A Classic Couple: The Song of the Lark and Paper Towns

It seems fitting that books by two of my favorite authors—Willa Cather and John Green—would connect across different centuries. As mentioned in a past Top Ten Tuesday post about pairs of classic and contemporary novels, I’ve found many interesting parallels between Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915) and Green’s Paper Towns (2008).

Thea and Margo || These protagonists are headstrong, determined, and different from the people in their hometowns. Thea loves music and is seen as a young woman who holds great potential, whereas Margo is an enigma that no one can understand. Despite the man differences between them, they nevertheless share the same reckless, carefree spirit.

Leaving home || Eventually Thea and Margo move away from their childhood homes, leaving behind people who love and care about them in order to chase the prospect of adventure. Thea heads to the big city of Chicago to pursue a career in music, later finding herself traveling to Arizona, Dresden, and New York City. Margo departs suddenly in a shroud of mystery; she doesn’t tell anyone that she’s leaving or where she’s going to. These young women are running to something—adventure, adulthood, independence—but they’re also running from something: their past identities and the preconceived notions held by people they grew up with of who they should become.

Resistance || In both novels, friends from their pasts find Thea and Margo in the new lives they’ve made for themselves and try to persuade them to come back home. Unexpectedly, Thea and Margo refuse. Though Thea does go back and visit her hometown, she does not stay long and feels as though she doesn’t belong there anymore. Margo won’t even entertain the idea of returning to the town where she attended a high school that she technically hasn’t graduated from yet. Their new ideas and identities seem to manifest themselves in new locations.

Wanting “more” || The underlying current that runs beneath The Song of the Lark and Paper Towns is the desire for more out of life. Thea is enchanted by fantasies of big cities, fame, and a life away from her small, dull town; Margo is denounces the “paper people” she grew up around, yearning for those who are less materialistic and actually genuine, authentic, and real. The question remains: Do they really reach their “more”?

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with The Song of the LarkWhat are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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A Classic Couple: 1984 and Illuminae

It’s time for another Classic Couple, a feature inspired by a past Top Ten Tuesday list. George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 is known for being an unsettling masterpiece of dystopian fiction. Its literary influence spans decades since its initial publication in 1949, as shown by the many elements it shares with contemporary fiction such as Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Though one the former novel takes place in a not-so-distant society on Earth and the latter is set in outer space, there are a surprising number of similarities between these two books.

 

Themes || Control. Authority. Civilization. Resistance. Rebellion. Independence. Individuality. Freedom. I could go on and on listing the countless themes and topics that permeate this classic couple. These themes are universal and always relevant in any society, which is likely why 1984 has thrived in the literary limelight.

A look ahead || These novels offer very different views of the future, one clearly more near than the other. Beneath the surface of these outlooks are warnings about what lies ahead should we take the wrong turn as a society. Will we let technology control us? Will we ruin our own planet? Will we lose all sense of individuality, freedom, and independence? The power of literature allows us to remember these warnings and (hopefully) take them to heart.

Technology || Technology plays an important role in these books, largely involving supervision, subjugation, and maintaining control. From AIDAN that controls the space ship to Big Brother that monitors everything and everyone, technology these writers clearly view technology as a tool that can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

A jaw-dropping ending || These books left me speechless as I turned their final pages. It sounds strange to say, but the endings are similar in their inhumanity: the torture described in 1984 is unimaginable and the rigid consciousness of AIDAN seems like a mockery of the human mind. I wish there was a sequel to 1984 like there is for Illuminae because I would love to see where that society goes in the future.

I still have yet to read the sequel to Illuminae, but I desperately want to! (I know, I know, I’ve been saying this for the longest time…) I highly recommend both of these fantastic books!

What do you think of this classic couple? What other books would you pair with 1984? What are your thoughts on either or both of these books? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

On Reading Classics | Discussion

I love classics. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that classics are my preferred genre. Some people can’t seem to fathom that I genuinely enjoy reading books like Faulkner’s Sartoris and Dickens’ Great Expectations and choose to read them in my free time. Perhaps this bewilderment is due to the bad reputation classics have gained from people’s negative experiences of being forced to read them in school. Or maybe classics have become too closely associated with the stereotypical pretentious air that some people put on when talking about this genre of literature. Whatever the reason may be, I’m here to break the barrier once and for all.

Classics don’t have to be scary, dull, or irrelevant; rather, they can be accessible, exciting, and relatable to our personal and societal experiences today. There are always going to be those books you just don’t click with (I’m sorry Bram Stoker, but I just reread Dracula and practically had to force myself to read the last hundred pages) but that doesn’t mean that the entire genre isn’t worth reading.

In an effort to spread my love of classics, here are some of my tips for reading them:

1 || Know the context. Before reading, take a few moments to research the time period and place in which the work was written as well as some information about the author. Knowing the context of a text is helpful for two reasons: a) you can better understand and relate to the characters when you know when, where, and how they are living and b) it helps explain any behaviors or beliefs that might seem odd or problematic to us today. Learning information about the author can also give us insight into why and how the text was written. For instance, while researching Faulkner I learned that he often listened to his elders tell stories about the Civil War, slavery, and his great-grandfather William Clark Falkner. The latter figure must have strongly influenced Faulkner because a similar legendary relative plays an important role in his novel Sartoris. Understanding the context of a work can make it easier to relate to the story overall.

2 || Make character maps. Wuthering Heights? The Sound and the Fury? Forget it: I would be completely lost and confused if I didn’t sketch out a character map. You can make one as you read, though I prefer to research the story ahead of time and map out the characters that way. There are countless helpful resources online that make creating character map easy and incredibly helpful. Even just writing a list of characters and some short descriptions of them can make following the story feel ten times easier.

3 || Take your time. Unless deadlines are imposed on you by others (teachers, professors, book clubs, etc.) there’s no specific point in time by which you have to read a classic. Go as slow as you need to in order to get the most out of the story, even if it takes you twice as long to finish as a different book normally would. Put it down and come back to it after a few days if you feel like you need a break or are feeling in the mood to read something else. There’s no pressure to read anything in one sitting or in a certain number of days, so don’t worry about how long it takes you to reach the final page. The more time you spend with a classic—or any book, for that matter—the more you’re likely to take away from the novel.

4 || Keep an open mind. As with anything you read, it’s important to keep an open mind that’s free from any preconceived judgments or expectations. There’s no use reading something when you already assume you’ll hate it before you even read the first page. Before starting Leo Tolstoy’s tome War and Peace I expected that it would bore me to tears; however, I was surprised to find that I actually looked forward to reading it more and more as I progressed through the novel. I know this tip probably sounds like basic common sense, but sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of what would otherwise seem obvious. At times it can seem like classics are a genre of literature with their own rules and expectations; in actuality, they’re just like all other books!

It’s perfectly okay to not enjoy classics. I don’t go out of my way to pick up horror or paranormal novels and I don’t judge those who do. However, I do think that classics deserve a second chance.

Do you enjoy reading classics? Do you have a favorite? Did reading classics in school impact your feelings toward this genre? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot | Review

George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch has been on my bibliophilic radar for years, though I never found time to read it until it appeared on one of my required reading lists for Oxford. I once had a professor who described Middlemarch as being a “smarter Pride and Prejudice. This comment immediately intrigued me. What did he mean by smarter? His remark came back to me as soon as I started reading Middlemarch and now that I’ve finished I think I may understand what he was trying to say.

Middlemarch is about so much more than courtship, engagements, and marriages; of course, the same rings true for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but in a more subtle way. Eliot uses Victorian romance and courtly love as a vehicle for telling the story she actually wants to convey. The hierarchy of socioeconomic class is at the heart of nearly every decision each character makes, whether that be in the form of their access to money, their thriving or dwindling social network, and even judgment from others. Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist, is an embodiment of this message. Though she quickly marries, she does so out of an intense desire to serve the greater good, gain valuable knowledge with which to help others, and help her new husband in his theological studies. Her decision later on in the novel regarding another love interest may appear to be solely a display of affection; however, it is actually a statement about defying the expectations that correspond with the socioeconomic hierarchy. Rather than comply with the wishes of her family and friends, she chooses to follow her gut instinct and disregard societal judgement.

We see the influence of social expectations reflected in nearly all the characters in Eliot’s fictional town. Though Dorothea may be considered the protagonist, Eliot brings us into the lives of several other notable figures as well. The focus often shifts from Dorothea’s predicaments to those of her sister and other local families, giving the reader a close look at several different relationships and scenarios. I was impressed by how seamlessly Eliot connects them all via engagements, business negotiations, family ties, and unexpected events. However, even with a rotating cast of characters, the pace of Middlemarch felt slow in the middle five hundred pages or so. It’s natural to have ups and downs in pacing as the plot thickens and then problems resolve, but at times the pace of the novel felt almost glacial.

The basic story of the novel wasn’t what I was initially expecting, though I enjoyed it nevertheless. I was surprised to realize how interesting doctors and medical treatment was during this time period. Because doctors were often expected to treat patients in their homes, there’s an important level of trust and intimacy between the patient, family, and medical provider. The socioeconomic hierarchy also plays an interesting role in this dynamic because the doctor wishes to be perceived as professional and competent enough to be called upon by wealthy, respected households. I appreciate Eliot’s focus on a rather mundane aspect of daily life because it reveals a surprising amount about social circles in a town such as Middlemarch.

Overall, Middlemarch was well worth the long wait it took to finally be read. Was my professor correct when he deemed Middlemarch to be a “smarter” Pride and Prejudice? I guess that depends how you define “smarter” as well as how determined you are to categorize or rank novels by certain (and rather arbitrary) criteria. Though Eliot may be blunter than Austen when it comes to portraying the influence of societal expectations, but I believe that both novels contain valuable insights about Victorian society.

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes! Especially to those who enjoy the work of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Elizabeth Gaskell.

What are your thoughts on Middlemarch? Have you read any of George Eliot’s other novels? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: Robinson Crusoe and The Martian

As is often the case with books I’ve been forced to read for school, I was one of the few people in my class who genuinely enjoyed reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. In fact, I wrote my first ever college paper on the conflict between savagery and civilization in Crusoe’s construction of a new identity for himself on the island. However, it wasn’t until I was thinking of classic and contemporary pairings for a Top Ten Tuesday post that I realized how many similarities there are between Robinson Crusoe and Andy Weir’s recent science fiction novel The Martian.

Plot || It’s interesting to think about how remarkably similar these novels are despite their different settings. Robinson Crusoe and Mark Watney are both stranded alone in foreign places while traveling in groups. They make lives for themselves in unfamiliar conditions, keep records of their surroundings, eventually make human contact, and ultimately escape their isolation. The endings are also similar, though I won’t talk about them in great detail.

Narration || Narration plays a significant role in these two books, especially since they are both written using a first person perspective. Even though they are isolated and there is no promise they’ll be able to return home, Crusoe and Watney still go through the trouble of recording their thoughts and experiences as though someone else will surely read their accounts. This record-keeping says something important about humanity: we long to communicate with others, even when someone else may not actually be listening.

Civilization || Even in the middle of nowhere, Crusoe and Watney are able to develop their own sort of civilizations in isolation. They grew food, wore clothing, and planned for the future. I suppose these tasks were also a way of staying sane in such dire circumstances. What I find particularly interesting is their fear of the unknown: for Crusoe this is a fear of savagery and for Watney it is a fear of what lies in the darkness of outer space. Again, their fear of what is unfamiliar suggests an important point about humans: we tend to think the worst about what we don’t know.

Who would have thought that stories set on a deserted island and Mars could have so much in common? I highly recommend both of these fantastic books!

What are your thoughts on Robinson Crusoe and The Martian? Are there books that also share these similarities? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

A Classic Couple: GREAT EXPECTATIONS and A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY

In a past Top Ten Tuesday post I paired Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations with the more contemporary novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Many people expressed interest in hearing more about the connection I see between these two works of literature even though they seem very different at a first glance. While there are many differences between them— publication dates, settings, time periods—they also share several important similarities.

Protagonists || Both novels focus on the lives of young boys as they mature into adulthood. In Great Expectations, Dickens tells the story of naïve Pip as he moves away from home learns what it’s like to live in the real world. Interestingly, it could be argued that there are two protagonists in A Prayer for Owen Meany: Owen Meany himself as well as John Wheelwright, the narrator through which we are told the events of both of their lives. Pip, Owen, and John all undergo significant character development as time passes, circumstances change, and unforeseen events take place.

Genre || Though these books are of distinct genres– Victorian literature and contemporary fiction– they’re also part of a shared genre: Bildungsroman. Both novels are coming-of-age stories with characters you can’t help but root for along the way. They might make some frustratingly foolish decisions at times—but who hasn’t? What I love about this genre is that it is primarily character-driven. The plot is important, but it is often secondary to what the characters are experiencing and feeling.

Plans || Speaking of plot, the events of these books can get complicated. There are so many tiny details to keep track of that at times it can seem a bit overwhelming. However, Dickens and Irving somehow manage to pull it all together at the end and connect the many dots that never made sense before. I distinctly remember reading the ending of A Prayer for Owen Meany and being absolutely blown away. All of those seemingly random symbols and details suddenly made perfect sense in a way that I never expected. It’s clear that these writers had plans in mind when writing these brilliant books (or maybe they’re just really good at spontaneous success!).

What are your thoughts on these two books? Would you pair them together? Are there books that would make a more suitable pair? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

NORTH AND SOUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell | Review

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is the second novel I had to read for the Victorian Literature tutorial I’m taking at Oxford during my first term. It’s fitting that this follows Dickens’ Hard Times on our summer reading list because Dickens was actually the editor of the magazine that Gaskell’s novel was initially serially published from September 1854 to January 1855. Interestingly enough, Dickens is also credited with creating the title for this novel (in opposition to Gaskell, who wanted to title her work “Margaret Hale” after the protagonist). Set in the fictional manufacturing town of Milton, this novel follows Margaret as she transitions from living in rural southern England to urban northern England.

+ The social problem. I’d be amiss if I didn’t start by highlighting how well Gaskell addresses what is often known as the “social problem” in England during the nineteenth century. The novel’s focus on the plight of factory workers during this time period is fascinating, especially in regard to the strike and its effect on the Higgins family. Little Mary Higgins humanizes the “Hands” that factory owners often disregarded as incompetent and lazy.

+ Community vs. class. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the overall message it delivers: personal relationships can be more important than one’s social class. The immense amount of character development in this novel is particularly apparent when you look at how many characters learn the lesson of community over class. This lesson is one of the many ways in which North and South is as relevant today as it was back in Gaskell’s lifetime.

+ Margaret Hale. Margaret reminds me of one of my favorite characters in literature: Jane from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Both characters are strong, independent young women who experience many changes in their lives. They are resilient and clever, intelligent and courageous, yet never lose their immense capacities for compassion and empathy. I think it’s telling that Gaskell initially wanted to name this novel after Margaret herself because it suggests that she viewed the protagonist as the real heart of the story.

One of my only complaints is that this novel ends very abruptly compared to its prior steady pace. Not only does the ending feel sudden, but it also leaves many questions unanswered. What happens to the Higgins family, Fred, and Mrs. Thornton? What was the point of the marriage proposal at the very beginning of the novel?  How does Mr. Henry Lennox feel about the concluding events of the novel? Does Margaret receive a lot of backlash for her decision or is there a positive response? It almost feels as though this novel was missing an epilogue to tie all of these loose ends together.

Nevertheless, North and South was an engaging and enjoyable introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future!

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Yes! I think anyone who has read and enjoyed Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre should definitely consider picking up North and South.

What are your thoughts on this novel? Have you read anything else by Elizabeth Gaskell? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Pair with Classics

Happy Tuesday!! August is coming to a close, which means it’s time to start thinking about going back to school. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is back-to-school themed, which means I’ve decided to focus on classic literature. Classics definitely get a bad reputation from required reading lists in classrooms; however, I think looking at parallels between classic and contemporary literature help demonstrates how books from the past influence what we read and write in the present. Here are ten classic couples to check out!

I’m thinking of starting a series of posts in which I go into more detail about some of these pairs. There are so many parallels between classic and contemporary literature!

What books would you pair with some of your favorite classics? What do you think of the books that I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

HARD TIMES by Charles Dickens

Hard Times by Charles Dickens is the first book I was assigned to read over the summer to prepare for the English Literature 1830-1910 tutorial I’ll be taking during my first term at Oxford. I was thrilled when I saw this title on the list because I’ve been meaning to read more by Dickens since reading A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations during my senior year of high school. While doing a bit of research I found that Hard Times is often considered to be his least successful and least read work. This surprised me: What was it doing on my reading list, then? Determined to come to my own conclusions, I set out to read this novel in a single weekend.

If this is Dickens’ “least successful” text, then I’d say he’s done pretty well for himself.

I imagine that the primary reason we’ve been assigned to read this novel is its focus on the “social problem” in England during the nineteenth century. The factory workers of Coketown are known as the “Hands” and are nearly always viewed as a homogenous, ungrateful, lazy group by those in the upper classes. Mr. Bounderby, an owner of a mill who prides himself on being a so-called “self-made man,” believes that all Hands have one object: “to be fed on turtle soup and version with a gold spoon”. (In other words, to live lives of luxury without earning it through hard work.) We see how entrenched this ignorant opinion of the Hands has become when Louisa visits Stephen Blackpool’s room and realizes that not only is it the first time she’s visited the house of a Hand, but it’s also the first time she’s thought of them as individuals rather than as a single group. Prior to this visit, Louisa “had scarcely thought more of separating them into units, than of separating the sea itself into its component drops.” On the whole, Hard Times exposes the unjust gap between the rich and the poor and criticizes the way the lower classes are treated as less than human.

An important and fascinating theme that runs through the entirety of Hard Times is the duality of “Fact” vs. “Fantasy.” Thomas Gradgrind impresses the importance of Fact on his children, essentially brainwashing them into believing that fairy tales and imagination deserve no place even in the lives of children. On the flip side of this rigid mindset are the zany circus members that thrive on creativity, spontaneity, and fun. As Louisa Gradgrind grows older she begins to realize that she can’t live a happy, fulfilling life without the emotion and passion that comes with “Fantasy.” I think this theme is incredibly interesting because it’s both connected with and disconnected from the socioeconomic issues of the novel. The coldness of apathetic “Fact” is what allows people like Mr. Bounderby to treat the factory workers like they are mere numbers, whereas Louisa’s internal struggle mainly revolves around her own emotional dissatisfaction. The message here is overwhelmingly clear: a balance between Fact and Fantasy is key.

At the core of every Dickens novel is his undeniable gift for storytelling. I can’t help but become incredibly invested in his stories once I begin reading them. His characters are carefully crafted with unique struggles, desires, eccentricities, and beliefs. Hard Times has been criticized for its “puppet-like” characters that sometimes said to be mediocre representations of actual “Coketown” residents (much of the novel was constructed from Dickens’ observations of a manufacturing town rather than personal experience living there). Whether or not that criticism is warranted, I wish to highlight an important redeeming quality of Dickens’ characters: they evoke emotion and human connection. I found myself holding my breath whenever a plot twist occurred (and trust me, there are many), anxiously awaiting to see how it would affect the characters involved. At one point while reading I actually gasped out loud when something bad happened to one of the characters I particularly liked– needless to say, my family members in the next room were pretty confused. The fact that readers can connect so easily and deeply with Dickens’ characters is a major strength of his work and abilities as a writer.

Though Hard Times is not my favorite Dickens novel, I still believe it deserves to be read widely and often. Definitely don’t let a misleading reputation keep you from reading this gem!

Would I recommend it to a friend?: Absolutely! I think this is an excellent read whether or not you’ve read Dickens before.

What are your thoughts on Hard Times? What’s your favorite Dickens novel? Which one should I read next? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

“Well, at least you’re reading something…” | Discussion

Have you ever heard someone say to someone else: “Well, at least you’re reading something…“?

I hate that phrase.

I’ve usually heard it said in reference to a “fluffy” romance or young adult novel (Twilight often falls victim to this). It bothers me because it appears to come from a place of supposed superiority, as though the person saying it is somehow “more literate” or “intelligent” simply because they read different books. This phrase automatically categorizes certain books as being “better than nothing… but barely.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Reading is reading.

We talked a lot about stigmas attached to certain genres of literature in my Approaches to Literature and Culture class last semester and it all ultimately boiled down to a socially constructed divide between high and popular culture. This divide has been around for centuries in some form or another and it boggles my mind that people still get righteous and uppity about it today. For instance, we read this article written by Ruth Graham that was published by Slate in 2014. In the article, Graham argues that adults should not read books like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green because “if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.” She asserts that young adult novels are inherently less complex than novels written for adults because the plights of teenagers are also inherently less complex than those of adults. In her mind, “great” literature and “complexity” are inextricably linked, though how she measures this enigmatic characteristic of “complexity” is yet to be explained.

To me, Graham seems like the kind of reader who has likely said “Well, at least your reading something….” at one point. The idea that there is some sort of hierarchy of “great” literature is incredibly frustrating, especially when people are just reading for fun. Who cares if I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars? I’ve enjoyed both novels immensely and see nothing wrong in being able to do so. This is one of the main reasons I try to read a wide variety of literature and reflect that in the book reviews I post on this blog. Reading is reading is reading and there’s nothing wrong with reading what you enjoy.

I might be preaching to the choir here because most book bloggers I’ve interacted with are wonderfully accepting of what other people read. Nevertheless, I think this is a really important topic to keep in mind.

Do you agree or disagree? What are some things people say about what people read that frustrate you? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY