and I’m by no means an expert) is that the majority of Dickens’ novels, including Hard Times, were written in serial form for magazines.  When I’ve read other Dickens novels, the question always persisted as to whether he made the story up as he went along or whether he knew how it would end when he started.  Usually, some small part of the story at the end would tie back to the beginning, giving the impression that he did have the story all figured out before he started writing and giving the impression of a brilliant mind and storyteller.

Hard Times was written in the same manner and while the characters are classic Dickens and his writing is superb in his character descriptions, the individual chapters don’t quite equal the whole.

The novel begins as though it’s going to be a story representing class conflict – not surprising as the impoverished seem to gain Dickens’ sympathies in many of his novels.  The Gradgrind  school in Coketown led by Thomas Gradgrind, Sr. seeks to knock out of it’s students any desire for fun or imagination.  While the Gradgrind family can be said to be wealthy, it’s not so much that money and the lack thereof come into conflict as hard cold facts conflict with art and creativity and just plain fun.

Thomas Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa and his son Tom, Jr. take central stage in the plot.  Louisa submits to being married off to a colleague of Gradgrind in order to keep her irresponsible brother out of money trouble.  Some side plots are intertwined as Stephen Blackpool one of the hired “Hands” of Coketown is falsely accused of robbing the Coketown bank and Sissy Jupe leaves the circus to live with the Gradgrinds.  The novel begins and ends with the circus.

My favorite character in the novel is Coketown, itself.  While Dickens desperately tries to paint the town as black and gloomy and dirty, some of his charm seems to always sneak in making the town’s bark worse than it’s bite:

A sunny midsummer day.  There was such a thing sometimes, even in Coketown.

I find even the name of the town a little humorous.

The major disjoint of the novel revolves around Thomas, Sr. At the beginning of story, he’s   hard and cold and willing to marry his daughter off to a braggart and boorish friend.  By the end, he is repentant and willing to do almost anything to appease his daughter.  Characters can change, it’s true, but usually the change process is part of the story.  I looked and looked but couldn’t find reason for this change.  It seemed to be pulled out of thin air.

A minor character named Mr. Sleary, one of the circus people, spoke with a lisp.  Dickens wrote with a lisp when his character talked.  I don’t think I’ve read anything more frustrating.

Posted in Fiction

“…try to be a filter, not a sponge.”

I didn’t realize when I was reading it that Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower was over a decade old.  As I contemplated the title prior to reading it, I envisioned lots of teen angst.  It was there, along with a little more.

Daughter, The Eldest gave me the book warning me that there could be some things that might make me uncomfortable.  But apparently, not so uncomfortable that she was afraid to give me the book – of which I’m very glad.

The book consists of a series of letters written by Charlie, a high school freshman in 1991, to an unnamed friend.  As Charlie’s story unfolds, we understand that he is shy, awkward, intelligent.  We also slowly begin to understand that he suffers from mental illness.  As Charlie makes friends with a couple of seniors, he encounters and confronts many of the issues teenagers face:  sex and drugs being the two major (and to a parent, scarrier) ones.  The novel is a little more graphic than I would prefer teen and YA books to be (or any books for that matter), but it stops short of being gratuitous.

Charlie also becomes friends with Bill, a first-year English teacher.  Recognizing Charlie’s intelligence and problems, Bill assigns extra books for Charlie to read – simply because he feels the books would benefit Charlie.  The books that are assigned to Charlie are fairly standard high school English books:  The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Stranger, Walden, A Separate Peace, This Side Of Paradise.  These were all great books that I read myself when I was in high school (with the possible exception of Walden -which I was only required to read part of).  Bill also assigned Kerouac’s On The Road.  I had not heard of this novel until I was an adult out of college, but it’s a great book, too.

Then, out of left field, Bill assigns to Charlie Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead!  This choice floored me.  I’ve never read this book or anything else by Rand (but have always wanted to – my reading project for 2013 is starting to shape up).  I only know a little about Rand, but this book seemed completely out of place with the other books Bill assigned.  Charlie reads the book and absolutely loves it.  In the course of discussing it, Bill brilliantly tells Charlie to “…try to be a filter, not a sponge.” I don’t know if it’s just a natural ability for me or not, but I’ve always read books as a filter as opposed to a sponge, even as a teenager.  If I absorbed and adopted as my own every thought, idea or philosophy presented in the books on my bookshelf, I don’t think I’d be able to function.  Even if I don’t adopt an idea, it doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate it or at least understand it.  On rare occasions when I’ve been criticized for what I let my kids read, the criticism always comes under the assumption that my kids and all kids are sponges as opposed to filters.  While I very much recommend parents and teachers being involved with teenagers’ reading (and providing guidance to them in general), I think that teenagers have more filter than adults give them credit for.

I’m happy to have read this novel and have to confess that I’m proud that Daughter, The Eldest felt comfortable enough to give the book to me to read.   I’ll probably be back to YA novels sometime, but now I’m on to Charles Dickens.

Posted in Short Stories

Dickens’ “The Signal-Man”

I usually don’t think of Charles Dickens when I think about ghost stories.  This in spite of the fact that he wrote one of the most well-known (and a personal favorite of mine) ghost stories ever.  I think because A Christmas Carol is about Christmas as opposed to holidays in which ghosts are more prevelent and because it’s basic message is uplifting even if it does have a few scary moments, I tend to not put it in the “ghost story” genre.

This weekend, I read Dickens’ short story “The Signal-Man” and was pleasantly surprised that it was a ghost story – the creepy kind.  The narrator becomes acquainted with a railroad signal-man and occasionally shares the man’s solitude on the job.  The signal-man confides to the narrator that he has seen “Appearances” at the mouth of the tunnel by his station.  They occur coincidentally (perhaps?) before some unpleasant circumstances.  The story is rather short, but Dickens writing is beautiful as he describes the personality and station (no pun intended) in life of the signal-man.  The story ends in typical ghost story fashion, so you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what happens.

I thought I would mention, though, that what makes the story creepy for me is the narrator.  The reader knows absolutely nothing about him except that he is staying at a nearby inn.  No reason is given for why he is roaming around the railroad tracks or why he takes an interest in the signal-man.  It makes me wonder!?

P. S. As I was reading this story, I was reminded of Edgar Allen Poe.

Posted in Books in General

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books on my Summer Reading List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  It’s a fun an interesting way to get to know other book bloggers and what they are reading.

This week the topic is “books on my summer reading list”.  Here it is and its subject to change without notice.

1.  Calico Joe by John Grisham: I’m not a huge Grisham fan and I think I’ve only read one of his books, The Innocent Man.  As this one is about baseball and it seems baseball stories are difficult to come by, I thought I’d give it a try.  Besides, it’s short.

2.  The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling by David Gilmour:  As I’ve been reading Kipling as a part of my 2012 reading project, I wanted to read a biography.  I’m in the middle of this one right now and so far he strikes me as a complicated person.

3.  City of Bones by Cassandra Clare:  Not my usual genre but Daughter, The Eldest highly recommends it so I thought I would see what its all about.

4.  Hard Times by Charles Dickens:  The second part of the year will include works by Charles Dickens.  I’m starting with this one.

5.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens:  This one has been on my shelf for a while.  I’ve read the more “popular” works by Dickens so I’ll read some of his lesser known works this year.

6.  Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein:  Last year I read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress  and enjoyed it.  I’ve gotten several high recommendations for this novel.

7.  I, Robot by Isaac Asimov:  Isaac Asimov is another one of my reading project authors for 2012.  I’ve read absolutely nothing by him, so this will be the first unless I read one of his short stories before this one.

8.  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway:  This will be a re-read, but it’s been a long time.  I re-read The Sun Also Rises last year and it was as great as it was when I was in high school – which was a little while ago.  Looking forward to this one.

9. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks: This will round out Brooks’ novels for me.

10.  Sign Talker by James Alexander Thom:  As I’ve come to appreciate the effort that goes into good historical fiction with the works of Geraldine Brooks, I thought I’d give Thom a try as he comes highly recommended.

Posted in Fiction

Sonny and Cher on Noah’s Ark with Two Pythons

But a narrative takes its own direction, and continues on, almost automatically.  And whether he liked it or not, Tengo was a part of that world.  To him, this was no longer a fictional world.  This was the real world, where red blood spurts out when you slice open your skin with a knife.  And in the sky in this world, there were two moons, side by side.

Fantasy? Science Fiction? Mystery? Romance? Something just plain weird?  All of the above? Probably.

A ten-year old girl takes the hand of a boy in her grade school class without saying a word – then lets it go.  Soon after, she disappears from the boy’s life.  Twenty years later, both still have the moment seared into their psyche.  Strange and unusual circumstances begin to bring Tengo and Aomame together, but something also seems to want to keep them apart.

Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 reminded me of the television show Lost.  Numerous little pieces of a large story get intertwined to keep you guessing and wondering how the story will finally wrap up.  Murakami makes several “nods” to Charles Dickens in this novel.  I had read somewhere a while ago that the Lost creators were huge fans of Dickens.  I have a feeling that Murakami might also be a Dickens fan.  Murakami skillfully includes minute details in his story that end up being important later on, similar to both Lost and Dickens. Murakami also makes several references to Anton Chekhov, a writer I’m not as familiar with but want to be.

Throughout the novel, the reader is never sure what is actually real and what is not.  Are the characters in this world or another world?  Murakami’s writing can take on a beautiful dream-like quality that enhances this question.  Unlike the TV show Lost, I was fairly certain how the novel would end.  And also, unlike Lost, I was right.  I think it’s the sign of a great writer when a reader can tell which way a story is going to end and still be wow-ed by the ending.  Surprise is sometimes overrated.

However, I just couldn’t shake one question about the novel.  Somewhere in the middle, Tengo describes some sort of vision/daydream that involves Sonny and Cher on Noah’s Ark with two pythons.  This was one of those minute details that just didn’t seem to have any significance other than to make me wonder – which perhaps is significant.  Oh well..the beat goes on…