Tag: Dickens

My Top 11 Favorite Classic Novels

When people see how much I love movies they sometimes assume that I don’t also like to read. This is probably because in my experience many men choose movies over reading but I think both are essential to be a full complete person. I love movies but there is something about the experience of living in stories that only books can give you. Movies give you a 2 hour story but a book can delight you for weeks depending on its size.

Recently I enjoyed watching the kickoff program for The Great American Read. This is a 2 hour show on PBS that has compiled a list of the 100 best books of all time. Some are questionable such as 50 Shades of Grey and an embarrassing number I haven’t read but watching the show inspired me to do more reading and to tell you my lovely readers about the books that I love.

To start off I thought it would be fun to share My Top 11 Favorite Classic Novels. Classic is obviously a relative term but for the sake of my list I started at 1960 as the end point (the year To Kill a Mockingbird was written). Some of these books are helped by nostalgia but they are all excellent on their own. It is also interesting that 8 of the novels are written by women. So here goes:

middle march

11. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872)-

There was always a high chance I would love Middlemarch because it is my Mother’s favorite novel. Still I put off reading it for many years because its length intimidated me. However, if you can brave it Middlemarch treats you to a beautiful story about a woman named Dorothea who is trying desperately to do the right thing over what is convenient and easy. She marries out of a desire for intellectual enlightenment and then is sorely disappointed when it proves cold and distant. Then she meets Will Ladislaw and the 2 become friends. Everything is kept honorable but the connection Eliot has with her characters is beautiful and gives you hope for the goodness that lies within all of us.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

my antonia

10. My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918)-

Like Eliot, Willa Cather is a novelist who always seems to find the humanity in her characters. It’s like she is writing about her dear friends not just people in a book. In My Antonia she captures the beauty and burdens of life on the American Prairie for orphan Jim and immigrant girl Antonia. We see them as children and then read as they grow up and life doesn’t turn out the way they think it will.

“Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

adventures of sherlock

9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)-

Where Middlemarch is beloved by my Mother, Sherlock Holmes is beloved by my Father. I’m not sure why he loves him so much but he always has. What appeals to me about the character is how Sherlock uses his brain as his super power. He’s unpredictable and intense but in the end always comes up with what is just and true- and usually staring the victims/police in the face the whole time! This first book has 12 of his stories including A Scandal in Bohemia, The Red-Headed League, and the Man with the Twisted Lip. So fun!

“As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”

howard's end

8. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (1910)

I love novels that have a sense of humanity for all its characters and that is what I get with Howard’s End. What I love the most about Forster’s writing is he doesn’t have villains. In a lesser hand the rich capitalist Wilcox’s would be the greedy villains but that isn’t the case. They are operating within their upbringing and doing what they think is right. When Mr Wilcox gives advice to the struggling clerk Leonard Bast he isn’t trying to be underhanded but is genuinely passing on knowledge without thinking of its ramifications. The Schlegal sisters are of an intellectual class that have the money to think about such things without having the burden of leadership. Every character has clear motivations and a story that feels real and moving and Howard’s End feels like a sanctuary we all yearn for and seek out.

“Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.”

little women

7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)-

Little Women was the first big novel I recall reading and being proud I had finished it. I loved the story of each of the 4 girls. I loved the romance both scorned and returned. I cried my eyes out at poor Beth. As an adult, I can see the pulpy nature of especially the follow up book but I still love it. Just like most, I relate to Jo who wants to make a difference in the world and be independent and free. But I also relate to the selfish Amy, insecure Meg and shy Beth. I have all of those sides in me. And it always made sense to me that Jo refused Laurie. They were not only very different but she needed to go out and see the world and not get married in some stuffy house. With Professor Bhaer she got someone who was experienced and she had lived a little bit more. She needed a thoughtful yet adventurous spirit and that’s what she got in the Professor!

“I want to do something splendid…something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.”

jane eyre.jpg

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)-

I have always loved a great romance and what makes Jane Eyre so great is it is about 2 troubled souls who find each other and just when all seems to be lost it all works out. As readers we start with Jane as a young girl being treated terribly by the Reed family and then being sent to Lowood School where she is beaten but finally finds a friend in Helen and Miss Temple (so sad with Helen). Then she is grown up and it is time to go to Thornfield Hall and meet Mr Rochester. These 2 have such chemistry because they both have been battered and bruised by the world. I love the dialogue between them and how it builds slowly over time. And then when his secret is revealed Jane’s morals must send her away and it is devastating. Then we get the contrast between those morals and the missionary whom she has no chemistry with at all. It’s a fantastic love story.

“I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I have found you… I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”

anne of green gables

5. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery (1908)-

Much like Jo March, Anne Shirley was a literary hero for me as a child. I was not a child that loved fantasy stories with mysticism and lore but I did like to daydream and Anne is the ultimate daydreamer. You could say that daydreaming rescued Anne. I love the way she see’s everything through her own world and is confident enough to voice that world out loud. She doesn’t care what the locals call the pond. To her it is the Lake of Shining Waters. There is something so appealing about this kind of hope and dream. The rest of the characters are so lovely and it has such heart. It made me constantly search for kindred spirits and hope for a love I might want to occasionally break a slate over his head!

“Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it… Yet.”

christmas carol

4. A Christmas Carol (1843)-

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (you can read my Scrooge Month reviews here) but I fear our familiarity with the text causes us to forget how great a story it truly is. I love stories of redemption and Scrooge coming to know Christ through Christmas is one of the greats. Like so many Scrooge has become bitter because of the disappointments and tragedies of life. He has decided to separate himself from Christ and his fellow mankind because he doesn’t want to get hurt. This is the lesson he learns from his ghostly visitors and from the frail but faithful Tiny Tim.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused”

to kill a mockingbird

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)-

If someone asked me for a novel that might help them become a better person I would give them To Kill a Mockingbird. Told from the innocent perspective of a young girl observing her father, we learn in the novel what it means to have integrity and to fight for lost causes. Atticus knows representing Tom is a futile endeavor but he does it anyway. He see’s the value in the mockingbird which is ordinary and worthless to others. To Kill a Mockingbird gives us hope that good people like Atticus will always do what is right and will love no matter what. Boo Radley in contrast is the quiet one who saves Scout when nobody else can. It’s just beautiful and perfect.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

pride and prejudice

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)-

I could easily put Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion on this list but when it comes down to it Pride and Prejudice is my favorite from Jane Austen. As a teen I got caught up in the romance of this book. Will Darcy forgive Lizzie after she so hotly rebuked him? Will they survive the shame of Lydia’s carelessness? Will Bingley and Jane ever get together? It was all very compelling stuff! But as an adult I appreciate the novel on a deeper level. Austen really doesn’t have much romance in her books but she has characters that have to make choices and that are brave for their time. Lizzie could even be considered reckless considering the financial state of her family for refusing Mr Collins let alone Darcy. This is what makes her story compelling and their final union so satisfying. It is also full of witty satire that still holds up and is funny over 200 years later.

“I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”

north and south

1. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)-

Elizabeth Gaskell is my favorite author and I try to read her books each year. When I do I am always struck by how modern her characters feel. If they were to sub out more modern language the characters choices would feel right at home in a contemporary novel. In North and South she creates 2 fantastic characters in Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret has been forced to move the Northern city of Milton where she meets the proud self-made Thornton. He is strong-willed like her but not a gentleman in her eyes. Then she and him get mixed up in the woes of the factory workers at his mill and the tension begins to mount. There is such chemistry between Margaret and Thornton from the first moment they meet, but it is not just a romance but an exploration of these 2 characters and how they let go of their pride to love. It will be too long for some folks but I adore it and find it endlessly re-readable.

“He knew how she would love. He had not loved her without gaining that instinctive knowledge of what capabilities were in her. Her soul would walk in glorious sunlight if any man was worthy, by his power of loving, to win back her love.”

So that is my list! What do you think of it? Let me know! I will be putting out a couple more book lists so let me know what you would like to see.

Christmas Carol

As I mentioned in my last post one of my Christmas traditions is to go to a fabulous local production of A Christmas Carol at Hale Center Theater Orem.  In the small ‘theater in the round’, the audience-member becomes engulfed in the world of Victorian London and the classic Dickensian tale of redemption (btw, you know your an influential author if you have your own adjective- right!)

Everyone knows the story of the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” known as Ebeneezer Scrooge.   What you may not know is some of the history behind the story.   In his novels, Dickens had two purposes for writing: 1. to show a journey of redemption by the lead character (or characters) and 2. to profile the horrific state of the lower classes.  As can be seen in Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and other novels the poor characters must fight his or her way through work houses, orphanages, debtors prisons and Poor Laws- all institutions which made it nearly impossible to progress towards financial stability.  This is the reason why Scrooge (clearly the rare non-aristocratic member of the upper class) views the work houses as the only suitable charity he can support. Scrooge was also not alone in the idea of “decreasing the surplus population.”  The poor were often perceived as lazy and undeserving by the upper class- even worthy of punishment for their apparent idleness.

However, Dickens is not as one-sided against the wealthy as he might at first seem.  For instance, we can see in Nephew Fred the type of rich person Dickens believes in- a man who uses his fortune to cheer others (even his crotchety uncle).  In the Christmas Future vision it is Fred that notices Bob Cratchit’s sorrow and offers comfort for him and his family.  The Fezziwig’s and the men seeking charity are other examples.  They hope to collect “some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.”   Clearly for Dickens it is not the possession of money that creates evil but the love of it- the avarice and greed.  In addition, the laws of the day supported the greedy and made service the exception to the rule.  Let’s not forget Dickens lived in the beginning of industrialization which brought with it child labor, insufficient pay and deplorable work conditions.   There is also an element of fear attached to Scrooge.  It is out of a ‘fear of the world’ that causes him to hoard money,  and the more he fears, the more he hates.

By using the happy time of Christmas as the setting Dickens creates a foil for the worldly Scrooge  and in many ways a symbolic dichotomy- Scrooge or Satan on one side, Christ and Christmas on the other.  This is why Tiny Tim is the ultimate contrast to Scrooge- Tiny Tim who hopes “the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”   I’ve always thought Scrooge’s initial response to Tiny Tim is interesting:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before,”tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

Why did Scrooge have an immediate reaction to Tim?  I think it is Dickens’ way of showing the power the light of Christ has on a sinner- it makes an impression on even the most hardened of hearts!

Could it be there is hope for such a wicked man as Scrooge?  What about the other cold and uncaring of his class? According to Christmas Carol, the answer is yes!  In fact, this is the reason Jacob Marley gives Scrooge “a chance and hope of escaping my fate.  A chance and hope of my procuring.”  Scrooge was lucky to have such a friend in Jacob and perhaps many of us are brought to Christ through the love of our friends?

Through Marley’s gift Scrooge realizes he has wasted his life on a fear of poverty and shut out the light that the Cratchit’s have found in spite of their meager possessions.  He learns whether rich or poor, happiness comes from a changed life, “an altered life”, a life focused on God’s commandments and on satisfying the needs of others with Christian charity.

At Christmas time, I hope you get a chance to read this wonderful story.  For some it has become trite and rehearsed but give it another shot.  I challenge you to actually read it this year with an eye for the lessons it teaches- not just about making Christmas a merry time but of the peace Jesus Christ gives through His Atonement.  The power of His love can change a ‘covetous old sinner’ into “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world”.   In truth we are all sinners and in need of redemption- Christmas Carol tells us that conversion is possible for anyone.

In addition to loving the novel, I have yet to see a film version of I do not like (even the recent animated movie with Jim Carey was good!) .  Whether it be live on stage, preformed by Mickey, or by the Muppets, the Christmas Carol is a classic for a reason.  It reminds us to use the great gift of Jesus Christ’s redemption in our lives and to give the gift to others through service and a merry heart- especially at His season of Christmas.

You can read Christmas Carol online for free.

http://www.stormfax.com/1dickens.htm

Why I love Elizabeth Gaskell

180px-elizabeth_gaskell_-_project_gutenberg_etext_19222

For all of you who do not know, Elizabeth Gaskell was a novelist in the 1850’s at the same time as Charles Dickens.  In fact, the two were friends and critiqued each other’s work on occasion.  I have now read four out of her six novels and I have LOVED all but one (Ruth I liked but did not love).  North and South may very well be my favorite book.  (I know- all you Austen-attics can scream in shock!).  To me it is as close to perfect as a novel can be- perfect characterization, settings, conflict, romance, social consciousness etc.  Wives and Daughters is also great, but Gaskell died before finishing it so the ending is a bit abrupt.  Recently  I  finished Cranford, which is more a series of short stories rather than a novel of a town called Cranford, and I LOVED it!  I laughed and laughed throughout the entire thing.  It is wonderful.  Let me say a few more things I love about Gaskell’s writing:

1. Her characters are the most fully realized voices I have read.  Each person Gaskell invents are complex, confusing, imperfect and human all at the same time.  He or she changes bit-by-bit like real human beings and by the end of the story I feel as if I have come to know a new friend intimately.   Some of my favorite characters are:

Molly Gibson (Wives and Daughters)- I can’t think of a higher compliment than someone telling me I am like Molly.  I know I keep saying this but she is perfectly well-rounded.  She is smart but not too bookish, kind but no pushover, spunky without being obnoxious, good but not pious, shy but not too shy.  She is willing to do brave things throughout the book but she does not seek after such tasks.  She loves but does so quietly out of true friendship. She loves her father but is still willing to speak her mind to him on occasion.  She’s just great! I don’t think I have ever wanted a character to fall in love as much as I wanted it for Molly.

John Thorton (North and South)- As much as I love Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, John Thorton is an even better man.  He is lower class-wise than Darcy but he holds himself up as high in the beginning of the story.  He is what Darcy might be had he been a self-made man.  Thorton’s father lost his fortune in speculating and the resulting poverty caused Thorton to pursue business with a passion.  That said, he never becomes a Scrouge-like character- consumed with greed.  Perhaps it is the presence of his mother that keeps a softness to him, but it is also the presence of literature and philosophy that convince Thorton he has more to learn- keeps him humble. I don’t want to give too much away but it isn’t until Margaret judges his lifestyle as inferior that Thorton’s pride becomes a stumbling block.  He believes that his factory, his life, is a benefit to the world and is shocked to find Margaret in disagreement.  This eats at him and causes him to slowly change.  (Again, Gaskell gives us a complicated and layered character).

Miss Matty (Cranford)- An old spinster who bases all her life choices on the opinions of her sister- or that’s at least what Gaskell wants you to think at first.  Again, without giving too much away, Matty looks  at the need around her and then subtly encourages her more headstrong sister to do the right thing.  With the exception of a man she might have married early in life, Matty seems to know what she wants in life and then finds a way to get it without ruffling any feathers.  This is shown when she has financial problems and through the support of her town she finds a way out of it without hurting anyone. (All of the women in Cranford are like this- Miss Matty was just my favorite).

2. The next thing I love about Elizabeth Gaskell is how contemporary her novels feel.  You might think I am crazy to say this given their length; however, the themes and characters are very modern.  For instance, the women in Cranford are almost entirely self-sufficient.  The narrator actually says in the opening of the book that the gentlemen in Cranford “seem to disappear.”

“What could they do if they were there?  The surgeon has his rounds and sleeps at Cranford;  but every man cannot be a surgeon…for kindness to the poor, and real tender offices to each other whenever they are in distress- the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. ‘A man’ as one of them observed to me once ‘is so in the way in the house”.

Now tell me, does that not seem like the words of a contemporary novelist? It’s not just her bold, dynamic women that I love but the mixture of tradition with a willingness to change that her characters embrace- is that not also very modern?  Even traditional Miss Deborah in Cranford changes in her views about death and certain traditions.

There is an independent voice to all of Gaskell’s characters. which I also find very modern.  I never feel like they are touting a party-line or saying something to be politically correct.  For instance, Margaret in North and South intervenes at a key moment not because she believes in a particular philosophy but because it is her innate human response. Someone like George Eliot (who I admire greatly) would have given tons of weighty reasons for why her characters act- instead of just letting them be human. Each Gaskell  character is unique and wonderful- and that individuality is very modern.

The women in all her books are independent thinkers, which you don’t see in a lot of other novels of the day. In Ruth, Gaskell even gives her readers a woman who has an illegitimate child that she keeps.  This must have been shocking for readers of the 1850’s, but doesn’t it seem like something that could have been written today?

Dickens, on the other hand, definitely has characters that are meant to symbolize or bring to light particular philosophies, practices or beliefs of his time. Plus, the women in Dickens are uniformly silly (With perhaps the exception of Estella in Great Expectations).  Most of this works in Dickens, but I prefer the organic feel of Gaskell’s characters.   I honestly think you could publish North and South or Wives and Daughters as  new books today (with perhaps a slightly different setting) and they would be equally applicable to our modern sensibilities.

3. I love the language of Gaskell.  I love that she can pull imagery from a flower, a piece of cotton, a butterfly.  There are scenes in her books where all you have to know is the character’s cravat is untied and you know everything.  I have never been to England but the way Gaskell describes the scenery makes me want to visit.  Whether it is the industrial South, the lush North, or the small isolated town of Cranford, Gaskell’s descriptions are just beautiful.  I love them!

4. Gaskell has some of the best pacing I have ever read.  Like Austen, she builds tension slowly with each scene until I am about ready to burst.  Then she gives us the climax or moment of crisis finishing off with a subtle yet triumphant ending.   That’s why Wives and Daughters kills me- I want to read the ending! As much as I try to fill in the blanks I know it is nothing to how great Gaskell would have ended it.

Given her great settings and characters, I buy what happens in Gaskell’s plots.  It just makes sense, and it always has me enraptured.  I don’t think I have ever wanted to know how a book would end more than while reading North and South.  I really did not know if it was going to be a tragedy or a romance- it is a perfectly executed  plot. In all of her books I just can’t wait to know what is going to happen and how it will all turn out.

I could go on and on.  Gaskell’s books are fantastic.  They make me want to write and to read more.  I find them funny, romantic, sad, tragic, gossipy, and immensely satisfying.  I know they are long books (with the exception of Cranford) but it is worth the effort.  Enjoy the length.  Enjoy every word of delight, every wonderfully layered character, and every perfectly executed scene.  I know that literature is very subjective, but if I could recommend any book to a friend it would be one of Gaskell’s.  I consider all of you to be my friends so there it is- read her books!

I will close by saying that the BBC miniseries’ based on North and South, Wives and Daughters and Cranford, are all superb.  Great, great, great, great.  They are long but I enjoyed every moment.  North and South is probably my favorite (Richard Armitage as Mr. Thorton- totally gorgeous).  It’s not only acted well but filmed in an interesting contemporary style which is in fitting with Gaskell.  Cranford is wonderful also with Dame Judy Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton (who steels every scene she’s in- the scene with the cat is the best!) and Michael Gambon.  I can’t praise it highly enough.  Wives and Daughters managed to do the impossible by finding a Molly Gibson that I like.  Michael Gambon is wonderful in that as well.  All of the miniseries’ are great.  I just wish she had written more books for them to make into more miniseries’! If any of you want to borrow I have all 3 on DVD.

By the way- the next comment I get on the blog will be my 100th!  I wonder who will get the honor?! Thanks for making the blog a great part of my life.