I tackled a couple of enormous books this month, and their heft kind of slowed me down. Middlemarch is 900+ pages, and one about Joan of Arc is 600 pages of tiny text, if printed like a regular novel instead of a tiny-text-encyclopedia book it probably would have exceeded 1,000 pages. I’m glad I liked Middlemarch as much as I did, because some of my other selections weren’t that great. (Sad panda.)
The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened The World and Changed History, by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman (2 stars). Meh. This book is not really about volcanoes, it is about the climate change caused by a massive explosion in Indonesia in 1815 and the subsequent world-wide cooling in 1816. There are reasons the only books written about weather minutiae for a single year are almanacs…it’s just not that engaging. Only the first two chapters actually talk about the volcano, everything else is day-by-day temperatures, rainfall, and drought/famine, but very poorly written. There are a few tidbits about paintings or literature or social movements that were inspired by the unusual weather (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was, for me, the most interesting), but not enough to redeem the book.
Additional Recommended Reading: Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded, by Simon Winchester (a far better book about volcanoes); One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson (a better-written book about a single year of history).
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, by Jeanne d’Arc (4 stars) Without the English mis-trial (and it’s volumes of documents) this book could not exist, the bulk of her words and statements were taken from her trial records, either being stated by her, or from the deposition of witnesses at her trial testifying to her character. This is a quick read, a few hours max, but it was so delightfully simple and clean. Joan was not an overly complicated person, she was devout and determined and patriotic. I’m not saying her character is one-sided, I’m saying that it is easy to grasp the fullness of her mission and her chutzpah in a hundred and fifty pages of her words. Recommended. (Also, if you aren’t overly familiar with Joan of Arc, there is a really great synopsis of her life and campaigns at the end which can help fill in some of the gaps.)
An Army of Angels: A Novel of Joan of Arc, by Pamela Marcantel (2 stars). Holy Tediousness!! This book should have been hundreds of pages shorter and would have been far superior for the edits; get this lady an editor, stat! Additionally, hundreds of pages of hero-worship for Joan of Arc (who I admire in many, many ways) gets pretty old when she is constantly waging war and calling for massive violence in the name of God. Catholic French fighting Catholic English because both claim their divine king should be the supreme ruler of the French provinces is not all that inspiring, and the trial of heresy and blasphemy because the English cardinal didn’t believe Joan was even worse. Does Joan herself do some freaking amazing things in the face of the historical times in which she lived, her being a woman in a man’s world (both medieval world and world of war), and her actions and accomplishments for anyone so young and uneducated? Yes. She does. Add to that her claims of divine leadership, visions, and voices and you have a legend. It’s not every day a 19-year old village girl leads a decrepit army to victory against the largest occupying force on the continent and actually crowns her king during the coronation ceremony. Pretty awesome stuff, really. But the chapter after chapter of justification (by the author, it seemed) for Holy War was soul-sucking. With ISIS and the Westboro Baptists and all the other violence in the name of religion going on right now it is disheartening to realize that this kind of battle has been fought for thousands of years, and will probably continue for another thousand years. But does fighting really please god? Any god? Is murder and violence and cold-blooded killing truly pleasing to a father of humanity? I think no, and that was the point that–for me–was really driven home throughout this book. Not that Joan, or the English, or author Marcantel ever come to that conclusion. (They don’t. It’s all glorious, blessed holy war for them; pages of violence and torture and battles as evidence of honor and faith in God…you know, with a few token Hail Mary’s, or forgive the sinners, or repent and be saved, ye godless, heathen English soldiers/French witch. Blech!)
Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain (one of my favorites); Henry VI, Part 1, by William Shakespeare (reading Henry V to set up why the English are in France in the first place wouldn’t hurt either).
Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (4 stars). I love, love, love Garcia Marquez’s writing! I want him to write the narrative of his life. So, the book itself is primarily about love/lust deferred, and what happens when you suddenly have the opportunity to pursue a relationship you’ve been dreaming about for decades. This book has been described as a novel-length response to the question “What is love?” I think there is a lot of truth to that, actually. Florentino and Fermina both have to re-evaluate themselves, their individual history, their relationship history, and the rest of their lives before they can truly be together. This is a love story, but it’s not all butterflies and roses. It’s a lot like, you know, real life. Cholera and death and arguments and floating away on a quarantined boat to spend the remainder of your lives together.
Additional Recommended Reading: 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Middlemarch, by George Eliot (5 stars). I have tried and tried to like Jane Austen, but I just cannot get into her writing and assumed I just disliked all Regency romance books. That being said, I absolutely loved Portrait of a Lady and so decided to try George Eliot. People, I’ve found my new spirit animal. Eliot’s characters are delightfully sarcastic and her narration above and around them gives them self-awareness and depth that I have personally not found in Austen’s writing. I don’t know if I can say enough good things about Middlemarch, Eliot is brilliant, her story line is complex and detailed and the characters are involved in everyone’s lives and family (like in any proper English manor town), it was like watching three seasons of Downton Abbey without having quite so much dRAmAz! with the servants and Lady Mary (oh, Lady Mary). Recommended.
Additional Recommended Reading: Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
I love your description of Middlemarch. It just jumped to the top of my to-read list.
I really loved it so, so much! Please read so we can discuss!
I am intrigued by your opinion that Austen lacks self-awareness and depth, because I’ve always found her writing to be slyly humorous and find that that’s what saves her novels from just being generic romance. But your description of Middlemarch makes me want to read it! I just went and purchased a Kindle edition for 10 cents. Yay!
I really tried to like Austen, I’ve read almost all of her books (at the behest of friends who swore by them) and I really really wanted to like at least one. But I found her women so damn irritating and single-minded (marriage!) that I just…I can’t do it. I understand that part of Austen’s skill is the pieces in-between the marriage plans, but for me there isn’t enough to be able to stomach the rest of the book. Eliot’s women in Middlemarch are so much richer in character, all of them, and their responses to the social demands of marriage and home and wealth are distinctly different than, say, Elizabeth Bennett. Ditto to the writing by Henry James. I think part of my big issue with Austen is that so many people (at least the ones who praise her writing to me) think of her writing as ultimate love stories. And I don’t. Not at all. (I also don’t enjoy YA fiction, particularly when first love or love triangles are involved…basically, I’m a soppy wet blanket smothering all romance reading lists.)