Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Number 19 is The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I'm actually not familiar with the author's work as a radio personality, and in fact, I ended up reading this book because my father had asked for it as a birthday present, and I just found myself flipping through it and being engaged in the first few pages. Early American history is a time period I'm woefully uninformed of (of course, I'm equally uninformed about early Canadian history, having forgotten most of it at this point), so I thought what the heck, I'll read about the founding of the American colonies. Vowell makes it easy to be interseted though. Her writing style is definitely quirky as she flips back and forth between the history of the 1630s era settlers of the Boston and Rhode Island areas, and present day parallels. The book is often humourous in following the Puritan leaders and their often unbendable views of religion and law, but they are definitely not the boring, uptight individuals we've been pretty much made to think they were. Of course, the book also goes into not humourous times, with the Pequot War being particularly brutal and upsetting. Vowell's thesis for this book is that the Puritans are not exactly who we think they were. They were religious and hardy, but they were also highly literate and were big into education, which is something Vowell feels the modern US of A has lost sight of.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Number 18 took me a looong time to finish. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, it's that it is a dense, 800-page book written in 1848, so they tend to take a little longer. Book 18 is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

This book is subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero", which is pretty much true. Most of the main characters are not 'hero' material. Definitely not the main character, Becky Sharpe. Becky is a scheming, manipulative social climber, desperate to elevate her station in life from orphaned child of (ugh) artists, to become a respectable (and of course wealthy) Lady. She moves through the eschelons of society with such purpose and cunning that Machiavelli himself would admire. Of course, her house of cards all does finally come crashing down on her and she is ruined for awhile, but she ends up pulling herself up at the expense of another character.

The other characters aren't really much better than Becky. There's George Osborne, self-obessesed but rather dashing, he's the one that Becky's school-mate, Amelia Sedley falls for. Amelia is a sweet girl, kind and good natured, but you also get the idea she's none too bright. And her obsession over George nearly kills her a couple of times. Not too bright and not too strong either. Amelia's brother Jospeh is plump, vain and increadibly gullable. It is he that Becky pretty much ruins at the end of the book. And then there's the man who becomes Becky's husband, Captain Rawdon Crawley, a card shark and a wasteral who counted on inheriting from his rich aunt, but when he marries Becky, he is disinherited because he married so far below his station. And then there is the one, and pretty much only fairly noble character in the book, William Dobbin. George's best friend, but he harbours an unrequited crush on Amelia, and seems immune to Becky's charms. He always tries to do his best for those around him, and is without a doubt, the most sympathetic character of them all (although, as Rawdon becomes more and more aware of his wife's shortcomings and is increasingly fond of his little boy, there is some redemption for him as well).

The Napoleanic Wars interrupt the novel for a bit, with repercussions for all. Becky rises through the ranks of society, but she leaves a trail of financial ruin in her wake. The Crawleys have no money, and never pay anyone anything they owe. Becky is cold towards her own son, and basically flirts and holds court of her own with many male admirers, whilst pretty much ignoring her husband. It's during this time that Rawdon begins to realize she's not the loving wife she pretends to be.

It's an interesting novel in that it's actually quite dark, and gets moreso as the novel progresses. The characters are pretty much all despicable. Money and the pursuit of it is pretty much the be all and end all of some of their existences. And those who do end up in poverty do so because of someone's foolishness with money. No one's really evil though (well, maybe Becky), but they are all fairly unlikable. Of course, this novel is hailed as a satire of society, and it certaintly does its job. Overall, I quite liked it, it's certaintly an interesting look at society warts and all, and in Becky Sharpe, he created one hell of an anti-hero.