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Lewis Carroll – Through The Looking-Glass

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Mirror mirror on the wall.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
First Published: 1871
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Alice is playing with her chess pieces whilst cat Dinah tends to her kittens, but Alice isn’t happy where she is – there’s a big mirror over the mantelpiece showing the room in reverse and she wants to visit it. She goes up to the mirror to have a look, and finds she’s able to climb into it.

Through The Looking-Glass is the slightly lesser known sequel to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Shorter to a fair degree, it shares a couple of the same Wonderland characters but is rather a lot different.

Speaking from an adult perspective, there isn’t any character development here – Alice is exactly the same as she was in the book published 6 years prior and she hasn’t learned anything from her previous time away, that is to say she’s as stubborn as she ever was. It’s an interesting factor because you might reasonably expect a character, particularly in a children’s book, and no matter the era it was written in, to learn something solid, but this book is very much about the fantasy.

Speaking more generally and thinking of the target age group, this is a fun book, just not as good as the first. There is no White Rabbit or Cheshire Cat, and whilst it appears at first glance as though the Mad Hatter and the Hare make an appearance, that appearance is deceiving – they appear to be different characters entirely. The story has a satisfactory concept – a game of chess with human/fantasy creatures, but it’s not as well-plotted as the first. It’s worth a read, but will disappoint if you’re – reasonably – expecting a second visit into Wonderland; this Wonderland sports the same strangeness of character but is otherwise quite different.

But it is fun and has a lot of content for both children and adults. Clever turns of phrase are the ruling factor. The poetry is out in full force. And well-known concepts – such as the afore-mentioned chess – are given a lot of time. There’s having to hurry up if you want to remain in the same place; there’s this:

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

And there’s handing round a cake before one actively slices it. Lots of wordplay and thinking.

The relative shortness of Through The Looking-Glass is good – the story and characters are rather too strange for comfort and leaving the world is a bit of a relief; Alice might want to spend longer but it’s more nightmare than dream. It’s a good book but you’ll likely find the original better.

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Thomas Hardy – Far From The Madding Crowd

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Take your independence and use it wisely.

Publisher: Various (I read the Penguin Classics movie tie-in edition)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1874
Date Reviewed: 10th May 2016
Rating: 4/5

When Gabriel Oak falls for his new neighbour, the pretty, vain, Bathsheba Everdene, he wonders if he might stand a chance. But what he doesn’t know is that Bathsheba is also incredibly strong-willed and independent – she’s not up for marrying. One Valentine’s Day, however, she gets ahead of herself and sends a proposal to Farmer Boldwood, whom she’s not met – she’s incredulous the man hasn’t paid her any attention. Boldwood takes it seriously and pleads his case. There will be a third, too, a soldier. With three men revolving around her choices, Bathsheba’s in a precarious position.

Far From The Madding Crowd is a lengthy book for its amount of plot, that is generally average but sports a stunning latter section. It’s both a product of its time and advanced for it, lending much to discuss. In Bathsheba, Hardy has created a very independent Victorian woman. Whilst she’s hardly the only one we have from the period, the way Hardy goes about presenting her is fairly different; Hardy admires her. And he’s fair to her character, showing where she makes poor choices that hamper her and bring upset to others whilst not suggesting that it’s bad she has the ability to make such a choice.

Bathsheba goes where she wants, when she wants, and in the manner she chooses. Hardy sets up his unconventional character early on – one day, once Bathsheba knows she can no longer be seen from the house, she lays back on the horse she had been riding in the manly fashion, and continues her journey. This, in fact, she does for two reasons – the first so Hardy can show the reader her personality and the second so that Gabriel can spy her personality as his knowledge of her will be required later on.

Bathsheba’s selfishness is frivolous rather than malicious. She just doesn’t think far enough ahead, choosing to do things in the moment. This is best shown in the aforementioned Valentine – her servant says Boldwood was the only man who didn’t look at her, Bathsheba, and Bathsheba is so used to being looked at and admired, that she sends a proposal. Boldwood takes it to extreme levels, and Hardy shows how she utterly failed to think about how Boldwood would feel having received such a proposition.

So Hardy looks at gender and suggests there shouldn’t be such a divide. He has Bathsheba receiving proposals as could be expected of a woman of beauty and money in the period, and he has his male characters making stereotypical comments, but that’s the feeling of it – that he’s doing that for his plot and to maybe appease his readers. There are lessons his characters must learn; it’s a slow progression that starts from the first chapter. It’s in this way that the book still has so much relevance – think before you act, don’t dismiss out-of-hand things you think are silly.

When Bathsheba does choose to marry she throws herself into it, suddenly reversing all her talk of wanting to marry without having a husband, and acting on impulse and instant attraction. She never did have a level head, but the reader can smell problems a mile away, it’s just a question of how bad things will get. Of course Bathsheba would say they won’t be bad, don’t say such a thing, but if love is blind and everyone else can see the problems in their friend’s ‘perfect’ boyfriend, similar is true here in fiction.

The problem with Far From The Madding Crowd is unfortunately down to its era – there’s a lot of filler content. The plot is deathly slow for over half the book, there’s a lot of irrelevant conversation held over alcohol by farmhands who talk in accents that are hard to decipher (it’s a lot like Wuthering Heights in this way), and Hardy absolutely adores description. He adores it so much he spends pages upon pages discussing the night sky, spends a whole chapter on the history of a gargoyle he’s created; he loves to impart advice he places under the guise of narration, but all this does is pull you away from the story at hand. (Though the advice is interesting in itself.)

But if you can get past the sluggishness, the last third is top-notch. The pace is swift, the plotting superb, the action never lets up, and whilst everything that happens here at once wouldn’t happen in real life, it’s a treat to read. It is all rather sudden but by this point it’s something you’ll be happy with, it’s like Hardy’s woken up and remembered he wanted to surprise and shock you. He does. Whilst the themes of the book may be the reason it’s taught in schools, it’s surely this latter section of the whole that’s the reason it’s remained popular.

Far From The Madding Crowd is one bigger part average, one smaller part exceptional. It’s a 2:1 ratio that is worth taking a chance on because the conclusion does succeed in making up for all the drudgery, but it’s definitely best to do your homework before going in so you know what to expect and to have another book on the go so you can take a break when the irrelevant farm talk gets too much.

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Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina

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In which war and peace both have a place in an affair.

Publisher: Various (I read the Penguin Classics edition)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1878
Date Reviewed: 7th November 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Russian
Original title: Anna Karenina
Translated by: Pevear and Volokhonsky

Anna catches Vronsky’s eye whilst he is supposedly courting Kitty. The attraction is mutual and so they begin an affair to the sadness of both Kitty and Karenin, Anna’s husband. It may not be all doom and gloom for Kitty – she’d turned down a proposal from Levin due to Vronsky and Levin still wants her, but Anna’s life will be very different as there is more to consider than she wishes to think about.

Anna Karenina is a tome of a book that focuses on the lives of five main characters and several secondary ones. Whilst the climax may deal with the titular character she is not the be all, end all – that’s to say the book’s about far more than the one woman. At 800-odd pages, no matter the edition, it’s a slog sometimes, but a good book nonetheless.

You likely won’t be surprised to hear that Tolstoy is wordy. There are limits as to how much can be put down to translation and Tolstoy can drone on on occasion – compared to Dickens it’s nothing but it does make for lulls in the text. This is somewhat but not completely to do with the themes of the novel; Anna Karenina owes much to philosophy – economic, religious, political, social.

This philosophy is explored through the character of Levin who in part represents the author himself. The narrative of Levin and Kitty’s courtship is comparable to that of Tolstoy and his wife, Sofia, and beyond that much of Levin’s thinking is based on Tolstoy’s own. This is surely why there is so much non-Anna in the book and knowing that it relates to Tolstoy can make it far more interesting than it would be by itself.

Whether because the author flipped back and forth himself or because he just wanted to explore the ideas (the likelihood is of Tolstoy flipping) there is a lot about Levin’s thinking that is objective. Tolstoy sends Levin’s thoughts flying in one direction before pulling him back the other way, not on every subject but a vast many. Of course he comes to particular conclusions in the end that may or may not fit the reader but he gives ample time to other viewpoints beyond his own. He appropriates lifestyles and thoughts whilst Levin figures out what he wants – and he aims to be respectful even if it doesn’t end up that way. Besides this consideration of one character, Tolstoy provides counterparts in Levin’s friends and family. Levin’s story isn’t exactly thrilling; it is the inactive (as opposed to physical action, extroversion) musing that balances out Anna and Vronsky’s social life.

To Anna then – yes, it feels odd not to have spoken of her thus far but somewhat right nevertheless – Tolstoy succeeds in luring you in. Everyone who meets Anna falls a little in love with her and damn it if you won’t also. It is in this way, the almost interactive nature of the text wherein Tolstoy makes you love her too, that the author shows you why people do the things they do. Making the reader fall for Anna does the job better than any descriptions, even if descriptions are what make you fall. Things get a little awry later insofar as reasoning goes – not everything Anna does makes perfect sense – but in general she is a fantastic character in that whether you like or dislike her she will make her mark on you.

With Vronsky it’s a little different. You don’t ‘have’ to fall for him and likely you won’t. Tolstoy sets him up as only a semi-hero from the start. Because you hear so much from both men – husband Karenin and lover Vronsky – you’re never in danger of putting them before Anna, which is quite possibly what Tolstoy planned. You will feel for all three characters in the triangle at various points, Tolstoy showing no major favouritism, rather exploring to an objective outcome the effects of an affair in such a time and society.

Explore he does. Of initial interest, perhaps, in our modern view with our particular mores, is the fact that it’s not the affair itself, the affair as a concept, that is the issue in this book. The society of which Tolstoy writes does not care for morals in this way – people have affairs all the time. What it does care about is divorce and the actual physical relocation of a couple from the bonds of marriage. It is Anna’s move to Vronsky’s side that heralds the start of her troubles, a queen moving anywhere she wants on the board that will eventually be brought down no matter how far she goes. Anna’s incapability to accept the changes in society’s view of her causes many problems and whilst Tolstoy invariably strikes her story with a God-like hand he then sits back and lets it play out. He may be saying something, moralising as he does with Levin, but he wants the reader to see things for themselves, to come to their conclusions without too much help.

There are no evil-doers in Tolstoy’s book, no wicked husband, no wicked wife, no stepmothers keeping children from balls. A huge part of the book’s triumph lies in its objectivity – again that same word. Yes, Anna decides to have an affair when she had previously loved her husband and could have said ‘no’, but even though Tolstoy has a narrative all prepared for her that may be upsetting and unnecessary to us nowadays it is somewhat a result of the era rather than the character herself. And Vronsky may become rather disaffected and you may emphasise or dislike him for it but you can see his reasons and they aren’t bad; there’s a misunderstanding afoot. Karenin is shown in a fair light, very fair, but whilst you will feel sorry for him Tolstoy never rams him down your throat, indeed he gives Karenin a bit of get-up-and-go that will have you wishing he had held back.

The questions are thus: is this right or wrong? Why? What should be happening? What is going to happen and ought it? There is certainly something to be said regarding Tolstoy’s choice to end the book with several chapters devoted to Levin rather than the aftermath of the triangle but whether that’s moralising or simply down to Tolstoy’s wish to talk about himself is hard to decipher.

A note on Kitty, then, because I’ve left her out, and Dolly because there’s a short piece that is mightily compelling: Kitty’s a nice enough character. She represents the home life Levin hopes for and is obviously meant to balance out Anna’s presence in the text. She’s the wife whose existence brings Levin to the place Tolstoy wants him to be, who grounds him from going too far with the appropriating. It could be said she’s what stops Levin from just throwing his money away and pitching in with his workers – which may sound like appropriation itself but is a welcomed change from it because it becomes uncomfortable reading about a rich man helping out in the fields and being jolly about it because it’s a novelty and nothing he’ll have to do full-time. Kitty’s character lends the book a younger feel, providing readers who may be on the cusp of age but not quite someone they can relate to as they wade through a mature text. Dolly? She helps Tolstoy explore the emotional effects of affairs, more so than Karenin, because of her husband’s (Oblonsky) inability to stay faithful. Society may see affairs as almost inevitable but Dolly reminds us not everyone feels that way. The compelling short piece? Tolstoy has Dolly consider for a moment how her life might have been had she not had children. It is only a moment, it takes place amongst a few pages only and is neatly tied up by the end of the chapter with the assertion that she much prefers life the way it is – as you would expect of a novel from the 1800s. But it’s there and it reveals perhaps a tiny inkling of Tolstoy’s possible opinion that women ought to have more say and a bigger role in society. When added to the statement several chapters before that a woman’s lack of rights stemmed from a lack of education and vice-versa, it becomes quite the poignant concept in terms of Tolstoy’s message.

As said, Tolstoy waffles on occasion. He repeats himself and talks about things that would be edited out these days. Worthy of 800 pages this book is not, but it’s also not bad. The writing is fair and insofar as one can judge when referring to a translation the text is easy to read and alluring. It can be funny. And when not bogged down in meetings that will never get anywhere it’s a quick read. I must recommend the translation I chose, Pevear and Volokhonsky’s. The colloquial English grammar at times overlooks the fact it’s Russian but it’s a much simpler read than some. The Maude translation, which I read 500 pages of, is quite clunky and poorly written. (Not to mention it seems one of the Maudes disliked Tolstoy – they knew each other – so what they were doing translating it in the first place and how much that infers reliability is quite the question.)

Anna Karenina is an undertaking. In deciding to read it you’re signing yourself up for the long haul and whilst it’s a good long haul it isn’t the most thrilling or satisfying one out there. There are parts you can take away with you but the likelihood is you’ll be relieved once you’ve finished.

Read it; it’s worth it and it feels good to say you’ve read it, but have another book on the go at the same time and remember to keep your wits about you because everyone has three to four names they go by.

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