Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD by Thomas Hardy

Original Publication Date: 1874
Genre: English, British, rural, classic
Topics: farm life 19th century


Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk (

Really enjoyed this Hardy title, and found that as the book progressed, it became harder and harder to put down and go and do “real life” things. I ended up doing a marathon read last night and was really immersed into Wessex and the lives of the villagers that Hardy had conjured up.
What I was most interested in this read was the difference in vocabulary and references that Hardy uses in his writing. It’s been a while since I have needed to do a “New Words to Me” blog post, but reading Hardy helped me to add a lot of new words to that list, along with loads of references to biblical and Greek/Roman myths.
So – why is it that more recent/modern writers tend to stick to the familiar vocabulary and images when other older ones didn’t? Yes, some modern writers do play a lot of with language (John Banville comes to mind), but generally speaking, there is not the range of vocabulary in more modern publications. (Perhaps it’s just the ones that I’ve been reading?)
Is it because the older (read: Victorian) writers wore their learning lightly and made these literary references assuming that the reader would know them? Or were these older writers being elitist and showing off their education to their readers? Would the average reader at the time of Hardy know his references to Ixion’s punishment and when “the sailors invoked the lost Hylas on the Mysian shore”? Or were his readers just as puzzled as I was (and hitting the books to find out more)?
Another curious point is the link between the main female character -- Bathsheba Everdene -- and the more current heroic character of Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games”. I had wondered if there was a connection between the two, and in further research, it seems that HG author Suzanne Collins did name Katniss as a homage to the Bathsheba character – both have strong independent characters that don’t always go down well in the society in which they live, both have similar romantic issues (Katniss/Peter (I think), and Bathsheba/Gabriel)… I wonder how many teen readers know that as the reference? Probably not, I would think, which is a shame as Hardy is a great read.
Speaking of literary influences, now I am curious to re-read Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel Tamara Drew which heavily references Far From the Madding Crowd. When I first read the Simmonds’ work, I hadn’t read this particular Hardy title so probably ended up missing a ton of references. I’m interested now to go back and re-read the graphic novel and see the parallels between them.
I’m now thinking of finding the 1967 movie adaptation of Far… as that seems to have the best reviews. (Although I am curious to see David Nicholl’s 2013 BBC adaptation as well. Perhaps I can catch some of that when I visit UK later this fall.)
It’s a shame that more people don’t read more Hardy – I think they think of him as writer of tragedy and sadness, but if you read his Wessex books, they are pretty light-hearted and funny at times. I’d almost classify Hardy as a rural more down-to-earth Jane Austen in some ways, but people tend to get stuck on the disastrous story of Tess and get scared off. They’re missing out.

Download Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE by Thomas Hardy

Original Publication Date: 1878

Genre: Tragedy

Topics: Romance, morality, provincial life, British, superstitions

Review by: Peter S.

When my friends found out that I was reading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, I heard the words "depressing," "tragic," and "heartbreaking." And after finishing the novel, I knew that my friends were right. The Return of the Native can indeed by a downer, but it doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable. In fact, it's one of my most wonderful reads this year so far. This is my first Hardy, and I can't wait to read his other works.

The native that the title refers to is one ClymYeobright, who finds himself returning to Egdon Heath to keep his mother, Mrs Yeobright, company. While Clym was away, Clym's cousin, Thomasin, was living with his mother. But now, Thomasin is set to marry the local innkeeper named Damon Wildeve. Things don't go as planned with the marriage of Wildeve and Thomasin, and it has something to do with Eustacia Vye, a beautiful woman who was one time romantically involved with Wildeve.

Eustacia is a restless soul. She hates Egdon Heath with a passion. When Wildeve and Thomasin do get married, she sets her eyes on Clym. Eustacia believes that it is Clym who'll take her away from Egdon Heath to live in Paris. But when the two eventually get married, Clym reveals that it was never his plan to go back to the city of lights. He loves Egdon Heath, and he dreams of becoming a schoolmaster in the nearby town.

Now here is where my summary can get a little bit spoilery. So unless you want to know what makes The Return of the Native tragic, tread carefully, dear reader. Clym doesn't become the schoolmaster that he intends to be. A condition involving his eyes renders him incapable of even reading. He becomes a furze-cutter instead. Poor Eustacia! Stuck with a husband who appears to be happy doing manual labor, while her dreams of living in Paris have gone to the dust. She seeks the help of Wildeve to escape Egdon Heath. It is during this fateful circumstance wherein Wildeve and Eustacia meet their deaths by drowning.

So now the cousins Clym and Thomasin find themselves a widower and a widow respectively. Clym thinks that he and Thomasin can become a happy couple, but we find out that Thomasin fancies the reddleman, Venn Diggory, and decides to marry him. What happens to our native? Clym finds his calling as a preacher.

All the events in The Return of the Native happen in Egdon Heath. This fictional setting is one that Hardy describes vividly. Reading about this fictional setting makes you want to live there, amid the spirited and gossipy locals and the lush flora. As someone who lives in the tropics, I am smitten by the romantic description of the heath. I can almost smell it.
The month of March arrived, and the heath showed its first faint signs of awakening from winter trance. The awakening was almost feline in its stealthiness. The pool outside the bank by Eustacia's dwelling, which seemed as dead and desolate as ever to an observer who moved and made noises in his observation, would gradually disclose a state of great animation when silently watched awhile. A timid animal world had come to life for the season.
What I also love in Hardy's novels are the questions that it poses to the reader. When Wildeve and Eustacia had that tragic accident, was it because of the spell  (or curse?) uttered by Susan Nunsuch, a woman who believes that Eustacia is a witch? Was Thomasin simply compromising when she chose to marry Venn after the death of her first husband? Was Clym really happy as a preacher? Or was this also a fallback when his plan of asking Thomasin to marry him fell through? I'd like to believe that he was.

A lot of people say that The Return of the Native is Hardy's most representative work. It did make me curious about his other works, and the novel inspired me to talk about Hardy to other book-loving friends. Hardy isn't really very popular nowadays, yes? Perhaps it is the depressing feel of his novels that turns people off. But Hardy isn't just about that. He wrote about the mores of his time, the way people once viewed marriage and how they acted based on their social status. He allowed us to glimpse on how people acted when faced when unbearable tragedy. His writing soars amid a backdrop of bleakness.

Download The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: The Dream Woman by Wilkie Collins

shortstoriesOriginal Publication Date: 1909 (in The Lock and Key Library, ed. by Julian Hawthorne)

Genre: short story

Topics: pick ups gone wrong, bad girls, alcoholism, murder, dreams, marriage





Review by Chrisbookarama:

The Dream Woman of Wilkie Collins story is not an angelic creature. Nope. She’s of the nightmare variety.

The Dream Woman is told in 4 parts by 3 different narrators. We are introduced to the story by Percy Fairbanks, who comes upon a groom named Francis while searching for someone to take care of his lame horse. Percy’s wife is intrigued by the man, who appears to be fighting off unseen demons. Since they’ve got time to kill, Mrs Fairbanks persuades Francis to unload his burden and tell her his troubles. It all starts with a dream…

Many years ago, while seeking employment, Francis spends a night at an inn where he has a dream that he’s being murdered by a beautiful woman. The very next year to the day, his birthday no less, he meets a mysterious woman wandering around the streets of his town at night all alone. Of course he instantly falls madly in love with the stranger, but there is something oddly familiar about her. I won’t say any more, but I think you can see where this is headed.

The Dream Woman is subtitled A Mystery in Four Narratives. There’s not much mystery though. It’s more of a tale of what happens when you pick up strangers. The dream woman is a bad girl through and through. She’s rather one note. There’s no explanation for her behaviour, she just is what she is.

The other important woman in this story, Mrs Fairbanks, is much more interesting character and we barely hear from her. It’s because of her that we hear Francis’s story and her pity that drives the plot to the end. However, it’s Percy who tells their part of the story and he has the irritating habit of winking at the reader with a, “Women! Am I right married guys?” Shut up, Percy.

The Dream Woman is a warning to dudes. Bad girls, stay away from them or they’ll make your life hell!

The Dream Woman appears in the Lock and Key Collection mentioned by Tasha in her review of The Lost Duchess.

Download The Dream Woman by Wilkie Collins at Project Gutenberg| Librivox

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen

Original Publication Date: 1814 
Genre: Austen romance 
Topics: marriage, integrity, morality, appearances, religion, friendship, family, loyalty 
Review by Bridget/Anachronist @ portable pieces of thoughts

Brace yourself, it is my first review here and it will be long, with a detailed synopsis, full of spoilers but hey, the book is a classic, right? Let me indulge myself a bit.
Once upon a time there were three sisters. One of them, being the prettiest, married very well, the second one, a bit wild, married very badly but for love and the third one married just because it was the right thing to do. The first sister, Lady Bertram, a rich wife of a baronet, was spending her days idly by the side of her husband, Sir Thomas, enjoying luxuries of Mansfield Park, their country estate. She had four children: two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Maria and Julia. She also decided to help her other two sisters, less fortunate when it came to the choice of husbands.

That’s how Fanny Price, our heroine, aged just 10, arrived to Mansfield Park – she was Aunt Bertram’s charity case. As one of many children of the second sister, Frances, and Lieut. Price, a retired naval officer, Fanny was sent away to live with her fine relatives. Her mother was very grateful as it was considered a great opportunity and social advancement. Of course nobody asked the opinion of the shy, awkward child. Fanny was never exactly mistreated by the Bertrams but she never felt at home with them either. Still Edmund, the younger son, being the most good-natured of all, managed to show his young cousin real kindness from time to time. Fanny’s other maternal aunt, Mrs. Norris, the local parson’s wife, showered attention and affection on her Bertram nieces, particularly Maria, but was frequently unpleasant and mean-spirited toward Fanny, making the girl feeing inadequate.

The narration starts when Fanny is 16. Sir Thomas must leave for a year to deal with problems on his plantation in Antiqua. He takes his eldest son, Tom, along in hopes to isolate him from bad company he had been keeping. Meanwhile Mrs. Norris finds a husband for Maria Bertram – a completely stupid but very rich Mr. Rushworth. Maria accepts his proposal subject to Sir Thomas’s approval on his return, making a very serious mistake.

About this time, the fashionable, wealthy, and worldly Henry Crawford and his sister, Mary , arrive at the parsonage to stay with Mrs. Grant, their half-sister. The arrival of the lively, attractive Crawford siblings disrupts the staid world of Mansfield and sparks a series of romantic entanglements.In order to entertain them the Bertram sisters are staging a play - very inappropriate but funny.

When Sir Thomas unexpectedly arrives home in the middle of a rehearsal, the theatricals are abruptly terminated. Henry, whom Maria had expected to propose, leaves, and she feels crushed, realizing that he didn’t love her. Although she neither likes nor respects Mr. Rushworth, she goes ahead and marries him out of spite. Her marriage will trigger a family crisis of quite epic proportions but fear not - our Fanny will try to preserve her integrity.
 What I liked:

If you wonder why my synopsis is so long and detailed here are two main reasons. First – I admit that Mansfield Park is my favourite Jane Austen book and I can talk about it forever. Second – I wanted to show how dissimilar that novel is when compared to those awful movie adaptations. Really, truly, completely different.

First of all the main heroine, Fanny, is perhaps the most complex female character created by Austen, maybe because she is portrayed not as a young adult but we can follow most of her childhood as well. Plenty of readers don’t like Fanny for being a bit priggish. Jane Austen’s own mother thought Fanny “insipid”. I don’t agree with such an assessment. Although, as any young girl, she is sometimes given to wishful thinking and she is often too timid to speak up her mind, Fanny can be surprisingly perceptive and intelligent; it is quite stunning as she lacked any moral guidance or support among her real or adoptive family. Still she is the only one who can assess the Crawfords in the right way, she notices how badly Maria treats her fiancĂ© before almost anybody else and she can criticize the household of her own mother in a very clear-headed way. By rejecting Henry she shows a lot of courage; she also grows in self-esteem during the latter part of the story, weathering a major crisis caused by Maria’s divorce and Tom’s illness.

Many modern readers find Fanny’s timidity and disapproval of the theatricals difficult to sympathize with but I found it in perfect accordance with her introvert character – she did enjoy listening to Henry Crawford’s skillful reading, she just didn’t want to offend her absent uncle doing something overly frivolous; I suppose she also didn’t want to mix with a crowd who treated her indifferently at best and disapproved of her at worst. Their attitude might be well summed up by this quote:

“My dear Miss Price,” said Miss Crawford, as soon as she was at all within hearing, “I am come to make my own apologies for keeping you waiting; but I have nothing in the world to say for myself-I knew it was very late, and that I was behaving extremely ill; and therefore, if you please, you must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park, Chapter 7
Apart from Fanny there are plenty of other great characters, presented here, but two of them, namely Henry and Mary Crawford deserve a paragraph or two of their own.

They are a pair of antagonists, predators, but they are presented as quite likeable creatures, so nice to be with and so interesting nobody notices their wickedness. Let’s start with the lady. I would describe Mary Crawford as Elizabeth Bennett without moral principles – she is clever, she has a great sense of humour, she is additionally rich (twenty thousand pounds of dowry, no small matter) and pretty spoiled. You might argue that her faults stem from the fact that she wasn’t given proper education and example in her childhood but so wasn’t Fanny and there is vast difference between the way of thinking of these two young women. Mary is so dazzled by the glitter of the beau monde that she rarely notices any real values in people. She likes luxury, she appreciates theatre and fun, she thinks she is entitled to everything the best, including men. Although from time to time she can be also understanding, generous and kind, she thinks mostly about her own convenience and social status. She tolerates Fanny to please Edmund and Sir Thomas but, given a choice, she remorselessly forgets her timid friend to enjoy a more interesting company.

Her brother is even worse – it is a predator similar to Monsieur Vicomte de Valmont from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, another classic. As he has definitely too much money for his own good and is too lazy and lax to find himself a proper occupation he preys on women for fun (mind you we speak about the Napoleonic Wars period, such easy time to find an occupation for an aggressive, clever man of means!). The way he plays both sisters Bertram is really callous and ruthless even though you can argue both sisters deserved that much; after the marriage of Maria he doesn’t hesitate to contact her in public and when she pretends reserve he decides to conquer her again – not because he loves her but because he must prove his seductive skills before himself and all the world around. Of course the fact that he might be ruining more than one life and a reputation of the whole family in the process never even crosses his mind. He would do anything and everything for a moment of thrill.

What I didn’t like:

One small carping: I really hated the fact that Jane Austen didn’t punish Henry Crawford for his villainy. While Maria Bertram was sent into exile in the really acidic company of her aunt Norris he was left with all the privileges of a rich squire; his reputation didn’t suffer either. NOT FAIR. His only punishment? He didn’t get Fanny and he was aware what he'd lost. I wish Austen at least made him poor (gambling?) and then forced him to marry for money some horrible harpy, twice his age.

Final verdict

I may risk a statement that Mansfield Park is not an easy novel to understand. It enjoys that dubious distinction of being disliked by more of Jane Austen’s fans than any of her other novels. Perhaps it is because its themes are very different from those of her other books, which can generally be summed up by one sentence or, indeed a phrase: Sense and Sensibility is about balancing emotions and reason, Pride and Prejudice is about consequences of judging others too quickly, Emma is about growing into adulthood while being terribly nosy, and Persuasion is about giving others and yourself second chances. The theme of Mansfield Park, on the other hand, defies such a simple description. Is it an allegory of Regency England? Is it about the negative impact of slavery? Is it about the good and bad education of children? Is it about the difference between appearances and reality? Is it about the consequences of breaking with society’s rigid rules? In my opinion any, or all of those themes can, and have been applied to Mansfield Park – let it be the proof that this novel is something truly exceptional and worth reading.

Download Mansfield Park by Jane Austen at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

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Friday, April 11, 2014


Original Publication Date: 1895
Genre: Satire/Travel
Topics: Germany, Edwardian, travel, satire
Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk (

Jerome K. Jerome is a Victorian/Edwardian writer most famous for his literary comic masterpiece of “Three Men in a Boat”, but his range was larger than that as evidenced by the enjoyable “Diary of a Pilgrimage”. It’s a novel about an overland journey of two gentlemen who travel to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau in Germany. This play has been performed every ten years since 1634 (almost every year that ends in “0” and is a religious event for the villagers (in perpetuity) to say thanks for sparing them from a plague that ravished the surrounding countryside.

Jerome’s writing is strong, but this is a confusing work as it seemed to vacillate wildly between being pretty funny and satirical (Jerome has a good sense of humor) to serious contemplations of religion to travel writing. It’s rather a roller-coaster as I was never certain what kind of writing the next chapter would bring: would I laugh or would I be asked to consider something serious such as Christianity? (And that’s ok – this book revolves around a Christian play after all.)

Apart from that slight confusion, Jerome writes some fabulous descriptions of some of the characters that he and his traveling companion B come across especially a scene at the beer garden as they wend their way home post-play. It’s a quick read with some similar humor to “Three Men…” but also a surprisingly serious side as well.

Download Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Review: The Magnificent Ambersons

Original Publication Date: 1918

Genre: Classic

Topics: Family drama, society  

Review by: Melissa at Avid Reader's Musings

At the turn of the 19th century the world was changing incredibly fast. From electricity to automobiles, people could either embrace the changes or get left behind. This Pulitzer-Prize winner’s title describes a wealthy Midwestern family as “magnificent” and then proceeds to chronicle their downfall during this tumultuous time.

The Ambersons’ fortune, managed by their patriarch Major Amberson, had always been there for the younger generations and they never doubted it would always been there in the future. The Major’s daughter, Isabel, married and had one son, George Amberson Minofaur. George grew up to be a self-centered young man who becomes infatuated with Lucy Morgan.

Lucy and her father Eugene Morgan have known the Ambersons their whole lives. Eugene and Isabel have always been close, though their attraction was limited to friendship after Isabel married. Years later when Isabel is widowed Eugene renews his interest to the chagrin of George. His pompous self-worth won’t even allow him to consider the match as anything less than vulgar.

I know that Isabel is the most sympathetic character, but part of me was frustrated by her actions. She allows her son to bully her into a miserable life. The fact that George is completely spoiled and expects the world to be handed to him on a silver platter has to be, at least in part, attributed to how his parents raised him. Isabel turns a blind eye to George’s cruel snobbery and there are never any consequences to his actions.

The ending feels like a really strange add on. It should have ended with George’s accident. I don’t understand what adding a trip to a psychic added to the story except to tidy everything up in an awkward way.

BOTTOM LINE: I was actually expecting to like this one less than I did. It’s not about lovable characters or romance overcoming all obstacles. It’s a story about the world changing whether you want it to or not. It’s about people making selfish decisions and the way that others are affected by those shortsighted views. It’s about hubris and jealousy, selflessness and devotion. To me those counterpoints made for a fascinating look at this time period.

“Youth cannot imagine romance apart from youth. That is why the roles of the heroes and heroines of plays are given by the managers to the most youthful actors they can find among the competent.”

The Movie: There is a 1942 film version that I watched after finishing the novel. It was written and directed by Orson Wells the year after he completed Citizen Kane. It stars Drew Barrymore's grandmother as Isabel Amberson. I was surprised that it clocked in at a measly 88 minutes. I checked online and it turns out 50 minutes had been cut from the final version of the movie and a happy ending was reshot and tacked onto the end without Wells' knowledge. Wells once said that if his original version had been released he thought it would have been a greater movie then Citizen Kane. Unfortunately the 50 minutes of cut footage were destroyed, so we'll never know.

SIDE NOTE: Tarkington is one of the only major authors from Indiana (Lew Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Green round out the short list). There is a local theatre named after him and I’m glad I finally read one of his books!
Download Title by author at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life by Sir E.A. Wallis Budge

book cover Original Publication Date: 1908

Genre: Nonfiction

Topics: Egyptology, historical, religion, cultures

Review by : Becca Lostinbooks

Sir Budge was a noted Egyptologist and philologist who worked for the British Museum.  In this particular work, Budge offers a concise, scholarly exposition into the Ancient Egyptian belief system including the gods and goddesses and the judgement of the dead. He also covers the meaning of the afterlife for ancient Egyptians and its ramifications for Egyptian society.

Like many anthropologists, sociologists, and researchers throughout history, there is a comparison of the Ancient Egypt's belief system with Christianity.  I imagine this is to put the findings in a context that not only Budge could understand, but that the average historian at the time could understand.  Budge concludes that the gods and goddesses- that to the Western eye looks like polytheism- are actually manifestations of one God.  My brother-in-law, who grew up in India and learning Hinduism, explained Hinduism in this way, as well.   Whether these are accurate descriptions or merely a way for people of traditionally monotheistic religions to wrap their brains around the numerous deities, I am not 100 percent confident.  Budge gives several examples from Egyptian religious texts to back this up, but without having read the entirety of these texts it is uncertain to me if these are taken out of context or not.

Budge goes on to discuss the Egyptian belief in the god of resurrection, Osiris, as well as other gods, or manifestations, including Ra, Temu, Nu, Isis, Seb, and Horus.  In the fourth section, Budge gets to the Judgment of the Dead, the explanation of mummification, funerary rites, the treasure in the tombs, and the Book of the Dead, and how all of this was essential to an Egyptian's next life. This section was the most compelling to me, as I find the rituals and beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians completely fascinating.  

Though a more recent text would proof itself to be more thorough and accurate, as the more history is investigated the more there is uncovered, overall, Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life by Sir Wallis Budge was an interesting look into the Egyptians' beliefs and practices and I enjoyed reading it.

Download Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life by Sir E.A. Wallis Burdge at Project Gutenberg.