Book Review – The Prince By Niccolo Machiavelli

Title: The Prince and The Discourses
Author: 
Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Luigi Ricci, revised by E.R.P. Vincent, Intro by Max Lerner
Format: Paperback
Written: cir 1515 / 1532
Published: 
1950, Modern Library College Edition (Random House)

The Prince is a political discourse which follows a literary genre of advice to princes on how to govern their territories.  Machiavelli’s was distinctive by taking a harshly realistic rather than idealistic approach to the genre.  (The Discourses were included in this edition, but I did not read them.)

I believe I picked up this battered copy of The Prince from a free book shelf and would recommend this edition if you chance across it.  There’s a lengthy introduction at the beginning which provides some biographical information on Machiavelli.  I normally skip those, but this one held my attention longer than most.  And The Prince is the sort of book that makes a lot more sense in historical context as it’s largely a commentary on history and current politics (in the early 1500s).

Frankly, it’s one of the more boring books I’ve read.  But I suspect that has a lot to do with my lack of detailed knowledge of Italian political history.  Machiavelli is frequently pointing to specific rulers as examples of his points, and not being familiar with them, it’s hard to tell if he’s being dry or sly in his commentary.  Someone on Goodreads had insisted The Prince was really a satire, and I was hoping to be able to determine whether or not this is so.  But without the historical context it’s hard to say.

The book itself is historically significant and Machiavellian ideas have influenced a number of leaders.  It’s not nearly as dark or unfeeling as I had thought it might be given its most frequently quoted line (“It is better to be feared than loved” which is only part of the sentence).  Out of context, it does sound awful.  In context, it’s fairly pragmatic.  Machiavelli also goes to great lengths talking about how important it is to have fair laws and not abuse the common people.  So I do think he was more realist than sadist.  But the reality of history is that political change often came with a good deal of violence.

There’s plenty of room to debate how pragmatically “good” Machiavelli’s ideas are.  They’re often circular and contradictory (which leads credence to the satire theory).  But I believe the book has endured for how incredibly quotable many of its sentences and paragraphs are.  Just as the spews of names and dry text would lull me towards sleep, a brilliantly insightful and well phrased line would emerge.  So there was certainly wit and intelligence in the writer, and while I’m glad to have read the book, I wish I had better context knowledge to understand it.

I’m going to give it a solid 3 out of 5, because I would strongly recommend it to the intellectually, politically, or historically curious.  But I have a feeling it would bore and annoy many readers.  Certainly not a good pleasure reading.

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Book Review – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Format: Paperback
Written: 1847
Published: 2010

Jane Eyre is a classic that has been sitting on my “to read” stack for a long time, and I’m happy to say I have now sampled all three Bronte sisters.  Of the three, I think Jane Eyre has the strongest story.  Unfortunately it’s a story I know so well from numerous film adaptations that I could not enjoy the full effect of the novel.  The twists and mysteries were a little too familiar.

I did enjoy a fuller fleshing out of Jane’s younger years than one sees in most film adaptations.  There are some delightful characters early on who fail to appear later in the book, which is realistic if a little unfortunate.  Jane Eyre is a thick novel and my busy schedule caused the reading to spread out over several weeks.  As I read before bed and kept falling asleep in the middle of a particular conversation, there were times reading seemed a little more tedious than I can honestly blame on the novel itself.

Jane is a character easily admired, an average woman in many respects, but one who shines in her simplicity.  She is moral, kind, determined, practical, but true to herself.  My favorite parts are where she stood up to various types of bullies and manipulators.

The character I have a much harder time liking is Mr. Rochester.  I tried; I did.  I’m sure some modern aversion to older men targeting barely legal teenage girls colored my feelings.  In Jane’s society, she’s considered a woman, and I did try to frame her in my mind as such.  The bigger problem may be that I had trouble fixing Mr. Rochester’s voice in my head.  He had a sardonic brand of humor that I might have found more endearing if I had been able to interpret the tones.  But instead I found his speeches too long and his character too self-absorbed and prone to petty tricks and manipulations, like feigning interest in one woman to gain the affections of another.  I have no patience for those sorts of games.

To be fair he does demonstrate the better part of his nature before the end and does not emerge unscathed from his crimes.  Character growth is always nice to see.

The prose is fairly clean and occasionally breaks the fourth wall, but as I much prefer first person narrators to be talking to someone, I found this natural and clever.  I do feel secondary characters were often cast off too carelessly.  Well developed in their introduction but exiting off screen with hardly a peep.  Which may have been a deliberate attempt to highlight the romance, but not to my tastes. There is a sense of English pride that at time borders on racism or mild xenophobia, but it is perhaps an intentional fault of Jane’s, consistent with the prejudice of the time period, and no narrator should be a perfect saint.

All things considered, I give Jane Eyre a very solid 4 out of 5.  There were a few places where I do feel it dragged a bit, even factoring in my familiarity with the story, and other places where Jane’s internal arguments got a little redundant.  However it is a classic of English Literature, and I feel it deserves that status.

Book Review – Beowulf by Unkown

Title: Beowulf
Author: 
Unknown
Translator: 
Burton Raffel
Format: 
Paperback
Written: 
Unknown (pre-Henry the VIII), Translated 1963
Published (Republished):
1999

 

Beowulf is the classic English epic poem and a bloody tale of royalty, monsters, and royalty acting like monsters.  The hall of the Danish King is terrorized by the demonic monster Grendel who comes at night and makes meals of the good king’s servants.  Beowulf is a prince of the Geats (a Germanic Tribe which inhabited part of modern Sweden) who comes with men to kill Grendel or die trying.  Likely you’re familiar with that portion of the story, but there’s a bit more to it.  It’s also a mix of religious allegory, political commentary, and history lesson, covering a period where European history is so heavily blended with mythology it’s hard to separate the two.

We covered Beowulf in my high school English class but did so rather poorly.  I had been told it was incredibly long, and for a poem it is long.  But by prose standards it’s the length of a short novella.  So why we didn’t simply read it in English class boggles my mind.  It is very violent, but it’s also essentially a moral work.  Violence is glorified but only when used against enemies.  Beowulf has several passages that heavily criticizes the use of violence against peasants, kin, and neighboring kingdoms (unless they attacked first).

There’s no clear documentation on when or why Beowulf was written, so there’s lots of room for interpretation as to it’s purpose.  Those familiar with English history could easily interpret it as a sly rebuke of monarchy and nobility to use their wealth and might to good purpose, to defend lives and not take them.

While some elements are clearly fantastic, it’s also likely there is some root of truth to the myth.  Beowulf is very concerned with genealogy and history of those monarchs related to Beowulf in some way.

As a poem I feel unqualified to judge Beowulf.  The music of the words tends to get lost in translation, though I must say Raffel makes an effort and there’s some lovely phrasing and rhythm wherever the translator could work it in.

As a story, while the main thread of Beowulf’s life is told chronologically, there are a great number of side stories that are not, and it gets a little convoluted, trying to keep track of which king is currently being discussed.

As a historical piece, it’s unreliable but interesting, enlightening more on attitudes than details.  However, it struck me while reading what a strong influence Beowulf must have had on Tolkien’s work.  The greedy dragon, the noble warrior reluctant to become king, monsters born from spiritual origins.

All in all, it’s short and reasonably entertaining.  I give it 4/5.  I have to dock it a point for promoting revenge as a virtue and using female characters mainly as props to flatter the men.  It is gory, so I would not use it as an introduction to literature for a young child.  But it may help convince your teenage boy that not all old books are boring.  If you are a dungeon master, it’s a ready made D&D campaign.

Book Review – Dombey and Son By Charles Dickens

Title: Dombey and Son
Author: Charles Dickens
Format: 
Paperback
Written: 
Oct.1846- April 1848
Published: 
1995 (Wordsworth Classics)

One of Dickens’ lesser known novels, Dombey and Son is the tale of the proud and wealthy merchant Dombey who puts all his hopes into his son and neglects his daughter. As with most Dickens novels there’s a large cast of secondary characters, many of which are more memorable and charming that Dombey himself. As far as I’m concerned the indomitable maid, Susan Nipper, is the real hero of the story, though I can’t quite call her the protagonist.  There is no clear single “main” character.  In contrast with Dombey’s wealth and pride is the humble and poor but happy and loving, cobbled together family of young Walter Gay, his elderly uncle, and their colorful friend Captain Cuttle.

First, some notes on how to read Dickens, since I met many people who expressed intimidation at the dense 769 page tome in my hand. Most Dickens novels were originally released in serial form over the course of several months. They are not intended to be gulped down in a few sittings but savored over an extended period of time, like a television series. And I think the best way to appreciate Dickens is by reading a chapter a week or one per night (depending on your speed), and remember this was from an age before T.V. when the author must act as set dresser and costume designer. I pressed through Dombey and Son in less than three weeks, since I’m trying to read a high number of books this year. But I think high school ruins Dickens for most people by forcing them to quickly gulp down often abridged versions of the story, and abridging Dickens is crime, since most of the humor, wit, and insight if in the subtleties of the sentences (though less so with this particular novel).

For no reason other than the title, I got it into my head that Dombey and Son would be a comedy, but it turned out to be the least funny Dickens novel I’ve read yet, which I could also say is its main failing. The humor often falls flat, being more cringe worthy than humorous. But then I don’t think it was intended to be funny, so that may be a matter of taste rather than a failing of the writing. This is not Dickens tightest writing or plotting.   The story meanders (which is rather normal for Dickens but this meandered more than most of his books), and Dickens soapboxes to excess. It struck me as more redundant than his other stories, which disappointed me.  Florence, while a delightful character, is praised to dulling excess.

At the same time, it’s also one of Dickens more sophisticated and cutting social commentaries, poking mainly at the feigned moral superiority of the wealthy/middle-class, but also examining domestic life, abuse, negligence, and the nature of family in a variety of shapes as well as taking more than a few jabs at the school system. The “Hymen” toast (Hymen is the Greek god of marriage, btw) was pretty edgy, particularly for the time period. Even as a modern reader, I was glad not to be drinking when I read it.

Dombey and Son rips your heart out, steps on it, kicks it around for a bit, then restores it to it’s proper place and condition.

Ultimately, I’ll give it a 4 out of 5 for general quality, sophistication of theme, and wrapping up all the loose ends, but with the condition that while I would recommend this to many, it’s a terrible starter novel if you haven’t read Dickens before. If you love Dickens, don’t skip this one. You see the early development of themes and characters played out more tightly in later novels, but they are in some ways more satisfying here. If you haven’t read Dickens, I suggest cutting your teeth on Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, or A Christmas Carol, and then working up to Great Expectations and Bleak House before moving on to David Copperfield and then onto something like Dombey and Son.

Book Review- A Study in Scarlet

Book: A Study in Scarlet

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Format: Paperback, Barnes and Noble Classics, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1

First Published: 1887

Current Publication: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003

 

Deep in the heart of London, England a man is found dead in an abandoned house. All the doors are locked, and the begrimed window shows no signs of having been touched in years. The only evidence of any other presence is a single gold ring and the word RACHE written on the wall in blood. Thus begins A Study in Scarlet, the very first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous master of deduction Sherlock Holmes.

I confess, this is the first Sherlock Holmes book I have actually read all the way through. I know enough about the other stories to have a general feel for Doyle’s writing style, so I was quite surprised to find such a different outline. The book itself is divided into three parts in two books: the set up, the completely out-of-left-field, and in my ever so humble opinion almost useless, back-story of the murderer and victims, and then a general rehashing of all the events leading to the conclusion.

As you may already be able to tell, this was not one of my favorite books. To be fair, I loved the first part. Not only does it lend some background and depth to two of the greatest characters ever written, it sets up a plot that keeps the reader guessing. As I read the first part, my mind kept looking for clues, trying to figure out what happened, all the while being distracted by the brilliance of Holmes. It was fantastic! Then came the second part of the book… and I will say it again: this section was useless. Perhaps I would have been more open to it if there had been some sort of warning about going off into a back-story, if, perhaps, one of the main characters had started talking about what had happened. Maybe it would not have been so bad if there had been some sort of date and location written at the very beginning of this section to inform me that I was now reading about an event from the past, in another country, and about completely different characters, instead of letting me figure that out as I read. But I digress. Part two of the book tells of the events leading up to the killers motives, and while I do enjoy a good back-story, this was too much information about characters that would never again appear in the series, built up my hopes only to crush them, and in the end, it actually just made me sympathetic toward the killer. After a seeming eternity as vicious as the arid wasteland that both begins and personifies the second part I finally made it to the third section. This part started off as a nice change back to an almost normal setting. I was once again beginning to enjoy the book, but soon found, to my great disappointment, I was having a hard time concentrating, as the material became quite redundant. While I enjoyed finding out how Sherlock Holmes came to his conclusions and was able to track the killer, I could have lived without the continuous recap of every single detail I had read before.

In the end, I really have no choice but to give my vote by section. I give the first section 4 pages. I meant it when I said I loved this part. Section two I give 2 pages, but ONLY because it does further the story a little. In fact, I encourage you to skim this section. Part three I give 3 pages, especially if you only skim part two. As I said, it is interesting to see how Holmes solved the case, and it does wrap everything up.

Book Review – Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Book: Alice in Wonderland

Author: Lewis Carroll

Introduction and Notes: Tan Lin

Format: Paperback

Written: 1863, first published in 1865

Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004

Alice was never like the other children. Where others might think a talking rabbit wearing a waistcoat rather curious, she never really gave it a second thought; so following it down a hole, alongside an out of tune piano was only logical. Unfortunately, as she reached the bottom, she found herself in quite a quandary, as all the doors were locked, and she was much too big to fit through them anyhow. Luckily for her, there was a key and a little bottle of juice sitting on the table just for her, one that would make her shrink to just the right size.  Little did she know that just outside the door a crazy adventure of dormice hares and hatters, wild and nonsensical tea parties, babes that turn to pigs, and temperamental royalty was waiting for her in a place known as Wonderland.

I will start by saying I truly enjoyed the wordplay and imagination used by Lewis Carroll in this tale. What he created was nothing short of true genius that made my inner artist dance. Unfortunately, that was about the only reason I was able to make it through the book. I found Alice to be frustratingly stupid much of the time as she repeatedly prattled on about mixed up school lessons, how she must not be herself since being in a strange place, and then telling all small birds and creatures about  how much they would love her cat. Also, the book seemed to flow quite slowly in several places, especially at the beginning. That being said, if you are considering reading this book, I would not discourage you. It is worth reading at least once if for no other reason than the creativity and classical value it possesses. Who knows? Maybe you will even find it is your mad cup of tea.

Score: 3 pages

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