I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) as a young teenager. Like many girls, I loved the romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, the clever conversation, and the rags to riches aspects of the Bennet’s story. I’ve reread it a number of times since my first encounter, and I’ve also enjoyed the movie retellings. I was excited for the chance to discuss this favorite novel in a book group discussion format.Continue Reading
I read Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery (first published 1848) over the course of four months, and then I’ve been delaying writing my thoughts about it for more than two weeks. My hesitation to post about it now is related to the fact that this master tome of Victorian literature is well deserving of a series of posts and deeper reflection. I am comforted by the fact that I’m certain to reread Vanity Fair at some point, and I hope I do so at a time when I am better able to reflect upon on it via this blog.
Vanity Fair is at any moment both serious and silly, a satire of early Victorian society’s obsession with appearance, wealth, and comfort. Although Becky Sharp, the Crawleys, the Osbournes, and the Sedleys provide a microcosm of sorts of Victorian society, the satire feels like a universal one, and frequently I found myself smiling at the ways I saw modern society in the midst of the story.
The title comes from John Bunyan’s 1600s Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, the town of the same name being a representation of the people who live in sin because they’ve succumbed to the temptations of vanity. In Thackeray’s novel, Becky Sharp represents the social mover who understands the system. She is an orphan determined to rise above her lower class upbringing, yet all the while scandalizing society by her own expectations for herself. In some respects, she lacks any sense of right or wrong: she uses the vanities of everyone to get what she wants. Her friend Amelia Sedley is almost annoyingly innocent of anyone’s true character, and faces the opposite issues: she cannot understand how to meet her needs in the midst of society. As the girls grow from 18 years old to middle aged, they face similar issues in very different ways.
I’ll keep this brief because there is no way I can capture in one single post the plot of this nearly 1000 page novel, the overarching feelings that come from submersing one’s self in the world of the characters over months, or both the frustrations and delight that comes from reading of the successes and failures of the characters. In some respects Vanity Fair is full of characters that I didn’t like at all. And yet, as I read of their vanities and delights, frustrations and successes, I couldn’t help seeing all of the rest of us in them.
Thackeray’s sarcastic narration and occasional opinions of the situations gave the book additional depth and humor. I cannot help reflecting that yes, Vanity Fair is well deserving of the designation as one of the best Victorian novels there is. It certainly is a perfect example of satire, and the complexities in character and plot make it a true delight to read.
I cannot wait to reread it some day!
P.S. Don’t watch the Reese Witherspoon movie! It completely misses the point in character, and lacks the biting satire that the novel provides. A big disappointment.
Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (Ballantine Books, 2005) has the attractive subtitle of “Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading.” Given my love of reading classic and quality literature to my son, this sounded like it would be a perfect fit for me.
Once I began reading, however, I found that the Goldstone’s focus was on discussing children’s literature in a parent-child book group setting. Although I did enjoy reading their thoughts about the deeper meanings behind various classic children’s novels, stories, and poems, I was a bit disappointed in the book overall. I had hoped for something to inspire parents in reading to their children. Deconstructing Penguins did that to some extent. But at the same time it seemed to talk to the most unintelligent of parents. I would hope that most parents reading their children Mr. Popper’s Penguins are wise enough to know that it is more than just a story about penguins! Do parents and children really need a formal reading group to discuss the issues such classic novels address?
Maybe my bias is due to the fact that I did study literature in depth, searching for meanings and themes, as an English major. It seems obvious to me that as I read a classic children’s novel with my children (such as Charlotte’s Web, The Giver, or The Phantom Tollbooth) that I’d open a dialogue with my child about what the book is really about. On the other hand, my son is only four so I don’t yet do this very much: we read for the sake of enjoying a story. I don’t want to kill the love of literature and story.
All that said, discussing books in a group setting is a lot of fun. I am a part a book group and when I walk out of meetings I feel I better understand the books, besides the fact that it’s simply a lot of fun to talk about a book that I like. Deconstructing Penguins is a great book to help parents or teachers get a book group started for second to fifth graders. I loved how they assigned books to these young readers that may be considered by some as “too hard,” such as Animal Farm. The children appreciated the book and understood the deeper meanings. I’m a big believer in not dumbing down literature for kids.
In short, as a manual for leading a book group for upper elementary students, Deconstructing Penguins is an inspiring and helpful volume. For parents hoping to instill a love of learning in their young children, it may not be as helpful.
Eliezer Wiesel was a deeply observant 13-year-old Jewish boy when Moishe the Beadle came to his town with descriptions of the horrors of the war, where Jewish men, women, and children were buried in graves they had themselves dug. No one in Eliezer’s town of Sighet in Hungary believed this was happening. It only a year later, in 1944, when Hungary was overrun by the Germany army, that the Jews began to worry. As their rights begin to be taken away, the community gets restless. They are even excited when they hear they will be transported out of the city, because that means something will be different for them!
Night by Elie Wiesel (published in French 1958/English 1960, audio recorded by Jeffrey Rosenblatt) is Elie’s poignant and personal reflection on his experience: being forced into a cattle car, entering Auschwitz, working in Buchenwald labor camp, and watching friends and loved ones die even as he lost his own will to live. Although Wiesel’s gorgeous prose is well deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature, it is his story of shattered faith in God, frustrated dreams as a teenager, and loss of belief in the humanity of his fellow men that really make Night a classic. Did people really do this to other people?
The horrors of the event known as the Holocaust as simply unbelievable. It is nearly impossible for me to comprehend the horrors that one people forced on another, and so reading accounts such as Wiesel’s are all the more important. A common theme in Night was, obviously, the darkening of hope and the darkness that enters Wiesel’s soul, never to leave him. When one experiences what he experiences, life will never be the same. Contrasting with the image of night that is so prevalent in his memoir is the image of fire: children burning, bellies suffering from hunger, and hatred growing in his soul. A young idealistic boy was left behind and what remained was a man without faith in the good of humanity and the love of God.
I listened to an audio recording of the book, and I think this made Elie Wiesel’s account all the more powerful. Wiesel’s story was less than four hours of narration (120 pages in hard copy) but nothing was missing.
His story is one I hope never to forget. I was in awe of the strength of the human spirit to survive at the same time I was horrified by the evil of others. Although other stories of German concentration camps may be more hopeful about humanity (The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom, for example), Night is an important and classic memoir that should be read.
Wiesel originally wrote this memoir in Yiddish, titling it And the World Remained Silent. In his new preface to the edition translated by his wife (2006), he says, ” I don’t know how I survived.” I don’t know either. I will forever be in awe of the power of the human spirit to overcome horrors, and I will remain horrified myself by the fact that humans could do this to each other in the first place.