Malin’s #CBR5 Review #135: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Young Margaret Hale’s life is turned on its head when her father, a parson from the South of England, renounces his position because he experiences a crisis of faith. He moves his anxious wife and dutiful daughter to the factory town of Milton Northern, where he’s going to work as a tutor. The town, a bustling result of the Industrial Revolution, is full of cotton mills, soot and smoke, a stark contrast to the pastoral idyll of the Southern English countryside. With the loss of Mr. Hale’s living, the family is in severely reduced financial circumstances, (not helped by the fact that they keep sending money to Margaret’s brother who is wanted for mutiny in England, and as a result living in exile in Spain) and can’t really afford more than a modest lifestyle. Margaret bravely adapts fairly quickly, but her mother never feels happy or comfortable in Milton and her health gradually deteriorates.

In Milton, the main social interaction the Hales have is with Mr. John Thornton, a mill owner who leases from Mr. Hale’s best friend, Mr. Bell (Margaret’s godfather). Thornton’s father drove his family into debt and further caused scandal when he committed suicide. Thornton had to quit school, and take a position as a shop clerk to support his sister and widowed mother. Putting aside most of what he earned, he slowly and quietly worked to repay all his father’s debts and became a respected and formidable man in Milton. His mother is a proud and arrogant woman who loves her son fiercely, constantly worried some fortune-hunting young miss will get her claws into him.

Full review on my blog.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #60: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I haven’t read this book in about 7 years, so after watching Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation, I was curious to see how it stacked up to the original book. And I have to say, Luhrmann did a pretty good job of maintaining the spirit of the story.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is a masterful writer. I could just disappear in his prose and never come back. The premise of the story is fairly simple, but the way it’s told is complex and beautiful and tragic all at once. Young Nick Carraway arrives at New York to eke out a living and find the American Dream for himself. He finds a small house in West Egg, a fictional borough, and reconnects with his cousin Daisy, while meeting his mysteriously wealthy neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Not all that appears to be good is so, and by the end, I was exhausted and disappointed, like Nick, by the ennui and shallow glitz of the wealthy individuals who peopled the novel.

Jay Gatsby is an interesting character to study. As a self-made man, he recreates himself and accumulates wealth in order to become the kind of man that will secure him the woman he was too poor to woo when he was a soldier. Yet we realize that Jay’s dream is crumbling and an illusion, much like the green light at the opposite end of the pier from which he gazes. The futility of his dreams seems frustrating, but it ultimately reflects what Americans collectively experienced at the end of literary modernism.

The Great Gatsby is an American classic for a reason. It depicts the dissolution of the American Dream in the face of war, of a money-driven culture, and of fading ideas of class and wealth. I will definitely be including this novel (and referencing the film) in many a class to come.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #58: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Is there anyone who doesn’t know the basic story of Anna Karenina? Beautiful and beloved society lady, married to older statesman, starts a scandalous affair with a young, handsome and wealthy cavalryman. It really doesn’t end well. The book is over 800 pages long. Quite a lot of it doesn’t even feature Anna, or her husband Karenin, or her lover Vronsky. If the book was truthfully named, it should probably be called Konstantin Levin tries to revolutionise Russian farming, but Tolstoy (or his publishers) were wise enough not to name the book that.

Seriously though, so much of this book is about farming. I get that Levin is the true hero. He’s kind, and virtuous and treats his dependents well. The objection of his affection rejects him in favour of the flashy Vronsky, who in turn rejects her when he becomes determined to seduce and win Anna Karenina. Much of the rest of the book is about political machinations. I studied literature at university, I get that the winters in the 19th Century were long and cold and books were the chief source of entertainment, but dear God, the book is a slog to get through. While I can see that it’s well written and gives an impressive insight into pre-Revolutionary Russia, the main reason I actually persisted and actually finished the book this time (I’ve previously started and abandoned it three times since I was about 15), was partly, BECAUSE I’ve been planning to read this damn book since I was in my early teens, and also because it qualified in no less than FIVE of my various reading challenges. Now I’ve read it, and I never have to do it again.

I have friends who adore this book. While I was struggling to get through it (making myself read at least a hundred pages a day), I also watched the most recent movie adaptation. When you focus on the main story of the Karenins, and the Levins and the Sherbatskys, I can see why it’s a gripping story. It really is a truly tragic love story, and while I initially detested Vronsky, I came to pity both him and Karenin. I just don’t have the patience for all the other guff, with the farming and the politics. Those bits were frequently skim-read, and bored me to tears. I also feel compelled to point out that, in the past, I suspect it was the fact that my mother’s copy of this book is quite an old translation. This fairly recent English translation was beautifully done, and the language was in no way heavy or difficult to get through. Feel free to comment and explain why I’ve completely misunderstood the greatness of this book – I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts. I’m just glad I finally got the book ticked off my TBR list for good.