Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

This book didn't just break my heart; it crushed it into a pulp. I've always liked Charles Dickens' writing but this is definitely my favourite of his works.

'A Tale of Two Cities' is set against a back drop of the French Revolution in the early 1790s, although the book was published in 1859, and follows the story of the Manette family as they are drawn to France, falling under the shadow of la Guillotine. (There's also a bit of a love triangle between Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton which forms the overall basis of the story).

A lot of people have commented that the book starts a little slowly, but I wouldn't really agree with that, primarily because Dickens serialised his novels and so had to draw in his readers, leaving cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. Although I guess you could say it was written for people of another time, personally I think it still works, especially as the opening lines are "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times." This book has some of the most famous opening and closing lines in the history of English literature and that alone makes it worth a read, but more than that, it's just an incredibly good story. 

My favourite character was definitely Sydney Carton who can now be added to the list of characters who have broken my heart and made me want to sob for the rest of my life. He has a fantastic character arc, based around his love for Lucie Manette which is arguably his only redeeming feature at the beginning of the novel, at which time he is a  self-pitying drunk whom it is very difficult to like. I would say Sydney is quite possibly one of my favourite characters of all time and I can't believe I've fallen in love with yet another fictional character.

In terms of other characters, Lucie was a little flat, but I suppose that is to be expected in a 19th Century novel and when Dickens' apparent dislike of women is taken into account. Considering the dark nature of the plot, you would expect some classic Dickens humour to balance it out, but there is surprisingly little of this. The only characters you could really consider comical are Lucie's servant Miss Pross and resurrection man Jerry Cruncher. Miss Pross in particular is a brilliant character; her last scenes in the book are just fantastic and I grinned like an idiot while reading them. 

The antagonist of 'A Tale of Two Cities', Madame Defarge, becomes increasingly scary as you read on, and even from her introduction Dickens sets her as a looming presence, watching over proceedings while completing her knitted log of those she wants to kill in the revolution. And yet, Dickens never allows the reader to feel complete hate for the woman as he lays out the reasons for her need for vengeance. However, Dickens absolutely doesn't hold back on his description of the gore of the Paris violence and it was almost a relief to be transported back to peaceful London, hence the title 'A Tale of Two Cities'.

If you've never read a Dickens novel before I would definitely say this is the place to start, just because it's so much shorter and more densely written than some of his other novels, such as 'Bleak House'. At only 390 pages, the novel is split into 3 books, the best of which is absolutely Book 3, and I couldn't put it down. As ever Dickens has an ability to tie up all the threads from throughout the book, including threads you didn't even know were there. Events passed off as unnecessary details, such as Jerry Cruncher's grave robbing habits, come to be of the utmost importance to the overall resolution of the plot. 

In 2007 a stage musical based on the book was produced and I'll post my favourite song from that ('I can't recall') underneath. Sydney's character is singing and hopefully it explains itself, although it probably works better if you've read the story, it's still absolutely beautiful. 

I would recommend 'A Tale of Two Cities' to anyone and it's one of the best books I have ever read. 10/10

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Why should we read classic books?

Traditionally, it's geeks who tend to read classic books, and I include myself in this, but really it shouldn't be. There are so many reasons why people should be reading more classics and so for some reason I'm now going to write this down....

1) Firstly these are books that have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and yet are still being printed today. So there must be a reason, right?? For me, classics are generally really great stories, and yes you do have to pick and choose which classics you read because some are heavy going, but there are so many out there which are seriously the best books I've ever read. Honestly, the classic books are often the ones I remember as favourites more than contemporary books. Also, I love that you always know when you're reading a book by Dickens or Bronte or whoever, you are reading one of the best books you will ever read in your life.

2) Generally classic books are universal in their relevance. It's weird to try and imagine all the people who have read the words of classic books before you and to think about the different ways they would interpret each word. I've always thought it's quite humbling to realise that each classic book must have relevance to at least some people, and even if you don't find the book that is most relevant to you straight away (I mean, I've been trying and failing to read 'Pride and Prejudice' for the past 8 years. Unfortunately that's not an exaggeration..), you can pretty much bet that there will be a classic out there somewhere that applies to you and which will likely change your life in some way, however that might be.

3) Classic literature makes you have to think in order to read because if you don't engage your brain then you just don't get it. This is definitely a flaw in some cases (last year I went on holiday to Paris during the summer and was stuck trying to finish 'Crime and Punishment', which is basically a russian book about a man who kills an old woman and his psychological issues, not exactly a relaxing holiday read...) and I've always thought it's necessary to be exposed to a mix of genres of books, but classics are great because they just make you learn. I've always found it oddly satisfying to write sophisticated sounding words in essays (in the same way you know you've probably written something well if you manage to use a semi-colon in the right place) and reading classic literature can teach you so many new words, even if you do need to keep a dictionary constantly on your bedside table.

4) Finally, although this probably shouldn't be the only motivation to read classics, it's always nice to be able to say you've read certain books. I mean if someone asks if you've read 'David Copperfield', it's much more fun being able to say yes than no, although I'm not entirely sure when anybody would ever ask you that in casual conversation, but you know what I mean. It also means you can understand some of the things people say which you otherwise might not, which is always nice.

So really, although I guess you should only really read classics if you want to, rather than having to because that way you're unlikely to get anywhere, I couldn't recommend the majority of them more. Happy reading!

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Defending Bernard Bligh

So exam season has meant that it's been a while since I've published a post, although this one has been sitting in my drafts for about a month and a half now. While I should be revising for my history exam I find the 60s inescapably boring, and so this is my break, although it's a little ironic that I'm now remembering I originally read this book (which is Andrea Levy's 'Small Island' by the way) as background to the history course. Okay, so this post now counts as revision...

I'm kind of questioning why I'm writing this post since Bernard Bligh, who I guess you could call the antagonist of the plot,  is such a hated character. I mean he definitely has nasty qualities, but whilst reading the book I couldn't help but sympathise with his character, perhaps more than any of the others. (Oh, and there will be **SPOILERS** in this post).

'Small Island' is set in 1948, although the majority of the novel takes place in parts grippingly named 'before', and it tells the story of two married couples, Bernard and Queenie (English) and Gilbert and Hortense (Jamaican). The racial tensions of the post-war era provide the back-bone of the story and it is true that Bernard, on the face of it, is simply a racist character with nothing more to say for himself than to swear at those with a different colour skin to himself.

Although this post is defending his character, I think it's necessary to point out immediately that I do not sympathise with him as a racist - his behaviour towards both Gilbert and Hortense was disgusting and thank God the majority of people are not like that today, although I know they certainly do exist.

However, I'm not completely sure why I've heard some people say they absolutely hate him. I mean, the things that go wrong are definitely not all his fault. And this brings me swiftly on to Queenie Bligh. I hated this woman. But then it seems that most other people I've seen who have read the book are firmly and absolutely on her side. I'm sorry but, in my book, cheating on your husband who is away at war not only once, but TWICE with a man you barely know is pretty much unforgivable. And yes, there will be people who say Bernard pushed her away, but really he was just being himself and not liking your husbands pale neck is not a good enough reason to cheat on him. Full stop. No question.

I think I would have less of a problem with Queenie if her dislike of her husband had stemmed from a changed personality after war or something like that, but it's pretty obvious she never liked him. I mean her aunt's death and the threat of having to move back in with her awful mother are the only reasons for her wishing to marry Bernard. He was simply the best of two apparently bad options. I guess that's why I sympathise with Bernard, because the person he loves will never love him back. So this made me think what really makes Bernard all that different from Les Miserables' Eponine? Eponine has a league of devoted supporters who sympathise with her character because Marius does not and will never love her back. To me this story holds a striking resemblance to Bernard's. Although it is true that Bernard has his bad elements - the most predominant of which is his racism - to be fair, Eponine also has bad characteristics, the main of which is that for the majority of the time at the barricade Eponine is there to see Marius killed and then die herself. An element which fans of hers seem to overlook all too often. So all I'm asking is what's the difference between Eponine and Bernard and why should Bernard be hated where Eponine is adored. I just find it quite ironic that opinions of Bernard are somewhat discriminative in themselves, making readers of the book no different from Bernard himself in some ways. 

At the end of the novel it emerges that Bernard would be prepared to look after and care for Queenie's illegitimate child as a father and, although there is probably an element of truth in the mother's protestations that Bernard would highlight the child's mixed race in every argument they had, it seems to me that Bernard really wanted to carry out this duty. It is implied earlier in the novel that Bernard wants children but Queenie just isn't getting pregnant. So for Bernard to get home from war to find his father dead and his wife pregnant with another man's child would surely only add to his feeling inadequacy as it can only be assumed that Bernard is infertile. In this way I really think each and every person can begin to sympathise with Bernard's character, on which ever level this might be, just because it's part of being human to experience self doubt and feel worthless and ultimately unnecessary, without purpose. 

So for that reason I really do sympathise with Bernard as I think there's an element of all of us within him. And to be honest that includes the bad parts as there really is bad in each of us, whether we choose to reveal that to other people or not. It doesn't have to be as extreme as being racist, although I think Bernard was likely only a child of his time, but  even nasty little thoughts that are there within us and which we hate ourselves for later show that nobody can be wholly and completely 'good'. Consequently, I think someone needed to stand up for Bernard and show him as the representation of all humans that he really is, much as we would all like to deny this.