Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#9: Middlemarch (George Eliot)

It took me nearly 2 months, but I finally did it. I finished reading Middlemarch this week. It is an epic novel that is immensely grand in scope. However, I often found myself getting lost in Eliot’s florid prose.

Middlemarch has a complex plot with lots of subplots that make up this massive novel. The story centers around Dorothea, a young girl who is not “beautiful” in the traditional sense, and her quest for love. Despite her outward appearance, Dorothea has a beautiful, compassionate soul. Her kindness is only outshone by her superior intellect. It appears that she has met her perfect partner in Casaubon, an older scholar who is wealthy and can provide a lovely life for Dorothea. After their marriage, the young bride encounters Ladislaw while on honeymoon in Italy. Ladislaw is an artist that is passionate and opinionated about life. (It probably doesn’t hurt that he is also described as extremely handsome!) Dorothea and Ladislaw are both aware of the sparks between them, but neither will admit them or act upon them since the young woman is newly married.

The old scholar becomes fatally ill, making Dorothea a wealthy young widow. Just as the reader becomes hopeful that she will finally be able to act on her true love, Casaubon’s evil spirit is clearly seen. In a final attempt to control his wife and break her spirit, Casaubon wrote a proviso of his will, forbidding Dorothea from marrying Ladislaw. The widow’s situation seems hopeless; she may either live a secure life, enjoying the financial status of her marriage, or follow her love and spend her days with few material possessions.

Middlemarch is an important novel due to the fact that it addresses many important topics of the day. Eliot explores the changing roles of women while redefining the true meaning of beauty in a society that was focused on what could be seen with the natural eye. The juxtaposition of love, material possessions and social status as sources of absolute happiness in the novel allows the reader to examine their personal views on the subject while observing the outcome in the lives of the characters of Middlemarch.

I completely understand the status of the novel that is considered Eliot’s masterpiece. I expect that I will return to this charming English village again in the future (although using a different edition…I will share more about that in an upcoming post on Livin’ Life). For now, I’m looking forward to returning to the modern world and reading a little contemporary literature for a change.

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#18: Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)

I just finished the June selection of the Reading with Jacqs project and thoroughly enjoyed this 1895 classic. I have picked up novels by Thomas Hardy several times to read, but never finished one. Ironically, it seems that all of those failed attempts were associated with the packing involved with a major move. Now that I have finished Jude the Obscure, I am certain that I will be coming back for more of Hardy’s eloquent prose.

Jude Fawley is the orphaned son of a poor English family. Since there is no money for a formal education, Jude educates himself through intense reading of classic and religious texts. He plans to attend college in Christminster (Hardy’s version of Oxford). Plans change when the young Jude is enticed by the beautiful Arabella. The two are quickly married, but the union is filled with turmoil. Arabella ultimately leaves Jude to live with her parents in Australia. Abandoned and alone, Jude follows his dreams and moves to Christminster where he encounters his cousin, Sue, who is fascinated by the pagan treasures of antiquity and a future profession as a teacher. Jude and Sue develop feelings for each other, but Sue chooses to marry another in order to finance her education. Jude’s life is forever intertwined with his feelings for these two women and his beliefs related to faith, morality, and the value of education. Hardy’s novel treats the reader to an experience filled with tragedy, passion, and regret that will not soon be forgotten.

Jude the Obscure can be enjoyed merely for the story it tells. However, a careful reading reveals Hardy’s commentary on the role of education — both formal and experiential — in the life of the individual while exploring the changing face of religious belief in English society. Filled with Christian and pagan imagery, Jude the Obscure presents contrasting views of morality in a succinct manner that allows the audience to carefully compare and consider the opposing lines of thought. In his exploration of marriage, Hardy is just as thorough. The author considers the union as a religious sacrament as well as a business arrangement. The influence of public opinion in the private affairs of a man and woman are at the center of the novel and questions about the nature of love, forgiveness, and parenthood are raised throughout. Jude the Obscure is not a novel that a reader will consume quickly; however, it is a treasure that will hold a revered place on my bookshelf for many years to come.

The August selection for the Reading with Jacqs project is Harper Lee’s much anticipated Go Set a Watchman. I have a few more books from My Library Shelf project sitting on my nightstand to fill the rest of the month. I anticipate reading the new story of Atticus Finch as my first book in my Texas residence. (Just didn’t want you to think that I had lost my mind and was ignoring this exciting new work that was just released this week!)

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#10: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey)

My feelings about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest changed throughout my time reading the May selection for my reading project with Jacqs. From the beginning, I found myself confused by the voice of the narrator and unable to identify with the characters Kesey had created. Once I neared the end of part one, however, things changed. I suddenly realized that this novel was not simply about patients in a mental hospital. Instead, Kesey explored those individuals who exercise domination and manipulation in order to gain control over others. The patients became all of us who have been subjected to emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of those in authority — in the work place, in the classroom, in the church. In this light, themes of man’s need to gain personal freedom from oppression and the power of laughter and self-confidence rose to the front of my reading. Suddenly, I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with Big Chief and McMurphy as they struggled against the vile Nurse Ratched. I quickly identified some Nurse Ratched’s in my own life and I understood that freedom comes in many forms — sometimes tragic — but always resulting in the desired freedom.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a story that speaks to the value of humanity and the plight of the mentally ill and oppressed in our society. Was it my favorite book ever? Not by any means. However, it spoke to me and I will forever be grateful for my time spent in the Ward with these gentle, charming patients.

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#2: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

It took me 28 days, but I am happy to say that I finally made it through to the end of Crime and Punishment, the first selection in this year’s “Reading with Jacqs” project.

A bit of background before diving into my feelings about the book. Jacqs is my oldest niece who is a fellow book lover. While visiting on Christmas Day, we abruptly decided to read a book a month together. We’ll alternate who selects the book each month and at least six of the total selections will be classics. Somehow, I got chosen to make the first choice. Since both of us had adored reading The Brothers Karamazov and had a little extra time in the month of January, I decided on Crime and Punishment. What was I thinking?

Crime and Punishment is a tale of evil actions and their impact on the criminal as well as those surrounding him. Raskolnikov is struggling to feed himself in 19th century Russia. As a result of his hunger (or so he claims), Raskolnikov gruesomely murders an old pawn broker with an axe. When her young sister unexpectedly arrives on the scene, Raskolnikov kills her as well. The criminal searches the apartment and finds treasures that he ultimately hides beneath a boulder, taking none of it for his immediate gain. Much of the rest of the novel examines Raskolnikov’s apparent madness as his guilt eats away at him. His family members are kept at arm’s length. His friends are confused by his behavior. Raskolnikov convinces himself that he didn’t commit a crime since the old woman really didn’t deserve to live.

Hidden within the story are multiple references to death and resurrection. Crosses are found at the scene of the crime and reappear throughout the novel. The story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection features prominently into the novel’s moving center section. Raskolnikov is found ill in the hospital in the epilogue during Lent and Holy Week. His ultimate healing — a resurrection, of sorts — comes when the woman who loves him, Sonya, sacrifices herself by agreeing to wait for his release from prison in seven years. In many ways, Sonya becomes the Christ-figure in Crime and Punishment.

While I enjoyed the philosophical discussions and many religious references, I found the novel to be plodding and difficult to read. As Jacqs and I chatted online, she commented that she clearly understood how the book would have been successful as a serial. The reader needs to take breaks frequently to process the implications and recover from the extreme volume. The passage that I enjoyed the most while reading Crime and Punishment came at the end of the epilogue:  “But here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. It might make the subject of a new story — but our present story is ended.” Boy, was I glad to finish that one!

February’s selection was made by Jacqs — The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon — and arrived in the mail today. I’ve got a few days before I get to start that one, but I’m certainly hoping for a better experience than my time with Crime and Punishment. If you’d like to join in the conversation of February’s book, grab a copy and get to reading. You’ll be more than welcome!

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#41: O Pioneers! (Willa Cather)

As a student, I remember enjoying reading My Antonia by Cather. I’ve always intended to read more of her works, but have never gotten around to it. This week, I stumbled across O Pioneers! on the library bookshelf and decided the time had come to revisit Cather.

O Pioneers! is the story of a farming family in Nebraska. After her father’s death, Alexandra finds herself with the responsibility of leading the family business, much to the chagrin of her older brothers. Despite difficulty and tragedy, Alexandra chooses to remain faithful to the land she inherited in hopes that her younger brother might have more choices in the future. Although the plot itself is rather simple, the novel is considered a masterpiece.

One of the major characters of O Pioneers! is the land itself. The land can be at times beautiful before suddenly taking on a vengeful, depressing air. Man’s inability to control the land (and by extension, man’s future) is a recurring theme of the novel. Personally, I loved how Cather finally stated this idea in the voice of Alexandra at the novel’s conclusion:  “We come and go, but the land is always here.  And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.” (Cather, O Pioneers!, 158)

Was this one of my favorite reads of the year? Probably not. Am I glad that I read it? Definitely. If you’re in the mood for beautiful word play from one of America’s leading female authors, take a chance and check out O Pioneers!

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