Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy

In the wake of the French Revolution, one man stands against the Terror and the bloodthirsty guillotine. He is known as… the Scarlet Pimpernel!! In this pulpy adventure-romance, Emma Orczy originates the trope of a hero with a secret identity.

The main character is not the Scarlet Pimpernel, but rather Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a clever Frenchwoman married to a handsome, wealthy, and stupid Englishman. When an old acquaintance blackmails her into joining his efforts against the Scarlet Pimpernel, she struggles between her personal good and the greater good.

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This book reads the way you might expect from the description. It’s chock full of action and adventure, the Scarlet Pimpernel maneuvering himself out of high-stakes situations at the last moment. Or, rather, he very often prepares his escape before he’s even trapped. Like in Sherlock Holmes, there are builds to elaborate reveals.

Unlike in Sherlock Holmes, though, these reveals can be fairly predictable. I was taken in by one or two of the Pimpernel’s tricks, but I was able to foresee the better part of the last third of the book. I enjoy figuring out a twist here and there, but in this case, some of the puzzles are just too easy.

Also, as you might expect from a novel with anti-Revolution tendencies, there is a hefty dose of classism with sides of sexism and racism. It’s such a light and frolicsome read that I couldn’t take the author’s biases too seriously, but if these things are likely to ruin your reading experience, steer clear.

Nonetheless, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun and swashbuckling sort of read. Like a modern-day action film, it’s meant more for a thrilling ride than anything else. I recommend it to anyone looking for a short book that goes down easy, especially if you’re trying to get into classics, but are intimidated by more complex works.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

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Check out my masterlist for the rest of my posts and reviews.

The 10 Best Books I’ve Read In 2018 (So Far)

I’ve read 28 books so far this year, and in the process of creating this list, I’ve found that, on the whole, the books I’ve picked out have been extremely good ones. I thought about ranking them. I then realized that I am too weak of a person to put these books in any kind of order. So, in no particular order, here are my ten favorite books I’ve read in 2018 (so far).

o pioneers

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

This is the story of a woman named Alexandra Bergson, a daughter of Swedish immigrants who becomes a successful farmer on the Nebraskan prairie. Alexandra is a unique sort of strong female character. Physically and mentally, she is capable of overcoming any obstacle in her way, but the challenges she faces are not of that nature. Rather, she suffers emotional pain due to problems with family, romance, and society. I enjoyed the social questions explored in this novel as well as the spare and elegant prose, which perfectly matches the setting of the harsh, lonely prairie. I was also caught off guard by the twist ending.

You can buy it here!

The_Awakening_(Chopin_novel)_cover

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Edna, a wealthy housewife from Louisiana, begins to chafe in her role of wife and mother, and slowly gives into the temptation of running away from it all. There’s a plot here, a slow, oozing progression, but more important than the building of action is the building of emotion that rises to a fever pitch by the end. I was taken in by the novel’s atmospheric description and by Edna’s inner struggle.

You can buy it here!

woolf

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

This book is not a novel, but rather a reworked version of a speech Woolf gave on the topic of women in fiction. While I consider myself well-educated in women’s rights, Woolf’s insights in this text were a revelation to me. Her writing style is compelling, and her arguments are even more so. I don’t quite agree with them point for point, but at the heart of the book are truths about gender politics and womanhood that I have felt for a long time, but didn’t know how to express. It’s an essential feminist text.

You can buy it here!

vietnamerica

Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran

Tran chronicles the true story of his family’s flight from Vietnam to the United States in this magnificently detailed graphic novel. If the members of the family get mixed up in your head, if the story seems patchy and confusing, if the whole thing feels too chaotic to you, that’s the point — the Vietnam War was chaos. Tran, born in the U.S., shares with us his own journey of connecting to his roots and learning to understand his family. I was deeply moved by the painstaking love and care painted into every corner of this book, and the artwork is even more expressive than the words.

You can buy it here!

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Lydia Lee is dead at sixteen, and her family members struggle to cope as they try to piece together how and why. There’s no intricate murder mystery here. The story here is in all of the small ways the Lees have failed to communicate with each other, understand one another, and support each other. The pieces, scattered at the beginning, come together seamlessly by the end to form a portrait of a family in crisis. I read this for a class, and ordinarily, it’s the type of book I would scarf down in a day or two. I’m glad that I didn’t and instead had the chance to let it stew.

You can buy it here!

dispossessed

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Shevek is a renowned physicist from the anarchist utopian planet of Anarres, and the first person since the colonization of Anarres to visit its twin planet, Urras, where governments suspiciously reminiscent of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. vie for power. Examining our world through an outsider’s perspective, the faults (and some benefits) of a capitalist system come into focus. In Shevek’s memories of his home planet, on the other hand, we see how the society of an anarchist world might function. It took me a couple of chapters to get into it, but once I did, I was impressed by Le Guin’s gently political writing, which serves as a backdrop to Shevek’s personal narrative.

You can buy it here!

bell jar

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood is a college student with a supposedly bright future, but there’s a constant cloud over her happiness, something seemingly not traceable to any particular cause. That cloud turns out to be a bone-deep depression. The story describes her downward spiral in a painfully realistic way, capturing the thought patterns of depression with a level of detail that makes sense when you remember that Sylvia Plath committed suicide. This book left me in a funk for days after finishing it.

You can buy it here.

in this corner

In This Corner of the World by Fumiyo Kouno

Suzu is a young newlywed, naïve and spacey, but kind. Living in Hiroshima Prefecture during World War II, rationing, community service, and an ever-increasing number of air raids becomes her new normal. At the same time, she has to deal with more mundane concerns, like getting along with her in-laws and resolving insecurities in her relationship with her new husband. The simplicity of Suzu’s everyday life and the horrors of war combine in poignant contrast, making the inevitable violent ending of the manga even more heartbreaking, yet inspiring.

You can buy it here!

Nota Bene: there is a film of this that is also very good, but it cuts out at least one important plot thread from the book.

passing

Passing by Nella Larsen

Irene Redfield runs into an old acquaintance at a restaurant named Clare Kendry. The twist? They’re both black women masquerading as white in a whites-only establishment. From there, a close but toxic friendship grows between the two women. Clare has a secret, and to escape the pressures of keeping it, she becomes a parasitic presence in Irene’s life, to the mounting frustration of the latter. This moody Harlem Renaissance classic pulled me in, then spat me back out again with its abrupt ending.

You can buy it here!

northanger

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Catherine Morland is a sweet, ordinary teenage girl with one flaw: she is obsessed with novels, particularly, pulpy Gothic romance novels. While on holiday in Bath with some family friends, she falls headfirst into her own romance, but finds that novels have not adequately prepared her for this course of events. There is a surprisingly modern feeling to this book, with the dialogue often prompting me to think, “ah, people really haven’t changed in 200 years.” Being a satire of Gothic romance, this book is chock full of light-hearted and funny moments.

You can buy it here!

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them? What are your favorite reads of the year thus far? I’d love to discuss in the comments.

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Review: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

But we wonder, proceeded the Spirits, that you desire to be Empress of a Terrestrial World, when as you can create your self a Cœlestial World if you please. What, said the Empress, can any Mortal be a Creator? Yes, answered the Spirits; for every human Creature can create an Immaterial World fully inhabited by Immaterial Creatures, and populous of Immaterial subjects, such as we are…

I asked my cousin if she knew any older classics written by women. Having read it for a college class, she came up with The Blazing World, saying, “it’s pretty wild.”

That’s an understatement.

It’s tempting to try to market this book as a “first.” First sci-fi novel, first utopian fiction by a woman, even first Mary Sue are some titles I’ve seen bandied about. I think that’s because it’s easier than trying to describe the actual story, which, as stated, is wild.

In short, a woman gets kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her, but a storm kills her captors, and she drifts to another world, the Blazing World, that can only be reached through the North Pole. She quickly becomes Empress, does some science, makes friends, and eventually goes back home to take over the world. Simple stuff, you know?

The story can be a bit hard to get to. The language is archaic and littered with run-ons. The Blazing World was published sometime between Shakespeare and Gulliver’s Travels, and if you’ve read the latter, you’ve got a solid idea of how readable the prose is.

Another similarity with Gulliver’s Travels is the plethora of references to contemporary science and politics– in this work, more science than politics. This is because it functions as a companion to Cavendish’s scientific work, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. To be clear, her grasp of science is about as strong as that of any educated person in the 1600s, which is to say, laughably poor in the eyes of a modern reader. That being said, given the information available at the time, Cavendish’s arguments are lively and fairly reasonable. A large portion of the novel consists of exposition in the form of extremely detailed world-building, which is where she lays out most of her philosophical and scientific ideas.

It’s really a testament to the human imagination that Cavendish creates a world that is so absurd, yet so internally consistent. She puts many modern fantasy writers to shame in terms of sheer creativity, nothing like the recycled fairy tales and faux-medieval settings that have crowded the landscape. In this sense, The Blazing World is a sci-fi novel: it looks toward the future rather than the past. It’s concerned with innovation and possibility.

Does Cavendish have a flair for intricate plots and surprise twists? Not at all. She is bullishly straightforward, and this is what gives the book its “Mary Sue” flair. The main character becomes the Empress of the Blazing World right out of the gate, and she is beautiful, intelligent, and powerful beyond reason. Like a child playing pretend or a 7th grader writing her first fanfiction, Cavendish gives the Empress everything she could want and more, describing her bejeweled outfits and chariots in excruciating detail.

Interestingly, the Emperor who the Empress marries to gain her title plays very little role in the story. Instead, the two principal characters are the Empress and her best friend, the Duchess of Newcastle. …Wait a moment. The Duchess of Newcastle? Wasn’t Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle? Yes, Cavendish did the self-insert hundreds of years before it became a fanfiction trope. She also centered her narrative around female friendship, or “Platonick Lovers,” rather than romance, which is pretty rad.

In the end, the beauty of this book is in the nature of the Blazing World itself, and the text repeatedly reminds the reader that we, too, can create and rule worlds that belong only to ourselves just by imagining it.

From a literary perspective, The Blazing World is a hot mess. From a historical perspective, it is a funky, ostentatious, and beautiful relic of a woman who had the means to be bold, educated, and creative way back in the 1660s. I recommend it to anyone with a curiosity about the history of women in fiction, or anyone who didn’t want to bash their head in after reading Gulliver’s Travels.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

Buy The Blazing World here!

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What Makes A Classic?

This post is about classics, but it’s also about what kind of books I’m reading right now.

This past year, I’ve been trying to read, among other things, classic literature written by women. “Classic” can have a lot of different meanings, and for my own purposes, I’ve been pretty liberal with the definition. Most people tend to think of classics as old books that have literary value that have stood the test of time. It sounds simple, but the definition can get hairy pretty quickly.

How old is old enough? I’ve had books written in the 1980s recommended to me as “modern classics,” or books published within the past ten years marketed to me as “instant classics.” They’re good books, but there’s an oxymoron in calling them classic. They haven’t had the chance to stand the test of time yet. Even as we reach backward through time, how far is far enough? Fifty years, eighty years, one hundred?

Literary value is even more subjective. At least with time, we can draw a line in the sand. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Atlas Shrugged aren’t considered by most people to be literary masterpieces (although for almost any book, there are a few out there who would say so), but their ideas are influential enough to land them frequently on lists of classics, whether you agree with those lists or not. Even titans of literature like Les Misérables are widely considered to be in need of a heavy-handed editor, for all of their beautiful prose.

Standing the test of time is the measure that I like least of all. Ideally, standing the test of time would mean that a book’s themes endure, that they speak to the human condition in a way that crosses boundaries of time, culture, and even language. It would mean a book that, for the most part, leaves something of value with any reader who goes in with an open mind. More often, this criterion means something totally different. It’s a popularity contest. Was the book popular in its time? Among whom, the general public or critics? If it was the public or it wasn’t popular, then is there some later group of critics that decided to legitimize it? In my search for classics written by women, I’ve found a plethora of books that won’t be found on the typical list of classics. Some are very old. Some are very well-written. Some are both old and well-written, but they still don’t make the cut. The problem only compounds when looking for non-Western and non-white classics.

One classic book I’ve read within the past year (somewhat old, extremely well-written) is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. She outlines the problem in far clearer and more persuasive terms than I ever could. A major takeaway from it is that as much as history has been written by men, so has been that odd amoeba of literature called the Canon. People with money, time, and space write. Having power doesn’t hurt, either. And so, looking into times and places where women have lacked the resources to produce what are now called classics, we find scraps.

I’m interested in scraps. I’m interested in filling in gaps, or at least figuring out where the gaps are. The past six months have been fascinating to me in connecting the dots, seeing the gradual blooming of female authorship over the course of history, taking into account not only gender but also nationality, race, sexuality, and wealth.

In the end, I’m not actually all that interested in the nebulous and arbitrary division between “classics” and plain old books. I’m interested in reading as broadly and as deeply and as well as I can.

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Check out my masterlist for the rest of my posts and reviews!