Saturday, February 27, 2010

Co-Review: Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte's book Wuthering Heights is considered a classic in English literature. It takes place in the English moors, with most of the action between the two great houses Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. The narration is interesting in that it's told by Mr. Lockwood, who is renting in one of the homes. He wants to know the turbulent history of the strange man Heathcliff that owns the home, so he gets the story from Nelly Dean, who was playmate and housekeeper for the families who resided in these houses.

Heathcliff was brought to Wuthering Heights as a young boy, described as a gypsy-like street urchin. His father favors him over his own son, Hindley, and his daughter, Catherine, becomes Heathcliff's best friend and eventually, his object of affection. Hindley treats Heathcliff horribly, as do the Lintons, who live in Thrushcross Grange. In a misunderstood moment, Heathcliff perceives that Catherine will never marry him and he disappears for a few years. He reappears after Catherine has married Edgar Linton, now as a man of wealth and full of plans for revenge. His plotting and malice reach down into the next generation.

The tale of Heathcliff and Catherine's tragic, violent love is well known, well-analyzed and has been discussed by smarter people than Caren and I, but we're going to take a crack at it anyway.

Jenny: Having never read this book before and only knowing the characters' names and not much else, I assumed it was a love story. I expected something like Jane Eyre. Gothic, dark, and tragic but eventually redemptive and beautiful. Wuthering Heights is more a tale of revenge, the way it consumes and destroys Heathcliff and those he preys upon. What do you think?

Caren: Yes, I agree that it is definitely a tale of passion, but not love. My copy had an essay at the beginning that briefly talked about its history and how it has been interpreted over the years. It has only become well-known and enjoyed in the last hundred years or so perhaps -- according to the essayist -- due to modern society's ability to enjoy it as a story of enduring love that cannot be bound within society's constraints or even by death.

I completely disagree with that interpretation. There may have been potential for love, but it was corrupted through selfishness and greed until the characters were destroyed by it. The choices they made to pursue revenge, vanity, and ambition twisted them into people who were incapable of feeling love. Love arguably requires a degree of selflessness, and the only person in the triangle who was capable of that was the unheroic Edgar Linton. Heathcliff and Catherine had no clue what real love was. Passion, yes. Obsession, yes. Manipulation, yes. Love, no.

Jenny: Amen to that. I kept thinking about how horrible all these people were and poor Edgar Linton was caught up in their manipulations because he was stupid enough to love Catherine. There is a sweetness to the love that blossoms between Cathy and Hareton, but it certainly was sowed in very poor ground. Catherine Senior wasn't much of a healthy example so it's not too sad she died before her daughter could know her and be influenced by her.

Something else that was upsetting, and that was pointed out in the introduction to my copy of the book, was the way characters refused to eat to manipulate others. Isabella does it, Catherine does it, and then Heathcliff does it at the end, refusing to eat for four days. The introduction said that Emily Bronte was known to do that to her family when things weren't going how she wanted to and that she eventually died from the effects of anorexia. I had no idea that even existed in that time period, figuring it was a product of our culture's obsession with size. I don't know much about eating disorders, but this made me think that it's more about power than a certain look. Well, and mental illness as well.

Caren: Yes, very interesting. I'm not sure I would have picked up on that on my own. Considering the relatively sheltered -- and short -- life that Emily Bronte lived, it is astounding that she could produce such an intense work. Such amazing women those Bronte sisters were! I wish there was some way of knowing exactly her feelings and intentions behind Wuthering Heights. My introduction said that Bronte doesn't allow her feelings to color the narrative, but I couldn't help but wonder if the biases of Nelly and Mr. Lockwood were more representative of her views than the intro gave them credit for. In any case, I'm intrigued that she would have poured so much energy into characters that inspired such a love-hate relationship with the reader.

I did like that the hopeful ending with Cathy and Hareton creates a slight feeling of redemption. But it's interesting that after such an intimate look into the poisonous lives of Heathcliff and Catherine, the narrator is prohibited from getting more than a cursory glance at the future happiness in store for Cathy and Hareton. Is that because Emily Bronte didn't have enough experience with healthy human relationships to know how to portray them? Or just because she didn't want to detract from the brooding melancholy of the novel?

Jenny: Now, that's interesting. Jane Eyre is very autobiographical, because Charlotte Bronte taught at a girls' school and had some of the experiences she wrote about, but Emily was very sheltered. She tried going to that same school that Charlotte was at and didn't do well. That was where some of the starving episodes started. It seems that Wuthering Heights is pure imagination. Not every book has to be based on personal experience and maybe this is one of them. I felt relieved at one point when Nelly said that she wondered if the only soul around that had any common sense resided in her own body. At least Emily knew that this wasn't normal behavior!

The only part I found romantic was the idea of a windswept English moor. I didn't find much romantic about this book, but that enchanted me. Now that I think about it, it's more a carry over from Jane Eyre, where the moors are very dramatic and romantic. I could write a whole post about how much I love Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester is gruff and difficult but inherently likable. There is nothing likable about Heathcliff or Catherine. I think that was a barrier for me to really enjoy the book since the only person I liked was Nelly and she mostly served as narrator and observer.

Caren: Yeah, this type of "romance" certainly doesn't fit our modern use of the word. Why has it endured as such a famous love story? No idea. Maybe because it's so disturbing! I realize that it's not autobiographical, but how an author can write so convincingly of such dark relationships without having much life experience herself is fascinating to me. And I think that's part of what has made it an enduring classic. Her skill and insight go far beyond your typical young woman's romantic imagination. I can't help but be impressed at what a keen and sensitive awareness she must have had, even though I didn't care for her characters and their ruined lives.

One thing that I just have to mention before we end (because I kept being reminded of it while I read), is the comparison that Stephanie Meyer makes with Wuthering Heights and her Twilight love triangle. If I remember right, the Wuthering Heights entanglement loosely served as the model for Meyer's Eclipse. Reading it for the first time (though I've seen the Ralph Fiennes/Juliette Binoche film version) I couldn't help but wonder why Meyer would ever think such a love triangle deserved to be recreated. No wonder her characters seem immature and selfish and obsessive in their relationships! And no wonder of the four books in the series (which I enjoyed overall), I absolutely loathed Eclipse!

Jenny: Now I'm really interested to see what our readers have to say about the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff and if they think of it as an enduring love or if they agree with us, that it was a selfish and destructive obsession.

I have to say, I love Jane Austen's books but there's something about the darkness of the Bronte sisters' books that I love even more. I wish there were more books to read and examine. I didn't like Wuthering Heights, but I did appreciate how new and dangerous it was for the time, the supernatural elements, and the imperfect ending. I could have skipped most of the violence though, especially baby Hareton being tossed over the stairwell. Yikes.

We'd love to hear what the readers of this blog thought, especially if you can find more worthy aspects of the book that we missed!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Taking a page from Jenny's book

After December's co-review, I decided to read some of Jenny's favorites from 2009. Highly recommended, by the way. Since she's already reviewed them, I don't want to be redundant. But I also couldn't just set them aside without briefly sharing my thoughts.

Of the three that I read, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, was my very favorite. The characters were so well-drawn and the writing was so engaging that once I started it I literally couldn't put it down. I felt like I gained a greater appreciation for that time in our nation's history, but had so much fun at the same time I didn't even mind learning something!

Next I tackled The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Wow. What a trip! It was fascinating and compelling, and kept me thinking about it for weeks afterward. I thought the final conflict was a bit anti-climactic, and it was a lot longer than it needed to be. I had to put my life on hold for a week until I finished it, then had to purge myself for another week before I could bear to pick up another book! But it was very interesting and certainly will stand out as an unforgettable experience. I don't think it will be letting me go for a long time!

My last choice of this batch was The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker. The change in tone and characters and drama was refreshing after the gothic weight of The Historian. I enjoyed the writing, the pacing, and the slight menacing edge to the otherwise pastoral small-town life. One thing I had a hard time with was fully connecting with the narrator. But that almost didn't matter as Baker explores some really interesting topics of life and death and an unusual form of redemption for a remarkable title character. And weaves in a little magic and folklore at the same time to keep you guessing until the end.

So thanks to Jenny for the hours of enjoyment I've had over the past month or so. I can't wait to get to some of the other books on her list!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Meeting Brandon Mull

I should title this post, "Standing in line for an hour in an overcrowded Barnes & Noble to meet Brandon Mull for 2 1/2 seconds and only getting one book signed." Oh man, it was quite a night. I dragged all my kids (including newborn baby) and my neighbor to a B&N about 12 miles away to meet Brandon Mull, author of the Fablehaven books. I love that series of books and with the latest installment coming out next month, my Fablehaven fever is in gear. I had no idea how big of a crowd would turn out. I mean, it's geared towards pre-teens and took place on a school night, so how many people could possible show up? Roughly five kazillion.

I don't know what I was expecting, a small setting and opportunity to chat like when I met Brandon Sanderson or Linda Ashman? It sure wasn't. My husband drove over after a meeting to save me from exhaustion while my neighbor pulled books off of shelves and kept my girls busy with stories. Without either of them I wouldn't have made it through. We did get to talk to Brandon Mull for a minute or two about his new series of books after Fablehaven is finished. He was very nice and was happy to sign our books and a stack of book plates for any future books we might want to purchase. I wish my kids hadn't been so tired at that point so they could have asked some questions, but they were wilting quickly.

Meeting authors is something I love to do so I won't say I'll never do that again, but I wish this experience had been better. I still love Brandon Mull's books and he was totally nice to us, even two hours after he had been signing books, so he's not diminished in my eyes. I'll just rethink this kind of adventure in the future. Here's a picture to commemorate the event. Notice the look of irritation and exhaustion on some of my kids' faces. They are little troopers, I think.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reading and nursing

I've been ignoring the blog lately, if you couldn't tell. Having a brand-new baby is great for having plenty of time to read, with all the breastfeeding down time and all the hours in the middle of the night waiting to be filled, but writing anything down about what I've been reading has been a near impossibility. I'm barely getting a shower in every day, people, but I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here. A big drawback of all this postpartum reading is that I am crazy emotional and every single stinkin' book has made me cry. All of them. Even the stupid science fiction ones. I am not a crier. If a movie gets sad, I tilt my head and say, "Jeepers, that was sad." On occasion, a book will make me tear up, but gasping sobs and running nose? Nope. Shall I enumerate? Yes, I shall.

For some reason I've been reading a bunch of Orson Scott Card books but that's mostly because I have some at my house and extra trips to the library are not happening. I read Hidden Empire, which is the sequel to his Tom Clancy-esque book Empire. It's about a worldwide plague, government corruption and conspiracies. Card revisits characters who lost so much in the first book, but I don't remember being all that attached the first time around. So why would it make me cry? Not only did it make me cry, but it made me tear up later just thinking about it. Apparently I needed more punishment, because then I re-read the Ender's Shadow series of books by Orson Scott Card and cried through half of those too. My husband was starting to worry as I hiccuped my way through those stupid books.

I am a great admirer of David Small's illustrations. If I know a book is illustrated by him, I'm more likely to read it and seek it out. He published a memoir of sorts called Stitches. I say "of sorts" because it is written as a graphic novel. But this is no kids' story. David Small grew up in a seriously screwed up family who verbally and emotionally abused each other. His grandmother was a nutcase and his father gave him radiation treatments that led to David getting cancer, which they kept a secret from David until he was an adult. Oh man, it was a sad and horrible tale, but written in a riveting way that had me flipping pages almost faster than I could read. The true savior of this tale is a therapist that David eventually sees who tells him that he is worthy and good and a valuable person. Thank heavens for that therapist! David Small was able to make something wonderful of his life despite his parents' efforts to tear him down. Stitches was a fast read, but a tearjerker, mostly because of the stupid hormones. Stupid evil hormones.

Still not being adventurous enough to read anything too challenging, I started re-reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. Again, a book I own so I didn't have to venture out of the house to get something different from the library. I like to wait years between re-reads of favorite books because I want it to feel fresh again, but weighing my options of said library venture versus re-reading something I knew I liked, I went with Mistborn. My heavens, that's a good book and it's definitely been enough time for me to forget how it all goes down. I'm really looking forward to re-reading the other two books.

That's the sum total of reading I've done since my baby boy was born. Caren and I are doing a co-review of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte in February and I'm dragging my feet a little bit. I've never read it and I'm afraid it will trigger those stupid tear ducts again. Somebody reassure me that it's not that sad because honestly, I can't handle any more crying. Surely my system has worked all the post-pregnancy hormones out of my system by now, but you never know.