On the Shelf: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

Goodreads | Amazon

Summary: 

Often considered Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, Bleak House blends together several literary genres–detective fiction, romance, melodrama, and satire–to create an unforgettable portrait of the decay and corruption at the heart of law and society in Victorian England.

Opening in the swirling mists of London, the novel revolves around a court case that has dragged on for decades–the infamous Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs.  As Dickens takes us through the case’s history, he presents a cast of characters as idiosyncratic and memorable as any he ever created, including the beautiful Lady Deadlock, who hides a shocking secret about an illegitimate child and a lost-love; Mr. Bucket, one of the first detectives to appear in English fiction; and the hilarious Mrs. Jellyby, whose endless philanthropy has left her utterly unconcerned about her own family.  As a question of inheritance becomes a question of murder, the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, struggles to discover the truth about her birth and her unknown mother’s tragic life.  Can the resilience of her love transform a bleak house?  And–more devastatingly–will justice prevail?

My Thoughts:

Two years ago, I began the long trek that is Bleak House.  I had to read the first eleven chapters during one of my literature classes while studying abroad.  After covering the assigned portion, I continued reading.  Every once in a while, during a break between books and Christmas break, I would pick it up and cram in a few chapters.  I reached around page 350 before the next semester began.

Between school and working at a Bible camp, I haven’t had the chance to pick it up since.  To say I’ve been looking forward to finishing it is an understatement.  All school year, Bleak House loomed over me.  All I wanted to do was pick it up and finish.  Finally, last week, I did.

Picking up such an 800+ page story en medias res is challenging.  I vaguely recalled the plot, but had to read all the summaries on Sparknotes for the chapters I had already covered in order to feel confident to proceed.  Even then, it took a hundred or so more pages before I had a firm grasp on the wide cast of characters.

The book was definitely a challenge.  It has its slow points, but I skimmed those to avoid becoming too disheartened.  So, while I can tell you all about my favorite characters, like Esther, Mr. Guppy, and Peepy Jellyby, I can tell you very little about what actually went down in the Chancery law case.  I wish my Victorian Lit professor last fall put this book on the syllabus–I feel like discussing it in class would help me appreciate it for more than its story alone.  (We read Oliver Twist instead.)  Although I picked up on many of the general themes–largely those regarding secrecy and obscurity, I would LOVE to learn more from an academic standpoint.

All this aside, once I finally got rolling, Bleak House was a treat.  I read the last 450 pages in a span of three days.  Once all the different plots began weaving together, things became really fun.  Many of the big plot reveals were predictable, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.  I liked the two narrators immensely–Esther sees and feels more than she lets on (especially regarding her feelings towards a certain kind-hearted doctor), which made reading between the lines a necessity.  I appreciated Dickens’ heavy-handed criticism of the moral degradation of cities and his flagrant distaste for people like Mrs. Jellyby, who spends all her time working towards a grand Mission, all the while ignoring the plight of the helpless right outside her door.  I had fun with Mr. Bucket, the detective hired to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Lady Deadlock.  I adored Mr. Guppy–he’s quirky, absurd, and good for a laugh.  Other characters I enjoyed were Miss Flite, the eccentric bird lady, Jo the street urchin, and Caddy, Esther’s friend who marries a dancing master.

There are some absolutely marvelous moments in the novel.  The opening section (quoted below) is fantastic–Dickens masterfully pulled me from my skin and set me on the foggy streets of London, with Lincoln’s Inn looming ahead.  The part where a certain character spontaneously combusts was so disturbing and ridiculous that I laughed aloud.  The flight of Lady Deadlock at the end was chilling and dramatic.

If you’re a fan of Victorian literature, you don’t want to skip Bleak House.  It’s a challenging read, but a rewarding one.

Sample Quote:

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among green airs and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”

You Will Like This Book If: You enjoy Victorian literature, Dickens as a writer, and challengingly long reads

Bonus Photo: Lincoln’s Inn Hall–home of the High Court of Chancery, where the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit drags out for the majority of the book.  I took this photo during my semester studying in London, where I did a self-guided Dickens tour through the city.  The above quote is taken from a page-long discussion, which brings readers right here to Lincoln’s Inn.

P.S. Be sure to look up the fantastic BBC miniseries based on the novel as well!  I watched it a few years ago and loved it!

Tis the Season Day 3: Victorian Ghost Stories

We have reached day three of Tis the Season and today I will be tying Christmastime with academia.

I had the pleasure of spending the past semester in a Victorian Lit and Culture class.  When you think about it, the Victorians are really the ones responsible for Christmas as we know it today.  They began traditions like singing carols and waiting for Saint Nicholas.  Prince Albert is responsible for bringing the practice of bringing evergreen trees into homes, a tradition he carried over from Germany when he married Queen Victoria.  One tradition, however, did not continue into the twenty-first century: Christmas Eve ghost stories.

Why ghost stories on Christmas?  According to a KnowledgeNuts article, they are a remnant from pre-Christmas pagan practices.  You see, the Christmas was strategically placed on December 25 because various festivals, rites, and rituals were already associated with the Winter solstice. Due to these practices, “the solstice was also considered the most haunted day of the year due to its association with the death of light. The barrier between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was supposedly lowered on this day.”

Superstition was aided by technological advances.  Modern gas lamps provided eerily dim light, leaving room for the imagination.  In a creaky old house filled with flickering shadows, ghosts were easily believable.

Dickens, of course, was a firm supporter of the Christmas Eve ghost story tradition.  What first comes to mind, of course, is A Christmas Carol, a story so deeply ingrained in our culture that we all know the story.  (I admit, I haven’t read it.  But I hope to someday!)  We all know of the hard-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  Always big on enforcing strong moral messages, Dickens nails Scrooge’s story with a lesson on appreciating life and showing kindness to those less fortunate.

A lover of drama, Dickens took immense pleasure in doing readings of his work.  Last Fall, when I toured the Charles Dickens Museum, I actually got to stand in the room of his house where he used to present read to his family and friends.  They still have the podium he used.  He would stand there on Christmas Eve and read off his latest ghost story for his loved ones, thrilling them with dramatic voices and pauses.  It was really a treat getting to see into the famous author’s world.

I stumbled upon many fascinating and fun articles while researching for this post, and my favorite was probably one from The Guardian by Kira Cochrane.  If this post has piqued your interest, I highly recommend checking her article out!

What do you think about the Victorians and their ghost stories?  Do you wish this tradition was still around today?  Why or why not?

On the Shelf

I come bearing another edition of On the Shelf, a feature where I talk about the books I’m currently reading or have recently finished.

Let’s start with academics.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This Victorian bestseller, along with Braddon’s other famous novel, Aurora Floyd, established her as the main rival of the master of the sensational novel, Wilkie Collins. A protest against the passive, insipid 19th-century heroine, Lady Audley was described by one critic of the time as “high-strung, full of passion, purpose, and movement.” Her crime (the secret of the title) is shown to threaten the apparently respectable middle-class world of Victorian England. (summary via Goodreads)

We finished discussing Braddon’s popular novel in my Victorian Lit class this week.  The story is thrilling, filled with masked identities, bigamy, and hidden crime.  It’s a fast-paced story for its time and has some fantastic characters–the energetic Alicia, passionate Clara, and lazy Robert.  The title character is a gorgeous mastermind who will stop at nothing in her pursuit of a better life.  Braddon presents a complex argument regarding law, crime, and gender.  Is it a feminist novel?  It easily could be.  You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out!

The one downside of this novel is that Braddon isn’t particularly skilled at writing prose.  She tends to use the same words over and over again, which gets dull.  However, my favorite sentence in the book is probably this one:

The windows winked and the flight of stone steps glared in the sunlight, the prim garden walks were so freshly gravelled that they gave a sandy, gingery aspect to the place, reminding one unpleasantly of read hair.

Sorry, redheads.  Braddon doesn’t seem to like you very much.

The Evermen Saga by James Maxwell

Remember the other day when I gushed about the pain of a wonderful first read?  I was talking about this series.  (The cover is pretty awful, isn’t it?  I’m thankful I read the books on my Kindle to avoid staring at the photoshopped monstrosity.)

In my last installment of this feature, I was in the middle of the first novel of the series.  This past week, I finished the fourth. You’re probably thinking, “Woah, Amelia.  You’re in your senior year of college and managed to finish four 500 page fantasy novels within a few short weeks?  Are you insane?”

Answer: Kind of.

I’d label it weakness, not insanity.  When I enter a well-crafted world and become attached to its inhabitants, there’s no stopping me.  I become a rabid book breather and do not stop until I hit the end.

The thing about Maxwell’s series is that, like many fantasy novels, they aren’t literary.  The characters aren’t super original and there are gaping plot holes.  Too many convenient things happen for it to be completely believable.  But the series is FUN!  As far as pleasure reads go, it’s top-notch.  The world was so compelling that all its faults are forgotten.  I ‘d go so far as saying I adore the book’s universe.  The Tingarian Empire is diverse, historic, and well-planned.  The magic in the series, based on runic lore fueled by a deadly magical liquid called essence, is compelling and fantastic.

What I loved about the series is that there is never a dull moment.  The pacing is quick, bringing us from one battle to the next.  Yes, the characters aren’t super original, but they won my heart.  I found myself rooting for them as they faced incredible odds.  Each book was more dynamic than the next, and the finale in the fourth book was splendid.

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

In this epic new work, the award-winning Kenyon creates an alternate 19th century with two warring continents on an alternate earth: the scientific Anglica (England) and magical Bharata (India). Emboldened by her grandfather’s final whispered secret of a magical lotus, Tori Harding, a young Victorian woman and aspiring botanist, must journey to Bharata, with its magics, intrigues and ghosts, to claim her fate. There she will face a choice between two suitors and two irreconcilable realms.

In a magic-infused world of silver tigers, demon birds and enduring gods, as a great native mutiny sweeps up the continent, Tori will find the thing she most desires, less perfect than she had hoped and stranger than she could have dreamed.  (Summary via Goodreads)

I found this book via Kindle’s Daily Deal option.  It’s my gym read and, so far, has succeeded in taking my mind of the pain of the elliptical machine.  I’m not overly invested in the characters yet and still don’t know how I feel about the story.  But the world is intriguing.  I love the idea of an alternate Victorian period where England represents cold, hard science and India embodies magic and mystery.   I’m excited to see where it goes!

What’s next?

Starting this weekend, I’ll be delving into the massive Victorian chunker, The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.  I’m also hoping to start The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.

What have you been reading lately?

In the essay-writing zone.

It’s the time of the semester where Amelia enters full-out English Major mode and locks herself in the basement of the library for hours on end writing essays.

Photo on 10-12-14 at 3.09 PM

6-8 pages on Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell due by Friday.  I spent most of yesterday afternoon and this morning outlining and am finally getting into drafting.  I’m currently on page 4, over half way through my argument, but there’s a LOT of polishing to do.

It’s not all bad, though.  I’ve got my classical music playlist keeping me going.  Swan Lake is my essay-writing power jam.

I promise I’ll get back to substantial posts once Midterms are over.

In the meantime, what music do you listen to when you study?

On my bookshelf

When I’m not running around doing campus ministry or diagramming sentences for Grammar & Language or working the circulation desk at the library, you can usually find me with a book.  (Actually, now that I think about it, I have a book in all three of those situations… but I digress).  I’m taking less credits than usual this semester, which means I have slightly more free time.  So, in true English major fashion, I’ve been filling my time with books!

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.

1. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

This is Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, a widely acclaimed work based on the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. It follows Mary Barton, daughter of a man implicated in the murder, through her adolescence, when she suffers the advances of the mill owner, and later through love and marriage. Set in Manchester, between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

(Description from Goodreads)

The perks of being in a Victorian literature class is that I’m assigned books I’d read for fun.  I just finished Mary Barton this afternoon (a week earlier than the syllabus called for) and loved it!  Gaskell vividly describes life for the lower classes of Manchester, makes a complicated argument for the solution of class disatisfaction.  About halfway through the novel, Gaskell changes pace and I found myself unable to put the book down, wanting to know what happens to all the characters.  I found the end a bit unsatisfying, but am willing to forgive Gaskell for that.

2. The Selection series by Kiera Cass

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn’t want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.

Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she’s made for herself–and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.

(Description from Goodreads)

I downloaded the first book for cheap on my Kindle for reading material at the gym and then proceeded to read the entire series in a week.  The trilogy definitely has weaknesses–it feels like a cheap knock-off of The Hunger Games, characters are pretty two-dimensional, and it’s not that well written.  Despite these things, though, I adored the trilogy.  It’s like The Hunger Games meets reality t.v. meets fairy tales.  They’re not perfect, but make for excellent brain candy.  And, oh my goodness, the covers are SO PRETTY.

2. Enchantress by James Maxwell

Ella and her brother, Miro, are orphans, their parents killed long ago in the ongoing struggle against the mad Emperor.

From the day Ella witnesses an enchanter using his talents to save Miro from drowning, she knows what she wants to be. But the elite Academy of Enchanters expects tuition fees and knowledge. Determined, Ella sells flowers and studies every book she can. Meanwhile, Miro dreams of becoming one of the world’s finest swordsmen, wielding his nation’s powerful enchanted weapons in defense of his homeland.

A dark force rises in the east, conquering all in its path, and Miro leaves for the front. When the void Miro left is filled by Killian, a charming stranger from another land, Ella finds herself in love. But Killian has a secret, and Ella’s actions will determine the fate of her brother, her homeland, and the world.

(Description from Goodreads)

I haven’t finished this one yet.  It’s my current gym salve.  (By that, I mean it takes my mind off the pain of the gym and gives me something to do.)  Book one of a trilogy, the only reason I happened upon this one was because it was a featured daily deal on the Kindle store.  It’s not particularly well written, not very original, and the characters feel really flat.  But Maxwell creates a very compelling world that I want to know more about.  I’ve avoided reading Goodreads comments on this one, not wanting to spoil my enjoyment.  Because, so far, it’s definitely been an enjoyable read!

4. The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Golden boy Ezra Faulkner believes everyone has a tragedy waiting for them—a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen. His particular tragedy waited until he was primed to lose it all: in one spectacular night, a reckless driver shatters Ezra’s knee, his athletic career, and his social life.

No longer a front-runner for Homecoming King, Ezra finds himself at the table of misfits, where he encounters new girl Cassidy Thorpe. Cassidy is unlike anyone Ezra’s ever met, achingly effortless, fiercely intelligent, and determined to bring Ezra along on her endless adventures.

But as Ezra dives into his new studies, new friendships, and new love, he learns that some people, like books, are easy to misread. And now he must consider: if one’s singular tragedy has already hit and everything after it has mattered quite a bit, what happens when more misfortune strikes?

(Description from Goodreads)

This was my brain candy this past weekend.  I downloaded a copy on my Kindle from the local library.  Again, it’s your typical coming-of-age YA novel, but enjoyable.  Schneider’s writing reminds me of John Green and Rainbow Rowell.  It was a fast, fun read.

~~~

Have you read any good books lately?  What were they?  Do you have any recommendations?

 

Back to the books

Much to our chagrin, classes have resumed at UMM!

Before delving into academic talk… I got new glasses!  It was about time.  The old ones called my face home for almost four years and were falling apart.

IMG_2525

All right, enough selfies.  Now to business.

Here’s what I’ve got lined up this semester:

Intro to Public Speaking:  Although I have extensive experience in the area (four years on the Speech team, competing at the state tournament, and giving chapel talks all summer), my communication minor requires I take Public Speaking.  Thankfully, I enjoy the subject and it’s only for the first half of the semester!

Visual Journalism: Again, this is for my communication minor.  In this class, we will be learning about communicating messages visually.  The first half of the semester will be focused on still images and photography, the second through video.  I have little to no experience in media production, so this class should be enlightening and will give me some useful skills.

Grammar and Language: This is the ultimate English major class where our natural inclination to correct people’s grammar becomes refined and sharpened.  The first half of the course focuses on grammar–sentence diagramming and understanding not only how the English language is constructed, but how it changes.  The second focuses more on history.  We will be learning the complete history of our language, which includes giving recitations in Old, Middle, and Early Modern English.  Basically, come December, we will all be fully inducted members of the Grammar Police.

Victorian Literature and Culture: Ever since I set foot on this campus four years ago, I have been dying to take this class.  I don’t need it for any requirements, but am taking it purely for fun.  We will be reading a handful of novels from England’s Victorian period of literature and learning about the culture of the people.  This semester, the professor is teaching the course from the angle of criminology and punishment.  We’ll be looking at how the rapidly changing world that the Victorians inhabited shaped what crime is and how it was punished.

Most of these are upper-level courses, so they’ll be challenging, but definitely intellectually stimulating.  I can’t wait for all the things I get to learn!