Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Thoughts at the Beginning

It has been a little while since I’ve read a Charles Dickens novel, but beginning Bleak House (first published 1853) was a delightful reminder of why I enjoy this author so much: he’s so good at writing. The scene as it is established in the early passages of the novel is simply marvelous. I was delighted at how Charles Dickens breaks all the “rules” (I’m thinking Strunk and White here).

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

I love the setting as it is described here. And while Bleak House the residence does not (at least so far) seem to be a bleak place, London’s pervasive fogginess (and by symbolic extension, the never-ending Chancery case at the center of the novel) provides a wonderful contrast that got me excited to be reading the novel from the beginning.

Because I’m only 15% into the book, I have a few problems. First, I don’t know who is who. There are so many new characters – all with fantastic Dickensian names – that I can’t remember who I’ve already met and which character did what. A second and related problem is that I have no idea where the book is going. This is a good thing, right? As I do get in to the book, the suspense of the unknown will grow and it will end up rather satisfying. I’m a read-the-end first kind of reader, though, so not knowing what to expect leaves me feeling lost in an unsatisfying way as I do read. What should I be looking for? Which of the many characters will be most important as the novel progresses?

Finally, I am a bit lost about the Chancery situation. As in, I don’t know why the families are at legal battle with each other. They’ve tried to explain it a few times, but I’m just not getting it. I suspect this is an important aspect of the novel, so I’m hoping I get a better grip on it soon. In fact, before I posted this, I went back and skimmed the Chancery bits in the first 15% of the novel to try and get a better understanding for the rest of the novel.

But, despite my concerns, I am happy to say that I’m very impressed with what I’ve read so far. I look forward to delving in to it a bit more this week.

Have you read Bleak House? Do you have any suggestions for how I should continue reading it (especially concerning keeping the characters straight)?

This is post one of my Charles Dickens Month project!

CYBILS Finalists!

Happy New Year! Did you stay up to midnight? I’m one of those persons who ignore the pressure to stay up late and just treat the evening as a normal one. I am not a night person. I love the fact that my husband is the same way and my son doesn’t know any better either. I love my full night of sleep!

The best way to celebrate, though, that as we celebrate the New Year, we also get to discover the finalists for the first round of the CYBILS!

As you know, I’ve been a Round 1 Judge for the Fiction Picture Book Category for the CYBILS. In the past three months, I’ve been reading the nominated works1 and then, with the rest of the committee, we decided which ones were the best of the best in terms of kid appeal, quality of story, quality of illustrations, and so forth.

The Fiction Picture Book finalists are listed here. Others I would have loved to include on the best of the best lists included Grandpa Green by Lane Smith, Blue Chicken by Deborah Freedman, A Few Blocks by Cybele Young, I Must Have Bobo by Eileen Rosenthal, and Tiny Little Fly by Michael Rosen. (I’ve written about these elsewhere.) These, as well as the seven our committee selected, are simply fantastic books. In fact, there are dozens more fantastic books on the nominees lists. On this blog, I’ve posted about more than 100 of the CYBILS nominees in my category. Browse the CYBILS 2011 tag to see my thoughts.

I’ve loved this experience. I feel I’ve discovered a world of gems in the picture books around me. I knew there were gems there, but I love discovering the newest ones out there. Also, I want to give a shout out to all the wonderful librarians and circulation attendants who helped who helped me track down the majority of the nominees. I love my library and the neighboring libraries! Thanks, guys! It was so fun to be a part of my committee; thanks to Pam for the wonderful organization and to the others for having great insights in the picture books. I’ve enjoyed following their blogs as we’ve read through the nominees. It’s been a great fall.

And yet, my category was not the only one. Check out the finalists in many other categories here!

Because this has been such a fantastic fall, I want to keep discovering more great books. I will try to read the finalists for the Nonfiction Picture Books, and maybe the Early Readers/Early Chapter Books and Nonfiction Middle Grade books as well before the February 15th winners are announced. We’ll see how this goes, as that’s getting rather close to my baby’s due date. I may only get the seven nonfiction picture books read. At any rate, it’s so much fun to be a part of this, and I’m excited to keep discovering winners.

Which finalists are you most excited to see on the list? Are you going to try to read any of the finalists before the winners are announced?

  1. I read a total of 260 of the 264 nominees; the last four books were ones I could not get access to, although some others on the committee did find copies.

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

I have not read many gothic novels. The only one I’ve read is Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, which I was not a fan of (thoughts here). Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (first published 1831) seemed far above The Monk in terms of quality. In addition to the better writing, there was the symbolic centrality of the imposing image of Notre-Dame, the multi-faceted characters, and the balance of the horrific action of the story with the symbolic and romantic resolutions.

Notre-Dame de Paris is often translated with the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I don’t like that title as much as the original. Quasimodo, the hunchback of the story, is not the only focal point: the architecture of Notre Dame and the relationship between the two societal outcasts, Esmeralda and Quasimodo, is what drives the novel.

Although much in the beginning of the novel bored me, the action in the last half brought me around again. By the end, I liked it. The novel is firmly in the gothic Romantic tradition: a medieval setting, a wicked monk, outsiders seeking their place in society, attempted rape, horror and murder, and convenient resolutions.

This post contains spoilers of Notre-Dame de Paris.Continue Reading

Reading Journal (28 December): Reading Plans for the New Year

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday week! I sure did, and it was rather freeing to be away from the blog from a little while. I decided it was time to just let it rest.

Our Christmas is always rather low key in terms of gifts. My husband and I don’t exchange gifts, and somehow, no one else I knew gave me any books either. I know, incredible, right? I got nary a book for Christmas; in the book blogosphere, that is quite odd, I think. That said, my husband and I did get me an ereader — a Nook Color — back in November and that was my big gift of the year. I love it! We’re also getting a new door for our patio one of these days. It’s been ordered and a deposit has been paid!

Santa brought Raisin books this year because that’s what he said he wanted most of all. He must be my child. Raisin was delighted with the handful of picture books. I also got him an inexpensive Magic School Bus Microscope kit and an inflatable globe. The grandparents sent toys and puzzles. Other than that, we try to keep Christmas not too materialistic. I think I spent more on other people’s gift cards, holiday fudge, and other small presents than I did on our own family’s presents (new door and nook not included in that general estimate). We enjoyed spending lots of time together at home and at my parents’ home, which is about an hour away from our home.

My baby girl is due in two months now, and I realize I will probably have more unplanned breaks from the blog as I finish off this pregnancy and welcome her into the world. Bear with me: even when I’m not posting, I’m still reading!

This week I finished reading Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (March book club read) and Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar (about children’s literature). I’m in the midst of a popular science book about newborn babies, and I want to read my February book club book in the coming weeks too (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter). There are many other great books on my to read list for the coming year.

For January, I’m planning on joining in two classics events. First there is Allie’s Shakespeare Reading Month. I plan on reading the three Henry VI plays (I’m almost done with part 1). Everything I’ve read indicates these aren’t the best of the Bard’s plays (and I’m not wowed yet by part 1), and so I’m hoping I’ll also have time to read or reread some of his better works as well so it will be more satisfying. I also have a nonfiction book called The Shakespeare Thefts I received from LibraryThing EarlyReviewers that I plan on reading and posting about during January.

The next classic event is Fig and Thistle’s Charles Dickens month. I am currently reading Bleak House for my January book group, so I will plan on writing update posts on Tuesdays through January. If that goes well and I finish early, I may read Hard Times (which looks short) or I may find something else to read by or about Dickens. Any suggestions for shorter nonfiction books about Charles Dickens’ era?

I also have a few netgalley books I’d like to read before baby comes in February, but we’ll see. Many aren’t published until after the baby’s due date. I’m trying not to plan too much, given the unknowns in the coming months.

What are you planning on reading first in the New Year?