Posts Categorized: Book Reviews

Voyage of the Beagle
by Charles Darwin

October 9, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 6

darwin_voyageofthebeagle

★ ★ ★ ★

Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin | Originally published 1839 | Penguin Classics | Paperback $16

When HMS Beagle sailed out of Devonport on 27 December 1831, Charles Darwin was twenty-two and setting off on the voyage of a lifetime. His journal, here reprinted in a shortened form, shows a naturalist making patient observations concerning geology, natural history, people, places and events. Volcanoes in the Galapagos, the Gossamer spider of Patagonia and the Australasian coral reefs – all are to be found in these extraordinary writings. The insights made here were to set in motion the intellectual currents that led to the theory of evolution, and the most controversial book of the Victorian age: The Origin of Species.

In a word: FASCINATING.

I’m so, so glad that I put this title on my Classics Club list — and I’m so, so glad that I just happened to find a dusty copy languishing at a local used bookshop for only $3!

A couple of minor but relevant pieces of information: I have a BS in Biology and am the child of a scientist and am employed at a science-focused academic library. I also do not usually get on well with Victorian literature.

In this case, my enthusiasm for the subject matter (and the youthful author’s own clear enthusiasm) won out over my difficulties with the Victorian-ness of the writing.

Darwin suffered from terrible seasickness for much of the voyage, so he spent as much time travelling by land as he could possibly justify. I feel bad for the guy, but his extended explorations through various countries is what allowed him to produce this book and its controversial heir.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows with this book, of course. Young Charlie subscribed to some of the rather paternalistic/racist views of typical imperialist Englishmen of the time, and his opinions on the foreign cultures he encounters do awkwardly (for the modern reader) reflect that. Besides that, he does tend to get a little too excited about some topics that no one else besides a fellow topic-specific geek would care about. Even I couldn’t be bothered with pages of descriptions of flatworms or geological strata. You have to be OK with skimming past this kind of stuff if you want to make it through the whole book.

That said, there are some real jewels to be found. For instance, there was the time when good ol’ Charlie managed to lasso himself while some gauchos tried to teach him how to fend for himself. And how about his attempts to ride the Galápagos tortoises like an an overgrown, overenthusiastic boy?

I like to imagine that if blogs had existed in the early 1800’s, Darwin would have been typing IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE THIS IS SO COOL, YOU GUYS and taking selfies with any animal/person who’d stand still long enough.

Overall, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of biological/ecological sciences or 19th century English history. And hey — definitely check out the links below. A lot of Darwin’s journals, letters, etc. are freely available online and, again, there are some real gems floating around out there.

Have you read this book, or other books by/about Darwin? Did you find any particular part of his journey especially fascinating?


Links:


Publication information: Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. New York: Penguin, 1989. Print.
Source: Used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Blood Red Snow White
by Marcus Sedgwick

October 8, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

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★ ★ ★ ★

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick | October 2016 | Roaring Book Press | Hardcover $17.99

Russia wakes from a long sleep and marches to St Petersburg to claim her birthright. Her awakening will mark the end for the Romanovs, and the dawn of a new era that changed the world. Arthur Ransome, a journalist and writer, was part of it all. He left his family in England and fell in love with Russia and a Russian woman. This is his story.

First, let’s make something super clear: this is NOT any kind of fairy tale retelling, nor is it another popular YA fantasy/paranormal adventure/romance à la Cinder or Shadow and Bone. It’s actually a reprinting of a slightly fairy tale-themed historical fiction from nearly a decade ago. The redesigned cover is a little misleading, right? Well, never mind about that.

Now, let’s talk content: even though the marketing might be a little bit misleading, the actual story is totally worth reading. It’s based on the life of a real children’s book author, Arthur Ransome, with a focus on his fascination with Russian culture and his somewhat unwitting involvement in the Russian revolutions of the early 20th century. I’m in no way a Russian history “enthusiast” or whatever, but I did find this story incredibly fascinating after having learned a bit more about the country’s past in The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which I had the pleasure of reading earlier this year.

I actually jumped at the chance to read an ARC of the reprint because I read Midwinterblood by Sedgwick a year or two ago and ABSOLUTELY LOVED it. (But I didn’t review it here for some reason though?) Blood Red Snow White isn’t quite at the level of Midwinterblood, but it’s still pretty good and definitely worth reading if you’re into Russian culture/history, WWI-era Europe, or the classic children’s stories of Arthur Ransome.

Note: This book was provided at no cost to the reviewer by the publisher via Edelweiss.


Links:


Publication information: Sedgwick, Marcus. Blood Red Snow White. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2016. EPUB file.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury

September 24, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 4

bradbury_martianchron

★ ★ ★

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury | May 1950, this ed. 2012 | Simon & Schuster | Paperback $7.99

In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, America’s preeminent storyteller, imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor; of crystal pillars and fossil seas, where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race. In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.

When I compiled my Classics Club list, I purposely sought out classic books in the realms of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. To be honest, I rather prefer the stuff closer to the Fantasy side of that spectrum, and — again with the honesty — I don’t think I would have picked up this particular book if it hadn’t been for the Classics Club challenge.

The Martian Chronicles is really a collection of related short stories rather than a “real” novel. The stories begin at a time when Earthlings first begin to land on Mars and meet the native inhabitants, and proceed along to the point where a little group of humans become the Martians.

Of course, this book was written nearly two decades before we landed on the moon — several years even before the Space Race began. So, a lot of what a modern reader might consider “expected” in the way of terminology and technology and culture is completely reimagined. For example, space ships are generally called “rockets”… and mid-20th-century gender roles/expectations are quite firmly enforced, even for the original alien Martians themselves. It’s a little jarring, not gonna lie, but that’s the sort of thing you learn to expect with these old books, y’know? Not worth burning the book over, but I definitely rolled my eyes a few times….

I found this book kinda hard to rate because I wasn’t really grabbed by it (if it had been something I’d started on a whim, I might not have bothered to finish) but I can also see why it is so widely considered a classic. Bradbury’s writing is generally clean but beautiful in its own way, and the characters — while not 100% 3-dimensional — are interesting and realistic.

Further complicating matters, this particular edition does not include 2 stories that have been included in some other editions — “The Fire Balloons” and “The Wilderness” — while it does include a story sometimes cut from other editions, “Way in the Middle of the Air”. I suppose I can see why overly-cautious editors would cut the latter, as it includes quite a few utterances of the n-word. However, the story is quite clearly inspired by the budding Civil Rights Movement of the ’50’s-’60’s.

In the end, I’m glad I read The Martian Chronicles but it isn’t something I’d unreservedly recommend to other readers. But it’s a fine choice if you’re looking to expand your experience of early speculative fiction!

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


Links:


Publication information: Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
Source: Thrift shop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Wide Sargasso Sea
by Jean Rhys

September 17, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 2

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★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys | 1966 | W. W. Norton | Paperback $14.95

With Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’ last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction’s most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.

What can I really say about this book that hasn’t already been said, and by people far more eloquent than myself?

Whatever, it’s MY OWN DANG BLOG, DANGIT.

Anyway, this might not have been the absolute best time to read this book? I mean, Jean Rhys Reading Week, so that’s one point in its favor. But I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, and… well, this (IMHO) was a fantastic novel. So on the one hand, I was actually motivated to read and was super happy to have spent my time on it! But on the other hand, how can anything else compare to this???

OK, maybe I’m just being overly dramatic.

TBQH, I might not have picked up this book if it weren’t for the word “Sargasso” in the title. Now, I know that might seem weird, but hear me out: I live on the Gulf Coast. Every year, we (or some other spot in/on the Gulf of Mexico) will get an influx of this Sargassum shit. I realize that might seem like a crazy reason to put a book on your TBR list — it happens to mention a type of seaweed in the title! oh joy! — but is it honestly any worse than “the cover is pretty” or “it’s a classic so people SHOULD read it”… ?

In any case, I am so, so glad that I put this on my Classics Club list — and I’m so, so grateful to the folks who hosted Jean Rhys Reading Week this year. Maybe this was just what I needed to read at this point in my life? It kinda felt like it….

So: You? Have you read this novel — & what did you think of it? Did you participate in Jean Rhys Reading Week, too?


Links:


Publication information: Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966. Print.
Source: Purchased for personal use.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Book
by Keith Houston

September 5, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 2

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★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston | August 2016 | W.W. Norton & Co. | Hardcover $29.95

We may love books, but do we know what lies behind them? In The Book, Keith Houston reveals that the paper, ink, thread, glue, and board from which a book is made tell as rich a story as the words on its pages—of civilizations, empires, human ingenuity, and madness. In an invitingly tactile history of this 2,000-year-old medium, Houston follows the development of writing, printing, the art of illustrations, and binding to show how we have moved from cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls to the hardcovers and paperbacks of today.

I haven’t been reading a whole lot lately, but at least when I actually DID read, it happened to be a fantastic book-about-books!

I got an ARC of this in e-book format via Edelweiss (and I’m a bad reviewer for not even finishing reading/reviewing until after the publish date, but whatever) and the whole time I was reading it I kept thinking, “I NEED this book IN MY HANDS.” Now, don’t get me wrong, the e-book is perfectly nice, but we’re talking about a book that covers everything from papermaking to binding to mass printing… so if you’re at all a fan of the physical object we know as the book, you’ll probably enjoy reading this in its classic format. The printing of this book in particular is quite lovely — and it includes many full color illustrations/photos, which is a huge plus in my book. (Ha.)

I’m convinced that this would make the PERFECT gift for any bookish person on the planet. I know it’s on my wishlist, and I can think of at least one person who’ll probably be getting a copy from me as well.


Links:


Publication information: Houston, Keith. he Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016. EPUB file.
Source: ARC provided by Publisher.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Wine Folly
by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack

September 4, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 4

Puckette_WineFolly

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack | 2015 | Avery | Paperback $25

Red or white? Cabernet or merlot? Light or bold? What to pair with food? Drinking great wine isn’t hard, but finding great wine does require a deeper understanding of the fundamentals.

Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine will help you make sense of it all in a unique infographic wine book. Designed by the creators of WineFolly.com, which has won Wine Blogger of the Year from the International Wine & Spirits Competition, this book combines sleek, modern information design with data visualization and gives readers pragmatic answers to all their wine questions….

I like wine, but getting “into” it was a little bit intimidating. All the new vocab, funky tasting methods, and just the general snootiness of oenophile culture can be kind of a hurdle to get over, you know?

A while back, I dug around in the internet for wine websites and blogs. There are plenty of them out there, but Wine Folly is different from most. It seems more welcoming to newbies, more casual/fun/relatable. I was super happy to see that the creators of the Wine Folly website had published a book by the same name.

highly recommend this blog + book to anyone who’s interested in learning more about wine yet might be hesitating because of how intimidating the whole wine scene can seem. The book starts with the basics — how to store wine, carefully taste it, and pair it with food. Then come the wine style profiles, followed by info about regions where the grapes are grown and how geographic origins can affect quality. This is all accompanied by simple but attractive infographics that make it all so much easier to understand.

The real reason I’m reviewing this book — besides the fact that I really do think y’all out to check it out — is because I’ve just started the Wine Folly tasting challenge. This involves tasting 34 wines from the 12 main wine-producing regions, with at least 1 or 2 selections from each of the 9 main wine styles (aromatic white, full-bodied red, and so forth). I originally intended to get this done by the end of this year, but (1) I’m trying really hard to watch my calories right now and (2) I’ve got a lot going on between now and then, what with the holidays and some big work projects and stuff, so I can’t realistically commit to tasting X number of wines per week. If I taste just 1 or 2 wines per weekend, I should be done with this challenge by the end of next April at the latest.

So, how about you — do you enjoy wine? Have you done much exploring with it, or with any other type of beverage you like (tea, craft beer, or whatever)?


Links:


Publication information: Puckette, M. and J. Hammack. Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. New York: Avery, 2015. Print.
Source: Gift.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Anne of Green Gables
by L. M. Montgomery

July 9, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 8

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★ ★ ★ ★ 

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery | 1908, this ed. 2014 | Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster | Paperback $7.99

When Anne Shirley arrives at Green Gables, she surprises everyone: first of all, she’s a girl, even though Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew specifically asked for an orphan boy to help around the farm. And second of all, she’s not just any girl: she has bright red hair, a wild imagination, and can talk a mile a minute. Anne has a temper as fiery as her hair and a knack for finding trouble, and she also has a big heart and a positive attitude that affects everyone she meets.

FIRST, I just have to fangirl for a minute over this gorgeous cover. *pets*

This was a re-read for me, although it’s been years since I read it last. To be honest, my memory of the book was a bit off! I remembered Anne as being an annoying, sickly-sweet character, and for some reason I imagined Marilla as a kind of villain?

Reading it again now as an adult, I found Marilla to be a much more sympathetic character. I did still find Anne a tiny bit annoying in some ways (all those giant wall-o-text ramblings, for instance), but she’s less of a Pollyanna than I remembered — not so much the eternal optimist, more like a little drama queen prone to rhapsodies of imagination and emotion.

I also enjoyed this book for its quality as a kind of snapshot in time. It is set in the Canadian Martimes in the early 20th century, and there are many interesting little historical details, like food and drink, rural public schooling, early feminism, and fashion of course — who can forget Anne’s obsession with puffed sleeves?

I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll read the rest of the series. I don’t think I ever read them before? But I am glad that I put this on my Classics Club list and tackled it this year for the Women’s Classic Literature Event.


Links:


Publication information: Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. New York: Aladdin, 2014. Print.
Source: Purchased from Barnes & Noble.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Awakening
by Kate Chopin

July 2, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 4

Chopin_Awakening

★ ★ ★

The Awakening by Kate Chopin | 1899 | Del Rey | Project Gutenberg $0

Edna Pontellier is a young woman living comfortably in the beautiful city of New Orleans. She is fond of her husband and proud of her sons but finds it impossible to accept that for women it is a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals. She fights back in the only manner she knows.

I put The Awakening on my Classics Club list because it is often included in studies of feminist history, which is a subject that I find very interesting. Plus, not gonna lie, it’s short. So I went into this story knowing nothing more about it than that.

I somehow managed to avoid finding out what happens to Edna (the main character) before reading, and I think this really affected my reaction to the story. So if you haven’t read it yet, please keep in mind:

This review contains spoilers.

Here, have a bit of a line break while you think about whether you want to go on reading this review or not….

– – – –

I wasn’t really expecting Edna to commit suicide, in part because the few reviews I had read before even putting The Awakening on my to-read list made only oblique references to her “choice to leave” or similar.

Now that I understand what they mean, I’m particularly confused by the negative reviews that complain about Edna being generally unrelatable/immoral and condemn her gradual, then suddenly final abandonment of her family. I would argue for a more empathetic view of the situation.

I think the ending of the story shines a particularly illuminating light on the main character’s previous thoughts + actions. The woman is depressed or otherwise mentally unwell. She is having a crisis. This crisis is caused by her being “boxed in” to a particular role by her culture, a role she is not suited for but cannot wholly escape except in one way.

She begins to have an emotional affair with one man, then a physical affair with another; she sends her children away to live with her husband’s family and leaves her husband. Her instability is obvious to everyone around her, and at one point a doctor encourages her to come to him for help. But what kind of help could he really have offered, in this era before psychotherapy and SSRIs?

This was all terribly shocking behavior to the Victorians that were this story’s original readers. Of course a modern reader, especially a socially conservative one, might also think her actions are repugnant — but we also live in a culture where women can have careers and don’t have to marry well or risk lifelong poverty/seclusion, where having children is a positive choice rather than the default assumption, where people can get divorced if their marriage falls apart instead of being unhappily trapped forever. It’s impossible to judge Edna by modern standards when she didn’t have the advantages of modern options.

Well, anyway, this was a depressing story, and not at all what I was looking for when I was hoping for a bit of “light” summer reading. On to the next one….


Links:


Publication information: Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone & Company, 1899.
Source: Project Gutenberg.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


League of Dragons
by Naomi Novik

June 29, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 2

Novik_LoDragons

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik | March June 2016 | Del Rey | hardback $28

The deadly campaign in Russia has cost both Napoleon and those allied against him. Napoleon has been denied his victory… but at a terrible price. Lawrence and the dragon Temeraire pursue the fleeing French army back west, but are demoralized when Napoleon makes it back to Paris unscathed. Worse, they soon learn that the French have stolen Termeraire and Iskierka’s egg. Now, it is do or die, as our heroes not only need to save Temeraire’s offspring but also to stop Napoleon for good!

I’m so glad I started reading the Temeraire series just when I did. (Previous post here.) I think I might have gone crazy having to wait too long for the last book. Turns out, I only had to wait a week — and since I preordered it, League of Dragons showed up at my door on release day! When I got the delivery notification I was too distracted to get much work done for the rest of the day.

This review does not include any spoilers, but it does assume some knowledge of the previous books in the series and, like, basic world history.

This was a pretty satisfying conclusion to the series. The adventures of the dragon Temeraire and his human William Laurence have all been leading up to this point — the climax of an AU Napoleonic War that has turned out to be more global than even WWI. By this point, the pair have traveled to 5 continents and encountered dragons and humans from a huge range of other races/breeds/cultures. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge sucker for world building, and seeing how Novik imagined all these different human-dragon relationships was by far my favorite thing about this series. If she ever wants to write one of those encyclopedia-like companion books with more info about dragons across cultures, I would be all over that in a heartbeat.

Alas, all stories and wars must come to an end, even for Napoleon. I was surprised but delighted by the way that Napoleon was finally “disposed of” (and the behind-the-curtain architect of this suddenly became one of my favorite characters)… although, you have to wonder if he will end up having his Waterloo in this AU, too. I think it likely. Which brings me to one of the things that I liked about this book — most of the foundational threads are tied up and it does “feel” like an ending, but there are still enough questions about the future to keep a reader’s imagination going for some time. I can’t say I was 100% satisfied with everything that happened, but that’s life. The only thing I can’t imagine is that Temeraire and Laurence will manage to stay out of trouble for very long!

However, I do think that the book wasn’t long enough and the chapters jumped around more than I would have liked. I can appreciate the fade-to-black scene change method, but when every chapter end/begins that way it can be a bit much. Honestly, I would rather have had an extra hundred pages if it would have allowed for smoother transitions. I would have actually liked to read the scenes that were skipped over! (Can’t say much without spoiling, but seriously, LIEN.) And I found it slightly confusing at a couple of points. Oh, well.

The 5-star rating is for the series as a whole. Some books were better than others. Some characters were interesting, some were pointless, some were irritating, and a few even grew on me as the series went on. The plot was perfectly paced for the most part, though there were some too-slow and too-quick spots. But overall, I gobbled up these books like a humpback whale gobbles up krill, and even after finishing the series I’m still enjoying daydreaming about the world that Novik built. So yeah, solid 5 stars from me!


Links:


Publication information: Novik, Naomi. League of Dragons. New York: Del Rey Books, 2016. Print.
Source: Purchased for home library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Gone with the Wind
by Margaret Mitchell

June 19, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 3

Subtitled: Your Fav is Problematic, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Book

Gone With the Wind was originally published 80 years ago this month, so it seemed like a good time to tackle it for my Classics Club reading challenge.

Hold on to your hoop skirts, because this book review is going to be a bit different from my usual short’n’sloppy fare.

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Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell | 1936 | Scribner| Hardcover $30

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell’s epic love story is an unforgettable tale of love and loss, of a nation mortally divided and its people forever changed. At the heart of all this chaos is the story of beautiful, ruthless Scarlett O’Hara and the dashing soldier of fortune, Rhett Butler.

Where to start with this one?

If I was friends with Gone with the Wind on Facebook, our relationship status would be “It’s Complicated” …


It’s well-loved for a reason.

It’s beautifully written, with a near-perfect balance between character development, interesting plot, and atmospheric scenery. The pace never lags and no detail feels extraneous. I felt immersed Scarlett’s world, in the last days of the Confederacy and its Reconstruction. It was such a unique, strange place & time, simultaneously lavish and brutal, elegant and savage — it’s no wonder that so many people are fascinated by Southern plantation culture and the details of life before/during the Civil War as well as the war itself.

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Scarlett herself, though not precisely likeable, is well-developed and interesting. This book might even be a master class in making a basically narcissistic, mean-spirited and shallow character into someone that the reader can actually sympathize with + care about… even if she never freakin’ learns, the daft woman.

Many of her “co-stars” are well-developed and interesting, too — perhaps more interesting, but of course the story is all from Scarlett’s point of view and will therefore always be focused mainly on herself. Melanie and Scarlett together make quite the formidable pair of Southern Belles, and their friendship (such as it is, given Scarlett’s narcissism) is one of my favorite non-romantic relationships in literature.

BUT. The book is not without problems. I don’t know if it can stand on literary merit alone, and those problems deserve some discussion.


Popular things can be (and often are) problematic.

I’ve seen or heard this book called the literary equivalent of the Confederate flag, and even though I don’t want that to be true because it would mean that something I enjoyed/respected is downright bad, I can easily see why it may be viewed this way. Even though several of my own ancestors fought for the Confederacy and I try to respect the history of the South for what it is (painful as it is), I cannot condone modern use of the stars & bars flag because of its continued association with racist ideals.

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The glorification of the Antebellum South is extremely problematic, erasing as it does the suffering of literally millions of enslaved people in favor of rosy nostalgia for a kind of American nobility that lived on mint juleps and among magnolia trees. (And I can’t lie; that very atmosphere is one of the most appealing parts of the pre-war section of this book.) Should Gone With the Wind be treated the same way as the Confederate flag — as a relic of an embarrassing past, to be remembered but not revered?

Or, as a piece of work that has not only outlived but thrived well beyond its expected lifespan, should we be more forgiving of its quirks? After all, the story at its base is a kind of nihilistic coming-of-age tale, and it does not shy away from nastiness nor encourage many warm fuzzy feelings. If it doesn’t manage to address all the cruelties of slavery and war, well, that might simply be a function of its concentration on the life of one particularly self-centered character who, as complicated and problematic person herself, did not recognize all those cruelties.


Historical books deserve a little leeway.

By ‘historical books’, I mean both historically important AND fiction set in historical time periods. Gone With the Wind is included in both categories, having stood the test of time in the literary canon, and with the story being set approximately 70 years prior to the publication of the book itself.

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After all, adults who read this novel when it was first published in the late 1930’s had grandparents who lived through the Civil War & Reconstruction. In fact, we are farther removed now from the publication of Gone With the Wind than readers in 1936 were removed from the War Between the States. The equivalent for the modern reader might be a book set during WWII, from the perspective of a German or Japanese person. Such a book would no doubt be disturbing to read in some ways, but it might also offer interesting insight into the lives of people who experienced a devastating war and the total destruction of their culture.

Furthermore, the book itself is of historical importance. It won a Pulitzer in 1937 and inspired a hugely successful film that won 10 Academy Awards. To reject it outright as a relic of the past is to ignore the huge impact the book had on the culture of its own time period.


Historical leeway doesn’t make the bad parts any less cringe-worthy.

Subtitled: SO MUCH N-WORD HAPPENING WHY

Let’s go back to that example of a WWII historical fiction for the modern reader as a comparison to Gone With the Wind for its original audience. If the book was set in Germany, one might expect that it would include pejorative terms for Jewish people, or Polish or French or British people. Or perhaps it would have all the Jewish characters speaking some form of pidgin Yiddish. Those kinds of things are upsetting, especially in this historical context, and many readers might be upset at their inclusion, historical accuracy be damned. It is a fiction book, after all,and the author is choosing to use derogatory language about a severely abused group of people. But: is the author actually racist, or is she just aping the language/attitude of that place at that time?

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Is Mitchell’s somewhat upsetting, certainly patronizing treatment of her black characters a reflection of her own views, or an attempt at historical accuracy? Or, perhaps, both? Perhaps historical context necessitates some forgiveness on the part of the present-day reader. And yet, when that historical context includes racist language, or more complicated issues like the encouragement of the devoted and coddled near-family slave trope in the form of Mammy and other slave characters, how far should that forgiveness extend?


But sometimes you just have to accept (and even love?) a thing for what it is, warts and all.

Complications and ambiguity are just part of life and human history, and are necessarily going to be part of a story about a very imperfect person’s life during any historical time period. Yes, even in fiction — in fact, I think complications and ambiguity can be a sign of good fiction.

In the end, I’ve decided to go with my gut and just accept that I enjoyed reading Gone With the Wind. It’s simply an engaging story and, because the story centers on a purposefully problematic main character, I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the problems of derogatory terms + condescending treatment of slaves.

I also have to accept that being able to enjoy this book may be in itself a function of white privilege. Did my own ancestors’ privilege as descendants of Europeans instead of Africans in the slavery-dependent South before the Civil War echo down the years to confer upon me the privilege of being able to enjoy this book in the present, a century and a half after slavery was abolished in our country? Probably, which is why I think it is important to address my misgivings about the book here, & to absolutely avoid the temptation of Old South glorification.

This is the third time I’ve read Gone With the Wind. I was a child the first time I read it, which was soon after seeing the movie version. It was one of the first “grown-up” novels I ever read, and I loved it with the kind of uncomplicated love that only a child who has never directly or even indirectly experienced racism or the destruction of one’s home/entire culture can feel. I thought it was a lovely story about a plucky girl in fantastic dresses who didn’t care what anyone thought of her — because I was a little budding feminist, & I somehow managed to admire Scarlett because I imagined her story was all about fighting The Man. (Plus, I had a little crush on Rhett.) When I read it again several years later, as an undergrad whose eyes had been freshly opened to the actual history of the Civil War and racism in America in general, I was disgusted. Why was this book so popular; couldn’t people see how horrible it was, how horrible Scarlett herself was? I had not yet learned how to enjoy reading about “unlikable” characters, or how to handle the guilt of my own ancestors’ misdeeds. (Although I still had the tiniest bit of a crush on Rhett.)

I’m glad I chose to read it a third time. I can see now why I admired Scarlett as a kid: she was outspoken, flirtatious, strong-willed, and generally fancy — all of the things I wasn’t. And even though I’m still disturbed by certain aspects of the book, I guess I’ve learned to accept those flaws as parts of the overall-worthwhile whole. (And I’m still rather charmed by that scamp Rhett, to be honest.)

GWTW_2

Gone With the Wind is, I think, a good book/movie to have in a COLLECTION of other books and media about/set during the Civil War. It’s a good work in an of itself, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think it should stand on its own as a singular perspective on life in the Old South. Here are a few other options for starters:

  • Mercy Street (2016 TV series, PBS)
  • Roots (1977 TV series, ABC; based on novel of the same name by Alex Haley)
  • Jezebel (1938 film, Warner Bros.)
  • Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
  • Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone ed. by John Q. Anderson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Haven’t read yet; on my next Classics Club list)
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs (Haven’t read yet; on my next Classics Club list)

And check out these links for some other perspectives:

Got your own opinions? Gone With the Wind does invite a lot of criticism as well as praise, and I’d love to hear what you think. Talk to me!


Publication information: Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. New York: Scribner, 1964. Print.
Source: Personal library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.