O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Information

Goodreads: O Pioneers!
Series: Great Plains Trilogy #1
Source: Gift
Published: 1913

Official Summary

(From the Penguin Classics edition)

The first of her renowned prairie novels, O Pioneers! expresses Cather’s conviction that “the history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

When Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, takes over the family farm after her father’s death, she falls under the spell of the rich, forbidding Nebraska prairie. With strength and resoluteness, she turns the wild landscape into orderly fields. Born of Cather’s early ties to the prairie and to the immigrants who tamed the land, O Pioneers! established a new territory in American literature when it was first published in 1913. In her transformation of ordinary Americans into authentic literary characters, Cather discovered her own voice, exploring themes that would reverberate in her later works.

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Review

I wasn’t really sure what O Pioneers! was supposed to be about before I began, and now that I’ve finished, I’m tempted to say it’s not about much at all. Ostensibly it’s about protagonist Alexandra Bergson, but the story skips over the years of her life I personally would have found most interesting, the years where she turned a patch of land inherited from her father into a thriving and ever-expanding farm simply through her perseverance and intelligence, dragging her brothers along with her when they didn’t want to go. Since that’s all glossed over, however, I was left with a story where Alexandra seems unhappy in spite of all her accomplishments, and the whole thing was rather bland and depressing.

One could argue the main character is the land, an area where people initially struggled to get by and many gave up and returned to the cities, but which eventually grows into a profitable and enviable place to live. Alexandra seems to understand the land better than many, making her a sympathetic character one wants to see succeed. However, I personally can’t love a book simply by thinking the setting is interesting, almost a character unto itself. And the rest of the story is just lacking.

The characters I liked most fade in and out of the story, and terrible things seem to happen to them in spite of their best efforts, and overall I was just bored. Since this is a classic, I am sure some random commenter I’ve never seen on the blog before will pop out of nowhere to tell me I didn’t really understand the book because really it’s a gripping piece of genius, but I just didn’t find it interesting. I’m sure if I read it for school I could come up with something to write a paper about relating to the land or the lack of optimism where it appears optimism should be, but since I was just reading this for fun and didn’t really enjoy it, I will not be reading anything else by the author.

Briana

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Villette

Information

Goodreads: Villette
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: 1853

Summary

Finding herself alone in the world after a family misfortune, Lucy Snowe travels from England to the city of Villette to teach at a girls’ boarding school. There, she first falls in love with a handsome young doctor, and then an irritable professor.

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Review

Though considered by many Charlotte Brontë’s finest novel, Villette often goes unread by the general public. Perhaps it is the sheer length of the tome that deters readers. Or perhaps it is the style. Narrated by the protagonist, Lucy Snow, Villette is not a reliable novel. Lucy keeps her emotions in check almost all the time, lying apparently even to herself about her real motivations and desires. She goes through the world largely as an observer, only implicitly comparing herself first with the shallow flirt Ginevra Fanshawe and then with the beautiful and charming Paulina de Bassompierre. Readers get a sense that Lucy wishes she had something those other girls do–but to admit it out loud would be a weakness. Villette, then, is a sometimes confusing and contradictory novel, with Lucy subduing her passions in order to try to find contentment while alone and friendless, and destined to work her entire life. As a psychological study, it is a triumph–one well worth reading by those who love Brontë’s other works or those who enjoy Victorian literature.

Plot-driven Villette is not, and readers might rightly find it difficult even to summarize the story. It begins in Lucy’s childhood–one that seems happy enough at times, though it ends with an unspecified family tragedy. Left alone, Lucy has to find a way to support herself and eventually decides to travel to the French-speaking city of Villette (based on Brussels and Brontë’s own experiences there). Eventually, she becomes an English teacher at a girls’ boarding school. However, she has no friends there, rejecting the advances of the other teachers as unworthy, and finding almost all of the students immoral and stupid. Over the course of about 18 months, the novel follows Lucy simply as she meets people and observes them. All the while, however, her own extreme loneliness and despair haunt the book. Lucy may claim an even temperament, but at its heart, the book is about the fear of being alone, unloved, and single–as well as the despair of having to work for one’s daily bread an entire lifetime, while not really enjoying the work.

In a subtle way, then, Villette is a novel about the plight of the working woman, though perhaps in a more realistic way than Jane Eyre. Lucy Snowe has no pretensions to being clever or remarkable; she is not even pretty. All Lucy has are her principles, and the reader sometime gets the impression that she clings so fiercely to them because it is the only thing she can control. Others may mock, dismiss, or ignore her. Men may never even look at her because she is so homely. But at least she has morals. At least she can say she is honest. And that thought seems to get her through the day whenever she contemplates a lifetime of standing in front of a room full of bored, disrespectful girls. No handsome hero is going to save her, but she will die respectable and principled.

Despite her assertions to herself that principle is enough, however, Lucy implicitly compares herself with two other women throughout the course of the novel. In the first part, her double is Ginevra Fanshawe, a flirtatious, mercenary girl who values shallow, foppish men over men of value. Lucy repeatedly scolds Ginevra for being vain and faithless, but the reality is that Ginevra–young, beautiful, and wealthy–has the attention of men whereas Lucy–youngish, plain, and poor–has not. In fact, two-timing Ginevra has the heart of Dr. John, the very man Lucy has (silently) fallen in love with herself. Lucy never admits to being in love with Dr. John, but her jealousy is palpable. And it only turns to sadness later on when Dr. John moves on to another beautiful young woman–Paulina de Bassompierre. Lucy recognizes moral quality in Paulina, but she also recognizes that Dr. John would never bother to court Paulina, were the girl not an heiress. Repeatedly, then, Lucy faces the stark reality that a plain working woman of no means seems destined to live, and die, alone. She has many fine speeches about the value of friends, but those friends sometimes forget her; they are not the steady, stable rock of a lifelong partner.

The third part of the book, however, holds out new hope for Lucy in the person of M. Paul, an irritable professor who sometimes teaches at Lucy’s school. Readers may be cheering for Lucy and her potential new love interest here, but M. Paul does exhibit Brontë’s preference for domineering men in a way that can be uncomfortable. Certainly Brontë managed to make Rochester attractive to generations of readers, despite his love of dominating and lying to Jane, but it is questionable whether she achieves the same effect here. M. Paul initially is ascribed only negative qualities and Lucy gives the impression that he is not handsome, either. As time progresses, M. Paul seems to soften and readers learn of his kinder, more generous qualities–but it cannot be denied that Brontë really seems to have a thing for men who yell at and demean women. Readers may hope for a marriage, anyway, but it really does seem questionable if matrimony would be a happier ending for Lucy than achieving financial independence as a single woman.

Villette is a wonderfully complex book that explores one woman’s experiences teaching in a foreign country as she attempts to navigate existence as a single woman of limited financial means. It holds extra interest to many readers as being perhaps the most autobiographical of Brontë’s works; the book is based on her own feelings for a married professor she met in Belgium. However, it also works without the authorial subtext, creating an intense psychological portrait of a woman both daring enough to have passions in life, but also too scared to admit it.

5 stars

Thoughts on Rereading The Return of the King: This Book Is Dark

Spoilers!

This year, I embarked on a quest to finally reread The Lord of the Rings. (I know: I talk about it enough on the blog that people probably assume I must reread it every year or something, but that’s not true. It’s been a while since I last read the story cover to cover.) In April, I posted some reflections on the geography of Middle-Earth after finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, in which I realized the world is much more isolated than I tend to remember. Now, after finishing The Return of the King, I’ve realized the story is also darker than I often remember.

The Lord of the Rings is generally a story I associate with hope. Small, unimportant people do great deeds. Disparate people band together to fight an incredible threat. Frodo succeeds in his quest despite all odds. I’ve written before about how the ending is bittersweet, as some things blossom and come to fruition (the actual return of the king) but other things pass away (the Elves). However, I don’t generally think of the book as actually dark. That changed with this rereading.

This time around, I really felt the despair of the peoples of Gondor, and slightly less so Rohan, as they prepared to take on the forces of the Dark Lord in battle. I know, of course, that Lord Denethor despairs of victory, but I always have it in the back of my mind that, of course, he’s supposed to be wrong. Gandalf tells him off for his despair, and readers learn that he’s been tricked into by Sauron, who has selectively shown him things in the Seeing Stone that will make him think Gondor has no chance of winning the coming battle. Knowing that, I’ve come to have in the back of my mind the idea that the other characters must be a bit more optimistic about the situation, but upon rereading, I’ve realized that’s not true.

None of the characters really know what’s coming before the battle at Minas Tirith, but they are not hopeful about it. In general, they are convinced they are going to die. Pippin fears the battle and that he will never see his friends again. Gandalf thinks they have a slim hope of winning this battle, maybe, but of course the whole war rests on Frodo’s ability to destroy the Ring. The people of Rohan ride hard to Gondor’s aid but are half-convinced they won’t arrive in time to participate in the main battle but instead will simply have a chance to briefly harry the orcs and Men who have triumphed over Minas Tirith before succumbing to said orcs and Men themselves, with no one even left to sing songs about their deeds. There is truly a sense that all the characters are going to fail. Or, even if the main battle is won, a lot of these characters are going to be dead.

Things get even more dire after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn and the Captains of the West go to challenge Sauron at the Black Gate. They’re not even pretending there’s a chance they are going to come back alive at this point. It’s basically a suicide mission to buy Frodo a little more time and privacy to get to Mount Doom while Sauron is looking elsewhere. This is very depressing! And when a chapter ends with Pippin’s being attacked and subsequently closing his eyes and losing thought, well, it certainly seems as if he’s dead! I cannot remember what I thought the first time I read the book, and didn’t know the ending, but I assume I really thought Pippin was gone, and perhaps Aragorn and all the others were next.

Of course, the Eagles come, Frodo’s quest succeeds, and things generally become happy by the end. It’s the eucatastophe Tolkien wanted, but for many, many chapters in this book, it really feels as if hope is missing. One gets into the minds of the characters, who do not know where Frodo is or if he’s even still alive, who assume they have a part to play in fighting Sauron because, really, it’s the only option, but they’re not convinced it’s going to work or they’re gong to come out alive. In some places, this may in fact be the most hopeless book I’ve ever read! Or perhaps the most realistic about how people feel before a large battle in which they are outnumbered. Why should they expect to be lucky enough to survive?

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, still one of my favorite books. I simply did not remember the amount of darkness and despair Tolkien manages to convey in the first part of The Return of the King, especially since I now know how it all ends. It’s really a masterpiece of writing, and I think this bit of darkness is often overlooked.

Briana

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Information

Goodreads: Brideshead Revisited
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1945

Official Summary

(Back Bay Books edition)

The wellsprings of desire and the impediments to love come brilliantly into focus in Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece — a novel that immerses us in the glittering and seductive world of English aristocracy in the waning days of the empire.

Through the story of Charles Ryder’s entanglement with the Flytes, a great Catholic family, Evelyn Waugh charts the passing of the privileged world he knew in his own youth and vividly recalls the sensuous pleasures denied him by wartime austerities.

At once romantic, sensuous, comic, and somber, Brideshead Revisited transcends Waugh’s early satiric explorations and reveals him to be an elegiac, lyrical novelist of the utmost feeling and lucidity.

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Review

Brideshead Revisited is one of those books where the publisher’s summary has come to be about themes rather than plot. According to my copy, the book is about “the passing of the privileged world” before and during WWII. Personally, I find there IS a lot thematically to unpack. I can imagine writing several academic papers about it in a college class. As a casual read I intend to read just once and move on from, however, I was underwhelmed.

If there is a plot, it is how protagonist Charles Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte at Oxford and subsequently becomes entangled with the entire Flyte family, which is exactly what Sebastian had feared. Because the start of the book is so focused on Charles and Sebastian, I had thought it was going the route of A Separate Peace, exploring an obsessive male friendship with dark undertones, and I was somewhat disappointed to find that was not the case. The book eventually becomes focused on the character I would consider the least interesting of the Flyte family, which makes the book lose some of its momentum.

Besides the themes of decaying decadence, I did notice the book’s obsession with Catholicism, unusual for most of the English classics I have read. We see the religion largely through Charles’s eyes, who is agnostic but seems politely disinterested until he realizes religion might lead the Flytes to do things he doesn’t wish them to do. We also see ot through several of the Flytes’s eyes, whose opinions and devotion vary. Overall, I quite enjoyed the depiction of a family who is somewhat set apart for having the “wrong” religion for the elite but continue on anyway. even if others don’t understand.

I am happy I read the book, and I think it has it’s moments, but i wouldn’t call it gripping or even particularly insightful in many instances.

Briana
3 Stars

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Information

Goodreads: The Phantom of the Opera
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Purchased
Published:

Official Summary

First published in French as a serial in 1909, “The Phantom of the Opera” is a riveting story that revolves around the young, Swedish Christine Daaé. Her father, a famous musician, dies, and she is raised in the Paris Opera House with his dying promise of a protective angel of music to guide her. After a time at the opera house, she begins hearing a voice, who eventually teaches her how to sing beautifully. All goes well until Christine’s childhood friend Raoul comes to visit his parents, who are patrons of the opera, and he sees Christine when she begins successfully singing on the stage. The voice, who is the deformed, murderous ‘ghost’ of the opera house named Erik, however, grows violent in his terrible jealousy, until Christine suddenly disappears. The phantom is in love, but it can only spell disaster. Leroux’s work, with characters ranging from the spoiled prima donna Carlotta to the mysterious Persian from Erik’s past, has been immortalized by memorable adaptations. Despite this, it remains a remarkable piece of Gothic horror literature in and of itself, deeper and darker than any version that follows. 

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Review

I’m not sure why I never read The Phantom of the Opera earlier in my life. I think I had the vague idea the book isn’t as good as the movie and that it’s an epistolary novel–neither of which are true. In fact, the novel is a riveting account of how a single warped yet genius man brings an entire Opera House to its knees, yet still earns the pity of one of its most talented singers.

The story is enthralling. Even if I thought the action lagged a bit here and there, it always picked up again, and I kept turning the pages. The Opera Ghost is a mastermind in this version, not a romantic hero, and the machinations he dreams up to win Christine and thwart the men trying to save her are creative and cruel. I was truly scared reading a couple of the scenes.

Christine isn’t necessarily lovable as a character. She’s a bit naïve for my taste. Though her love for her father is charming, and her willingness to see the good in others around her. I didn’t feel a let of chemistry between her and Raoul, but it’s not really the point of the story. I was intrigued that their class differences are such a big part of the novel, and their ending is not 100% happy because of them.

I enjoyed this classic read much more than I had anticipated, and it’s definitely a good choice for reading in autumn to get some spooky vibes.

Briana

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Information

Goodreads: Beowulf: A New Translation
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2020

Official Summary

A new, feminist translation of Beowulf by the author of The Mere Wife.

Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world — there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements never before translated into English.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. These familiar components of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history. Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment — of powerful men seeking to become more powerful and one woman seeking justice for her child — but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation; her Beowulf is one for the twenty-first century.

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Review

This is a difficult review for me to write because, on one hand, I understand what Maria Dahvana Headley is doing with this translation. She’s making Beowulf more modern and accessible, and she’s using her translation to draw out a new interpretation of the story, one where Grendel’s mother is a grief-stricken mom before than a monster and where Beowulf and company are still impressive warriors but also kind of bragging dude bros who don’t know everything. I see her vision, and I get where she’s coming from. On the other hand: it just isn’t my thing.

I’ve read a number of translations of Beowulf (such as Heaney’s and Tolkien’s), and I’ve written a post for the blog about whether the story is one of adventure or one of loss. I LIKE the old feel of the story and I like the translator interpretation that Beowulf used antiquated language when it was written; it sounded old to its first Anglo-Saxon listeners. I like feeling that I’m in a far-off time and place where the things that mattered to people are sometimes strikingly familiar and sometimes completely foreign. I’m not really into a version of Beowulf where Beowulf calls everyone, including kings, “bro” and the narrator calls Beowulf Hrothgar’s “new best boy.”

I also didn’t think the combo old/new language meshed. Maria Dahvana Headley talks in the introduction about how she wants the story to be approachable and how she wants it to sound like someone telling a story, like something someone would say. Except, well, none of it sounds like something anyone would say. I cannot imagine someone standing somewhere and saying these lines:

I’ve racked my brain, bro, but, Unferth,
I can’t unpack any similar stories of
heroics from you. Let me say it straight:
You don’t rate and neither did Breca
when it came to battle. The gulf? You’re cattle,
and I’m a wolf . . . (581-586)

There’s something about the way that the translation sometimes uses the Anglo-Saxon language (ex. kennings like “whale-road”) and sometimes uses modern language (ex. “daddy” or “bullshit”) and fits into some poetic meter that isn’t quite Anglo-Saxon but clearly based around it that all comes across as awkward to me. And who would really brag to someone by saying, “The gulf?” and then calling the other person cattle? I get that all this is actually the appeal of this translation to many people, but I didn’t like it.

The one part I did like is that Grendel’s mother truly gets a better light here. She’s still metaphorically a monster and she still has to die, but Headley translates her as just a woman who is (reasonably) upset her son has been killed. Headley makes the point that the Old English wording doesn’t mean she actually has to be labelled a hag or monster or swamp thing or whatever else translators have come up with. She can just be a woman who lives in the mere, who has an impressive hoard of weapons and a lot of strength.

So, if you like Beowulf, this is definitely worth looking into just as a new perspective on the story. If you don’t like Beowulf or you’ve always been intimidated by old-timey language translations, this could also be of interest to you. Again, it’s just not for me. I’m glad I read it once, but I don’t think I’ll be rereading it for any reason.

Briana

Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 11-20)

Reading Through Nancy Drew

I have loved Nancy Drew for years, but will rereading the entire series of the yellow spine books hold up to my memories? Join me as I find out! Read part one here.

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Book 11: The Clue of the Broken Locket

The Clue of the Broken Locket

The eleventh installment of the series contains all the elements that make a classic Nancy Drew read. Upon driving to Maryland to help one of her father’s clients, Nancy discovers a mystery involving a missing treasure, a phantom ship, and a possible kidnapping. While attempting to solve the case, Nancy inevitably finds herself in danger of being imprisoned, kidnapped, and murdered herself. Plenty of action combined with a spooky mystery and a search for secret passageways shows the Nancy Drew series at the height of its powers.

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Book 12: The Message in the Hollow Oak

Message in the Hollow Oak

Book twelve mixes things up a little as Nancy attempts to track down a legendary message said to have been hidden in a hollow oak in the eighteenth century. Along the way, she gets tangled up with a confidence man determined to find the hollow oak himself. Nancy’s presence at an archaeological dig adds a little more historical interest to the story, though the book could do more to interrogate the ethical implications of digging up a burial ground, aside from one character’s objections about the disrespect to the dead it implies. The concept of tracking down a centuries-old treasure makes this book unique in the series so far, but it is arguably not very interesting to watch Nancy and her friends merely look for unusual trees and then walk around in the woods for a bit. The Message in the Hollow Oak has a good premise, but it fails to deliver on it as much as it might have.

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Book 13: The Mystery of the Ivory Charm

The Mystery of the Ivory Charm

This is one of the books where the rewrites meant to remove racism do not entirely succeed. Nancy and the other characters treat India as an exotic country full of many marvels, but also linger over details of the caste system, child marriage, and more that make the nation seem not entirely civilized. Many of the Indian characters in the book are very superstitious, which does not reflect well on them in a mystery where the protagonists are all about evidence and facts. The actual mystery is a rather convoluted one involving the kidnapping of a baby, theft of Indian treasures, blackmail, and more. The story is not as streamlined as many of the others, and it can feel a bit like a chore to get through.

Read my comparison review of the 1936 version versus the 1974 revised edition.

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Book 14: The Whispering Statue

The Whispering Statue

This adventure sees Nancy don a disguise in a fun attempt to solve two different mysteries while working undercover in a bookshop/art dealership. Her simultaneous stay at a yacht club adds some spice to the story, as she enters a sailing competition and Bess flirts with the handsome boat attendant. A break-in, kidnapping, sailing accident, near boat collision, and more lend extra excitement to a series that always tries to cram in as much drama as possible. The Whispering Statue has its odd moments (such as Nancy making sales off-the-clock for a business owner who seems to have skipped town), but its sense of narrative drama makes it an exemplar of why generations of children have been engrossed by the series.

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Book 15: The Haunted Bridge

The Haunted Bridge

Nancy’s stay at a resort with a gold club adds some interest to what is otherwise a bit of a lackluster mystery. Her father is on the trail of a ring of international jewel thieves, and Nancy manages to catch them almost entirely by accident when she stumbles upon a small chest belonging to a mysterious woman. The question of whether Nancy can win the amateur golf tournament somehow becomes more pressing than the question of whether she will crack the case.

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Book 16: The Clue of the Tapping Heels

Clue of the Tapping Heels

Nancy tries to solve a mystery where a woman is hearing ghostly tapping noises in her home, and her prize Persian cats are being stolen. Normally, I really love the stories where someone’s house is supposedly “haunted,” but for some reason this installment of the series feels a little lackluster. The big excitement is when Nancy, Bess, and George go to a cat show. And Nancy is targeted in a series of violent incidents that seem over-the-top for some guy just trying to steal some stuff out of a house. The book ends when all the culprits conveniently confess to everything. Definitely not one of my favorites.

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Book 17: The Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk

Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trun k

Nancy Drew and her friends are aboard a ship sailing from the Netherlands back to New York City when they become involved in a mystery surrounding an international group of smugglers. The setting makes the story fun as the girls swim, play Ping-Pong, and flirt with cute boys, but it seems like the series is already running out of new catastrophes to strike. Nancy almost gets hit by a meteor in this book! Aside from the meteor, however, the story is pretty interesting, as Nancy must outwit a gang of thieves using sophisticated disguises.

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Book 18: The Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion

Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion

I thought maybe the Nancy Drew series had jumped the shark in the previous installment, when Nancy and her friends are almost hit by a meteor. Book 18, however, is even more ludicrous, so much so that I might have thought I was watching the 1960s Batman show instead of reading Nancy Drew. Steaming pools of water to cast hapless victims into? Exploding oranges meant to take down a rocket ship? It’s hard to take this story seriously.

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Book 19: The Quest of the Missing Map

Quest of the Missing Map

I cannot decide if having Nancy sail to an uncharted island for actual buried treasure is exciting or just really corny. The real problem, however, is that Nancy acquires clues in this mystery far too easily for it to feel rewarding when she finally outwits the bad guys. The main draw is that this book feels perfect for an adaptation into one of the Nancy Drew PC games, with its hidden passages and contraptions left by an eccentric inventor.

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Book 20: The Clue in the Jewel Box

The Clue in the Jewel Box

This is another Nancy Drew story that verges on the fantastic, as it seems based on the story of the missing Anastasia. Nancy meets an elderly woman who turns out to be a former queen, who has fled from her country after the late revolution, and who is now looking for her lost grandson. There are enough twists and turns, however, to keep things lively as Nancy deals with pickpockets and an imposter. The series is picking up again after a decided lull.

What Periods of Classic Literature Get a Bit Overlooked? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Is there a period of literature that you think gets overlooked when classics are discussed? Why or why not?

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My initial answer to this question is (predictably, if you know me) is:

Medieval literature!

Half the time when I mention medieval literature to people, they don’t even know what time period I am referring to. A lot of people are under the impression that Shakespeare counts as medieval literature and/or that his plays are written in Old English. I told a friend I’d written my thesis on a “medieval romance,” and she genuinely thought I meant something like a Julia Quinn novel. If someone does get the time period correct, they are likely to mention one of only three things: Chaucer, King Arthur, or Robin Hood. Suffice to say, I think medieval literature could grow a bit in popularity among people who aren’t actually medievalists.

And I’ve already written a couple posts about that:


So I’d like to offer a second time period I think is overlooked:

The 17th century!

Seriously, when is the last time you heard someone say they were reading something written in the 17th century. Or that they ever had? (As a full disclaimer, I don’t exactly go around reading texts from this period that frequently myself.)

However, this century offers us some great authors, including:

  • John Milton
  • Alexander Pope
  • Jonathan Swift
  • Moliere
  • John Dryden

And some Shakespeare.

What do you think? What are some books you’ve read from the Middle Ages or from the 17th century?

Briana

Recommend a Diverse Classic: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

Recommend a Diverse Classic

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Zora Neale Hurston was both an author and a folklorist, whose research influenced many of her writings. Her best known novel is perhaps Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which centers on Janie Crawford and her three marriages. Janie’s tale recounts how she initially was married off to an older man for protection, only to find that he doesn’t love her. She then runs off with another man, who only wants to use her. Finally, she marries for love, but again finds her relationship with her husband to be unstable. Through her three marriages, Janie (and Hurston) explore the gender roles and the expectations society places on women.

Though published in the 1930s, Their Eyes Were Watching God still feels incredibly relevant. The issues it grapples with, from domestic violence to the role of men and women in marriage are issues that society continues to grapple with. In many ways, the novel feels a bit ahead of its time, with Janie seeking love and self-fulfillment, while being open to her own sexuality, in the face of a disapproving society. The book, however, presents no easy answers. While Janie’s third marriage appears to be her happiest, because her husband Tea Cake sees her as more of an equal than her previous two husbands, the novel also suggests that Janie is not fully realized as an independent woman until after Tea Cake’s death. In this way, Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrates an intriguing tension that many readers may find relatable. Janie wants to find her identity in a happy marriage, but, if she cannot be seen as an equal to men, she may ultimately not be able to do so. She wants both love and respect, but can women truly have it all?

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful novel by a talented author–one whose work was not always appreciated in her own time. If you have not read it yet, maybe now is the time to give it a try.

The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage by Carolyn Keene

The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage

Information

Goodreads: The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage
Series: Dana Girls #2
Source: Library
Published: 1934

Summary

Louise and Jean Dana discover their English teacher’s car on the side of the road–Miss Tisdale has been abducted! Her mother does not want Mr. Tisdale to know, so she won’t contact the police. It’s up to the Dana girls to solve the mystery before it’s too late.

Star Divider

Review

Published in the 1930s, the Dana Girls books were meant to capitalize on the success of serialized mysteries like Nancy Drew and, indeed, the same pseudonym was used for the series, though it has not managed to last through the decades. But the Dana Girls mysteries have their charms. They rely on the same, comforting formula as the Nancy Drew stories, while having the added interest of featuring two sisters solving cases while enrolled at a boarding school. The Secret at Lone Tree Cottage feels very much like stepping back in time to a wonderful moment where teens can take on adult responsibilities like detective work, while still enjoying the perks of school life. Anyone who loves Nancy Drew will want to check out the Dana Girls books.

Part of what makes this series so interesting is the fact that readers get two protagonists, as well as a boarding school setting for the series. Louise and Dana are one year apart, but they are nearly inseparable, which makes for a charming depiction of loving sisterhood, even as the two repeatedly rush headlong into danger. The series would admittedly be stronger, however, if it tried to differentiate the two girls a little more, aside from their hair color. They work, live, and study together to the point where they seem practically to be functioning as one person. While Louise seems to be a little more sensible than Jean, they work in tandem for the most part, taking turns discovering and solving clues and, in general, one girl could easily be replaced by the other and readers would probably barely notice. Hopefully, this weak characterization will be addressed as the series progresses.

Even so, the books are delightful and the boarding school setting adds to that. While Nancy Drew barely seems to have a home life, the Dana girls are firmly placed at Starrhurst Academy, and they must figure out how to balance their detective work with their studies–as well as with the rules of the school. Fortunately, for them, youth, good looks, money, and a pleasant disposition are usually enough for them to be able to bend the rules with only the occasional finger shaking from the headmistress, apparently so she can pretend she’s trying to be fair. More drama comes from the girls’ standing rivalry with mean girl Lettie Briggs, who enjoys playing mean pranks on them, just to liven up the plot between clues. This tactic of adding everyday drama is also a hallmark of the Nancy Drew stories, where every chapter must have some sort of dramatic incident, mystery-related or not, to keep readers engaged.

Overall, the Dana Girls books are pretty much what one would expect from a Nancy Drew story. Readers get rich, popular teen protagonists who like solving dangerous mysteries the officials cannot seem to crack, as well as the formulaic writing that makes the mystery easy to solve, but somehow still rewarding to read. Readers who enjoy Nancy Drew and are looking for something similar will find it in the Dana Girls books, which were written around the same time by the same syndicate. It’s hard to get closer to a new Nancy Drew than that!

4 stars