Monday, May 30, 2011

Victorian Lit

On to Part 2:

The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden--Actually two novellas in one book. "The Semi-Detached House" is a fairly typical slightly sentimental Victorian story about a newlywed couple setting up their first home. However, what makes it memorable is the contrast of pairing it with "The Semi-Attached Couple," which is a darker story about a couple on the verge of separation that probably never should have married in the first place.

The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crofts--The manuscript for the book was just recently discovered and published in 2003 (read the introduction about finding the manuscript, which is pretty interesting itself), and is possibly the first novel written by an African American woman in the United States. The story follows a slave and her biracial mistress as they flee north when her mistress' identity is discovered.

Wilkie Collins--Collins is often credited with crediting the mystery novel, but he's often ignored when talking about the Victorian greats, which is a shame. His stories are very easy reads, and was one Victorian male authors who could create very believable three-dimensional heroines and was critical of the sexism they faced.
No Name--After their parents die, two sisters find out they were illegitimate and their inheritance passes to their uncle, who turns them out of the house gleefully. One sister will go to any means necessary to get revenge and get their inheritance back.
The Woman in White--A woman escapes from an asylum, and winds up with two sisters--one of the sisters and the escaped woman look identical to each other. Lots of intrigue, mistaken identity, secret brotherhoods, amnesia, etc.

Anthony Trollope--Another author that maybe isn't mentioned enough. Given my choice between Trollope and Dickens, I'd chose Trollope every time (but then, Dickens and I have serious issues). Although Trollope is more conservative than Collins in his views, his female characters are similarly developed, and much more developed than Dickens'.
Palliser novels--There are six novels total in the series and deal with politics and life in society, the politics part sounds dull, but quite honestly it is interesting, and it's more to do with the life of a politician and member of Parliament, rather than politics itself. They follow several characters and families, but one noble family in particular, a duke and duchess in an arranged marriage who are extremely unsuited for each other, but trying to make the best of it. The novels in order: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, The Duke's Children.
Miss McKenzie--An older woman used to being ignored by everyone inherits a decent fortune, and suddenly has several suitors and is the center of attention.

Elizabeth Gaskell--Gaskell is becoming more popular with some recent successful BBC adaptations of her novels, and I think she's always been a staple in Great Britain, but I think she's not given enough attention over here in the States.
Ruth--Scandalous in its day for featuring an unwed mother who was not raped, coerced or forced. Of course, she does spend the rest of her life atoning for it. Still, worth reading for the sympathetic portrait of a "fallen woman."
Wives and Daughters--After her father remarries, a daughter has to deal with a shallow selfish stepmother, and a beautiful sophisticated stepsister. A small caveat, Gaskell died before she finished the book--she left notes on how she intended to finish it, and she was probably only a chapter or two away from the end. Don't let that deter you.
North and South--A young woman moves from the rural south to a factory town in the north, and tries to adjust while learning about unions, working conditions, the owners (and having one fall in love with her...).

The Lamplighter by Maria Susanna Cummins--Follows an abused and neglected orphan after she is taken from the streets at 8 by kindly strangers as she grows up and moves through society. (This was the second best-selling novel in the 1850s behind Uncle Tom's Cabin and caused Nathaniel Hawthorne's jealous bitter remark about how "America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women." Oh Hawthorne. Maybe if you weren't so darn dour, people would have bought your books.)

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore--a historical novel set in the 1600s during the end of Charles II's reign. A rural county is plagued by a large family of robbers, and the hero's father was killed by them. Yet in Romeo and Juliet fashion, he falls in love with a daughter of one of the band. Her family hates him because his father supposedly killed one of the robbers before he died.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Georgian and Regency lit

Quite a few of my favorite authors are pre-1900s. But when talking about Regency, Georgian or Victorian literature, there's only a handful of big names that get repeated over and over. And while there's certainly a reason they are still around and being read after all this time and some of those authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott or Charlotte Bronte are among my favorites, I thought I'd focus a two-parter post on some of my favorite lesser known authors from these time periods.

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown--One of the first novels published in the United States, it features an intrepid heroine trying to figure out why everyone around her is hearing voices, and why her brother is acting so erratically . There's spontaneous human combustion, mass murder, and other gothic goodies. Brown was a early advocate of women's rights and follower of Mary Wollstonecraft's and William Godwin's, although he was more conscious of race and class than either of them, and most of his novels and writings deal with these themes.

Frances "Fanny" Burney--Burney wrote 4 novels, and several plays. For a while, she served as a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte. If you've seen the movie the Madness of King George, there's a scene where King George is chasing after a lady in waiting and she's running away as they've been given orders not to talk to the king when he's not in his right mind...that was Fanny Burney. For some unknown reason though, they didn't name her in the film. (Burney also gives us one of the earliest accounts of a mastectomy in her published journals, also worth a was her own mastectomy from cancer, in the days before anesthetics, she was conscious during nearly the whole operation!) Anyway, Burney was a large influence on Jane Austen--many people hear that and read Burney expecting the same sort of overt sparkling humor or satire. And while Burney was definitely satirizing Georgian society, she was far gentler and subtler about it. She is also more typical of Georgian authors like Samuel Richardson in length--her novels are often well over 600 pages or more. The only one of her 4 books I didn't like was Camilla, so that one is not recommended.
Evelina--Probably my favorite of Burney's novels, a legitimate but unacknowledged young woman of an aristocrat who's spent her life in the country comes to London for her first season and makes one faux pas after another based on her naivete.
The Wanderer--A woman fleeing the French Revolution comes to England and tries several jobs to support herself. Unusual in that it deals sympathetically with a working class protagonist, and also a scathing criticism of England's treatment of foreigners (which accounted for very poor reviews and sales during Burney's life).
Cecilia--An heiress has an unusual condition to her inheritance in that her future husband has to take her last name or the inheritance reverts to another heir. She also has to deal with three guardians till she's of age--one who wants to try spend her fortune on his own family, one who is an extreme miser and won't let her touch any money, and one who is a pompous prig who thinks she's after his son for his fortune. Also rare in that it's one of the few Georgian novels that a young single woman lives in her own estate for a while (with a chaperone of course)--most other books of the period, even if the heiress has a perfectly suitable estate, she must go to live with with relatives.

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth--Another tale of a young woman making her way in society, who's interested in two men, one may be attached to another woman, another seems to have his own secret. Features a duel between two women, and controversial in its day for themes of interracial marriage.

Roxana by Daniel Defoe--This is a pretty uneven novel, so I hesitant recommending it, but for the first half, I loved it, and in some ways thought it was better than Moll Flanders (which I greatly enjoy, but am not reviewing since it's widely considered such a classic). However, it ends very abruptly, as if Defoe ran out of time, and there is a character that enters about halfway or two-thirds through the novel that annoys me to no end, and when she she meets an ill fate, I almost cheered....which I think was probably the opposite of what Defoe intended, and I've never been so annoyed by a character that I've actually been relieved by their demise. So all that being out of the way, the novel follows the rise and fall of a courtesan from entry into the courtesan life after being a proper virtuous wife, to later catching the eye of the prince and so on.

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss--So, although countless movie adaptations have been made of this, but I'm not sure how much it actually gets read anymore. The story is surely known to everyone, but a family emigrating to Indonesia gets shipwrecked by themselves and survives for several years on a tropical deserted island. And the Disney movie totally did a disservice to Jenny's character (well, her whole storyline was butchered to make her a damsel in distress and have the boys fight over her), but she actually had survived by herself on another island for 3 years thank you very much and had built her own tree house and everything.

And I know I said I wouldn't be dealing with the big names, but if you're a Jane Austen fan and haven't read her short stories (generally published together as Lesser or Minor Works, sometimes with Northanger Abbey or Lady Susan, the last novel she was working on and didn't finish), you are missing out. These are stories, poems and novel fragments she wrote when she was younger, and they are absolutely hilarious.

For further reading, Mothers of the Novel by Dale Spender is a great resource on European women authors who originated the novel form. She focuses on 100 that were writing before Austen. It's out of print right now, but pretty easy to find through inter-library loan or selling very cheaply on Amazon.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Hunger Games

So there's this little trilogy you might have heard of called The Hunger Games? It's only being hailed everywhere like the Second Coming of Young Adult literature or like it's single-handedly created the dystopia/post-apocalyptic YA novel. And I'm not saying it's not good, but I am saying it doesn't live up to its hype. (There are major spoilers for the end of the series, if you haven't read it, skip to the end of the post for other book recommendations.)

Katniss has been touted as this wonderful kick-butt feminist role model, but I disagree. Yes, she is kick-butt for the first two books. However, she's mostly reactive, almost never proactive, except for choosing to go in her sister's place to the Hunger Games. In everything else, she's reacting to situations, events and circumstances everyone else creates for her or around her. Katniss is also manipulative, although I can't necessarily find fault with it, since it's to keep herself and her friends alive; and the boy she manipulates is excessively clingy, as well as entitled for lack of a better word. Although he and Katniss have barely ever spoken to each other in their lives, he announces on TV his love for her, and while a lot of people claim something like that is sweet; someone who makes such a public announcement (especially without finding out even tentatively how the other person feels) is essentially power playing his partner. Trying to play on someone's sympathy or embarrassment to say yes if love isn't strong enough and make sure that she/he won't back out of saying no because it's in such a public arena. That's not sweet, that's just as manipulative as what she does to him (pretending to love in in exchange for gifts from sponsors of the game).
Additionally, after the audience starts (somewhat inexplicably) rooting for Katniss as an icon of rebellion against the Capital, Katniss moans and complains endlessly about it. At first I could understand and even sympathize--I mean I wouldn't want that kind of adulation either, but then in the last book when she finally agrees to be the "Mockingjay" and the mascot of the revolution; I had zero tolerance for her whining and avoiding whatever involvement she could in planning and activities. After you take on a responsibility, that's when you put on your big girl pants and you do the job, no matter how much you hate it.
And finally, Katniss spends the last book either in the hospital (seriously she's in the hospital for at least half or more of the book) or otherwise sidelined for some reason, and misses every single major plot event but one because of her forced inactivity. Why would Collins write her main character out of every major event in the climax of the story? It's just bad story-telling, not to mention it makes Katniss incredibly passive in the last book. Katniss also spends the last book crying, weeping, hiding in closets, and generally angsting about. I get that after going through two Hunger Games with lots of death and having to kill people she'd be suffering from PTSD. But yet, her entire district is bombed and 2/3 of the people die, don't you think that the remaining people in her district are also suffering from some form of PTSD from seeing most of their family and friends bombed to death right in from of them and just barely escaping? And yet the district carries on and they are volunteering as soldiers or helping plan the revolution or whatever else they can do? Or what of Finnick and Johanna, who were not only in two Hunger Games as well like Katniss, but were also tortured for several weeks which was far worse than anything she went through; and it turns out that Finnick at least, as well as other Hunger Game contestants, were used as child prostitutes by the Capital? Again, far worse than Katniss' problems. And although the two of them are obviously messed up, when there is a chance to help, they step up without being asked, even if they may not be emotionally or physically ready for it.
But then there's the epilogue to the final book, that ghastly horrible epilogue. Collins in the last book does that thing that so many YA writers do when they've created a love triangle with two generally suitable love interests and the protagonist. Rather than letting the main character choose between the two love interests as they are, the author turns one of the love interests into a jerk or worse, without any warning or previous evidence to support it, as an easy way to get the protagonist out of the triangle. So anyway, after getting rid of Gale (who was a much better fit for Katniss than Peeta and far far more interesting), Katniss winds up with Peeta even though she doesn't love him, and has never loved him as more than a friend. In the epilogue Katniss settles on Peeta just because he's there, not because she loves him and marries him. Both she and Peeta 20 years later still broken and tortured from their experiences. Katniss never wanted any children throughout the series, but in the epilogue, Peeta pressures her for 15 years and she finally gives in and they have two children. And although she loves her children, she feels fear and pain when she looks at them. Why are YA writers so insistent on hetero-normative endings and making sure that the woman ends paired/married off with babies or engagements or above all making her relationship throughout the book the total sum of her existence (hello Twilight, I'm looking at you and all other YA book obsessive relationships like you)? The love triangle in the Hunger Games isn't necessarily so central to the plot like a lot of these others, but why the need to have a triangle in the first place, and then the forced "happily ever after" with marriage and babies no matter what, even if it goes against what the character feels or wants? A truly revolutionary ending would have been Katniss not just settling for either boy that she didn't truly love or not having children she didn't want, and working out her issues on her own.

So ranting over, here are some books with similar themes that I think are better done than the Hunger Games (sticking mostly with Young Adult novels):

Dystopias and Post-apocalyptic novels:
-Tomorrow When the War Began series by John Marsden--A coalition of nameless countries invades Australia, and a group of teens backpacking in the outback avoid the takeover and internment of their town. Despite such a storyline, Marsden avoids the Red Dawn/patriotic furor territory for the most part. The series follows the group from average rural teens to guerrilla fighters and a realistic view of the psychological effects of such actions on the teens.
-Emergence by David Palmer--After a bio-nuclear plague wipes out most of the world, 11 year old Candy looks for other survivors and learns she is the next step in the evolution of humans.
-The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner--When sun flares made most of the middle section of earth uninhabitable, a group of gifted children are put through a series of sadistic trials by a government group in the hopes of finding leaders among them that will find a solution to the world's problems.
-The Tripods series by John Christopher--possibly one of the earliest YA dystopias. After aliens invade Earth, they control the world's population by putting a cap on each person after they reach puberty which controls their thoughts and emotions. Will and his friends are able to negate the effects of their caps and fight against their oppressors.
Libyrinth by Pearl North--set thousands of years in the future on another planet, there is a kind of war between the Libyrarians who refuse to teach the masses to read, and the Singers who believe written words are evil. Haly, the heroine, is a Libyrarian, but can also "hear" a book without opening it; she is captured by Singers who believe she can help them destroy the Libyrarians.
Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness--Todd lives on a planet where men's and animal's thoughts are audible to everyone around them. He's been told that all the human women on the planet were killed by germ warfare just after he was born, but then he meets a girl his age, and they forced to flee once she's discovered; and Todd struggles to reconcile life on the outside of his town with what he's been taught his whole life.

Kick-butt heroines:
Warrior Princess trilogy by Frewin Jones--Set in Wales during the Saxon invasions, Branwen is chosen by the ancient Gods to lead her people's fight against the Saxons.
The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley--Two different women lead their countries against forces of darkness, fight dragons and learn to control their magical abilities.
Devil's Kiss and Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda--Bilquis is the youngest and only female Knight Templar, in modern day London as the Templars fight against demons, werewolves and other supernatural baddies.
Rampant by Diana Peterfreund--Astrid comes from one of 12 legendary maternal clans that used to hunt unicorns (not the cute cuddly kind, but these unicorns are instead venomous, meat-eating and aggressive). Thought to be extinct for over a hundred years, unicorns suddenly start showing up again in modern day, and Astrid reluctantly joins the newly reopened warrior training academy.
Graceling/Fire by Kristin Cashore--Katsa lives in a world where people are "graced" by certain abilities at birth. Her ability is fighting, and her uncle king uses her as an assassin and bully. To combat the wrong he has her do, she starts a secret council to right wrongs, and in the process tries to save the daughter of a king who can make anyone believe or do anything he says.
Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce--A young woman takes her twin brother's place to train as a knight instead of going into the convent.