Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vanity Fair by Wm. Makepeace Thackeray

It took me a month, but I finally finished!

I'm not sure if I was distracted when I began the book, or if it was just hard to get into, but the first 50-75 pages were very slow going. I got through them, then put the book aside, assuming I'd not return.

To my surprise, we were sent to London for a month and I decided to pull it up on my Kindle during the flight over. The next 50 pages were a little slow, too, but once I got into it I was always in a hurry to get back to the hotel room and chew on it a little more.

According to my Kindle numbers, the book was about 850 pages. Yes, it would have been more palatable to modern tastes if it was half that size. But if you look at it as a very long look at everyday life of upper and upper middle class Londoners of the early 19th century, it's a perfect length.

I suppose I just gave away the plot! Actually, the plot is very simple and classic. We follow two young women, one good and wealthy, the other bad and poor. We meet their immediate and extended families, and quickly come to know the men they love and their families as well. We learn that being good and kind is better than being avaricious and manipulative. But we also learn that the ride is more fun when the bad girl is driving.

By the time we're really into the book we've met at least 75 people, and most of them show up again and again. Some are caricatures, most are stereotypes, and a few are more complexly drawn. But Thackeray was writing at the beginning of the creation of the novel, and many of the stereotypes were fresh when he used them.

He's most interested and fond of the bad girl and her badish husband. Because it's obvious he's more interested in her, we are as well. But he dutifully tries to make the good girl interesting for us too. I suppose he was one of the early novelists who realized that bad boys and bad girls hold our interest more. There's more to them and their wily motives and that's been true since people have tried to tell stories.

Aside from the main plot, the book, as I said earlier, is a good way to immerse yourself in 19th century London and its environs. The characters are for the most part middle class, which was pretty nice at the time. They all have maids and butlers and cooks and various other servants. Labor at the time was almost free. I've read the typical household servant made two or three pounds a year, plus room and board. Given that they didn't spend much at all on the board part, servants were affordable if you had any income at all.

How money was spent probably took up 20% of the book. Fortunes rose and fell quickly, often with little warning. It seemed that you could live well on a very small income, but most of our characters aren't interested in that. They want to live very well, and that takes a bit more scratch. Getting that scratch takes a lot of time and trickery, and that was the most interesting part of the book for me.

I wouldn't want to read novels like this very often, but I'm glad I read this one. I feel like I have a much better understanding of how England functioned at the time. Given this was the high point of colonialism, it was a very important time in world history. If you have a free month, give it a whirl.

BTW, if you want some background, read "What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickens Knew," or "Behind Closed Doors:Life in Georgian England."Then you'll have a much better idea of money, food, social habits, etc.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

FreedomFreedom by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm sure there are zillions of things wrong with Franzen and this book, but I don't care if it's trying to be the great American novel or not. I enjoyed it thoroughly and recommend it highly. However, if you hate Franzen, why torture yourself? Just acknowledge that you hate the book and don't bother reading it.

I'd hate to be the guy people put so much heat on. I think he's just a writer who tries to express himself. But he doesn't need my approval to keep writing. At least I hope he doesn't!

I liked Freedom because I cared about the characters. They were all flawed, but he spent enough time to make us care about them as we'd care about anyone we knew that much about. I think that's what Franzen does best, and it's a skill I don't think you can pick up. Either you care enough to deeply observe and report what you think makes people tick--or you don't. If more writers could follow his lead, I'd be a happier reader.

There are plenty of reviews detailing the plot of the book, but I'll give it a quick summary. The main characters are Walter and Patty Berglund, who meet in Minnesota during college. Their friends and family and co-workers get drawn into the book as time passes, and by the end almost 30 years have zipped by.

I thought the book was pretty light hearted in some ways, even though a lot of bad things happen. But the characters have some inner gumption that keeps them going for the most part. Maybe that's why people tag it as the great American novel. We have a tendency to keep striving and trying to better ourselves and the world. At least we used to, but that's a topic for another day.

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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

i would probably have liked the book better if I hadn't chosen it because of its humor. If you're looking for a story of self-sabotaging workaholics who, for the most part, can only be trusted to put out a good paper, this is your book.

I think the point of the book is that we tend to work hard at our jobs to the exclusion of personal satisfaction. We do this just either because we're stuck in a rut or we think we can use the job as a stepping stone for our ambition. But no matter how hard we work, or how many things we give up, our work matters little over the long run. We're on earth for just a moment or two and we and everything we stand for will soon be forgotten.

Now, that's probably true, but I wanted to have a bit of humor along with the pathos, and I sure didn't find it. The characters were, for the most part, losers or louses. There was only one guy who seemed to have it together out of the whole bunch. I don't generally mind having a bunch of misfits in a book, but these people were kind of pathetic. I know a bit of depth about them, but I can't say I cared about most of them. They're just too flawed.

I also chose the book because of it's setting. I'm going to Rome in a couple of days and wanted to put myself in the proper frame of mind. But it could have been set in St. Louis. Both cities are placed on a river and that's about all I know about Rome from this book.

The writer worked at newspapers and he must have hated the experience. I didn't detect one shred of love for the process or the art of reporting or writing.

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