Category Archives: Book Reviews

Bleak House Day 5 – Character Sketches

(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained.  I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.)

I have given a few character sketches as part of my posts over the last few days, so I want to do a few “stand alone” sketches, starting with Mr. Jarndyce (John Jarndyce).

Mr. Jarndyce was one of the main characters, in the top three or four (Esther and Lady Dedlock being the only two I’d put before him, though he might have a lot more “screen time” than “my Lady”), but who was he?

He was obviously rich.  Bleak House wasn’t a giant manor like Chesney Wold, but it was multi-storied and rambling, so not small.  It had full-time live-in servants, even when Mr. Jarndyce and his wards weren’t there, possibly quite a few.  A half a dozen?  A dozen?  Two dozen?  More?  They are rarely talked about, but I would guess a minimum of half a dozen, though it could approach that biggest number.  He didn’t seem to work and was able to afford to rent a large house in London for months at a time.  He was very free and giving with his money, almost as if there was an endless supply.

Although he was not in the same class as the Lord and Lady Dedlock, Sir Leicester paid a visit to Bleak House to apologize for not being more welcoming when Mr. Jarndyce and his wards were close to Chesney Wold.  I doubt Sir Leicester did that to everybody in England.  Just saying…

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Bleak House Day 4 – Sir Leicester

(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained.  I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.) (A few small spoilers)

I am not British and have never lived in the 12th century (well, I guess it is possible I did, but I don’t remember any past lives), but I have read a lot about the old aristocratic system, both the pre-feudal and the feudal society. 

Some points.

In many ways, partially because of the background of the almost democratic Anglo-Saxon world before the Normans tried to force the feudal system on England, it was never as pure as in other places, and slowly died out, a process that accelerated in the between-the-wars period (early 20th century), a process that is still occurring to this day.

One thing that people usually do not think of, but in a feudal society a Lord has set responsibilities, obligations, to the people under him.  It is a two-way street.  In 11th century England, the lowest serf working the land was given a place to stay, a certain amount of grain with the ability to increase it through labor, a small plot for vegetables, quite a few days off for religious celebrations/holidays (many, many more than mill workers 800 years later!), etc.  All of this was the Lord’s obligation to his people. 

Sir Leicester, with over a half a millennium of Dedlocks before him, still thought of himself as part of that 11th or 12th century system.  Yes, he knew it was a modern world, but he hated the way England was changing away from the old aristocratic, semi-feudal system where his class was entitled to many things just for being them, and resented the new world where ordinary people were given positions and privilege just because they had the skill and knowledge to do those jobs! Oh, the indignity of it all!

And yet, he did know his obligations to the people in his household and the village around Chesney Wold.  He would rather die than neglect these obligations.

For example, the village had a school, what he thought was a very good school, one he was proud of.  The village had prosperity, somewhat tied to the lord of the manor.  He was not unkind, nor uncaring.

He was just old fashioned.

He was the Lord of the Manor, after all.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote this description of Sir Leicester as seen in the second chapter of the book: Although he was only a baronet, his family was as old as the hills, and far more respectable than the hills.  In fact, Sir Leicester could imagine a world without hills, but not a world without Deadlocks (yes, I stole that from Dickens).  Sir Leicester at 70 was still dashing, if no longer quite in the prime of his life.  And despite his complete devotion to the traditions of the past, he had married out of love and so didn’t mind that she had no family (he had plenty to spare…) and wasn’t in the same economic class as he was.  And he continued to dote on her as much as he did the day they were married.

I found the character of Sir Leicester fascinating, particularly at the end.  In a Dickens’ novel, we do not feel anything unless Charles has led us to it.  And we do feel sympathetic to Sir Leicester at the end.

Of course he is introduced as part of a long married couple that still acted as newlyweds.  He truly loved Lady Dedlock with all of his heart.  He doted on her.

And, though we find that he wasn’t her first love, probably not even close to “the love of her life”, she obviously loved him very much.  In her fashion.

She was willing to sacrifice herself for him.  She said many times that she would do anything to protect him

But Lady Dedlock was the love of Sir Leister’s life.  That has to be remembered.

Sir Leicester, and the relatives that surrounded him looking for his good graces, represented the aristocratic system, with all of its faults, corruptions and warts. 

Dickens did not love this system.  In fact, a happy ending in most of Dickens’ novels was a respectable middle class, not too rich, and far from being aristocratic.  Little Dorrit lost her fortune, Oliver Twist’s aunt’s lover gave up the aristocratic life and a seat in Parliament to marry the woman he loved (only because her sister bore Oliver out of wedlock – it ruined him!) and Esther and her friends end up, if not poor, not rich.  That was Dickens’ happy ending, not a fantasy of becoming Lord and Lady of the manor (something given up in Oliver Twist!)

And yet Dickens obviously didn’t totally hate it.  Perhaps it was so ingrained in society that he could not see it going away.

And since he didn’t totally hate the system, he didn’t totally hate Sir Leicester.

Despite his dated views on politics, industry, society, etc., Sir Leicester had good traits.  One instance is him going out of his way to go to Bleak House to apologize to Mr. Jarndyce and his wards for something that wasn’t his fault.  Sure, he did appreciate being treated as the aristocrat he was on that occasion, but he felt that obligation and was at least a bit friendly.

In the end Sir Leicester discovered what was truly important.  His wife, of course, was by far the most important thing in his life.  The people who chose to be around him for more than the thought that he might do them favors, whether while still alive or after passing, were important.

Loyalty.  Honor.  These were as important to him as they were to an old soldier.  I love the picture of Sir Leicester, weakened from his stroke, leaning on the strongest, most loyal person around, his old “friend” George.  Yes, the son of a servant, and a man of service himself, in many ways George is a far better friend than those cousins who are waiting from some scrap form his hand.  Or his will.

And I like that end.  It is perfect, and in ways touching.  Despite earlier having a grim laugh at Sir Leicester’s self-serving indignation at the changing state of England, we are sympathetic for the old man who has lost his greatest treasure but finds comfort in the stability of an old friend.

Dickens talks about a future where Sir Leicester joins the many generations of Dedlocks, including his beloved wife, in the family mausoleum, but he does not speak of that end as having occurred.

So let’s imagine Sir Leicester and George out for one more ride around the Park, the old soldier proud to be supporting the old man, the old man comfortable in relying in his best friend, the son of his servant.

(Note – I discovered long after I wrote this that “only a baronet” was actually quite the position – although it was the bottom rung of the inherited “nobility”, the aristocracy in Britain was much thinner than in other European countries and represented only one percent of one percent of the populace – 0.01%.  So Sir Leicester was part of the elite of the elite.)

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Bleak House Main Challenge Post

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Bleak House Day 3 – Mr. Skimpole

(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained.  I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.)

I’ll admit Mr. Skimpole provided a bit of riddle for me from the beginning.  He shows up just after we are truly introduced to Mr. Jarndyce (we had met Mr. J once before and had heard of him often, but we had only just begun to actually know him when Mr. S shows up).  He is a character that is very often in Esther’s narrative but never, I believe, in the third person narrative.  The thing is, I never really figured out his purpose.  I know that sounds odd, but even though Dickens wrote a whole telephone book of names into his novels, each one has a purpose, and the more they show up, the more important the purpose. Mr. S. is one of the biggest characters in Esther’s narrative but did not figure in either of the big plots (the law suit, Lady Dedlock’s mystery) nor did he further any subplot at all.

So what was Mr. Skimpole’s purpose?

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Bleak House Day 1 – Overview

(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained.  I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.)

This first real post of the challenge is just a quick review of the book, looking at it from a few angles.

The main story of Bleak House follows a civil lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  From the beginning we find out that this has been going on for decades and most of the principal players are long dead.  Although this is, in ways, the primary story and goes from beginning to end, in other ways it is just the glue that holds the rest of the book together.

There are many smaller stories and subplots, but the main story, after the lawsuit, is that of Lord and Lady Dedlock, and particularly Lady Dedlock and some mysteries surrounding this lady.  Oh, and Esther’s story, of course, but her story is in many ways just incidental to the main story lines of the law suit and Lady Dedlocks mysteries (I introduced Lady Dedlock and her mysteries here.)

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Bleak House – Dickens Challenge – Almost Time!

A few weeks ago, I let Dickens lead us into a very foggy and polluted London.  I didn’t continue with that first chapter, but if I had, I would have led you to the equally murky civil law of Dickens’ day.  There we would have first heard of the infamous law suit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which forms the basis of the first, outer, plot of Bleak House.

In chapter two, we go out on that same bleak day but move to a far, far more fashionable part of Town where Dickens introduces us to Lady Deadlock, a woman who couldn’t move a finger without the action being reported by the fashion journalists in the leading three papers.  The fashion world knew she had bored of Lincolnshire and was spending a few days in Town before crossing to Paris for a short visit.  After Paris?  Not even the leading fashion experts could guess.

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Final Thoughts on Little Dorrit

Charles Dickens at his Desk in 1858 – This was from Wikimedia and I make no claim to ownership

OK, confession time – I did not finish Little Dorrit until last night.  I have a lot of excuses (other reading, a huge amount of writing, etc.) but for the most part they are just that, excuses. 

Anyway, when I was about three-quarters of the way through, I drew up a list of talking points.  Well, after finishing, I have some other things to say…. I will mention these talking points, I just won’t spend as much time with them as planned.  Still, maybe I will spend too much time on them ;) (long post warning…)

One thing that I noticed when I was deep into the book was that Dickens had spent the first 100 pages or so (my copy had 787 pages) just introducing characters and planting a few seeds of plot and subplot.  When I started reading, I only did a few pages at a time, usually before going to bed.  The problem was that there was no plot or substance to get my teeth into at first and so it was a real chore getting through the first 200 pages – I spent almost 4 months on those pages and less than 4 days on the other 587 pages!

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Hidden Figures – Almost a Review

hidden-figures

A few weeks ago, I read the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly.  I really liked the book and can’t imagine the movie covering one tenth the ground it did.  There is so much context and background in the book, and yet I know the author was still only scratching the surface.

This is not a review of the book (review = excellent.  Read it).  I just want to say something about the book, something that I thought about as I read it but that is even more relevant after the recent events in Charlottesville.

A lot of this book is about racism at its ugliest, but also how some people were able to rise above it, or perhaps “rise in spite of it” would be a better phrase.  A little background about how hard it was for people of color, and blacks in particular, to get ahead in the pre-World War II era was needed to place the events of the book in context.  There were black professionals back then, but for the most part they were segregated, dealing with the black community at much lower pay than their white counterparts.  The idea brought out in the book that they had to accomplish twice as much to achieve half of the recognition, unfortunately, is still with us to some degree to this day. Continue reading

Book Review: Possibilities – Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey

possibilities

If you were to ask people to list the five greatest living jazz musicians, Herbie Hancock would make it onto most people’s list.  If you asked for the top ten jazz musicians, those with the greatest influence, of all time, he would make more than a few lists.  If you are of a certain age you might remember his pop/jazz/hip-hop crossover hit, Rockit, its great video and the MTV Award presentation.  If you are a keyboardist of a certain age you may consider his solo on the song Chameleon as one of the greatest analog synthesizer solos ever recorded.  And many know him from his days as the pianist from Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet.  I would say that in many ways Herbie Hancock was the great inheritor of the Miles Davis legacy.  Miles never stood still, and claimed to have “reinvented jazz five or six times”.  Herbie followed in his footsteps by never following in anybody’s footsteps, including his own.  His music constantly shifted and changed.  Sure, he did occasionally do a little nostalgia, like the whole VSOP thing, but for the most part he tried to do something different ever few years.  Remember, this is a man who has won fourteen Grammys and an Oscar, and has received many other honors.

Being a music lover who is into jazz I had to read his autobiography, Possibilities. Continue reading

Book(s) Review – Imperial Radch Series (Ancillary Justice, Sword and Mercy)

ann_leckie_-_ancillary_justice-jpeg

There are a few things that I need to talk about before I begin this review.  First, the review is for three books, Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, the three books in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch Trilogy.  Or is it the first three books of her Imperial Radch Series?  I believe it’s a trilogy, but time will tell.

I try to make sure there are no spoilers in my reviews.  In this one I take it to an extreme.  There is something you will figure out in the first chapter or two of the first book, Ancillary Justice.  It is perhaps the core idea of the series.  But to me it was a “wow, very cool!” moment when I discovered it.  I’d feel evil if I took that moment away from you.  I am going to talk about things you’ll find out along the way, but they aren’t the “Wow, very cool!” type things as this fundamental concept of the author’s universe.

One thing you’ll figure out later in the book is what the names of the books are about.  In this universe an “ancillary” is a human body that is controlled by another intelligence as part of a larger, cohesive unit.  The “bigger” intelligence is usually an artificial intelligence of a ship.  That isn’t a great definition, but will do to get you started.  And what are the ships that have these “ancillaries” tied into their network? There are generally three types that are important in the books (again, with a grain of salt), all three being armed military ships with the ancillaries being used, in one role, as soldiers.  The three ships are the huge troop carriers, the Justices (i.e., like the first book), the much smaller, faster Swords (second book) and the Mercies (third book).  I’m not sure exactly what a Mercy is except that it isn’t as well armed as a Sword, at least not for ship to ship combat.  So, we have three ship types and three books with the ships in the title, which, at least in part, is where my guess that the series will stop at a trilogy comes from. Continue reading

Book Review – Neil Gaiman American Gods

neilgaimanamericangods

A month or so back my sister posted a trailer for a new Starz series called “American Gods”.  I asked about it and her response was, “Are you kidding me!?! You haven’t read the book!?!”  Sorry, no.  Well, she told me it was a must read, particularly since my main genre, at least for my books, is urban fantasy.  So I read it….

First, a little administrative task: I need to tell you that the book I read was the “Author’s preferred text”, 10th anniversary edition.  It has been edited from the original release and some material that was removed (like 15,000 words) was added back in.

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The book American Gods begins with the main character, Shadow, waiting to be released from prison after serving for three years.  With an introduction to some of his fellow prisoners you get the idea that it was memories of his wife that made his time in jail bearable.  As he waits for his release, the tension in the air increases, like a storm brewing on the horizon.  With just a couple of days to go he is called down to see the warden.  He is told that he is being realized early.  Why?  Because his wife had died in an auto accident.  The woman who made the wait worth it would not be there for him.  On his way home to the funeral he bumps into a mysterious man.  This is a meeting that will totally change his life, change his life and more, much, much more…

OK, that’s how it begins.  I don’t want to get too deep into it because I don’t’ want to let the cat out of the bag about the premise of the book.  “Premise” might be the wrong word.  There is a truth behind the people Shadow meets both in his real life and in his strange dreams.  As a piece of “speculative fiction”, there is one thing you have to believe to make it real.  It isn’t the biggest secret of the book and most reviewers will tell you up front what it is.  I mean, just look at the title.  I don’t want to let it out because it is fun to discover it at the same pace Shadow does.  No, it really wouldn’t be a spoiler if I told you, particularly since the whole book is about it and you’ll find out sooner than later, I just don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. Continue reading