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What Jennie’s Been Reading

By Jennie

I’m not sure how often I’ll be contributing to this feature; I’m a slow reader who reads several books at once, and right now three of the four books I’m reading are LONG and dense. So unless folks want to read a chapter by chapter update, it might not be of much interest. Anyway…

Bleak House by Charles Dickens: I feel that I have been reading this since shortly after Dickens finished serializing it in 1853. In actuality, it’s only been since February, but that’s long enough. I downloaded this onto my iPhone because I thought I remembered reading that it was one of Dickens’ most humorous books. I tend to like Dickens’ sense of humor, particularly his absurd characters. Bleak House does contain a couple of those: Mr. Skimpole, for one, who manages to get away with (figurative) murder by calmly and openly declaring how irresponsible he is. Mr. Skimpole is funny, but he’s also infuriating at times; I’ve gotten to the point where I kind of want one of the other characters to slug him. Also amusing and irritating in turns is Mrs. Jellyby, who ignores her large and chaotic family in favor of writing endless letters having to do with an obscure African tribe she views as an essential charitable concern. Overall, though, Bleak House isn’t exactly a laugh riot. Mostly I’m finding it confusing and impenetrable, and I’m not sure what’s going on much of the time. There are a lot of characters, and lots of things happen which may or may not have anything to do with the central storyline, having to do with an endless court case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which has dragged on for years and dragged many a person down with it. Bleak House isn’t bad, and I have the feeling I’ll be glad I read it when I finish it (I know I’ll be glad I finished it!). But I feel like I’m not quite “getting” it. Also, I’m only 60% into it, according to Stanza. Sigh.

Project Gutenberg

London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age by Dan Cruickshank: I like to be reading at least one non-fiction book at all times, and when I picked this one up I thought it would be both entertaining and informative. Unfortunately, it tends more towards the latter, and at times reads like it was written by an actuary. A very dull actuary. The book’s focus is actually prostitution in the Georgian age (a bit more narrow than I realized when I bought it), and the author devotes pages to analyses of data to determine, say, how many prostitutes were working in London during a particular period of the era. This does not interest me greatly – I was expecting more focus on anecdotes and profiles of notable people from the age. There is some of that, though even these parts are not told in a particularly compelling way, and the lack of solid evidence leads to a lot of speculation by the author. For instance, in discussing the woman thought to be the model for Fielding’s Moll Flanders, he follows several leads; she may have been a prostitute who was transported to America or she may have been a different prostitute who died at a young age. It’s just not that interesting, ultimately. An examination of men put on trial for homosexual activities is a bit more compelling, as well as very sad. But no sooner does that chapter end than the author goes back to estimating how many houses of prostitution existed, and how the local economy was affected by a building boom driven by the need for these houses. That sounds more interesting than it is, I swear. I still have hundreds of pages to go. I already sighed, didn’t I?

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The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: You know what you need when you’re already reading two long and difficult books? Did you say “a 19th century Russian novel?” Then, you’re right! Well, actually, you’re wrong – who thinks it’s a good idea to start a 1,000 page Russian classic in the midst of that other reading? I did, apparently. A few years ago, my sister and I began the mutual goal of reading a Russian novel each summer. The tradition has gone along in fits and starts, and we’ve only actually gotten two read: Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina. Much like these other two books, so far The Brothers Karamazov is challenging and occasionally thought-provoking, rather than strictly enjoyable to read. With a novel like this, there are so many things – the translation, the fact that it was written in a different era and a different culture, the metaphorical characterization and allusions – that add distance between the book and me as a reader. As a reader who really values connecting with the characters in a story, this distance can be frustrating. Sometimes I think the chief pleasure of such books is the brief moments of connection, of recognition, across all that divides me from the narrative. Sort of like suddenly understanding an entire sentence spoken in a foreign language. Anyway, I will persevere with The Brothers Karamazov, because it is Good For Me.

Project Gutenberg

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson: Review to come. For now I’ll say that it was kind of a mixed bag for me, very compelling in parts and disappointing in others. It’s billed as sort of a take-off on Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.

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A Bride Unveiled by Jillian Hunter: Review to come, maybe, unless someone else wants to review it and save me the trouble. It had an intriguing set-up, but managed to be somehow (much) less than the sum of its parts. I’m not even sure what to grade it, because it’s not *that* bad, but I found myself annoyed and disappointed with it for reasons I can’t quite articulate.

Goodreads | Amazon | BN | nook | Sony | Kobo

That’s it for now! I’ve just started The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton by Miranda Neville. So far, I’m not quite getting what the fuss is about. But there’s lots of book still to read.

Until next time,

Jennie

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

26 Comments

  1. DianeN
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 10:16:54

    Jennie, you need to shrug off the tyranny of the unfinished book. If it takes months to read and you honestly aren’t getting it and have nothing good to say about it, let it go, honey! There are a bazillion other books out there that will give you the positive reading experience you’re obviously not getting from some of these. I used to be like you, needing to finish every single book I started. About 10 years or so ago it finally dawned on me how much of my valuable reading time I was wasting on books that were never going to interest and inspire me. It’s not easy to change the habits of a lifetime, but now that I’ve trained myself to say “this isn’t working for me” and just stop, reading is much more satisfying than it was when I was struggling to finish every book I started. Sure, I’m disappointed when something I thought I would love turns out to be a total clunker, but it’s liberating to be able to close a book and never open it again!

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  2. Sarah Frantz
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 10:32:57

    Hated hated hated HATED Crime and Punishment with the burning passion of a thousand supernovas. Despised it SO much. All I remember of it now is that I despised it, but despise it I did. ::shudder:: Put me off all Russian novels for ever and ever.

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  3. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 10:34:29

    The first two I adore. “Bleak House” is my all time favourite book, and I stand in awe at Dickens’s skill and his storytelling.
    The best way to read it is fast. You can hold the threads and all the stories that way. Mrs. Jellyby is meant to be frustrating and annoying – it’s Dickens’ comment on the dogooders of the age. And the parallels between Krook, who is the Lord Chief Justice of his own world, and the actual justice. And the irony that the only happy character in the book is the one who lives in Bleak House. But while it’s wry and brilliant, it’s definitely not a comedy. The only comedic book Dickens wrote was “Pickwick Papers.”

    I loved the Cruickshank book. While he does wonderful anecdotes, the Georgian book is the result of years of study, and it’s definitely not a light read. But he digs up all kinds of fascinating things.

    I enjoyed the Miranda Neville book, too.

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  4. JacquiC
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 10:42:07

    I also highly recommend the BBC mini series of Bleak House that was made several years ago (starring Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance, among others). So great. And even though I don’t normally watch a TV version of something before reading the book, in this case it provided a nicely digested version of the book that made the book easier to read afterwards.

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  5. Barb in Maryland
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 10:44:14

    Jennie
    What DianeN said!!!

    I was a bookseller for over 15 years and I noticed a trend: those who read a few books a year(because of reading speed or lack of time or other issues)were much LESS likely to give up on a book that those who were avid readers. The ‘at least a book a week’ people were MORE likely to DNF a book.
    When I asked the ‘I started it I must finish it’ folks why they felt that way, I got as many answers as people I talked to. Those of us who belong to the ‘it’s okay to DNF a book’ agree that there’s “Too Many Books, Not Enough Time”. In other words, if it’s not working for me I have no problem with looking for something that does.

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  6. LG
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:15:12

    I’m one of those people who hate quitting a book after I’ve started it, even if it’s the dullest thing I’ve ever read. Still, I think I would have quit reading a few of these a while back. Reading you do on your own time should be fun, not a slog or a chore.

    I do love Project Gutenberg – I’ve read things I don’t think I would have ever gotten around to reading because they happened to be on my Nook when I decided I wanted to read them. The library is free, but it still takes a bit (even if it’s just a trip to the building) to get the books, by which time the urge might be gone, or vanquished by the grossness of the physical book. With Project Gutenberg, all I have to do is turn on my computer, and in a few moments I’ll have a book minus disgusting crumbling yellow glue, possible mold, bad mending jobs covering the text, and so on. My best discovery so far has been Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin books.

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  7. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:20:38

    @DianeN: What you said! I refuse to spend my valuable reading time slogging through something merely because it’s supposed to be Good For Me. If it’s good at the same time as Good For Me – well alrighty then. But otherwise? ditch.

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  8. Jayne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:24:24

    @Lynne Connolly:

    I loved the Cruickshank book. While he does wonderful anecdotes, the Georgian book is the result of years of study, and it’s definitely not a light read. But he digs up all kinds of fascinating things.

    The idea of this sounds interesting but – given that I read a lot of fact filled stuff for Real Life – when I’m reading for pleasure, I need some fun with my facts now.

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  9. Christine M.
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:24:29

    What DianeN said.

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  10. Mickie T
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:35:31

    Remember, neither Dickens nor Dostoyevsky will get his feelings hurt if you don’t finish the books! And if you’re not getting enough information from the Cruickshank book to offset the lack of entertainment, then you could set that one aside, too.

    See how easily we can solve … other people’s … problems? You can thank us later.

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  11. Deb
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 12:50:17

    TBK and Anna Karenina are two of my favorite books. Haven’t touched C&P and happily put War and Peace down- enough “he or she did that trying to show one thing but in such a way that it proved the opposite”- life is too short.

    TBK stayed with me- sometimes I think about some of the passages and have trouble sleeping. Glad I read it, but I wouldn’t do it again.

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  12. Sirius
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 13:58:43

    LOL, I loved Crime and Punishment, one of my favorite books in the whole world, but I have to say I am beyond impressed that you are reading Brothers Karamazov. I love Dostoevsky, but my last attempt to try this one failed at page 300. I am determined though to get through it one day.

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  13. Darlynne
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 16:01:04

    Back in the day, way back, my Russian language major required reading these books in the original Russian. It was a long slog over frozen tundra in a blizzard at night. The bright spots, however, were Doctor Zhivago and Mikhail Lermontov’s Demon, which is actually a long and beautiful poem. I didn’t feel like throwing myself under a train after these two.

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  14. KKJ
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 16:21:17

    I’m usually a big advocate of READ THE BOOK FIRST, DAMMIT, but Dickens defies that category altogether because he’s sooo overstuffed with the wacko secondary characters and subplots. (George Eliot also gets a pass, but for entirely different reasons.)

    I could never have finished Bleak House without watching the BBC version first. I found myself doing a quick chapter scan for the recognizable characters and plot points, then going back and really wallowing in the language and subversive humor. If I’m not worried about the macro level, I can appreciate the micro level so much better.

    Don’t get discouraged by how long it’s taking – just tell yourself you’re one of those 1853 readers consuming it in small serialized doses. They had weeks between installments to re-read and stew over it. The original BBC airing in 2005 was 15 episodes of only 30-45 minutes each (eight hours total).

    When you’re finally done reading, go back and watch the DVD again and realize how f’ing brilliant the screenplay, casting, music, art direction and costumes were.

    I will be first in line to slug Harold Skimpole. His post-smackdown recovery will take place in Tom’s All-Alone, with nursing services provided by pox-ridden pickpockets. Miss Flite will visit him daily with lengthy stories of her birds told in excruciating detail. When his recuperation is complete, he will take Caddy’s place as Mrs. Jellyby’s amanuensis.

    A Tale of Two Cities had been taunting me from my bedside TBR pile for YEARS, so I would really appreciate it if BBC/PBS could do that one next. The most recent adaptation available from Netflix is a 1980 version with Chris Sarandon, who will forever be Prince Humperdinck so I’d never be able to take him seriously.

    Trollope is next on my Classics Quest. I think reading the Russians would require a change of dosage on my depression meds or some really good vodka. The Wikipedia page on Russian literature has a sub-section on suicide and an overview of “suffering” as a theme. Did ANY of them have a sense of humor? I like my literary angst light and fluffy, thanks.

    I have the Cruickshank book on my wishlist too, so it’s good to know it’s more academic than the title suggests. It looks like they tweaked the title of the latest edition to sensationalize it even more.

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  15. Collette
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 18:06:33

    I took a class in college called Dependency and Disrepute and one of the required books was Bleak House. For our mid-term grade, we had to write an in-class essay and were given several choices. The professor noted on my test that he was pleased I had written about Bleak House (he added that I had written “sensibly” which still cracks me up for some reason). This is because I was the only one who chose that option because I already knew, based upon my conversations with my fellow students, that I was the only one in a class of 12 (I know, lovely, right?) that finished the damn thing. Nobody else could/would finish it. And lest you think I’m holding myself up as a paragon, all I can remember about it was that it was a HUGE slog and I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been “forced” to do so. I can’t really remember anything about the story and frankly, all I’m left with is a feeling of distaste for Bleak House. (I’m even making a face now, involuntarily.)

    What my long-winded explanation is trying to say is, SAVE YOURSELF!!! Get out NOW!!! ;-)

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  16. Janine
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 00:24:59

    You guys are cracking me up. I’ve been trying for years to tell Jennie that she doesn’t have to finish every book.

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  17. msaggie
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 02:57:45

    I love The Brothers Karamazov better than Crime and Punishment. We did both books (separately, and I think it was a few years between one book and the other) and those who had never read them before kept saying “why is everyone screaming and crying all the time?”. To me, the great Russian novel that I always think I should read is War and Peace. I tried many times to read Doctor Zhivago, but could never get into it.

    Dostoevsky’s in-depth analysis of his protagonists’ motives and characters is superb. His books are so emotional and intense, they can be draining. I think you can’t rush through his books, so take your time. Another great novel of his, The Idiot, is on my TBR list. Many of his books deal with the themes of redemption and forgiving.

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  18. Sirius
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 10:21:09

    @msaggie: If you ever decide to read Idiot, you may be surprised how much lighter and faster this one reads than many of his. At least I was surprised when I finally decided to tackle it, and of course I have no idea if it will read the same way in translation. It does not deal with light issues of course, but IMO tone was vastly different and it was basically a page turner for me :). I love War and peace, and do not care for Doctor Zhivago myself.

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  19. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2011 @ 22:49:08

    Sorry to not be around to respond – I was at conferences on Friday and Saturday and getting up crazy early meant I had no energy to reply when I had time.

    Janine is right – she has urged me over the years to give up my habit of finishing almost every book that I start. And y’all are right too – I should be less uptight about that. But in the case of the Dickens and other classics, I *really* don’t like doing that, because I even classics that I end up LOVING can be a slog for me at times (see Middlemarch). I just find pre-20th century writing difficult to read. I wouldn’t get any of the classics read if it subscribed to that philosophy with them, and I’d be the poorer (culturally, intellectually) for it. Yes, if I had known how pointless I would find Walden and Civil Disobedience in the end, I might’ve skipped it. If I had known just how absurdly depressing Jude the Obscure would be (“Done because we are too menny” – wtf is WRONG with you, Thomas Hardy?), I might’ve given up early. I do think I got something out of Jude (unlike Walden), but man, that book was HARD to read.

    Now, the Cruikshank, I will admit, is just stubbornness on my part. And the secret fear that it will suddenly become incredibly compelling and fascinating, the minute I put it down forever.

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  20. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2011 @ 23:13:33

    @Sarah Frantz: I…didn’t love C&P. I mean, there are things I appreciated about it, and characters I sympathized with. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really sympathize with, connect with, or feel for the main protagonist. I think I liked Anna K. a bit better, though after Anna’s death scene (really beautifully written, IMO), the book lost a lot of its power for me.

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  21. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2011 @ 23:16:06

    @Mickie T: I’ll send you a pie. What is your preference?

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  22. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2011 @ 23:19:36

    @Sirius: I’m actually finding The Brothers K more compelling. I’m on page 205. It’s hard for me to articulate quite what I appreciate about it – the characters do have a certain humanity in spite of the fact that they are rendered as such archetypes. I’m curious about how things will develop with the brothers. I’m not sorry I’m reading it, though I wish I could read it faster. But there’s just so much of it I can get through in a day.

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  23. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2011 @ 23:23:30

    @Darlynne: I really, really want to read Doctor Zhivago – mostly because I freaking love the movie. It’s one of those movies that I have to stop and watch when it’s on TV. Also one of those movies where I keep wishing I could change the ending by force of will, even though I know that Zhivago won’t be able to get to Lara before collapsing, and Lara will walk on, oblivious. So sad!

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  24. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2011 @ 23:49:40

    @KKJ: I’m actually a believer in seeing movies before reading books *if* you know you plan to do both, only because the movie version of a good book is often so disappointing (“Possession”, I’m looking at you). This rule doesn’t really apply to classic literature, though, and I do find it helpful to watch film versions of classics before or during the reading of the actual book.

    I do need to see Bleak House; for now I’m making do with SparkNotes to help me with stuff I may be missing. Whoever wrote it, though, doesn’t seem too fond of Esther.

    I love your penance for Mr. Skimpole – he and Mrs. Jellyby deserve each other!

    I actually loved A Tale of Two Cities when I read it, but I was 14 and enjoyed wallowing in the tragic ending. Not sure how I’d feel about it today. There is a *lot* of Dickens left for me to read, if I feel so inclined.

    I’ve never read Trollope – I guess I should consider him at some point. There are so many classics left to try. (Sometimes seeing a film adaptation first can put one off – I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to read Madame Bovary after seeing a BBC version last year. Not to put too fine a point on it, I really hated that stupid bitch.)

    As for depressing Russian novels, there’s a reason they drink all that vodka, I think. Though C&P had a surprisingly happy ending, sort of.

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  25. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2011 @ 23:53:19

    @Collette: Ha, I had sort of the same experience in high school when the teacher gave up on trying to get the class to read The Sound and the Fury and ended up just giving me and the one other girl who actually read it an extra credit assignment. I actually like TSaTF, though.

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  26. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 17:29:39

    @Jayne: I do think this is one of his more serious books. He’s written lots of others that are lighter reads.
    Some great fairly recent books on the Georgian era:

    Hallie Rubenhold’s little book on Harris’s List. She lists some of the entries.

    Lucy Moore’s “Con Men and Cutpurses” about the criminal in Georgian Britain.

    Liza Picard’s “Dr. Johnson’s London.” Pretty self explanatory and an engrossing read.

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