The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

After being enthralled with The Three Musketeers, I was trepidatious with The Count of Monte Cristo, fearing I’d be disappointed. My fears were squashed as Dumas once again delivered an adventure that had me nearly trembling with anticipation over the Count’s exploits.

In the early 1800’s, 19-year old Edmond Dantes seems to be looking forward to a wonderful life; a promotion from sailor to captain of the Pharaon, marriage to his beloved Mercedes and well liked by all who knew him. He is unaware of those who envy him and suddenly finds himself imprisoned far away from everything and everyone he loves.

The dashing Edmond Dantes seeks revenge against those responsible for the losses he has suffered on trumped up charges and years isolated in prison. The education he has received while imprisoned serves him well as he plans the perfect retribution against those who have wronged him.

Deeply green with envy, Monsieur Danglars has his own plan to rid the world of Dantes and after doing so, improves his life financially and socially. Growing quite comfortable over the years, he is extremely unprepared for the fate that awaits him at the hand of his mortal enemy.

Monsieur Morrell, the Pharaon’s shipowner, is an honest man and the only one that tried to help Dantes when he was falsely accused. He also helped Dantes father who had no support while his son was imprisoned. Morrell is in dire financial straits when Dantes eventually escapes and is unaware that the miracle that has saved him from suicide came from the man he once tried to save.


Quotes:

His whole manner gave evidence of that calmness and resolution peculiar to those who have been accustomed to facing danger ever since their childhood.

“And now,” said the man on the yacht, “farewell to kindness, humanity and gratitude. Farewell to all sentiments that gladden the heart. I have substituted myself for Providence in rewarding the good; may the God of vengeance now yield me His place to punish the wicked!”

No matter how hardened to danger a man may be, he always realizes, from the pounding of his heart and the shivering of his flesh, the enormous difference there is between a dream and reality, between a plan and its execution.

Truly generous men are always ready to become sympathetic when their enemy’s misfortune surpasses the limits of their hatred.

Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss. It is necessary to have wished for death, Maximillian, in order to know how good it is to live.

What a thrill it would be to go on an expedition with Mr. Dumas, perhaps in a little dinghy. We could discuss his own adventures and how he applied those experiences to his novels.

My rating for The Count of Monte Cristo is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up , Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles

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Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway highlights Ms. Woolf’s knack for stream of consciousness minus the tediousness so many other writers fail to note. Her ability to capture the uniqueness of a multitude of characters made for smooth reading.

Set in post WWI England, the novel addresses class, PTSD, disease and suicide in a 24-hour period preceding a party being hosted by Mrs. Dalloway.

Clarissa Dalloway narrates much of the novel. She holds herself at arms length from those around her so we never get that in depth view of her true being. As quickly as a truth slips out, she quickly reels it in, fearing that she may embrace that image, but others may reject it.

Clarissa’s ex, Peter Walsh, still obviously carries a torch for her. Unlike Clarissa, he is emotionally expressive and is easily brought to tears. He both admires and scorns Clarissa, still conflicted after the passing of many decades,

Miss Killman is the martyred tutor to Clarissa’s daughter, Elizabeth. Bitter about her lot in life, she despises Clarissa and punishes her by influencing her daughter.

Suffering from severe PTSD, Septimus Warren Smith never truly returned from the war. Rather, he subsists with his wife’s support and has found his life to be unbearable. Surely, Clarissa and Septimus merged become Virginia.

Quotes:

Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too.

It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part to of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps — perhaps.

I’d love to be in the shadows at a party hosted by Ms. Woolf and watch her take in every nuance of her guests as she quietly observes their every movement and every dialog. Revealing myself, I’d ask to compare notes to see if our perceptions were in sync.

My rating for Mrs. Dalloway is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up , Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens

The novel revolves around the never ending Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit whose base is a disputed inheritance and those awaiting its conclusion. Dickens’ disdain for the British courts is quite evident in the almost Kafkaesque legal inactions depicted in Bleak House.

Written in two perspectives; Esther Summerson’s and an unnamed narrator, the many characters attached to the lawsuit are introduced and many subplots unfold.

Esther Summerson, an orphan, comes to Bleak House under the guardianship of John Jarndyce and acts as housekeeper and companion to two other orphans. Her calm and selfless manner appeal to the many confidantes she befriends.

John Jarndyce is an enigmatic man who is extremely uncomfortable with other’s gratitude. Benefactor to many, he remains humble and non judgmental to even those who disappoint him.

The mysterious Lady Dedlock appears cold, yet she harbors a long held secret that ties her directly to Esther. When her secret is finally revealed, we understand how she was also kept in the dark for years. A tragic ending for a tragic life.

A resident of Tom All-Alones, Jo, was left in the gutter as an infant and has lived as a street urchin with no hopes of ever living a better life. His only ally is Nemo, aka Captain Hawdon, with an unknown connection to Lady Dedlock. This is the character I rooted for, sadly, to no avail.

Quotes:

She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.

I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another; how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.

And in his last look as we drove away, I saw that he was very sorry for me. I was glad to see it. I felt for my old self as the dead may feel if they ever revisit these scenes. I was glad to be tenderly remembered, to be gently pitied, not to be quite forgotten.

Ah Mr. Dickens, you never fail to entertain to the nth degree. How I would love to sit down with him and ask his opinion of current day affairs. No doubt, he’d have much to say and perhaps, he’d write an op-ed…

My rating for Bleak House is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up , Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

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Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

Mr. Lee’s memoir is set in the Cotswolds at the beginning of the 20th century following the end of WWI. The family has just moved and little Laurie is quite frightened by his new home, but quickly overcomes his initial fears thanks to his doting step sisters.

We follow Laurie as a toddler and young schoolboy into teen angst and eventual manhood and get an insider’s view of village life and those that thrive and those that fail.

Laurie only reveals his childish thoughts so we don’t get too much insight into his adult mind, but he clearly cherished his thrifty, albeit loving upbringing.

Mrs. Lee was the most interesting character. A single mother raising 8 children; 3 she bore and 5 born by her absent husband’s deceased wife. A very bright student, she was born at a time that did not place much value on education for women and married a widow who wasn’t much for fatherhood or marriage. Her positive, though often scattered, outlook kept the family going and all eight children were treated equally. Her free spirit was evident, but she squashed her true desires and focused on family.

The Uncles chapter introduces Laurie’s maternal uncles, who were all as interesting as their sister. Charlie, the forrester was the rugged one, while Tom was the ladies man and Ray built railroads, was tattooed and drank heavily. Sid was the moody bus driver who also enjoyed liquor and regularly threatened suicide.

Quotes:

Though she tortured our patience and exhausted our nerves, she was, all the time building up around us, by the unconscious revelations of her loves, an interpretation of man and the natural world so unpretentious and easy that we never recognized it then, yet so true that we never forgot it.

Nothing now that I ever see that has the edge of gold around it — the change of a season, a jewelled bird in a bush, the eyes of orchids, water in the evening, a thistle, a picture, a poem — but my pleasure pays some brief duty to her. She tried me at times to the top of my bent. But I absorbed from birth, as now I know, the whole earth through her jaunty spirit.

I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, wiling to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, of a life, that the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist yet again.

Such a night of fever slowed everything down as though hot rugs had been stuffed into a clock.

Our village was clearly no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it.

Cider with Mr. Lee would have to be of the “hard” kind. Perhaps we could discuss the villagers more and how and where he did his writing. I’d definitely have to get him “woke” as his encounters with Jo would be classified as sexual assault today and his casual involvement with a planned rape made me squirm.

My rating for Cider with Rosie is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up , Charles Dickens’ Bleak House

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A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

In A Boy’s Own Story, the author documents his coming of age in the 1950’s while grappling with his homosexuality. The sexual encounters are explicit and exaggerated to ensure the reader is attentive to the prose.

Had the sexual details been omitted, it would have been just as effective in delivering the angst of the teen years and the feelings of isolation and hopelessness.

It’s easy to imagine Edmund wringing his hands as he navigates his way through family conflicts, acknowledges his sexuality and interacts with people living in their own unique ways.

Edmund’s father is a successful businessman who lives in a world all his own. He is well aware of all those that surround him, but never feels comfortable speaking openly and honestly to anyone. He is a solitary man pretending to be sociable and has not truly lived the life he was fortunate enough to have.

Marilyn, a bookstore clerk is one of Edmund’s true friends who shows him that being different is not being imperfect. The time they spend together seems to bring peace to them both.

Mr. & Mrs. Scott are two horrendous individuals who take advantage of young Edmund to feed their own sexual desires. Mr. Scott teaches Latin at a boarding school and feigns friendship with Edmund to conceal his own homosexual desires.

Quotes:

My father regarded guests as nuisances who had to be entertained over and over again.

…the imagination is not the consolation people pretend. It can even be regarded as the admission of some sort of failure.

I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, wiling to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, of a life, that the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist yet again.

And so on for hours, pure ventriloquism, nausea of small talk, a discipline nearly Oriental in its exclusion of content and its focus on empty locutions, the chatter of social fear confused with yearning, for I not only feared my friends, I also wanted to make them love me.

Given the opportunity to meet with Mr. White, I would ask if his upbringing were so painful that he’d rather put pen to paper on his supposed illicit sexual encounters than divulge his family secrets. I felt cheated in that he was hiding his authentic self and using sex as a way of distracting the reader from being awares.

My rating for A Boy’s Own Story is a 6 out of 10.

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Next up , Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

One of the most well known novels of all time, reading A Christmas Carol, at Christmas time no less, was utter joy. With so many film adaptions, I tried my hardiest to put their images out of mind and delayed viewing my favorite version (1951 starring Alastair Sim) until I completed the read.

Presented in 5 Staves, rather than chapters, Dickens chose to use this reference, a nod to the musical staff, indicating each stave was a story unto itself with a distinct end.

From avarice to benevolence, Ebeneezer Scrooge looks at his past, present and future and comes to understand that by holding on to life’s disappointments, he has cheated himself from living a joyful life. Not a moment too soon, Scrooge finally sees that joy is best shared with others.

Poor little Fan, sister to Ebeneezer, who had a heart of gold for her dear brother, but not one that could sustain the strain of a difficult labor and delivery. Had she lived, perhaps her brother’s bitterness might have been lessened.

Bob Cratchit’s extreme patience and nonjudgmental views put him in a category above most. It would be quite easy to see him as a bitter and angry man, yet he accepted his lot without complaint and seemed the wiser for it in the end.

Quotes:

Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!

The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.

I’ve made no secret of my adoration for Mr. Dickens and I won’t apologize for it. I imagine sitting at his side while he dipped pen to ink, chuckling as he did and taking no notice of me at all. All the while hoping that being in his presence alone would allow for a type of wordsmithery osmosis.

My rating for A Christmas Carol is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up , Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story

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Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

The overarching theme of Everything That Rises Must Converge is family, mostly parents and children and seemed to demonize either the parent or the child in each of the 9 short stories, with most ending in death.

While each story was unique and very well written, I’ve decided to review my top 1 of the 9.

A View of the Woods gave me a sense of being both participant and spectator. An unusual tale of truly dysfunctional family dynamics and a man’s open disdain for most of his family, save his granddaughter.

Mark Fortune is a wealthy 79-year-old landowner who loves to taunt his family by selling off parcels of land they live near. As he realizes his life is winding down, he spends his time with his 9-year-old namesake, Mary, who he has decided will be sole heir to his fortunes.

Both Mary and her grandfather are strongly opinionated and irascible, yet have an unspoken respect for one another. They spend time together watching the sold off parcels being excavated, watching eagle eyed to ensure no minor encroachments occur.

Believing they are one and the same person, Mark Fortune finds he is terribly mistaken when he decides to sell a parcel with a view of the woods from Mary’s home, much to Mary’s extreme objection.

Quotes (from other short stories):

Julian thought he could have stood his lot better if she had been selfish, if she had been an old hag who drank and screamed at him. He walked along, saturated in depression, as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith.

Almost any fault would have been preferable to selfishness–a violent temper, even a tendency to lie.

Still unsure I’d want to meet with Ms. O’Connor. Her overt racism prevails throughout and actually became harder to swallow with each story. Perhaps a cup of bitter tea would melt the coldness of her heart and soul and reveal her deep seated intolerance for those different than herself.

Once again, putting aside my personal feelings…My rating for Everything That Rises Must Converge is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up (and apropos of the season), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

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Home by Marilynne Robinson

Two adult siblings return to their childhood home in Gilead, Iowa seeking refuge from their unfulfilled lives.

The first to return, Glory, has escaped from an unrequited love affair that has left her feeling ashamed and a teaching job that has left her feeling inessential. The youngest of the Boughton’s eight children, she busies herself as caretaker to her ailing father and to running the household.

Eldest Boughton, Jack, returns after a 20-year absence shrouded in enigma and carrying the burden of his youthful sins. He has not spent the last decades in repentance, but rather in and out of bars and prison and still carries more secrets he is not willing to reveal.

The family patriarch, the Reverend Robert Boughton welcomes his children back to their home. His faith has led him all his life, and as it is nearing its end, he desperately wants to ensure his son’s eternal deliverance.

Lila Ames, the young wife to Boughton neighbor Reverend Ames, is warm and compassionate and is the only character with the ability to take everything in without judgment and put everyone at ease with just a few kind words. She seemed a very unlikely match for her reverend husband, a judgmental and unsympathetic man.

Quotes:

He looked like the saddest fantasy she had ever had of the worst that might have become of him, except that he was breathing, an sweating, and a little tense under her touch.

His eyes were still reddened, and the flesh of his face looked a little like wax, or like clay, creasing deeply when he smiled. If she had not know him, she’d have thought, wistful and unsavory.

Were I given an opportunity to meet Ms. Robinson, I would steer the conversation away from religion and towards her upbringing and her writer’s workshops where I’m sure she’d have a plethora of tales to share.

My rating for Home is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge

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The Trial by Franz Kafka

While not a lengthy novel, it nonetheless took me quite some time to get through The Trial, feeling confused and disoriented, much like the protagonist questioning what was real and what was not.

Purportedly an homage to Dostoyevsky’s works, Kafka ensnares the reader into Josef K’s living nightmare in which he is being prosecuted for an unnamed crime by an unknown authority.

Referred to simply as K., Josef K. is a 30-year-old banker arrested on his birthday with no specific charges and told to report to the court with no specific time or location. His ordeal leads him to several enigmatic characters hoping for clarity, only to find himself falling further down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Dr. Huld, a lawyer recommended by K.’s uncle serves only to discombobulate and further confuse the situation while offering little to no professional advice.

Leni, caregiver to the bedridden Huld seduces K. and appears to have some knowledge of the obscure charges. Unbeknownst to K., Leni has an unusual attraction to men charged with these ambiguous legal accusations and can truly offer no guidance.

Quotes:

Despite this affirmation the painter summed it all up once more, as if he wanted to give K. something to console him on his way home. “Both have in common that they prevent the defendant being convicted,” he said. “But they also prevent his being properly acquitted.” said K. quietly, as if ashamed to acknowledge it.

As his eyesight failed, K. saw the two gentlemen cheek by cheek, close in front of his face, watching the result. “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.

I’d probably open my conversation with Mr. Kafka around his idol, Dostoyevsky, to put us both at ease and then discuss his writing processes. Since many of his female characters in The Trial were portrayed as sexual beings rather than women, I’d have to try to educate him on the relevance of equality.

My rating for The Trial is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up, Marilynne Robinson’s Home…

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Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

A young disillusioned WWII veteran returns to his family’s home in Tennessee, only to find it abandoned. With no plan for his future, he decides not to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a preacher and heads to Taulkinham to do some preaching of his own.

Hazel creates his own church: the Church without Christ. It is a church where “the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, the dumb don’t talk, and the dead stay that way.”

Hazel Motes is battling demons; demons from the war, demons from his Christian upbringing, and demons from his current situation. He does not fare much better in his return than he evidently fared in the war.

An unlikely ally, Enoch Emery believes he possesses wise blood that provides inborn knowledge to guide him through all of life’s quandaries. His wise blood directs him to help Motes by stealing a mummy from the zoo where he works.

A blind preacher/con man, Asa Hawks and his promiscuous 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath Lily taunt Motes who they believe is much more devout than his atheistic rantings would imply.

Quotes:

…but his eyes were what held her attention longest. Their settings were so deep that they seemed, to her, almost like passages leading somewhere and she leaned halfway across the space that separated the two seats, trying to see into them.

His black hat sat on his head with a careful, placed expression and his face had a fragile look as it if might have been broken and stuck together again, or like a gun no one knows is loaded.

…watching him with the kind of intensity that means something is going to happen no matter what is done to keep it from happening.

Not so sure I’d even want to meet with Ms. O’Connor after the recent allegations about her overt racism. Perhaps I’d first allow for some idle chatter regarding her writing process and then I’d have to get real and ask her where her hatred came from.

My (unbiased) rating for Wise Blood is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up, Franz Kafka’s The Trial

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