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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

28 Apr

I’d like to believe I’m not the only one who gets restless around this time of year. It’s time for something new. Time to go on some sort of vacation, some small adventure. So far, that adventure for me has been to places like the greek yogurt aisle at the supermarket, but with graduation in sight, I (hope to) dream big. This being said, summer reading deserves to be a little adventurous, and it deserves to be fun. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain isn’t all fun and games by any means, but it’s not a boring read by any means. So don’t finalize your summer reading list just yet.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Published: 1884

Quick Read?: Eh. Kind of.

Difficulty: A bit more difficult until you get the hang of Twain’s use of South colloquial language. The book is known for it’s difficult language at times, but don’t despair. It’s got a certain rhythm to it.

Synopsis: Huckleberry Finn isn’t just any rough and tumble Mississippi boy. He’s a young man who prefers adventure to being “civilized,” which is what his guardian, the Widow Douglas, wants him to be. Huck has a considerable amount of money thanks to his adventures with Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (the prequel to this volume, though this can totally be read on its own), but a quiet life is not the life for him. After sneaking out of the Widow’s house, Tom Sawyer and Huck meet up with real life “robbers” who inspire them for a life of even more adventure. But this new fun life is cut short when Huck’s mean, drunk father reappears in his life trying to steal his money. An elaborate plot to fake Huck’s own death is established, and after he escapes down the Mississippi River. He comes across a floating house along the river, and the Widow Douglas’s runaway slave Jim, who was accused of murdered the not-so-dead Huck. Together, the two band together for adventure after adventure, including Huck’s cross-dressing, freeing slaves, family feuds, and the “Royal Nonesuch.” It’s an American story of adventures in the Deep, Deep South.

What makes this book so cool?: It probably sounds cliche to say this book is “classic Americana,” but it really is. After all, it was published just after the Civil War, and it encapsulates a time of both Southern pride and shame as America teetered (just as Huck teeters) between being “civilized” and adventurous, quiet and wild, somber and adventurous as they moved westward and attempted to be a “whole” nation with regional pride. And that’s just how this book is. It’s on the cusp of youth and adulthood, responsibility and freedom, ethical rights and wrongs. Don’t believe me? It’s still a controversial book to teach, especially in the South due to its use of the “n” word, with one publishing company going so far as to use the word “slave” instead. It’s not a time period we Americans are always proud of, but even today, no matter what your opinion, it’s a time period worth reflecting on.

And as I said earlier, don’t we all want some adventure right about now? This book is full of adventures both small and big, comedic and violent, enthralling and sometimes a little bit tragic. Even if you’ve read it before, sometimes an exciting ride can do us a lot of good.

Some neat-o facts:

Mark Twain: beloved writer, steamboat captain, cigar lover, connected to the cosmos and causing all kinds of trouble.

  • The book was controversial from the time it was first published. What is most controversial today about the book is it’s use of the “n” word as mentioned above. One publishing company recently went so far as to replace every instance of the word with the word “slave.” What do you think?
  • Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer take place in Hannibal Missouri, Twain’s hometown. I’d say that’s pretty convenient when you don’t feel like creating a whole new town.
  • Twain was born during the passing of Halley’s Comet, and died during the next passing of said comet. Talk about about arriving and leaving with some flair.

If you like this, try: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Twain; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Aspern Papers by Henry James; A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

29 Mar

I’m pleased to announce Better Know a Book’s second guest post by Izzy Long! I’m excited to welcome another voice to this blog, and hope you all enjoy her post below!

With Valentine’s Day just behind us, what better novel to recommend than Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert? This is a romping good read, which will leave you alternately wanting to shout at the silly Emma Bovary, and identifying with her sighing romanticism. It’s a cautionary tale, but full of twists and turns as we watch Madame Bovary approaching her inevitable downfall.

Published in? 1857

Quick Read? Yes, this is a quick read, and the story really gallops along. Bookworms will read it in a day and a half.

Difficulty? Easy! It’s a great introduction to French literature for this very reason.

Synopsis

The book opens with a description of Charles Bovary, the man Emma will marry. It shows him at school, a weak and ineffectual man who is distinctly average. He manages to pass his medical exams, and becomes a mediocre country doctor. His mother marries him off to what she thinks is a fortune – a local widow. She dies, but instead of investing in shares she has squandered her money, leaving very little money to Charles.

He soon falls in love with Emma Bovary, a pretty country girl, and after a romantic and lavish wedding they settle down to married life. Emma soon becomes bored now that the romance of the wedding is over. She dreams obsessively of a more glamorous life, and eventually becomes depressed when she cannot obtain her dream. She becomes pregnant, and Charles moves them to a new town in an attempt to stir Emma out of her depression. Here Emma meets Leon, a law clerk, who reads romantic fiction.

The baby is born and so is a romance between Leon and Emma, who is not distracted by her new baby, but rather bored with it. She does feel guilty however, and put Leon off, and he soon gives up and moves to Paris to study law. Soon afterwards a wealthy man called Rodolphe declares that he loves Emma and they too begin an affair. Emma is rather careless, and the neighbors in the little French town begin to gossip about her. Charles doesn’t have a clue what is happening, so appears rather stupid.

He messes up an operation on someone’s clubfoot, which has to be amputated, and Emma hates him for being stupid and incompetent. He continues to love her, whilst she focuses entirely on her love for Rodolphe, running up huge bills with local shopkeepers and Lheureux, the moneylender, as she buys presents and new dresses to delight her lover. Charles’s practice is struggling after the botched operation and he struggles to pay her debts.

Rodolphe begins to tire of the demanding Emma and…

I am not going to spoil the ending of the book for you, because hopefully by now you will want to read it for yourself. Let’s just say that things do not end particularly well for anyone in the book, but the twists and turns before you reach the end (this synopsis takes you about half way) will keep you in suspense.

What Makes this book awesome? This book is awesome because it is so readable, and the story is told at a great pace, so you never get bored. If you’re looking to expand your knowledge of the classics and want an easy way in to French literature, then Madame Bovary is a great place to start. It doesn’t hurt at all! You can recognize lots of things in Emma which you identify with as you read, and hence you can sympathize with her as well as finding her behavior outrageous. She is the first example of someone using retail therapy in literature I have ever come across, and all of her emotions are channeled in the wrong ways. One can sympathize with Charles too, but not much, as he is so incredibly dim and blindly devoted to Emma. He used the book to criticize the bourgeoisie – the merchants and capitalists who had risen to power after the French Revolution. They were the ‘middle-classes’ whose manners and obsession with money was considered vulgar by many, including Flaubert. Emma’s dissatisfaction with her bourgeois lifestyle is a reflection of the author’s attitude. The book also brings up issues about women’s lives, and about language’s inability to express what it is we are really feeling.

Some neat-o facts

  • The book was written at a time when sexual matters were not discussed in novels, so it caused a scandal when it was published. Flaubert was very upset by this, as it is not the point of the book at all. He was put on trial in 1857, for obscenity, but acquitted. The resulting publicity did no harm to sales!
  • Flaubert’s style was considered very new at the time, as the language he used matched the action in the book. When Emma was depressed, the prose matched her mood, when she was happy, Flaubert’s writing reflected that in style. While this may seem normal to us these days, it was quite new and innovative in the 19th Century. One of the reasons it is so easy to read by a modern audience is down to Flaubert’s ‘modern’ style of writing. It is considered one of the most influential novels ever written for this reason. One critic wrote, “Flaubert established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible”.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

22 Mar

As I’ve mentioned before, Oscar Wilde is quite the well-beloved literary figure, and why not? We’ve already gone over his fun, flamboyant, ridiculous self before, I won’t repeat myself here. But who couldn’t use a little more of his humor nowadays? “The Importance of Being Earnest” is probably one of his best known plays, and one of his funniest works, in my humble opinion. So if you can’t get enough of Mr. Wilde, look no further than “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Published: 1895

Quick Read?: For sure.

Difficulty: Not very. Do slow down for all of Wilde’s clever wordplay and jokes, however!

Synopsis: In a classic case of identity switcheroo, the play opens with protagonists Algernon and Ernest in London. Ernest is deeply in love with Gwendolyn, Algernon’s cousin, but it Algernon soon realizes Ernest isn’t really Ernest (or earnest) at all, but is actually Jack.  Ernest is merely the name he uses while gallivanting in the city, for when Ernest goes home to his sister in the country, he doesn’t want her to know his “double life” partying and having a merry time in the city (this was before the days of embarrassing facebook photo tags, of course).  When Ernest/Jack goes to finally propose to Gwendolyn, however, he must fight off her cranky grandmother Lady Bracknell, who sees Ernest/Jack as “unsuitable.” Yet it turns out Gwendolyn only loves Ernest/Jack for one reason–his name “Ernest.” The story further complicates and becomes hilariously entangled when Ernest/Jack returns to the country with Algernon, only to have Algernon learn that Cecily is in love with him (though they have never met), and he falls for her, but not without a few complexities along the way.

Why this book? Oscar Wilde is hilarious, timelessly so. While it’s a fun play to watch, it’s just as fun to read, and great if you want a quick laugh. It’s a personal favorite of mine, out of what I’ve read of his works–others have not agreed with me, but I think it’s a definite classic, and a worthy one to have stored away in your literary arsenal.

If nothing else, this is the book for anyone with a love of clever wordplay. The most obvious of these wordplays is on the name “Ernest” and the adjective “earnest,” of course, but nonetheless, it’s a satisfying work that is never dull or boring. Nothing slows down the pace or keeps the laughter at bay.

If Tyra Banks and Oscar Wilde had lived during the same time period, Tyra would've said "Irish eyes are sm-eye-sing!"

Some neat-o facts:

  • Wilde cultivated the social wit he employs throughout this play through his social interactions in London with famous artists, playwrights, writers, and the late 19th century upper-crust. I get the feeling “The Importance of Being Earnest” had some basis in his experiences, but I can’t say that for a fact.
  • The play also makes fun of the Victorian melodrama, a popular theatrical genre at the time in England. The drama in this work is so over the top, even for Wilde, there was no mistaking its poking fun at other works during that time period

If you like this, try: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Wilde; any play by George Bernard Shaw; Orlando by Virginia Woolf; Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.

And for those of you who are film-inclined, here’s the movie trailer!

Persuasion by Jane Austen (A Good Love Story Series #3)

13 Feb

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and those of you who love love are probably just jittery with excitement, and those of  you who are ambivalent about or loathe love are, you know, out there doing your thing. But three is a magic number, they say, so here’s a third Jane Austen novel for your consideration: Persuasion. I realize Austen is not to everyone’s taste–I’ll be honest, she’s not my favorite, though I do admire how timeless her stories can be–but her books are so influential to romance today. Maybe consider a read if you haven’t already, for history?

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Published: 1818

Quick Read?: Yes. This is one of her shortest novels.

Difficulty: Not difficult.

Synopsis: Anne Elliot is merely the 19-year-old daughter of a baron who falls in love with a poor but smart young man named Wentworth. Eager to marry him, Anne finds herself meeting resistance from her family who love to flaunt their wealth and good looks all while looking down on the lower classes. It isn’t until Anne’s confidant, Lady Russell, talks to her though that she decides to break off the engagement with her beloved Wentworth, thinking she will find someone more suitable for her class. Alas, time moves along, and Anne is still without a fiance. Until ten years down the line, when she runs into Wentworth who joined the navy and became a naval war hero, and oh yeah, has found a new girl who loves him for who he is. Can love ignite for these two once more? Or have ten years apart ripped these two lovers apart for good?

Why read this book? Well, for starters, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (profiled earlier this month) are Austen’s more popular reads, along with Emma. So if you’ve read those, but not Persuasion, you’ll be in for a treat. It’s also a part of the Northanger Abbey series, so if you’re hoping to dig into a series during these dull winter months, it’d certainly be worth looking into!

And, as I’ve said before, and will say again, Austen created classic romantic and realistic story lines that have been mimicked and copied for nearly two centuries now. The lovers that split because of issues of class, only to meet again and give love another shot (spoilers? oh, whatever) has been done who knows how many times now. To read her original works and read one of the inspirations for romance nowadays is a pretty neat experience, even if you’re not all into chivalry yourself.

If the neat stuff I listed about Austen and her works before was not enough…well too bad. I’m conserving a bit of energy for a few more posts for later this month. So no matter your feelings on Valentine’s Day, I send all my readers a bit of love. As does our girl Austen here:

Look at all the love she has to give, guys. So much love.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (A Good Love Story Series #2)

9 Feb

It’s been a few days and chances are you are getting progressively more and more sick of Valentine’s Day ads and stores everywhere encrusted with red and pink tchatchkes and people complaining about being single/bragging about being in a relationship. I’ve been there, I get it. But, if only for history’s sake, take a look at Sense and Sensibility if you haven’t already. Considered a parody of the early 19th century romance novel, it may just be witty enough to keep you sane as you walk by the selection of approximately 2904328578 boxes of chocolate in your local drug store.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Published: 1811

Quick Read?: Yes, this is pretty quick.

Difficulty?: Not really. The most difficult parts are long explanations of inheritance and marriage law at this time. But it is important, and otherwise the book is quite straightforward.

Synopsis: Three sisters, Marianne, Elinor, and Margaret find themselves in a precarious position when their father dies and their brother takes all of the considerably large inheritance for himself. Now reduced to far less extravagant circumstances, the sisters find themselves living in a small cottage near their relative, Sir John Middleton. Elinor is the eldest sister and the most rational, but must deal with their new acquaintance, Colonel Brandon, and his affections for her (a man in his 30’s! Shocking!). Marianne, however, is the younger sister, full of emotional and “sensibility” (which at this time meant a kind of feminine emotional hysterics. Lovely.), and she falls for Willoughby, a kind gentleman whom she soon falls absolutely gaga for, much to Elinor’s annoyance. Elinor tries to conduct herself without feeling, which causes Colonel Brandon to back away, making her realize her own feelings. Marianne throws herself at Willoughby, only to watch him go off to London and marry another woman. Though both sisters seek happiness, how could they ever come to terms with reason and emotion, sense and sensibility? (couldn’t help it, guys.)

Why read this book? This novel is considered one of Austen’s more ironic–it very much plays with the silly, “sensible” romance novels that were popular with women during this time period. The extreme polar opposites of Elinor and Marianne reflect a real struggle at the time for women, especially those who wanted to be educated: does one listen to one’s heart and show emotion, only to not be taken as seriously? Or does one reserve all emotion and seem unfeeling, only to alienate oneself from others seeing the real person inside? It’s still a timeless issue, and one that is still thought of constantly today.

It’s also, in my humble opinion, one of the funniest books I’ve read by Austen (though admittedly I’ve only read some of her works). The sisters working as complete opposites here is compelling, and the ways in which they interact with each other don’t necessarily come off as cheesy, as many more recent books that copy a similar storyline become. Austen really does show the dangers of both sense and sensibility, and puts both ideas up for contrast, not just two opposite characters.

Some neat-o facts: 

We want a lady on the street, and a writer who is "A Lady" but you know, not named or anything.

  • Austen originally published Sense and Sensibility under “A Lady” rather than her own name. Women writers where not taken quite as seriously at this time.
  • Though Austen wrote romantic works, she was considered a “realist” writers, in that her books were starkly detailed and set in real-life places and situations. I guess one might argue that romance CAN be real, then?
  • Very little is known about Jane’s life because asked for many of her papers and letters to be burned upon  her (unfortunately young) death. For that reason, most of what we know about her is through her family members. A cause of intrigue if you ask me! And, you know, actual literary scholars.

If you like this, try: Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion by Austen; David Copperfield by Chales Dickens; Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (A Good Love Story Series #1)

5 Feb

Well folks. Like it or not, it’s February, and Valentine’s Day isn’t too far away. Whether you’re single, “it’s complicated,” have a significant other, or just like to rant and rave about the consumerist B.S. that surrounds this holiday, try and tell me you don’t love a love story. We all do, in some way, shape, or form (I won’t take any answer but that). So until Valentine’s Day, I’m paying homage to some classic romantic (and Romantic, capital R) books. Whether or not you want to rekindle your belief in love or just absorb yourself in a place with love (hopefully) reigns, it seemed appropriate to look to Miss Jane Austen to start this series off. It’s hard not to swoon over the infamous love story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, so do be sure to give it a shot this winter.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Published: 1813

Quick Read?: Yes.

Difficulty: There is some older language, but Austen’s plot moves rather quickly and smoothly, so it won’t slow you down too much.

Synopsis: Elizabeth Bennett is not the most delicate, fair, or desirable young lady in England. It’s not that she’s not beautiful or intelligent, but as a young aristocrat she does feel she can understand and judge those around her quickly and easily. But her judgement is thrown for a loop with the appearance of the dark and brooding Mr. Darcy, who Elizabeth immediately judges as “too proud.” She finds herself around him often though because her sister has started to court Bingley, an extremely rich man who comes through town. Yet Mr. Bingley leaves quickly and Elizabeth’s family threatens to fall apart, she must revisit her judgement of others as Mr. Darcy comes in to possibly save her life as she knows it.

Why read this book?: Austen is a controversial character, but her novels are still read widely today by women all over the world because they really are timeless. The love story of falling in love with someone you also can’t stand is a common motif in books and movies today, and harkening back to the original story is certainly a fantastic ride. The characters don’t feel old-fashioned for the most part, even if the portrayals of British societal standards might. The themes of too much pride and too much prejudice still apply today, which is an impressive feat for a book that is almost 200 years old (Way to go Austen! I’d like to say she planned it, but I doubt it).

Also, looking at love, marriage, family, and money in the early 19th century is certainly intriguing. The idea of honor and dishonor brought upon oneself as a woman, and one’s family, is pretty interesting. Any implication of wrongdoing or misdeed was enough to ruin everything, something that does not exist as much today. So if you want to feel the romance against all odds this Valentine’s Day season, check this book out for sure!

Some neat-o facts:

Jane Austen

There's pride in the way Austen is dressed and prejudice hidden in those eyes.

  • Austen was the daughter of a clergyman, and worked with the poor a lot. Because of this, many people critiqued her for only writing about well-to-do people. I don’t know if I blame her though…the drama is a bit more fun and superfluous. What do you think?
  • There are some pretty wonderful adaptations of this book as a film done by the BBC and elsewhere. Watch if you love romance! Avoid if you hate Valentine’s Day to begin with.
  • While many feminists have criticized Austen for her female characters always revolving around men and their actions, many would argue that that was a reflection of the times, and that most of women’s fate did revolve around marriage, childbirth, and motherhood. If you have an opinion of your own, do let me know in the comments!

If you like this, try: Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, or Mansfield Park by Austen; Middlemarch by George Eliot; Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

21 Jan

In the age of the internet cute cat pictures, Youtube, and all things witty reign supreme. And there is no one wittier than Oscar Wilde. Not before him, and not since him has the world seen someone as skilled with wit, irony, and humor as this guy. A social butterfly and flamboyantly gay, Wilde was a unique personality and a distinctive writer. While his image lives on today, it always surprises me how few people have actually read his work. Do consider him to warm up your winter blues, or store away for a distant beach day some many months from now!

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Published: 1890

Quick Read?: Yes, though slow down if you want to appreciate all of Wilde’s subtle (and not-so-subtle) wit.

Difficulty: Not very. There is a lot of wordplay, but overall, it’s a very straight forward read.

Synopsis: Dorian Gray is one handsome young man, and he knows it too. An upper-crust gentleman unable to control his own, ahem, vulgar urges, he has made quite a name for himself. As he poses for the meek painter Basil, he expresses that what he feels is most important in life is beauty, and the pursuit of it in every possible way. But when he asks to sell his soul so that his portrait will age instead of his body, he finds himself embroiled in a conflict he could not have anticipated. With act of debauchery on part, Dorian’s portrait, hidden away, slowly becomes more aged and disfigured. Dorian knows he must one day confront the true reflection of himself, but not without dire consequences.

Why should I read this? Wilde is a wonderful, humorous writer whose humor is still just as satisfying today as it was in the late 19th century. His works are, at times, laugh out loud funny, an accolade I don’t give out to just any old funny book. Wilde’s antics in his life and his works inspired many humor writers long after him. Timeless humor is truly impressive, and always refreshing to read.

Also, I know a number of folks like to read and understand a book, but hate esoteric, vague symbols and themes. The Picture of Dorian Gray is pretty upfront in its symbolism–Dorian’s portrait stands for who he really is, the disfiguration of portrait is disfiguration of the soul, on and on. His ideas are straightforward and right on the surface, so you don’t have to delve far to see where oh where Wilde was trying to go with this text. Another way of saying: this book is nowhere near as much work to read as you might think!

Some fun facts (it’s hard to pick just one with this guy. Google him. His life was so, so ridiculous):

I can't tell you how much fun I had Google searching "Oscar Wilde." I just love his dandyism. It was hard to pick just one photo, I got to admit.

  • Wilde won a scholarship to school, but his gossipy, extravagant childhood made him more rebellious than intellectual. He once turned up late to university three weeks into the semester…just because.
  • Paris Hilton and the Kardashians and all of those socialites ought to pay tribute to Wilde. While he garnered fame for being a playwright at first, he’s considered one of the first celebrities who was “famous for being famous.” If only he knew what he was starting (a slew of terrible reality shows, am I right?).
  • Wilde was arrested for homosexuality and sodomy after news of his intimate relationship with Alfred Douglas came to light. He eventually got out of jail and moved to Paris, though all reports say he was never quite the same. Douglas was known to be vain–and was was rumored to be the inspiration for the cocky Dorian Gray.

If you like this, try: “The Importance by Being Earnest” by Wilde; any poetry by Dorothy Parker; Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence