My goal this year was to read a classic novel every month — either reread a book I’d read years ago and forgotten or not appreciated sufficiently; finish a book I’d started but never gotten through; or read one of those “I really ought to read,” books. I didn’t quite meet that goal — I read 9 rather than 12 classics, but to be fair, some of them were quite long. And with few exceptions I enjoyed every one of them more than I’d either remembered or expected.
I left Dostoyevsky till last because I find Russian novels difficult and I’ve always felt guilty about not having read anything by him when so many smart people list him as a favourite author. I’ve never attempted to read one of his novels before and I picked Crime and Punishment entirely because there’s an allusion to it in the Mountain Goats song “Love Love Love.”
Once I got into it (which admittedly took awhile) I found it a fascinating study of an unsympathetic main character, Roskolnikov, who commits a crime for reasons not even he fully understands, and spends the rest of the novel dealing with the consequences. It’s like a mystery novel in reverse, in which you know from the beginning whodunit and you see the story unfold not from the point of view of the police but from the point of view of the criminal wondering whether he will get away with it and if he even really wants to get away with it. The focus here is mainly on the psychology and Roskolnikov is an extremely complex character, surrounded by people who are just as meticulously depicted and painstakingly explored.
I struggled a little bit with this English translation — I’d like to read one where the translator had tried to capture a more modern idiom, so that the story could feel more immediate and compelling. There’s enough cultural and psychological strangeness here without adding a distancing layer of formal-sounding language to make the novel feel even more like a museum piece. Despite my problems with the translation I found myself reading very quickly as I got to the end since by that time I was eager to know what happened to poor old Roskolnikov and the people around him. Dostoyevsky does not disappoint.
I don’t plan to continue striving for one classic a year next year but I do want to continue the practice of picking up books I’ve “always meant to read” since much of the reading I’ve done this year has helped me overcome the mental blocks I had about some works of classic literature. You can look back at some of my other reviews of the classics here.
This book came late in my reading year but has a guaranteed spot on my “best-of” list for 2013. I found it completely enthralling and engaging. It’s so much more than just another re-vision of Jane Austen, although it is that as well — a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the household servants in the Bennet family home. Austen-lovers will enjoy catching glimpses of key scenes in the story from the point of view of the help, but a reader who had never picked up Pride and Prejudice could enjoy Longbourn perfectly well in its own right. It’s a story that does what more historical fiction ought to do (and what I know from experience is devilishly hard to do well) — capture what life in a previous century was like for the people who actually did all the work. The housemaids who clean the Bennet sisters’ laundry, serve their food, scrub their floors and do a thousand other thankless tasks are the main characters here, and Jo Baker’s genius is that she not only makes their daily work routine so vivid you can almost feel the aching backs and sore hands; she also makes these characters as compelling as anyone Austen ever created — or, dare I say, moreso.
Although it’s not necessary to have read Pride and Prejudice to appreciate this wonderful novel, watching how the two stories intertwine helps add to the richness of Longbourn. It’s startling to realize how dependent the upper class and their servants were on each other, yet how completely separate their concerns were. Events that form the main plot of Pride and Prejudice impact on the characters in Longbourn only insofar as they raise the question, “How will this change affect our employment?” Meanwhile, below stairs, things happen — like the sudden disappearance of a key character — which leave a huge gap in the lives of the servants but are not even noticed by the Bennet family.
It’s interesting, also, to see the ways in which the two love stories echo each other. In the housemaid Sarah and the footman James, Baker has created characters every bit as powerful as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Sarah is, like Elizabeth, an intelligent, independent-minded woman constrained by the restrictions society places on a woman of her class. James is as taciturn and enigmatic as Mr. Darcy with far better reason to be. An omniscient point of view, which I don’t normally like in novels, works very well here as it gives us glimpses into the thoughts and backstories of several characters, helping us understand motives that are opaque to the other characters.
This year has been a great one for me in reading historical fiction, with memorable novels such as The Signature of All Things, The Painted Girls, and Life After Life. Longbourn takes its place with the best of these, reminding us that while grand historical sagas about kings and queens, lords and ladies will always grab readers’ attention, the ordinary lives of working people were just as full of drama, passion and interest, and just as worthy of being fashioned into novels.
By now I guess most people have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to go to school and speak out about girls’ right to an education. This very readable memoir tells Malala’s story in her own words, situating her tragedy and triumph in the place she comes from. The reader will learn a lot about the Swat Valley area of Pakistan, the Pashtun culture into which Malala was born, and the way in which the Taliban gradually gained power in the region. We also get to know Malala’s family, particularly her father who is obviously a major influence in her life and was crusading for the right of young people of both genders to be educated before Malala was even born. It’s clear as the story unfolds that Malala gets her activism from her father but also that her desire to get an education and to speak out for her right to do so came naturally from the person she is. The other thing that came through quite clearly to me in her story is that even though Malala is a crusader and has been caught up in political and religious conflicts that many adults don’t even fully understand, she is also a teenaged girl. At the time she was shot (at age 15) her life consisted of going to school and giving interviews and speeches about the importance of education, but it also consisted of competing for top grades with the other smartest girl in her class, worrying about her physics exam, arguing and making up with her best friend and her brother, and comparing her life to that of characters in the Twilight novels.
Anyone who’s heard Malala’s story and wants to know more about what happened to her, and see her story in the context of what’s happening in Pakistan today, would enjoy reading this book.
Glennon Doyle Melton is the blogger behind the very popular “Momastery” blog, famous for searingly honest glimpses into her life and the lives of her family. She’s a survivor of alcoholism, addiction and bulimia, whose primary message is that radical honesty — embracing and sharing your weakness rather than trying to appear strong — is the only thing that gets us through the madness that is life. Her book has the same frank, funny, generous tone as her blog, and fills in her story in a more chronological way. She’s a Christian whose work is loved by readers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including the non-religious, because her stance is one of absolute openness and acceptance.
My favourite statement from Glennon comes from the intro to her blog, where she writes: “I love Jesus, gay people, adoption, and rearranging furniture. In the interest of combining all my loves, I have asked Jesus to help me adopt Nate Berkus.” If that statement makes you laugh and warms your heart, then you’ll probably love both her blog and her book, so check ’em out.
The Dream Runner is the first of three e-novellas — the others are The Dream Thief and The Dream Wars — released this year by my real-life writer-friend Kerry Schafer, to keep her fans occupied while we wait for Wakeworld, the sequel to her novel Between, to come out in January. There are no obvious links to the Between series in the Dream Wars novellas except that in both series, dreams are far more than incoherent images your subconscious fires off while you’re asleep. The Dream Wars books are set very firmly and believably in our own world, but in this version of reality, you can order the dreams you want from a shadowy figure called the Dream Merchant. Jesse, once a teenaged runaway, has become a Dream Runner — someone who takes orders for the dreams people want and delivers them. When the past reaches out an unexpected hand to tug her back to the hometown she left in a hurry ten years ago, her work for the Dream Merchant becomes horribly entwined with her own life and the lives of people she once cared about. That’s the catalyst that sets into the motion the events of three fast-paced novellas.
Jesse is an engaging heroine, not always easy to like but perhaps easy to identify with. She’s been badly hurt in the past and has developed a lot of defenses to protect herself. When all hell breaks loose in the world of dreams, Jesse begins to realize how destructive her own coping mechanisms are in the real world, too — but it may be too late to change any of that. My only disappointment in this highly readable series is that I had somehow assumed, because they were released as a trilogy, that the story would be concluded when the third novella was over. However, the ending of The Dream Wars left most of the important plot threads still dangling and ended with a teaser telling me to look out for more stories from the world of the Dream Wars. Hope I don’t have to wait too long!
More detailed reviews of all these books are in the posts below.