Madame Bovary [Audiobook Review]


Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Narrator: Kate Reading
Genre: Classic
Pages: 384 pages
Audio: 13.8
Year: Original – 1856 | Edition – 2010
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Source: Personal Collection
Book Rating: 1.5/5
Audio Rating: 4/5

Summary:

Charles Bovary had a tough childhood but he eventually becomes a doctor anyway. Sort of. He gets married to a girl but he falls for another. Lucky for him, Madame Bovary number one dies and he can marry Madame Bovary number two. But, she’s not quite as crazy about him as he is about her. And she feels pretty stifled in her country life. So she cheats on him. A lot. And it doesn’t end well.

My Thoughts:

Ugh. This book. I don’t get it – why are we still reading this?

Perhaps I am not intelligent or cultured or patient enough to appreciate how amazing this novel is. The wikipedia entry for Madame Bovary states: “Long established as one of the greatest novels ever written, the book has often been described as a “perfect” work of fiction.” 

I disagree.

Vehemently.

I can understand why, at the time it was written, this book would have been shocking. But how can it still be so widely read and highly regarded 150 years later?

It’s boring. I actually have no idea how a book about adultery can be this boring. I was listening to this one when I was training for my 10k and it actually made my long runs even worse.

Beyond the fact that it is really boring and the characters were miserable companions for 14 hours of my life, I don’t have much else to say. If you want my opinion, find another classic to read. If you want an adulteress, go with Anna Karenina – it’s well worth the additional pages.

Audiobook Thoughts:

The audiobook was fine. I have no complaints. And I certainly wouldn’t have finished this thing in print.

Scattered Thoughts on North and South

I’m not going to “review” North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I always find it difficult to write reviews for classics, and this is no exception. So here are some random thoughts from my reading of North and South.

First, the story (if you don’t know) is about Margaret Hale, who moves to the fictional northern manufacturing town of Milton from her father’s country parsonage outside of London. Got it? That’s the north and the south part. Margaret doesn’t take to the manufacturing life very well and has many run-ins with Mr. Thornton, who owns one of the plants and happens to be in love with Margaret. See where this is going?

I have to confess that it took me AGES AND AGES to read North and South. Like 6 months or so of an on-again/off-again relationship. This clearly affected my opinion of this book (the longer a book sticks around on my nightstand, the less I like it).

I wanted to love North and South. If I’d read it 5 years ago, I might have. Back then I actually read classics in fewer than 6 months and really enjoyed them. But my attention span isn’t want it once was. I blame the internet. Classics are now a lot of work for me.

There were things I liked (though nothing that is jumping out at me right now) and things I found difficult (the dialect/slang!). I found the debates about workers vs. factory owners to be interesting (might be that labor and employment law thing) and I was very intrigued by the side story of Margaret’s brother and his mutiny/exile (now THAT would have made an exciting book).

And just when I was getting into the book, it became the SADDEST THING EVER. At one point I told twitter that I was going to stop reading if one more person died. Seriously. It was like the end of a Shakespeare tragedy.

So my experience with North and South was not what I hoped it would be. But I am glad that I read it because it was one of those books I felt like I MUST read someday. But perhaps I will go back to my beloved Russians for my next classic. I’ll pick Tolstoy over Gaskill any day.

(You all are going to tell me to go watch the BBC mini-series, right? I started it after finishing the book but more North and South was not what I needed just then. I will return to it – I swear.)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier [Book v. Movie]

Summary:

Our unnamed narrator, alone in the world and doomed to a life as a “companion” to a string of rich, older women, quickly allows herself to be swept off her feet by Maxim de Winter. However, her new life at the beautiful Manderley is haunted by the memory of the previous Mrs. de Winter – Rebecca – who died at sea a year earlier. With a little help from the housekeeper, Ms. Danvers, our narrator becomes obsessed with Rebecca and the seemingly endless adoration everyone has for her. But are things exactly as they seem?

The Book [5/5]:

I adored Rebecca. I listened to the audio and I found myself stealing every moment I could to listen to more. If someone were to tell me what it was about, I think my first reaction would be one of boredom. But de Maurier manages to put so much into every little action.  Every appearance by Mrs. Danvers set me on edge. Every mention of how Rebecca used to do things made me anxious. I wanted to urge our narrator on, but I also wanted to see how the story would unfold. It was so fascinating to watch how Rebecca, this important character who is never actually there, shapes the story, leaving our narrator to simply cry, “I could fight the living but I could not fight the dead.”

du Maurier’s talent is evident in her descriptive writing. Instead of telling you about it, let me just show you a couple of examples:

“I know I cried that night, bitter youthful tears that could not come from me to-day. That kind of crying, deep into a pillow, does not happen after we are twenty-one. The throbbing head, the swollen eyes, the tight, contracted throat. And the wild anxiety in the morning to hide all traces from the world, sponging with cold water, dabbing eau-de-Cologne, the furtive dash of powder that is significant in itself. The panic, too, that one might cry again, the tears swelling without control, and a fatal trembling of the mouth lead one to disaster.” Chapter 6.

Tell me ladies, who can’t relate to that one?

And finally, because we are book lovers, her description of Manderley’s library:

“There was an old quiet smell about the room, as though the air in it was little changed, for all the sweet lilac scent and the roses brought to it throughout the early summer. Whatever air came to this room, whether form the garden or from the sea, would lose its first freshness, becoming part of the unchanging room itself, one with the books, musty and never read, one with the scrolled ceiling, the dark panelling, the heavy curtains.” Chapter 7.

Please ignore the “books…never read” statement when judging Ms. du Maurier’s writing please. I am normally not one for overly descriptive writing. I don’t care for great pastoral novels. Give me Hemingway, please. But I found the descriptions in Rebecca simply enchanting. And perhaps listening to it helped as well.

Thursday Next fans: I admit that I half expected 1000 Mrs. Danvers to show up at some point.

The Movie:

At Dominique from Coffee Stained Pages’ suggestion, I watched the 1940 Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Lawrence Olivier as Maxim and Joan Fontaine as the narrator. I don’t think  could have asked for more in an adaptation.  It was the perfect amount of suspense, stellar acting, and creepiness. If you aren’t going to read the book, at least see the movie. It’s almost as good as the book.

Book: 5/5
Movie: 5/5

The Death of Ivan Ilyich [Book Discussion]

Note:

Today I’m doing something a little different. I called this a discussion because The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy wasn’t really a book I felt I could “review.” Today my books. my life. is the stop on the Imperial Russian Literature Classics Circuit tour (hosted by Rebecca Reid). I adore Russian literature so I jumped at the chance to participate in this tour. However, I’m currently in fear of large novels. Thankfully, I had a copy of The Death of Ivan Ilyich waiting for me on my shelf. This is very different from Anna Karenina and War and Peace in substance as well as length and reads as more of a philosophical writing than a story. So today we dive into a discussion on the topic of death and dying as viewed by The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

(I realize many of my regular readers will skip this post but I hope to catch the attention of a few other Russian lit enthusiasts like myself).

Discussion:

The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins with the actual death and then backtracks to briefly tell the story of Ivan Ilyich’s life before focusing on the very end of it. Ivan Ilyich led the life he was supposed to lead. He was properly educated and then worked is way up is professional career. He had a wife and kids and worked tirelessly to maintain the appearance that he was successful. It was in maintaining this appearance that he had a slight mishap on a ladder that led to the bulk of the book – his dying.

At first, Ivan Ilyich seems unaware that he is actually dying. He goes to doctors and tries various remedies but when nothing works he begins to despair. And though the pain is great, it is the loneliness that overwhelms him. For the first time in his life, he must face something completely alone.

“There was no deceiving himself: something new and dreadful was happening to him, something of such vast importance that nothing in his life could compare with it. And he alone was aware of this. Those about him either did not understand or did not wish to understand and thought that nothing in the world had changed.” p.80

“And he had to go on living like this, on the brink of disaster, without a single person to understand and pity him.” p.83

As his illness progresses, there is a moment when he realizes he is dying.

“Before there was light, now there is darkness. Before I was here, now I am going there. Where?” p. 88

But it is still impossible for him to accept.

“In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he unaccustomed to such an idea, he simply could not grasp it, could not grasp it all.” p.93

There is a discussion of the syllogism: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” This logic is lost on Ivan Ilyich as it is, I assume, lost on most of it. While the average person understands that everyone dies, and that he or she will die as well, do we ever completely accept that fact and understand it? I’m reminded of the Rosencrantz’s monologue in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (the movie version):

Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with the lid on it? Nor do I really. Silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account that one is dead. Which should make all the difference. Shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box would you? It would be just like you were asleep in a box. Not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you. Not without any air. You’d wake up dead for a start and then where would you be? In a box. That’s the bit I don’t like, frankly. That’s why I don’t think of it. Because you’d be helpless wouldn’t you? Stuffed in a box like that. I mean, you’d be in there forever. Even taking into account the fact that you’re dead. It isn’t a pleasant thought. Especially if you’re dead, really. Ask yourself: if I asked you straight off I’m going to stuff you in this box now – would you rather to be alive or dead? Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking, well, at least I’m not dead. In a minute, somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out. (knocks) “Hey you! What’s your name? Come out of there!”

Even after admitting that he can’t understand it, Rosencrantz continues to state that he wouldn’t like being in a box. It is impossible for us to completely understand death – we imagine ourselves alive in the box, but being dead makes all the difference. Does this prevent us from ever completely accepting our own demise?

When we are healthy, we can shield ourselves from the inevitability of our death. By facing death so closely, Ivan Ilyich can no longer do this.

“He tried to revert to a way of thinking that had obscured the thought of death from him in the past. But, strangely, everything that had once obscured, hidden, obliterated the awareness of death no longer had that effect. Ivan Ilyich spent most of this latter period trying to recapture habits of feeling that had screened death from him.” p. 94

He finds comfort in one person – the pantry boy, Gerasim. Gerasim will hold Ivan Ilyich’s legs up on his shoulders and listen to him speak because it gives Ivan Ilyich some comfort. I found this an interesting idea. Gerasim literally and figuratively holds Ivan Ilyich up.

While dying, Ivan Ilyich longs to be treated as a child.

“He wanted to be caressed, kissed, cried over, as sick children are caressed and comforted.” p. 104

And why shouldn’t he long for this despite his “graying beard.” Death brings us as far from our birth as possible yet there are aspects that remarkably similar.

The book then moves on to a discussion of living the best life possible. Ivan Ilyich is plagued by doubt and regret that he did not life the correct life because he lived the life he ought.

“It’s as though I was going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up. That’s exactly what happened. In public opinion I was moving uphill, but to the same extent life was slipping away form me. And now it’s gone and all I can do is die!” p. 120

“‘Perhaps I did not live as I should have,’ it suddenly occured to him. ‘But how coudl that be when I did everything one is supposed to do?’” p. 120

Yet he waivers back and forth with this idea.

“And when it occured to him, as it often did, that he had not lived as he should have, he immediately recalled how correct his whole life had been and dismissed this bizarre idea.” p 120

Though his death is a painful one, it is harder on him mentally than it is physically. He struggles with the idea of death throughout.

“The doctor said his physical agony was dreadful, and that was true; but even more dreadful was his moral agony, and it was this that tormented him most.” p. 126

Finally, after the agonizing time spent dying, Ivan Ilyich faces death up close and is no longer afraid.

“‘And death? Where is it?’ He searched for his accustomed fear of death and could not find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear because there was no death. Instead of death, there was light.” p. 133

It is not until the moment of death that Ivan Ilyich is finally able to fully embrace its inevitability and accept it. And I think Tolstoy gets it right here. We will never understand it while we are alive. It is something that must be experienced and that is what makes it so frightening.

I mean, even after reading this, I still believe that I am NOT Caius. Don’t you?

Has anyone else read this? I am done rambling and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Oh, and don’t forget to check out the rest of the Imperial Russian Circuit. You can find the list here.