Greek Week: The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune

Saturday, March 30, 2013



Heroes of Olympus Series
The Lost Hero
by Rick Riordan
★★★☆

From a salsa-eating Cyclops to a mechanical dragon, the first book in Riordan’s new Heroes of Olympus series is packed with adventure. Beginning the summer after the final book in the Percy Jackson series ended, The Lost Hero introduces us to a new group of half-bloods.

The main character, Jason, wakes up on a bus with no memory of who he is or what he’s doing there. He is with a school group taking a trip to the Grand Canyon. A quirky kid name Leo claims to be his best friend and a girl named Piper obviously is more than just his friend. After being attacked by a storm monster the trio is whisked to Camp Half-Blood by Annabeth. They try to come to terms with their “half-blood” status and their new life.

As is Riordan’s formula with all of his books, they quickly find that they must go on a quest. Along the way they meet infamous Greek characters like Midas and Madea. We learn more about Zeus’ wife Hera as well. Leo grew on me throughout the book. I liked that his character found his strength in an unconventional way.

It’s a bummer that so many of the characters are one-note creations. You meet someone new and in a heart beat you know if they are a “good” guy or a “bad” guy. It’s rare to find anyone who walks that line. I always end his books wishing there was a bit more complexity, but I also enjoy them.

BOTTOM LINE: I think Riordan’s books are an excellent way to introduce young adults to Greek mythology. He makes it fun and accessible and I always learn something. I do wish the characters rang a little more true for me, but I’m also not the target audiences.  

The Son of Neptune
by Rick Riordan
★★★★

This one was fantastic. We dive right back into the story from the last book, but instead of the Greek camp we’ve caught up with Percy, who is missing in the first book. Unfortunately, just like Jason, he has no memory.

We finally make it to the Camp Jupiter, the Roman equivalent to Camp Half-Blood. Apparently there has always been bad blood between the two groups and the current campers know almost nothing about the other camp. Percy meets Frank and Hazel; both a sweet, self-conscious kids who figure out more about themselves with each new challenge. I loved them both as new characters. Hazel has an interesting past that starts in New Orleans and Frank’s family has a long history in Asian tradition, great additions to the series.

Gia, the evil Mother Earth character, and her army of giants are back and the trio must battle them to free Death. Obviously the obstacles are many, but the constant stream of adventure is fun.

BOTTOM LINE: I felt like this one was really a step up from the first book. I love that this series is building towards collaboration between the Greek and Roman camps and I’m looking forward to seeing that play out.


Pairing Books with Movies: Greek Week Edition

Friday, March 29, 2013

  
There are dozens of films dealing with Greek gods and history. They range from an actual cartoon (Hercules) to cartoonishly bad movies (Clash of the Titans circa 1981). They tend to be on the epic side, but some embrace quieter stories. Here are a few that came to mind. Each would go well with any of the books I reviewed this week!

Troy (2004) / Hercules (1997) / 300 (2006)



 Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) / 
Clash of the Titans (1981 and 2010)



The Odyssey (1997) miniseries / Helen of Troy (2003) / Alexander (2004)

Are there any big ones I missed?



Greek Week: Mythology

Thursday, March 28, 2013



Mythology
by Edith Hamilton
★★★★★

I’ve always loved mythology and even took a Classical Mythology class in college, but it’s been years since I really studied it. Despite that many of the Greek gods’ names are ingrained in our collective minds: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hades, but it’s easy to loose track of how they are connected. This 1942 publication is a simple but complete overview of mythology. 

The book is broken down into the following seven sections:

1: The Gods, the Creation, and the Earliest Heroes (Both Greek and Roman names)
2: Stories of Love and Adventure (Cupid & Psyche and the Quest for the Golden Fleece)
3: The Great Heroes before the Trojan War (Perseus, Theseus, Hercules, and Atalanta)
4: The Heroes of the Trojan War (Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas)
5: The Great Families of Mythology (Atreus, Thebes, and Athens)
6: The Less Important Myths (Midas, etc)
7: The Mythology of the Norsemen (Odin, Thor, Loki, etc) 

One reason mythology can be confusing is because all of the gods have at least two names: the Greek name and the Roman name. For example, Zeus is the Greek name for the ruler of Olympus and the same god is called Jupiter in Roman culture. There are also multiple versions of all of the myths. Different authors told their own interpretation and over the years the story begins to contradict itself. Hamilton removes this confusion, making the stories more accessible and breaking everything down by family tree and relationships. She also sights her sources at the beginning of each section. So if she compiled one version of the story from four different authors’ versions she explains what she did and what the differences are. 

That’s the reason this book is so excellent. Hamilton collected dozens of authors’ works into one edition. She took pieces from plays, epic poems, etc. to create on cohesive narrative. She includes an important element from one author in the story written by another author so that everyone’s actions make sense. Then she put them in chronological order within the narrative of the story. For example, she includes the Judgment of Paris, which is assumed to be the real reason for the Trojan War, before Virgil and Homer’s story of the Trojan War itself.




There are many themes that remain the same throughout the mythology. A major one is the attempt to beat fate and failing miserably. Heroes and rulers frequently heard prophesies about their lives. Then they would try to outsmart those predictions, like Oedipus’ father trying to kill his son when he was a baby or Cronus eating his children. They were trying to prevent their own deaths, but their actions inevitably led to the fulfillment of the prophesy.

“To attempt to act in such a way that the prophesy would be made void was as futile as to set oneself against the decrees of fate.” 

Another common theme is the power and cruelty of the gods. There is example after example of their quick tempers and over reactions. They often cause madness in a person to extract their revenge. Then that person (Hercules, Agave, etc.) kills their own families. Other times a god would fall in love with a mortal and regardless of whether or not that love was returned, it usually meant death and destruction for that person. 

The tale of Cupid and Psyche was won of my favorites. It’s all about true love and trust as opposed the stories of brute force where the gods just take what they want. They are a couple that truly love each other and work even harder to find each other once they are separated because they know real love is worth the pain.

The final section covers Norse mythology. There are many similarities with Greek mythology. Asgard is their equivalent to Greece’s Olympus, Thor is similar to Zeus, etc. The writing and proverbs is less poetic, but it’s still interesting. 

"Brave men can live well anywhere. A coward dreads all things."

The book wraps up with a section of family trees. I flagged this break down early on and added notes as I went. It seems like every major family line is connected to the others and the trees helped me keep it all straight. 

BOTTOM LINE: This book covers so much ground, compiling hundreds of years of Greek literature into one volume. The work is priceless and my copy is flagged and highlighted for future reference. I’d highly recommended it to anyone who loves Greek mythology. It might be a little dry for those who aren’t already interested. It would also be a valuable resource for anyone reading modern Greek literature, like The Song of Achilles or the Percy Jackson series. 

"According to the most modern idea, a real myth has nothing to do with religion. It is an explanation of something in nature."

“They had learned that every sin causes fresh sin; every wrong brings another in its train.”

Image from here

Wordless Wednesday: Rosetta Stone

Wednesday, March 27, 2013



A collection of memories from my visit to the British Museum,
 where I saw the Rosetta Stone. 

The stone contains three different languages, 
one of which (the lowest portion) is Ancient Greek. 

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.


Greek Week: The Oresteia

Tuesday, March 26, 2013



The Oresteia
Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides
by Aeschylus
★★★★☆

This trilogy of plays begins just as the Trojan War ends. It focuses on the House of Atreus, the war hero Agamemnon’s family.

**Because each section of the trilogy depends on the events in the previous section there will be SPOILERS**

Agamemnon, the first part of the trilogy, tells the story of his triumphant return home after the Trojan War. In order to gain favor with the gods before embarking on the journey to Troy to fight the war, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. Tricking both her and her mother into believing she was about to be wed to Achilles, Agamemnon instead murdered her to honor Artemis and receive the gift of winds to carry their ships.

Agamemnon’s cruel actions towards his daughter come back to haunt him when he returns. His wife Clytemnestra welcomes him home with open arms, inviting him to walk on a red carpet and honoring him with gracious speeches. All the while she is secretly planning his demise with the help of Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus.

Cassandra, King Priam’s daughter, was taken as a spoil-of-war by Agamemnon and is caught up in this horrible scene. She has the gift of sight and so she knows about the impending murder, but she is also cursed by Apollo so no one will believe her when she warns them of it. Cassandra has always been one of my favorite characters in Greek mythology. Her life is such a tragic one and her presence in this player added an extra layer of futility.

Part Two, The Libation Bearers is about Agamemnon’s son Orestes’ return to his home land. He quickly learns of his father’s murder and wants to avenge his death. Apollo’s oracle has instructed him to kill his mother in order to achieve this. With his sister Electra’s help he kills both his mother and Aegisthus. They trick Clytemnestra into thinking Orestes is already dead and then follow through with Apollo’s decree for her death. Almost immediately Orestes is haunted by The Furies and he is plagued with guilt for committing matricide.

The final section, The Eumenides, is about Orestes’ trial. The Furies have hounded Orestes for years. The gods must decide if he will be punished for his mother’s murder and so Athena arranges a trial with jurors from Athens.

There was no blood connection between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s, so his murder was not considered as heinous a crime as her’s. Murdering a blood relative is a more punishable offense, hence Orestes’ trial. During the play we learn the details of Agamemnon’s murder. Apollo comes to Orestes’ defense, explaining that he is the one who told him to avenge his father. Athena is the deciding vote in the trial, deciding to acquit Orestes of all guilt, but not truly giving him peace of mind from what he has done.

Greek mythology is all about cycles. You killed so-and-so, therefore I must kill you. You raped my wife, so I will curse you. You tricked me or refused me, so you will be fated to live in some form of agony. The more the gods meddle in human affairs the worse the cycle becomes. This trilogy is a perfect example of this cycle. One murder leads to another until almost everyone is dead. No one is truly spared from the horrific events.

BOTTOM LINE: I thought this one would be much denser and hard to read, but I found it relatively easy. I think that a big part of that is reading it while being immersed in the world of Greek mythology. I didn’t have to stop and try to remember who was who and how they were all connected because it was fresh in my mind. I would highly recommend reading this one along side The Odyssey and The Iliad as it provides closure for Agamemnon’s part of the Trojan War story.

*The Mythology book I’m reading includes another section of this story. A play by Euripides tells of Iphigenia and Orestes being reunited after all these events unfold. In that version, instead of being sacrificed by her father, Iphigenia is saved just before execution by Artemis and spirited away to live on an island as a priestess. Sometime after the trial Orestes arrives at the island and the two escape together.

I read this as part of the Let’s Read Plays yearlong event hosted by Fanda. From November 2012 to October 2013 participants will read 12 classic plays throughout the year, at least one each month.


Greek Week: The Song of Achilles

Monday, March 25, 2013



The Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller
★★★★★

Greek mythology, character-driven narrative with an epic story, a heartbreaking love story, these are a few of my favorite things all piled into one beautiful book. I couldn’t put it down; I didn’t want it to end. I finally started reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to slow my reading of this one.

Between The Odyssey, The Iliad, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and a college course on classical mythology, my knowledge of the Trojan War and the Greek heroes has been shaped and reshaped with different versions. Building on that base is this book, telling the story of Achilles and Patroclus. Throughout those other sources the pair has been painted as friends, brothers, lovers, etc. but one thing never changes: they are inseparable. They are dearer to each other than their own lives.

The first half of the book is the story of how they meet and the beginning of their friendship. The second half is the well-known story of the Trojan War. It’s retold through Patroclus’ eyes, which gives the whole tale a very different spin. All the familiar faces are there: Agamemnon, Odyssey, Hector, Paris, Zeus, Athena, etc., but many of them feel slightly different in this version.

Patroclus himself is a thoughtful, sensitive boy. He’s so unlike the other Greek warriors when it comes to brute strength, but his strength comes in a very different form. He’s willing to love against all odds, even when he knows it will end in a broken heart.

The reason this retelling resonated with me in such a powerful way is because of the characters themselves. Miller makes them so relatable. You feel for them in a way that you usually don't when you read books on classical mythology.
Chiron and Briseis particularly stood out for me. Chiron is a centaur who trains both Achilles and Patroclus for years in his rose-colored cave on a mountain-side. He is wise and kind and his home is a peaceful one, a complete change from the battle driven world they had become accustomed to. Briseis on the other hand is brought into Patroclus’ world in the midst of a bloody war. She is a prize from battle, but their friendship blossoms despite the circumstances and we see the best of Patroclus because of her.

BOTTOM LINE: I loved it. Sometimes a book lives up to the hype and this one did for me. I can’t say that you’d feel the same if you don’t already like Greek Mythology, but it was an absolute treat for me.

“Did he know, or only guess at Achilles’ destiny? Perhaps he simply assumed: a bitterness of habit, of boy after boy trained for music and medicine, and unleashed for murder.”

**One quick note about the kindle version. There was one incredibly helpful feature that really enhanced my reading experience. The character’s name were highlighted and when you clicked on them it took you to a screen with a drawing (see above) and a summary of the character’s part in Greek mythology.

Other Thoughts:
Fizzy Thoughts 

Greek Week Announcement

Sunday, March 24, 2013


This is sort of a grown-up bibliophile’s version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. At the beginning of the month I started The Song of Achilles for Care’s readalong. I was loving it, but I was also reading it too fast. It made me think about all the tales of Greek mythology I’d read over the years and all the ones I hadn’t. So I got my copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology off the shelf and started reading it.

That led me to start thinking about all the different movies I’d seen that were set in ancient Greece. This was a slippery slope because there are tons of them; some good and some awful, but usually fun!

Then I remembered how much I’d enjoyed Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and that he had a new series I’d wanted to check out. So I got The Lost Hero (the first book in that series), from the library.

Then I remembered I needed to read a play for Fanda’s Let’s Read Plays monthly challenge. And that led me to another Greek book, The Oresteia play trilogy by Aeschylus.  

So anyway, things got out of control quickly and I was surrounded by a stack of Greek themed books and Greek Week was born! I decided to post about all the crazy gods and their wrath and sneakiness throughout this week to share my craziness with all of you.

And I’ve now learned that if you give a bibliophile a good book on a topic they love, there’s no telling where they’ll end up.

Images from here, here and here

Pairing Books with Movies: The Bucolic Plague

Friday, March 22, 2013



The Bucolic Plague
How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers
by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
★★★★☆

I read this one 100% because of Sandy’s review at You’ve Gotta Read This! She was definitely right on with her great review. It’s the hilarious and yet touching true story of a former drag queen and his partner who decide to buy a mansion and become farmers. The pair are New Yorkers at heart and the transition to small town life is a tough one.
  
They tackle everything from raising goats to exploring the crypt on their property. All the while they are making new friends and trying to keep up with their old lives. The author works at an advertising agency and his partner works for Martha Stewart. Their attempt at running a farm isn’t an easy adventure, but it’s a unique one!

It’s not all funny stories on the farm though. The book chronicles not only their country escapades, but also their personal struggles and their full-time jobs in the city. It’s a bittersweet look at attaining your dreams and trying to live up to someone else’s. It’s about trying to find the balance between happiness and perfection and trying to determine what you really want out of life. It’s less about the actual act of farming and gardening and more about living the life you want.

BOTTOM LINE: I was expecting this to be a quick fun read, but I actually really liked it. The guys struggle with the things we all struggle with; balancing your personal life and work, balancing your expectations for yourself and others, etc.

Pair with a viewing of the 1988 movie Funny Farm. I can’t tell you how many scenes from this book took me straight back to this hilarious movie. I think it would be the perfect accompaniment to the book.  

The Leftovers

Thursday, March 21, 2013



The Leftovers
by Tom Perrotta
★★★☆

A Rapture-style event takes place and millions of people around the world disappear. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who was taken and those who remain, the leftovers if you will, are baffled.

The novel focuses mainly on one suburban family’s reaction to the event in the years that follow the occurrence. The husband and wife, Kevin and Laurie, have vastly different reactions. She joins a group of fanatics called the Guilty Remnant, convinced they must abandon their lives and take a vow of silence in order to remind people about what happened. Kevin goes in the opposite direction, embracing the community and running for the office of town mayor.

Their college-age son Tom searches for meaning and instead finds the “Healing Hug Movement” led by the charismatic Holy Wayne. Lost in the mix is Jill, their daughter who has just started high school. After losing her friend Jen in the event, she is expected to grieve, but instead finds herself wanting to embrace life. A lack of parental guidance and the bad influence of a new friend leave her feeling empty. She is searching for love and acceptance in the wrong places.

Perrotta has a gift for making extreme circumstances seem relatable. In this case, the rapture serves mainly as a device to allow the readers to dive into a fascinating character study of the effects of grief and shock on people. Everyone has lost someone, even those who are only missing celebrities. This shared grief both unites and divides people. It has created a world filled with lonely individuals, few of which know how to initiate new meaningful connections.

One of the most interesting characters is Nora. She lives in the same town and lost both of her kids and her husband on that fateful day. Unlike some of the other characters, she seems unable to move forward, trapped by her grief and guilt, despite the fact that her life was not the perfect picture others thought it to be.

For me the ending was a letdown. The story just seemed to peter out and that really affected my overall impression of the book. I was just expecting something more and instead it just wrapped up quickly and ended.

BOTTOM LINE: The book might be about an unexplained rapture, but really it’s about human nature, relationships and interactions. The rapture is just used to bring those things into a sharper focus, highlighting the loneliness of our world. It was surprisingly hard to put down. I was a bit disappointed in the ending, hence the lower rating, but still an interesting character study.

“… the gratitude that spreads through your body when a burden gets lifted, and the sense of homecoming that follows, when you suddenly remember what it feels like to be yourself.”

Wordless Wednesday: Chicago Public Library

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Chicago Public Library


More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Mini Reviews: The Master, New Year's Day and Round the Fire

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


The Master 
by Colm Toibin
★★★

This is a slightly fictionalized account of the later years of novelist Henry James’ solitary life. He struggles to balances his social life and his desire for solitude. He represses his sexuality, never allowing anyone to become too close. He lives in the sea of regrets and guilt, blaming himself for the unhappiness of so many others. He’s never happy with all the choices he has made or the number of successes and failures he’s had. He grieves the loss of friends and family members. He avoids conflict at any cost, often sacrifices his own comfort in life to avoid confrontation. The end result is a man that’s difficult to connect to.

It’s a very cold book. It reminded me a little bit of The Remains of the Day, in which an English butler reminisces about the past. But unlike that book, The Master lacked the beautiful language that made Remains so captivating. It’s a poignant reminder that refusing to live an honest life can make a person very lonely.

BOTTOM LINE: The book may be an accurate representation of how Henry James lived his life, but it’s hard for a reader to be drawn into the world of someone who keeps themselves completely separate.

** I think that having read a lot of James’ work would add to your appreciation of the book.


Old New York: New Years Day (the Seventies)
by Edith Wharton
★★★☆

This little novella is part of a series written by Wharton called Old New York. There are four pieces in the series, each set in one decade of the 1800s. I wish I’d known this before reading it, because I would have preferred to read them in order as a set. The copy I have includes only the final novella.
False Dawn (The 'Forties)
The Old Maid (The 'Fifties)
The Spark (The 'Sixties)
New Year's Day (The 'Seventies)

Society is scandalized by an assumed affair between a married woman, Lizzie, and a man named Henry. Wharton seems to specialize is creating women scorned by society. In The Age of Innocence we have Countess Ellen Olenska, in The House of Mirth it’s Lily Bart. Each woman is exiled from society for one reason or another and in New Year’s Day it’s Lizzie.

Yet society never really knows the details behind the scandals and Lizzie is unfairly judged. The double standard for men and women in these situations is particularly disturbing. We find out that Lizzie had her reasons for doing what she did. Her life may not have been a happy one, but she loved her husband very deeply and when she finds out he is ill she is willing to do anything to make his final years happy ones.

BOTTOM LINE: A potent little story of regret, but I would love to read the complete Old New York series.

“…they remained in town on the first of January, and marked the day by a family reunion, a kind of supplementary Christmas.”

“The truth was, of course, that it [her chief charm] lay in her sincerity; in her humble yet fearless estimate of her own qualities and short-comings.”


Round the Fire Stories
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
★★★★

This collection reads a bit like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but without the infamous detective. Quite a few of the stories had a macabre style that reminded me more of Edgar Allan Poe than of Doyle’s other work. Pot of Caviar, The Sealed Room and The Brown Hand were a few of the darkest pieces.

Other tales were easily solved with some critical thinking, similar to the Holmes books, but always with fun twists along the way. One deals with a museum break-in (The Jew’s Breastplate), an unexpected death (The Black Doctor), a visit to an eccentric relative (The Brazilian Cat), and a disappearance on a train.

BOTTOM LINE: A great collection of mysteries and ghost stories for a dark night. I missed Sherlock Holmes, but it was a treat to read some of Doyle’s other work.

p.s. This would be a great book for the R.I.P. Challenge this fall!

Walden

Monday, March 18, 2013


Walden
by Henry David Thoreau
★★★★

Thoreau wrote this infamous book after deciding he was sick and tired of his busy city life in Concord, Massachusetts. In 1845 he left the city and moved to an isolated cabin on Walden Pond. He spent two years there, farming and living off the land. When he returned home he decided to write about his experience and this book is the results.

The book is a mixed bag of literary gems, pontification, wise advice and tedious daily chores. I kept stumbling across so many famous quotes that I didn’t realize originated in this text. I also grew tired of his exhausting catalogue of his daily labors.  

Thoreau was around 30 when he wrote the book and there are bits that are insufferably cocky. I’m younger than he was then, but I can still understand that older generations have wisdom to offer us. At one point he goes on a rant about the fact that just because people have lived longer than him doesn’t make them expert in life and they shouldn’t be trying to give him advice. I wonder if Thoreau ever re-read those words when he was older and regretted his hubris.

Yet there were also lessons that resonated with me 150 years after they were originally written. The main one was the importance he placed on giving yourself time to reflect in solitude. We need to take breaks from society (especially from social media) to put our lives in perspective and make sure we have our priorities straight. That’s even more important today than it was then. Thoreau talks about us filling our lives to the brim and leaving no room for reflection; imagine what he would say if he heard about facebook and twitter and the nonstop stream of television that fills our every waking hour!  

BOTTOM LINE: There are parts of this book I just loved to pieces, and those were absolutely 5 star sections for me. But there are also a lot of bits that talk in detail about what he did each day (fishing, gardening, etc.) and those parts really dragged. It’s definitely worth reading for all of the gems you stumble upon, but don’t expect a quick, light read.

“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; -- not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

**There’s one section which talked about huckleberries. The Huz and I discovered that amazing fruit when we road tripped to Montana last year and we just fell in love with it. I was so excited to stumble across another reference to it.

*Photo is of the replica of Thoreau's cabin the has been built near Walden Pond from here. 

Birdsong Readalong

Saturday, March 16, 2013



Looking for something to read in April? Join the fun. As part of The Classics Club’s April Event Theme, (read about WWI, WWII or the Vietnam War), I’m hosting a readalong of Birdsong.

Published in 1993 Sebastian Faulk’s World War I novel begins in 1910 and finishes in 1979. It’s 483 pages long, so not too daunting, and is split into seven sections. Though it’s not centuries old, the novel quickly became a classic and is also in 1001 Book to Read Before You Die. It was #13 in the BBC’s Big Read survey for Britain's favorite book. It has been adapted for the stage and radio and was turned into a Masterpiece miniseries in 2012.

It’s got love, it’s got war and it’s not as long as War & Peace; what more could you ask for?

We’ll start on April 1st, no post needed to join in the fun. We will touch base on Monday, April 15th and share our comments on the first half of the book. You can do your on post or just join the conversation here at my blog. Then we can all post our final thoughts on Tuesday, April 30th.

READING SCHEDULE:
Pages 1-230 (Part 1 and 2) by Monday, April 15th
Pages 231-483 by Tuesday, April 30th

We can also tweet our thoughts as we go at #BirdsongAlong. So let me know in the comments if you want to read along with me!

Image from here

Vanity Fair Readalong: Final Post

Friday, March 15, 2013


Vanity Fair
by William Makepeace Thackeray
★★★★

**There are SPOILERS in my review**

We have reached the end! These characters, the conniving Becky, Amelia the martyr, the ever-loyal Dobbin and Jos, the fool, have all played their final parts. From Miss Pinkerton's Academy to the Battle of Waterloo, from the rising success of one to the bankruptcy and downfall of another, we have watched the drama unfold. No one gets a perfect happy ending, but no one really gets the life they deserve either.

Thackeray tells us that this is a story with no hero, but really I think Dobbin is our hero; though it is hard to respect him when he wastes his whole life longing for a woman that sees him as little more than a servant for most of the book. The section that talks about Amelia turning him into her dog, always at her beck and call, is particularly horrid. She takes advantage of his love for her, even if it is unconsciously. I could have cheered aloud when he finally says he won’t put up with it anymore and leaves. It was the equivalent of Rhett Butler famous final line at the end of Gone with the Wind and I was so proud of him. Amelia isn’t manipulative like Becky, but she’s cruel in her own way. In my opinion, if she had gotten what she really deserved she would have ended up alone.

“Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of their history.”

I must say that for me the ending was incredibly satisfying. I loved Becky’s speech to Amelia about what an idiot she’s been. Through all of her faults, at least Becky finally did something good for someone, even if it was done in an incredibly harsh way. I loved that Amelia had to humble herself and ask forgiveness from Dobbin before they could finally find happiness together. Becky wormed her way back into the Sedley’s good graces. Poor Jos is completely under her thumb by the end of the book and spends his final days wasting away under her “care.”

I think the most tragic character in the book is Becky’s son. He reminder me of Madame Bovary’s daughter; both are casualties of their parent’s neglect. At least he is raised by a loving aunt and uncle, but he knows how little his mother cares for him and that must be painful. Amelia’s son George is spoiled rotten by both his mother and grandfather. I’m grateful that Dobbin provided a little much needed balance and guidance in his upbringing.

Quite a bit of the novel reminded me of War & Peace. There are two major families that make up the cast of characters: the Sedleys and the Crawleys. There is a major war which separates the characters. But unlike War & Peace, which is more about redemption and maturity, Vanity Fair focuses on the selfishness and downfall of its characters.

“If people only made prudent marriages what a stop to population there would be.”

The book was surprisingly funny. Thackeray’s style embraced the humor in even the darkest situations, which made it a fun read. I think he did well to give us two main characters with such polar opposite personalities. It would have been easy to paint one or the other as the “correct” way to live, but instead, he showed us how dangerous either extreme is. Poor Amelia pines after her unfaithful dead husband, glossing over his failures in her memory and creating the “perfect man.” Because of this she spends years missing out on true happiness with a good man.

Becky on the other hand, takes the man she has for granted in an effort to hoist herself farther up the social ladder. She treats everyone around her as a pawn, leaving her friendless and alone when her deeds are exposed. Her only salvation comes in the form of Amelia’s kindness (aka gullibility).

The book has a strange narrative style. The fourth wall is constantly broken and the reader is spoken to directly. Then near the end of the book we learn that the person telling us this “true” story learned it first hand when he met the individuals involved. Thackeray also didn't give us a specific person to root for like most authors do, instead he tells the story of two very different women trying to survive the peaks and valleys of life. It’s one hell of a tale.

BOTTOM LINE: I really enjoyed it. It’s not one I can say I really loved, but I can see myself returning to it in 20 years to see if my opinion of the characters changes with experience. I think it’s a great cautionary tale about reevaluating the priorities in your life.

So a few questions:
Did you like the ending and did you think everyone got what they deserved?

Did you like the way Thackeray spoke directly to the reader?

Your final verdict of Becky: Tragic figure or conniving bitch?

Do you think she killed Jos? *

* This bit from Wikipedia makes me think she did…
“He eventually dies of a suspicious ailment after signing a portion of his money to Becky as life insurance. In the original illustrations, which were done by Thackeray, Becky is shown behind a curtain with a vial in her hand; the picture is labeled "Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra."

Thanks to all of you who joined in the #YoureSoVain Readalong and thanks to Trish for co-hosting with me! Check out her midway post here if you missed them! I know that my reading experience was deepened by hearing all of your thoughts and comments via twitter and your blogs. Leave the link to your review/comments below and make sure to visit each other!

**I love that there were multiple references to Greek mythology in the book. I’ve been reading a bunch of Greek stuff lately and the overlap (like Becky playing Clytemnestra) was fun. I love it when that randomly happens!

***Side Note: I just watched the 1998 version of Vanity Fair starring Natasha Little (because of Selah's recommendation!) It was really well done and faithful to the book. The characters weren't exactly how I pictured them, but I thought Becky was particularly good.