Like many people, my first encounter with Fitzgerald was The Great Gatsby, but while I remember being impressed with his writing, I didn’t love the book the way I know so many other readers do. That must have been seven or eight years ago and I haven’t read any of his other books since then (apart from his short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I enjoyed) so I decided it was time to try another one to see whether The Great Gatsby, despite being his most popular book, might not have been the best place for me to start.
Tender is the Night, published in 1934, is the story of the disintegration of the marriage of psychiatrist Dick Diver and one of his former patients, Nicole Warren. The novel is divided into three sections and the first is told from the perspective of Rosemary Hoyt, a young American actress spending some time in the south of France with her mother while she recuperates from an illness. One morning she goes down to the beach where she meets Dick and Nicole for the first time. Immediately attracted by their glamorous lifestyle and personal charm, Rosemary becomes captivated by both Divers.
In the second section of the book we move back in time to the beginning of Dick’s relationship with Nicole at a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland. By the time the story returns to the present again, both the reader and Rosemary can see that the Divers’ marriage is not as perfect as it first appeared. The rest of the novel follows the breakdown of their marriage as Nicole grows stronger and Dick’s life goes into a decline.
After I got past the wonderful opening scenes set on the beach, I quickly became bored. I finished the first section with a growing sense of dread at the thought of having to write a negative review of a book that I was sure must be a beloved favourite of so many other people – or worse still, having to abandon it. I’m glad I persevered because it turned out to be only the first section of the book that was a problem and after the focus switched to Dick and Nicole in the second and third parts, I found the story much more engaging.
I know there is another revised version of this book that rearranges the story chronologically and I can understand the reasoning behind that. I’m sure I would have found it much easier to get into the book if it had started with Dick and Nicole instead of Rosemary. However, I think taking Rosemary’s section away from the beginning would remove the sense of mystery – the fact that we first see the Divers through Rosemary’s youthful and naïve eyes means there is more impact when we discover that there’s actually much more to their marriage than meets the eye.
I’m aware that Tender is the Night is partly autobiographical and inspired by Fitzgerald’s own life with his wife, Zelda, who also suffered from mental illness. As I’ve never had enough interest in the Fitzgeralds to have read about their lives in any depth, the autobiographical aspect of the story didn’t have a lot of meaning for me, but I could appreciate that he was drawing on his own experiences with Zelda to give his portrayal of Dick and Nicole’s relationship a feeling of authenticity.
However, I’m not sure if I really liked this book any more than I liked The Great Gatsby. It’s a more complex, mature and emotionally moving story, but with both novels I have struggled to fully connect with any of the characters, something that is more important to me than the elegant writing and complex themes. It’s possible that if I was married I might have more understanding of Dick and Nicole – although I couldn’t identify with Rosemary either, so maybe that wasn’t the problem.
I do think Fitzgerald’s prose is beautiful (I loved the descriptions of the French Riviera, Italy and Switzerland) and this is a book that needs to be read slowly so that you can really appreciate the beauty of each sentence. If I’m going to be honest, though, the feeling of boredom I felt near the beginning stayed with me throughout the whole book. I know now that Fitzgerald is never going to be a favourite author of mine, but I’m glad I’ve at least given him a chance by reading two of his novels before coming to that conclusion.
I love Victorian literature and if I had to choose a favourite Victorian author it would probably be Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White was the first book of his that I read, in 2006, and within a year I had also read The Moonstone, Armadale and No Name. Since then I’ve read several of his lesser-known books, most of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, and while they weren’t as good as his ‘big four’ novels, I still found something to enjoy in all of them. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, though, and it’s now been a few years since I’ve felt like reading any of Wilkie’s books. But when the Estella Society announced their Wilkie in Winter event I decided to join in and read one of the titles I hadn’t already read, The Frozen Deep.
The Frozen Deep is a novella which Collins based on a play he had written, with the help of Charles Dickens, in 1856. The story was inspired by reports of a voyage to the Arctic led by Sir John Franklin in 1845 during which the members of the expedition disappeared without trace.
At the beginning of the book we meet Clara Burnham who is saying goodbye to the man she loves, Frank Aldersley, whose ship is leaving the next day in search of the Northwest Passage. However, another man is also in love with Clara. His name is Richard Wardour, and when he discovers that she has become engaged to somebody else, he vows to take his revenge on the man he believes has stolen her from him. Clara, who is gifted with the Second Sight, is convinced that Richard will succeed in finding and destroying Frank – and when she learns that Richard has also joined the same Arctic voyage she becomes even more afraid.
I really enjoyed reading The Frozen Deep. It’s not one of Collins’ best books, but I hadn’t expected it to be so I wasn’t disappointed and with less than one hundred pages it was perfect for those busy days just before Christmas when I was looking for something quick and entertaining to read. But while I was impressed that Collins could tell such a compelling story in so few pages, I do think there was the potential for it to have been expanded into a full-length novel. I would have liked more details of the Arctic expedition itself and the experiences of the men left stranded by the ice-bound ships. And I thought Richard Wardour could have been a fascinating character, if only there had been time to explore his thoughts and emotions in more depth.
Although this book wasn’t without some flaws, I thought it was very enjoyable and I’m hoping to find time soon to read (or re-read) another of Collins’ books.
When I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin last month, in which a book would be chosen for me from a list of twenty, A Tale of Two Cities was not one of the titles I was hoping would be picked. I have to be in the right mood to want to read Dickens and I wasn’t really in that mood. Expecting it to be a long and boring read, I thought it would be a good idea to start immediately so that I would have a chance of being finished by the end of December…
I actually finished it within a week and despite my lack of enthusiasm when the spin number was announced, A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best books I’ve read this year!
The novel is set before and during the French Revolution; Paris and London are the two cities of the title. The story begins with Doctor Manette being released from the Bastille after eighteen years as a political prisoner. Reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and returning with her to England, the lives of the Manettes become entwined with the lives of two young men who are both in love with Lucie. One of these is Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat, and the other is Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. We follow these characters and others as they return to France where they become caught up in the dramatic events of the French Revolution – and the scheming of wine shop owner, Monsieur Defarge, and his sinister wife, who is never seen without her knitting!
This is the sixth Dickens novel I’ve read and my favourite so far. I find it interesting that everyone who reads Dickens has different favourites and least favourites; there doesn’t seem to be one book that is universally regarded as his best. I think part of the reason I loved this book so much was that in many ways it was very different from the others I’ve read but I know that some readers will probably dislike it for that same reason, so it’s really a matter of personal opinion.
One of the things that struck me about this book was the absence of humour, in comparison to the other Dickens novels I’ve read – and as Dickens and I don’t usually share the same sense of humour, this was definitely a positive thing for me! Of course, the French Revolution is a serious subject, so the more serious tone of the writing was quite appropriate. I also thought the characters felt more realistic and well-rounded than usual (if there is a comedy character in the novel, it’s probably Jerry Cruncher). My favourite character, which probably won’t surprise anyone else who has read this book, was Sydney Carton – although I didn’t fall in love with him until the last few chapters. I hadn’t guessed when we first met him that he would turn out to be so heroic and self-sacrificing.
I was also impressed by how tightly plotted the book is. The focus stays firmly on the main storyline which makes it easy to follow, unlike Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend which have more complex structures with lots of subplots and lots of long descriptive passages. In A Tale of Two Cities, everything feels relevant and helps to move the story forward. The novel begins with some of the most famous lines in literature (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…) and closes with some that are almost as well known (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known). I’ve seen those final lines quoted many times before but out of context they didn’t mean much to me; now that I know who and what they refer to they have much more significance. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but the ending is heartbreaking. This is the first Dickens novel that has made me cry!
The Classics Club spin was a success for me this time, then. I do have some other Dickens novels on my Classics Club list and feel much happier about reading them now!
Ten years have passed since the Trojan War ended but Odysseus has still not returned home, having been held captive by the nymph Calypso, who has fallen in love with him. At home in Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, has found herself besieged by a large group of suitors who are hoping to persuade her to marry one of them. The suitors have taken over Odysseus’s palace and are helping themselves to his food and drink; his son, Telemachus, is desperate for them to leave but doesn’t have the courage to throw them out.
The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus and his journey home to Ithaca – a journey involving encounters with the one-eyed Cyclops, the witch Circe, the sea monster Scylla, and the tempting music of the Sirens. But it’s also the story of Telemachus and his quest to find out what has happened to his father; of Penelope, faithfully waiting for her husband to return; and of the Greek gods and goddesses who try to help or hinder Odysseus on his travels.
I’m so happy to have finally read The Odyssey as it was one of the least appealing books on my Classics Club list, not necessarily because I was intimidated by it (well, maybe a little bit) but because I’m just not very interested in mythology. I can’t really explain why I’m not a fan; I did enjoy reading Greek myths as a child, but since then my reading has taken me in other directions. I know that probably puts me in a minority as most people seem to love mythology and have a lot more knowledge of the subject than I do!
I’ve started to read The Odyssey before but didn’t finish it so this is the first time I’ve actually read it from beginning to end. I did already know most of the story, partly from school and partly because this is the sort of story that I think many people will have at least some familiarity with even if they’ve never read it in its entirety. There were some things I wasn’t aware of, though – for example, I was surprised by how little time is actually devoted to Odysseus’s journey. This section of the epic, in which Odysseus describes his adventures and the monsters and mythical beings he outwits, is by far the most well-known section, but it actually only takes up four of the twenty-four books that make up The Odyssey. The rest of the time is spent on the suitors, Telemachus and Penelope, and what Odysseus does after he eventually returns to Ithaca.
There are lots of different themes and ideas contained in The Odyssey – storytelling, disguise and deception, temptation, and the relationship between mortals and gods are a few that I noted and I’m sure there are others that I missed. There is also a lot of focus on hospitality. It seemed a weary traveller would be made welcome wherever they went, offered food, a bath and a bed for the night.
There are many different editions and translations of The Odyssey, some in verse and some in prose, but the book I read was the Wordsworth Classics edition pictured above from 1992 with a 1932 prose translation by T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). There was no special reason why I decided to read this version, other than that I happened to have it on my shelf (I can’t remember where I got it from). I’m not sure if you can even still buy this particular translation in this edition anymore. However, this turned out to be a perfect translation for me. I know I’ve probably missed out on a lot of the beauty of The Odyssey by reading a prose version, but I don’t get on very well with narrative poems – apart from The Epic of Gilgamesh which I loved in verse form – so reading it in prose was probably a much better choice for me personally.
I have no idea how technically accurate Lawrence’s translation might be, but all I was really hoping for was something enjoyable and reasonably easy to read, and that’s what I got. I was surprised by how exciting and readable it actually was; I wonder if the fact that Lawrence himself had such an eventful life was an influence here in helping him to convey the drama of Odysseus’s adventures in such a compelling way.
I’m sorry about the lack of insight and analysis in this post. It doesn’t seem right to just ‘review’ an epic like The Odyssey as I would any other book, but that’s what I’ve had to do as I really don’t feel that there’s much I can add to everything that’s already been said about it over the centuries. It’s actually been a lot harder to write about The Odyssey than it was to read it!
Have you read The Odyssey? If I read it again, is there a translation you would recommend?
It is an ancyent Marinere,
And he stoppeth one of three:
“By thy long grey beard and thy glittering eye
Now wherefore stoppest me?”
I’m not someone who reads a lot of poetry but that’s something I would like to change, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to try this new Oxford World’s Classics edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1798. This book contains both the original 1798 version and the revised, expanded one from 1802, together with their prefaces and appendices. There’s also an extensive introduction, chronology and notes, though I didn’t personally find the notes particularly helpful – and they were sometimes a distraction when I would have preferred to just concentrate on reading the poem.
From the point of view of a casual reader of poetry I don’t think it was really necessary to have both the 1798 and 1802 versions together in one book. I would have been happy with just the second one, as it seems to include all the poems from the first edition (though in a slightly different order) as well as a large number of new poems. For students of Romantic poetry, though, it will probably be useful to be able to compare the earlier edition with the later one and see how each was originally presented (any significant changes to wording etc are mentioned in the notes).
The only poem in this collection that I was already familiar with was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. It’s here in two different versions; in the 1802 one the language has been ‘modernised’, replacing some of the archaic spellings used in the original. I’ve liked this poem since the first time I read it at school and it really stands out among the other poems in the book as something special and unique. There are only a few other poems by Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads and the overwhelming majority are by Wordsworth; the most famous of Wordsworth’s is probably Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey. I’ve never thought Wordsworth would be a poet that I would like, but there are quite a few of his poems here that I enjoyed, including Goody Blake and Harry Gill, We Are Seven and The Thorn, all of which appear in both volumes, and in the 1802 collection I also liked his anti-hunting poem, Hart-Leap Well.
Whether or not you like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it can’t be denied that their Lyrical Ballads was an important work with an influence on both the Romantic Movement and the development of poetry in general. While there were only a few poems in this book that I thought had any real brilliance, I did enjoy reading most of them and found them all easy enough to read even for someone like myself who isn’t really a fan of poetry. The idea behind Lyrical Ballads was to make poetry accessible to the average person by using simple language that could be understood by everyone, so in this respect I think it was a success.
As this Oxford World’s Classics edition is quite academic it would probably be a good choice for students of Romanticism but I think for the general reader like myself it might be better to look for a collection of the most popular works of Wordsworth or Coleridge.
I’ve had this book on my list for the RIP challenge for the last four years and finally, this year, I found time to read it! This was technically a re-read for me as I know I read it in when I was in my teens, but I had almost completely forgotten the story so it did feel as though I was reading it for the first time again. I also think I was maybe a bit too young to fully appreciate it the first time (I remember skipping through the ‘boring’ parts at the beginning to get to the parts with the monster).
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was written while Mary Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying at Lake Geneva with Lord Byron and John Polidori in the summer of 1816. Shelley’s novel is said to have come about as a result of a challenge from Byron that also led to Polidori’s The Vampyre (a story that influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and the beginnings of Byron’s own unfinished vampire story.
Frankenstein begins with some letters written by Arctic explorer Robert Walton to his sister in which he describes his voyage to the North Pole and how he saw a huge figure crossing the ice in a sledge pulled by dogs. Soon after this, Walton and his companions rescue another man, who is frozen and exhausted. His name is Victor Frankenstein and he tells Walton that he was trying to catch up with the giant figure they saw earlier. What follows is Victor’s story, beginning with his childhood in Geneva and his early interest in chemistry and other sciences. At university, his study of science continues and he secretly begins the construction of a human-like being which he plans to bring to life.
Victor’s experiment is a success, but after his creature is brought to life he panics and runs away, leaving the monster alone to fend for itself. The rest of the book follows Frankenstein’s nameless monster, abandoned and rejected by his creator, as he searches for acceptance and friendship. Meanwhile, Victor is convinced that he has unleashed a terrible evil upon the world and that he will have to destroy the monster before it destroys him.
Like Dracula, Frankenstein has become a part of popular culture, but most film versions of Frankenstein have very little in common with this book, so it’s still worth reading even if you think you already know the story. We probably all have an image in our mind of what Frankenstein’s monster looks like (green skin, bolt through the neck etc) but in the book, there are only a few descriptions of the monster’s physical appearance. We are told that he’s hideously ugly and much bigger than ordinary men, but he is also agile, intelligent and sensitive. The monster is also never given a name (his name is not Frankenstein, which is another common misconception) and Shelley refers to him most often as ‘the wretch’.
It’s the chapters that are told from the monster’s perspective that are the most interesting and also the most moving. Despite some of the horrific acts the monster commits, it would be difficult not to feel sympathy for him and anger towards Victor, who has created a living being and then abandoned it. The clear message of the book is that we need to think before we act and be prepared to accept responsibility for our actions. I think another thing Shelley is trying to show us is that rather than being born a monster we can become a monster because of the way we are treated by others. When we first meet Victor’s creature he is gentle and compassionate but after he is repeatedly rejected by society he begins to carry out violent, monstrous actions.
To the modern day reader there are some aspects of Frankenstein that are maybe not very satisfying or believable, such as the way the monster teaches himself to speak and to read. I would also have liked more details of the scientific methods Victor uses to create the monster and bring him to life, but I suppose that would have been beyond the scope of someone writing in the 1800s. As an early nineteenth century gothic novel, though, this is a true classic and I’m glad I took the time to re-read it.
At last! I’ve been meaning to read the sequel to The Three Musketeers for about five years now and I regret not having read it earlier as I loved it every bit as much as I expected to. I’ve done my best to avoid any big spoilers here but if you haven’t read The Three Musketeers yet you might prefer not to read the rest of this post until you have.
Twenty Years After, as you might have guessed, is set twenty years after The Three Musketeers. The political situation in France has changed during this time period: Cardinal Richelieu is dead and has been succeeded by the Italian Cardinal Mazarin, who is in league with the widowed Anne of Austria, mother of the young King Louis XIV of France. The French people are divided between Mazarin’s supporters and his opponents, the Frondeurs, who are unhappy with the way the country is being run. As Twenty Years After begins, France is close to civil war and when Mazarin meets our old friend d’Artagnan and hears of the brave exploits he has performed in the past, he asks him for help, along with his companions, the three musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis.
D’Artagnan and his three friends have drifted apart over the years but he sets out to find them and invite them to join him in the Cardinal’s service. But while Porthos (hoping that Mazarin will reward him with a barony) is happy to go along with d’Artagnan, the other two have already taken the opposite side in the conflict. The story that follows is the story of how the friendship between d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis is tested by their differing political views and loyalties. Their work takes them to England, where King Charles I is facing capture and execution, and again they find themselves in opposition – but ultimately their loyalty is still to each other, especially when faced with a new enemy in the form of Mordaunt, the son of Milady, the previous book’s villain.
I found Twenty Years After a much more complex book than The Three Musketeers; I’m completely unfamiliar with this period of French history and even after finishing the book I’m not sure I really understood all of the historical background or exactly which of the various princes and dukes was on which side of the conflict. It’s a more mature book too – the characters are twenty years older and have different motivations and priorities, which allows Dumas to explore some different ideas and themes. But there’s still plenty of swashbuckling adventure and I definitely thought this book was just as much fun to read as the first one. As in The Three Musketeers there are some great and memorable scenes and set pieces – the scene on the scaffold during the execution of Charles I is one of the best – and I also loved the sequence of chapters describing the imprisonment of the Duc de Beaufort and his attempts to escape (which involved a trained dog, lobsters, some tennis balls and a giant pie).
The novel begins with an introduction to Cardinal Mazarin, but we don’t have to wait too long until we meet d’Artagnan again, still a lieutenant in the musketeers and dreaming of a captaincy. The other three musketeers and their servants are then reintroduced gradually one by one: first d’Artagnan’s old valet, Planchet, then Aramis with Bazin, Porthos and Mousqueton, Athos and finally Grimaud. I was a bit disappointed, though, that I had read more than 200 pages before all four of our heroes were reunited and together again in the same scene. And that was really the only problem I had with this book – the fact that throughout most of the story the four are divided into two pairs working towards different goals, with Porthos and d’Artagnan on one side and Athos and Aramis on the other.
The basic personality traits of the musketeers are the same, but they have also changed in many ways since the previous book, which is what you would expect after a gap of twenty years. D’Artagnan has matured from the naïve, passionate, brave young man we met in The Three Musketeers into a clever, cunning, quick-thinking man of forty who is now the natural leader of the group. Aramis has fulfilled his ambition of entering the church but isn’t fully committed, still being too interested in women and fighting. As d’Artagnan tells him, “when you were a musketeer you were forever becoming the abbé, and now you are an abbé you appear to me to have a strong leaning to the musketeers.”
Athos was my favourite character in The Three Musketeers but in this book he has become so honourable and saintly that I found him very frustrating at times. I still liked him but I much preferred the younger Athos of the wine cellar and the Bastion Saint-Gervais! In contrast, Porthos, who was never the brightest of the four, seems to have become even less intelligent. I’m sure he wasn’t quite as stupid in the first book! It does result in some great comedy moments though, and I do admire Dumas for making changes rather than leaving his characters static and undeveloped. It was also good to see that the musketeers’ four servants are given more personality in this book, particularly Grimaud and Mousqueton who even have some separate adventures of their own.
As I expected, Twenty Years After has definitely been one of my most enjoyable reads of the year! The Vicomte de Bragelonne awaits…