Category Archives: Reviews

Madame Bovary

When Flaubert wrote Mme Bovary, it certainly wasn’t with the intention of making his character beloved.

At best, Emma Bovary is naive, spoiled, egocentric and annoying.  However, it is of little importance. Whilst reading of her disillusions, it is impossible not to try and like her. Flaubert writes of her desperate and futile attempts to join the ranks of the aristocratic with such tenderness that you cannot help but feel that perhaps the author felt a certain love  for his antihero.

Emma Bovary is convinced that life has dealt her an unjust card: she believes she is entitled to riches, happiness and a fabulous existence. This arrogance is what causes her to be disliked, both by those who surround her and by the reader. She yearns for an aristocratic lifestyle yet lacks the consideration and gentle touch needed to make social connections. She ruins every opportunity by her childish attitude and fails to realize that happiness cannot be bought.

Madame Bovary is a tragedy, if only because Emma is a tragic character: she has everything to make her life enjoyable, yet she is wretchedly unhappy.

This novel should have been horrible. The main character’s attitude towards life is appalling and the whole novel is centered around her. Nevertheless, there is something magical and beautiful about this classic.

That the tale of a sad, apathetic, suburban wife should have stood the test of time and should be considered one of the best novels of Western Litterature is, quite simply, a testament to the brilliance of Gustave Flaubert and that is reason enough to read this novel.

“Everything immediately surrounding her – boring countryside, inane petty bourgeois, the mediocrity of daily life – seemed to her the exception rather than the rule.  She had been caught in it all by some accident: out beyond, there stretched as far as eye could see the immense territory of rapture and passions.”

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A Tale Of Two Cities

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix

“It was the worst of time. It was the best of times.”

Spectacular is one word that comes to mind when thinking about Charles Dickens’ revered historical novel. Heartbreaking is another.

The French Revolution has been called the most important event in history. Like all history students, I learnt from textbooks. I committed to memory horrifying events yet still struggled to grasp the raw reality of the horror and the terror of the Revolution.

As an aspiring historian, I can tell you: It is one thing to memorize dates. Its is another altogether to have the fury of the French Revolution brought to life through Dickens’ pen. Whatever you will say about the ideals and intentions of the revolutionists, there is one thing that simply cannot be denied: the rage, the blood and the madness was inexplicably gruesome. Behind each death and behind each number is a story, a person and a face.

It is easy to forget how dreadful and dire history truly is. Just as our descendants will be horrified with the wars and genocides our century bore, so Dickens was horrified by the French Revolution* .  His novel is a warning, a severe warning to Aristocratic Britain. I like to think that his warning trancedes time and applies to our century as well.

To learn history is not to justify or make excuses for the horrors that our ancestors have perpetuated. To learn history is to take the first of many steps in understanding our present and applying lessons history yearns to teach us. Greater men and women have failed abundantly and left records of these errors so that we do not have to repeat them. The torch has been passed on, it is our task now to learn from it and bequeath it to what is hopefully a more deserving generation.

In spite of all this, there are things you simply cannot learn in school. When learning about the Revolution, there are sentiments that one simply cannot express in textbooks. That is when I turn to classics. More often than not, its authors express more about human triumph and human agony than a scheduled hour of class time ever will… When it comes to teaching about the human heart, one often learns best from one’s own readings and sentiments.

For these reasons (and many more I cannot reveal without stealing from the plot), I wholeheartedly recommend A Tale Of Two Cities to all. It is a chilling admonition… Lest we forget…

charles dickens

“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind”.

*even though he sympathized with the persecuted poor, having been “forced to work in a factory as a child” (wiki).

If you are interested in learning more about the Revolution, I suggest the History Channel’s documentary, available on YouTube.

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The Historian

Dracula…

How one word can inspire so many emotions is the basis for The Historian.  Three different characters in three different yet overlapping time frames explore Eastern Europe in search of the historical Drakulya. This is a novel about how Vlad Tepes (or Vlad the Impaler) and his legend shaped Europe’s history in a frighteningly fascinating way.

Elizabeth Kustova’s debut novel is both tedious and thrilling. Some parts of it seem to advance at a breathless pace. Others are sluggish. I must admit my interest in the novel varied with the tempo… Though I dreaded about 100 of the 656 pages,  in the two or three weeks since I have completed the novel I have found myself curiously missing it. You see, I liked it the novel. Very much. However, as gripping as it was, there were times when I just couldn’t summon the strength to delve  in the annals of Mediaeval History once more.

Overall, it is an excellent debut novel. To keep a reader interested every step of the way requires incredible skill. It is a feat I shouldn’t expect of authors. Because I do, my experience with The Historian was diminished. However, if your expectations about literature are more realistic than mine, by all means, read this book. The truth behind the legend of the vampire will haunt you long after you have read the last sentence.

the-historian

“She reached out and touched the crucifix, at first hesitantly, then took it in her hand.”

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World Without End

I will answer one question promptly: no, it is not as good as it’s predecessor. How could it be? Pillars of the Earth‘s success was a complete surprise to all, an unparalleled achievement. Ken Follett has already written his magnum opus and by writing a sequel, he took a great risk. Luckily, it paid off. Whether considered on it’s own or as the second POTE, World Without End is nothing short of excellent.

I am usually very wary of sequels (especially those concluding a series) as they tend to shortchange the previous novels. However, the ending of WWE (which I will not divulge) happens to be one of the most satisfying and touching conclusions I have ever read.

The story takes place two centuries after the end of the first novel. All the Pillar protagonists are long dead though their legacy (and their descendants) live on. Much is similar and much is different in Kingsbridge. The role of the priory has changed, the rules of society are evolving but the human nature remains the same. 

I would give more details if I wasn’t afraid of  betraying all that I stand for and ruining both novels for you.

I will, however, say this: Do not read it if you are expecting Mr. Follett to outdo Pillars.  Nonetheless, if you keep an open mind, you may very well be surprised… and swept off your feet for a final, beautiful, brilliant journey to Kingsbridge.

 

“She could see nothing, but there was plenty to listen to.”

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Leonardo’s Swans

 

“A haunting novel of rivalry, love, and betrayal.”

So Leonardo’s Swans is described on the back cover. Though it is strongly implied that the rivalry and betrayal will be sisterly, do not be fooled. The novel has been (much like the 2006 movie the Breakup) cheated out of proper marketing. When one expects a passionate feuding between two powerful sisters and instead receives an intricate and well researched novel about the lives of wives, political leaders and artists  in Renaissance Milan, one cannot help but feel a little bit disappointed.  

The first half of the novel is about the tepid¹feud between real-life sisters Isabella d’Este and Beatrice d’Este.  The first is to wed the young and romantic Francesco Ganzoga, marquis of Mantua. The second is to wed the middle aged Leonardo Sforza, duke of Bari. Though Isabella at first considers herself more fortunate (Sforza continually humiliates her sister by delaying the wedding and appearing in public with his mistress) she soon changes her mind when she is thrown into the enchanting world of Ludovico. She comes to envy her sister who lives in the alluring city of Milan and whose husband is Leonardo Da Vinci’s patron. Isabella, marchesa of Mantua vows she will not rest until she is painted by the Master. Beatrice vows to foil her plans. 

The second half of the novel is more concerned with the political history of the Great Wars of Italy (especially that of 1494–98). In spite of the fact that most reviewers view this as the duller half of the book, I was delighted by the details and facts woven into the narrative. Here is where the publicized “rivalry” and “betrayal” comes into play. The rivalries will be political, the betrayals of deep historical consequence. This is where I truly appreciated the sisters’ voices and thoughts; jealousy and manipulation are not nearly as interesting to me as seeing history through the eyes of it’s protagonists. 

Recommended to lovers of historical fiction and or of Leonardo da Vinci. Seeing him as a contemporary, a fellow citizen, a man susceptible and dependent of money and patrons (though in the end listening only to his integrity) is impressive. You will be left with a different and no doubt more realistic view of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, the most perfect Renaissance Man.

 

“The soul he means to evoke is his own.”

 

 

¹ To be fair, my assessment probably stems from a modern judgement rather than a historical one.

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The Uncommon Reader

So, I am biased. Sue me. 

The Uncommon Reader  is the perfect novella.  Alan Bennett (beloved author of the most perfect and revered History Boys) asks an uncommon question: what if the Queen of England started reading? How would it impact her? And on a different scale, how would it impact her nation?

The emphasis is both psychological and cause-consequence. As is usual with Mr. Bennett (ha ha), the narrator’s voice is often the funniest. Observation and a hint of Irony are wittingly used to further the story. One cannot help but laugh when one is reading dialogues such as these:

‘I’m just kicking the tires on this one, ma’am, but it would help if we were able to put out a press release saying that, apart from English literature, Your Majesty was also reading ethnic classics.’

‘Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Kama Sutra?’

Sir Kevin sighed.

 

Albeit a short read, The Uncommon Reader is an uproarious tongue-in-cheek jab at monarchy, the English and non-readers. I recommend it to all but mostly to those who appreciate a good joke.

 

 

‘Oh, Norman,’ said the Queen, ‘the prime minister doesn’t seem to have read Hardy. Perhaps you should find him one of our old paperbacks on his way out.’

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The Red and the Black

This novel is beyond  sublime. Although I am a great lover of literature(duh) very rarely have I been so completely and utterly surprised, enthralled and bewitched by a classic. A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen were similar epiphanies. Perhaps it comes from expecting nothing at all and receiving everything in return. However, je divague.

The title says it all whilst saying almost  nothing. Le Rouge et le Noir: a young man’s choice between the scarlet red of the militia and the sober black of religion. A secret admirer of Napoleon, his life choices will always be made not with the intent of duplicating his hero’s path but rather with the intent of surpassing the old emperor’s glory. He will be torn in his love life as well, hesitating between two women who represent diverging aspects of his character. To a certain extent manipulative and hypocritical, Julien Sorel is almost an anti-hero. His crime however does not lie in his faults but rather in his great misunderstanding of the world and of himself.

I recommend this book to patient readers. At times, the novel may seem to be wearily advancing. Be that as it may, the magnificent finale is worth the journey.

Le Rouge et le Noir

“There is no place in contemporary French society for a superior man born without the advantages of money and social connections.¹”

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_and_the_Black

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