Book Recommendations: April 2013
By Appa the Gypsy
This post is a little behind schedule, but don’t you guys worry. May’s Recommendations are circulating in my brain as we speak…
Anyway, so this month I decided to step away from my usual fantasy recommendations, and take a look at some of my favourite classic novels. All of these are very famous canonical texts, and all feature very famous literary female protagonists… I don’t know why that is… But many people are already familiar with these books, or at least the storylines. However, I’d like to take another look at them, and explain why I think they’re really worth reading.
Middle Grade Literary Fiction: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Women was one of those books that I read quite young that made a massive impression on me. Possibly the most profound impression any text has ever made on me. Little Women made me think, and to a child, that kind of growth is invaluable. But first, I’ll explain what Little Women is about, for those of you who don’t know, that way I can better express exactly how one book could possibly have such an impact on a person.
Little Women is set in the 1800’s in Massachusetts, and follows the lives of four sisters as they grow from young girls into women, each choosing different paths. The sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, are all different kinds of girls with different thoughts and ideas and talents. The narration positions us to identify most with tomboy Jo, and the story really is about her. She is strong-willed, blunt, and she has a temper. She spends much of her childhood aspiring to be a writer, a difficult profession for a woman in that era. Jo forms a solid friendship with Laurie, the boy next door, and adopts him into her family as her brother. Meg, the oldest of the four, is beautiful and lovely, and everything a young woman should be, particularly in Jo’s eyes. Beth is the musician, younger than Jo but older than Amy, and often overlooked for being so quiet and caring. She is closest to Jo, and it is through her that Jo is able to find a more caring and compassionate side of herself. Amy, the youngest, is shallow, self-absorbed and spoiled as a child, but she grows into a proper young woman, an inspired and intelligent painter, and a forgiving and kind person. Under the guidance of their parents, and through the trials of near poverty, the civil war and devastating losses, the little women encounter difficulty and hardship, and are made better people because of it. None of the sisters are perfect, but each represents a flaw, whether it be superficiality, callousness, fear or weak-mindedness, and shows us that it is possible to overcome them and be better than that. The book deals with love, loss and choice at its core, and, for me, it was a book that made me think about myself.
As a child, you are often asked what you want to be when you grow up, but rarely are you asked who you want to be. Little Woman was the first book I ever read that really made me think about the kind of person I wanted to be, and Little Women made it clear that it was possible for me to choose to be that person. Being a heavy fantasy reader, the texts I read most generally provide me with the opportunity to consider what I would do in fantastical situations but I’ve rarely make an effort to comprehend more than that from them, even when I was rather young, but Little Women was completely different for me. It deals with real life, and issues that will always be prevalent for people everywhere. Little Women made me consider the way I treat others and the way I treat myself, and it allowed me to come to a lot of really significant conclusions about who I am and what I want for myself, and that, as I said, was and always will be invaluable to me.
Now, I’ve only talked about Little Women in this post, but there are actually sequels that are worth looking into. Little Women and its first sequel, Good Wives, are generally packaged as one volume, and have been since the 1880’s. Actually, Little Women only covers the girls’ lives up until Meg’s wedding, and then Good Wives tells the rest of the story that we now accept to be a part of Little Women. After that, we have Little Men, which is the story of the boarding school boys who live with Jo and her husband at the school they run. I only made a small dent in this book before I somehow lost my copy, but it was definitely an interesting sequel that shows us how life goes on after the happy ending. The book makes for an interesting text for young readers, particularly for boys, simply because the main character is a boy, just as Little Women’s was a girl. Jo’s Boys is a direct sequel to Little Men, showing us how the boys all grew up, the mistakes they made, and how they turned out. It’s not all fun and games for them, though. There are some hard-hitting lessons for the boys to learn. Alcott’s writing style might possibly seem preachy to some readers, but she writes about some really valuable moral lessons in all her books, all with a focus on the ability of people to overcome their past mistakes and learn from them.
On a final note, I will say that Little Women is a children’s book aimed at young girls. The writing, however, is suited to slightly more advanced readers now, simply because of the way language has developed over time. Little Women is sad at times and happy other times, but the characters have qualities that are admirable, and they are decent role models for people, not just young girls, but everyone, because they are good people, underneath all the flaws they struggle with, and it’s worth learning things from good people, or characters, in this case.
- Little Women
- Good Wives
- Little Men
- Jo’s Boys
Young Adult Literary Fiction: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
A bit of an obvious choice, maybe, but Pride and Prejudice was the first text I read for a literature class that I actually enjoyed reading, and so it’s stuck with me for years. Everyone is pretty familiar with the story, and it’s been adapted in so many ways, from the BBC’s straight interpretation, to the loose adaptation that is Bridget Jones. But, there’s something about Pride and Prejudice that’s made it so popular, and it’s really worth it for readers to come back to the original text, if only to see how all those adaptations have drawn so much more from the text than what was there.
One thing that I really appreciate about Pride and Prejudice is that it really is light reading. Jane Austen agreed. She called it “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling”, which was, I think, her much cleverer way of calling it a fluff piece. It’s fun to read, but it doesn’t look much at what’s happening outside the microcosm of the characters, and that’s okay. I also like that the chapters are short. That makes it easier to divide up the reading. So many novels have such long chapters that they don’t give you a break when you need one. Jane Austen does not make that mistake.
But onto the real reasons why I’m recommending Pride and Prejudice to you guys, and it’s really more than that it’s a literary classic and everyone should read it. For me, it’s that Jane Austen was one clever, funny lady, and her work deserves to be appreciated. Because, through all the time-enduring romance and the hate that becomes love, what you really have is an array of characters who demonstrate, most effectively, all the different ways it is possible for human beings to be ridiculous and silly. The more you think about it, the funnier it is.
I originally wrote a five hundred word summary of the book, for anyone who doesn’t know what Pride and Prejudice is about, but then I decided that a video is quicker, so I found this one…
And that’s Pride and Prejudice, in a nutshell that still doesn’t cover half of it. It’s actually a wonderful satire of society and the people in it, and the text pays attention to the importance of manners and education for the development of a person’s mind. There’s a reason why we still remember Jane Austen today, and I really do attribute it to the fact that she was a smart, keen observer of people, and she was able to translate that skill onto paper, in the form of engaging and entertaining stories that have been enjoyed by generations of readers.
Adult Literary Fiction: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’m just going to kick this off by explaining why I’ve decided to make Jane Eyre an adult recommendation. I have one really simple big reason for it. Jane Eyre is daaaark. I’d be willing to say that Harry Potter is really similar to Jane Eyre, only Harry Potter gets to have magic and make actual friends. Jane Eyre? Not so much. She gets a voice on the wind. Once. And she chooses not to question it too much. The point is that the book is pretty depressing in parts, and it’s a gothic novel too, so it’s like a horror novel that lacks a real horror. Jane is physically abused and starved, and she watches a friend die from illness at a very young age. She then nearly marries a guy, Mr Rochester, who’s already married. His wife turns out to be insane and she later commits suicide. Mr Rochester is then nearly burned alive trying to save her, and is crippled and blinded for his trouble. All the while, Jane is being prevailed upon by her cousin to marry him so he can drag her off to die as a missionary. Like I said. It’s dark. But, if Romeo and Juliet and Titanic are any indication, that’s how we like our love stories. Dark.
Anyway, so as you may have assumed from the Harry Potter comparison, Jane Eyre is about an orphan named Jane Eyre who goes to boarding school. As a child, she lives with her aunt who, for lack of a better phrase, pretty much hates her, as do her cousins and all the servants at their house. Things are pretty bad. Jane does her best to make do, but she has a fiery disposition, and one day they push her too far and she responds with anger. Her aunt then sends her away to Lowood school. By comparison, Lowood is both worse and better than Jane’s home with her aunt. She was more physically comfortable with her aunt, but people openly despise her less at Lowood. She learns a lot from her kind young friend, Helen, before she passes away, and also from the lovely Miss Temple who tries to run the school with kindness despite its owner’s cruelty. Jane remains at Lowood for several years as a student and then a teacher, before acquiring a position as a governess to the ward of a Mr Rochester. Mr Rochester turns out to be a rich guy who likes to play games with people, but somehow he and Jane fall in love, even though he’s kind of mean, and he proposes to her. On the day of the wedding it is revealed that he is already married to a madwoman. Rochester tries to convince her to be his mistress instead, but Jane flees, fearing she might give in and agree to. She finds salvation with a family of siblings who, in circumstances that only happen in Romantic era novels, turn out to be her cousins. After a time, she returns to Mr Rochester’s home to find it burned down. Hearing the story of Mrs Rochester’s demise, and Mr Rochester’s injuries, she seeks him out and they finally marry, now that the first wife is out of the way. It’s a pretty intense plotline for a romance novel, but it’s really a lot more than just a romance novel, even if it is credited as one of the greatest romances of all time, and it’s one of the best examples of the style of texts in the era it was written.
Jane Eyre is a character whose real quest is one for balance. Throughout the novel, she learns the value of fiery passion and cold rationality, but her resolution is only brought about when she finds a balance between those two aspects of her personality. At the same time, the text is a struggle between adhering to society’s conventions and simply acting on one’s desires. Once again, it is a balance that Jane truly seeks. Similarly, her relationship with Rochester is one that lacks balance, a fact that becomes so very apparent to her in the lead up to her almost wedding, when he is showering her with gifts, but she has nothing to give in return. It is only after she has acquired a substantial inheritance, and he has lost his home and has been so severely injured as to truly need her physically that they achieve equality.
This is one of the big reasons that Jane Eyre is considered a feminist text. It really makes it apparent the extent to which Rochester must be cut down before equality is achieved between the two, a feat that could not be achieved by the writer by simply providing Jane with her inheritance. Rochester had to be crippled and lose part of his fortune first. That speaks volumes. Personally, I just liked reading it, but I think what makes this aspect interesting is the question of which choices of Jane’s are feminist and which are not. For example, was leaving Rochester behind and preserving her self-respect in the eyes of society the feminist choice, or would staying with him no matter what the conventions dictate be? It’s thought provoking, if you let it be.
Otherwise, it’s a romantic, rags-to-riches, coming-of-age story that give us all hope that anyone can find happiness. And it is a story that has remained popular for generations, for good reason. I’m not sure I’ve really sold it very well here, and that’s probably because it’s a text I’ve studied this year for class. The truth is that I see it as a great novel to escape into, and the romance, while inexplicable, is somehow believable and the slow-burning tension of it pulls you in so much more effectively than the standard love at first sight stories that we encounter so much more these days. Jane Eyre is a very enjoyable read, it’s easy to get into, and the writing is intelligent, and sometimes that’s what you’re really looking for in a novel. Something enjoyable to read.
Fun Fact: Every single one of these books has been adapted into multiple films and television series.
Feel free to comment and suggest any books or series to me or our other readers that you’ve liked. Even though I do suffer from the never-shrinking pile of books I have to read, I think I’d be lost without it too. It’s like a constant challenge that I’m accepting, so don’t feel bad for adding to that pile. In fact, come at me with your recommendations. Challenge accepted.