Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

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100 books by 40: BLEAK HOUSE

Book: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
Published: 1853

Bleak is an accurate description of how I felt when I started this book. The gray Cincinnati winter seems the most suitable companion for slogging through this enormous book. I was cheered by the fact that this is the last Charles Dickens book in my list. All of my earlier struggles with The Bronte Sisters and Jane Austen have paid out in how quickly I jumped back into Dickens.

Of the many things to object to with this book, the obsession with 1800’s British legal system was most irritating. Long passages are devoted to the courts. I skimmed over those passages without guilt.

Fortune has put this book toward the end of my list. There are twenty books standing between me and my goal of finishing The BBC’s 100 Best Books list. The momentum of eighty books down and twenty to go carried me to the end of this book.

The sheer number of side characters in this book is overwhelming. I can’t say that the subplots add that much to the book. Actually, scratch that. I can’t say anything about the book added that much to my life. Great Expectations and David Copperfield deserved to be on this list. Bleak House, not so much. If you want to get into Dickens, steer clear of this one.

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100 Books by 40: A Christmas Carol

I finished A Christmas Carol a few weeks ago. Most people are familiar with the plot of this book, and I was wondering if I had anything fresh to say about it. I quick internet search has told me that focusing on Want and Ignorance isn’t exactly fresh, but I want to write about it anyway.

I’m not going to structure this post with advanced spoiler alerts, because of how ubiquitous this story is in American culture. Be warned. From this point forward, I will reveal key plot points.

A Christmas Carol is most obviously a story about materialism and happiness as they interact with human connection. This story is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. Consumerism is our religion in America. And while certain aspects of poverty are objectively better today than they were in 17th century England, we are just as inclined to define ourselves by what we own and consume as opposed to what we produce or the relationships we nurture.

All of that feels obvious to me. The wretched children in the robe of Christmas Present have rolled around in my head for weeks since finishing the book. Dickens had to pick the two most potent forces that bend people to the worst of their potential.

Conceptually, what breaks us the most when we are young? What sets us on a path that hobbles our ability to be productive? Given incarceration rates and the prevalence of poverty, we are still struggling.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States)

Dickens thought ignorance and want were the two things preventing children from developing into successful adults. Was he right? The solution to ignorance is to provide education and access to information. The solution to want is to ensure that children, even in the worst poverty, have their physical needs met.

With public education and food stamps, one would think that America has made progress on these issues. According to this (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/child-hunger-facts.aspx) 15.9 American children lived in food insecure households in 2012. And regardless of a free education, the illiteracy rate hasn’t changed in the last 10 years; it’s been stubborn at %14 of the population.

One can’t say that we aren’t trying. And, the literacy rate was closer to %60 in the early 1800’s, so we have improved. At the dawn of 1900, child labor laws were enacted to enable children to stay in school, but %20 of all children died before reaching 1 year of age. Infant mortality rate in the US is only 5.6 for every 1000 live births.

Regardless, it seems that having 15.9 million kids at risk of going hungry is too much for a rich nation to excuse. Why haven’t we stamped out hunger and illiteracy? One conclusion can be drawn; throwing money at the problems isn’t the only solution. I suspect that a poor home life can unravel any good that public education and food distribution programs can do. If you are unfortunate enough to have a care-giver who fails you in key ways, you can still be hungry and uneducated in America. And, honestly, I don’t know how to mitigate for that. There’s nothing the state will ever do to make up for this loss.

I wonder what Charles Dickens would think of that. Given the events in A Christmas Carol, I suspect he would say that each of us with time and resources should be engaged in our communities on a personal level. He would say that concerned neighbors should be on the look out for neglected children. In that sense, the human connections that he advocates for in A Christmas Carol are still sorely needed.

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100 Books by 40: David Copperfield

My copy of David Copperfield has an introduction by the author himself, and I found his words quite relevant to my own experience with the novel.

“Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”

If you’ve been following my blog you might know that I’ve already read Great Expectations, and I wasn’t terribly fond of it. Mrs. Havisham lords over that book and swallows any lightness that Pip provides. It’s a long, bleak read. In contrast, David Copperfield is alive with witty, endearing characters, despite the plot being flush with personal catastrophe. In particular, David’s aunt, Betsy Trotwood, was a peculiar, sassy old broad that I enjoyed in every way.

I often avoid talking about particular parts of the plot to refrain from spoiling the read for others who fail to heed my alerts. That just can’t be avoided here, because as I want to talk about how much I liked the resolution of one of the story arcs.

Here goes. *****************SPOILER ALERT*****************************

For readers whom have not read the book and don’t intend on it, let me set the scene for this story arc. David’s father dies before he is born. His mother is a less than sensible woman and remarries to a severe, cruel man. David’s mother is driven to an early grave by her new husband, and David is left with the wicked stepfather who at best neglects him and at worst abuses him.

Many other story arcs are introduced and resolved between the beginning and end of this arc, such that years pass with no update on the stepfather. After achieving success as an adult, David hears from a family friend that this man has found another kind woman to marry and mentally abuse. I was curious if Dickens would conjure up an emotionally satisfying final confrontation between David and his step father. He doesn’t. The story arc is left there with David knowing that his step father is bringing suffering to a new woman.

I loved this. I loved this lack of closure. It’s what real life is. I think each of us have experienced some deep pain at the hands of another. There’s rarely an epic moment were the perpetrator acknowledges the emotional carnage that they created. People are either too self-absorbed to consider how their actions effect others, or they are steeped in denial. Possibly both. David Copperfield has simply lived beyond his destructive stepfather. He didn’t wallow in that loss. Isn’t that what real healing usually looks like?

I loved this book. I loved these characters; they warrant the favorite child status. I am mildly relieved to find a Dickens book that I like. Does that make me less of a philistine? Maybe not. But it represents my slow-growing appreciation of British Literature, without question.

It’s been a while since I updated my progress through the 100 Best Books list, so here it is. I’m approaching my half way point. No joke, I am excited to read some of my old favorites once the list is through. Success is nearly certain. I should be able to finish before I’m 40. I don’t know what it means that I’ve committed hours to something that I wasn’t sure was attainable on the outset.

Reading now:
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

Finished reading:
1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
53. The Stand, Stephen King
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens *I read this when I was too young to appreciate it; I would like to read it again as an adult. I will do so if I have time.
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding *I’ve read this twice. I will read it again if I have time.
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac *I’ve read this twice. I will read it again if I have time. I have the unabriged unedited version and will probably take on that if time allows.

Pending reading:
40. Emma, Jane Austen
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie