Saturday, May 27, 2017

Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero by William Makepeace Thackeray (81 down 19 to go)

Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falseness and pretensions.


This is the second time I’ve read Vanity Fair, the first being about seven years ago. It remains the only work I’ve read by William Makepeace Thackeray. The novel is a Victorian era satire of early 19th Century British society. The novel takes its title from Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. In Bunyan’s allegory, Vanity Fair is a never-ending fair in the village of Vanity, which represents humanity’s vain pursuit of transitory pleasure.


I believe this novel should be described as a Picaresque Novel - though I have never seen it described by that term. 


My Rating: 4 1/2 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, Category #6: A Romance Classic.


Vanity Fair is subtitled A Novel Without a Hero – an assertion I do not agree with, though I understand the implication.


The principal characters are Amelia Sedley (Emmy) and Rebecca Sharp (Becky). The story opens as the girls graduate from school together, expecting to lead very different and separate lives. Emmy comes from a distinguished London family and Becky is the orphaned daughter of an artist and a dancer – worse – she is French. Everyone adores sweet and guileless Emmy, while most people, most females that is, mistrust and dislike the artful Becky. The girls are friends though, because Emmy loves most everyone and is rather naïve about their motives, and Becky knows that Emmy might be of some benefit to her one day. The rest of the novel tells the tale of their very different but interconnected lives.


I’ve already mentioned this is a satire. With that, the title, and subtitle, you should be able to infer this is Thackeray’s indictment of the vain and pretentious lives we so often lead. I don’t usually like novels without heroes – well I’ve already disclosed that I don’t agree with that assertion – but even if it were true, I’d still love this tale. All of Thackeray’s characters are flawed, and therefore completely human and believable. I was confused at times, feeling empathy for characters I felt I was supposed to dislike, and feeling disdain for those I felt I was supposed to admire. That’s a bit of masterful writing in my opinion, and quite riveting. Let me introduce you to a few of the principals:


Becky Sharp – Slighted by life, and most of society. She is ambitious, intelligent, cunning, accomplished, and beautiful. She employs her charms to manipulate anyone who can benefit her, especially men. And yet, in spite of her artfulness, I could not quite dislike her. Becky perhaps, describes her own self best:

“I am alone in the world,” said the friendless girl. “I have nothing to look for but what my own labour can bring me; and while that little pink-faced chit Amelia with not half my sense, has ten thousand pounds and an establishment secure, poor Rebecca (and my figure is far better than hers) has only herself and her own wits to trust to. Well, let us see if my wits cannot provide me with an honourable maintenance, and if some day or the other I cannot show Miss Amelia my real superiority over her. Not that I dislike poor Amelia: who can dislike such a harmless, good-natured creature? – only it will be a fine day when I can take my place above her in the world, as why, indeed should I not?”


Emmy Sedley – Also beautiful and accomplished, but Becky’s opposite in every other way. She is sweet, kind, innocent, and naïve – and to be honest, though I hate to say it – a bit simple. I couldn’t quite love her as I thought I should. A couple of Thackeray’s descriptions of Amelia:

Harmless lost wanderer in the great struggling crowds of Vanity Fair.

…if she never said brilliant things, she never spoke or thought unkind ones; guileless and artless, loving and pure…


George Osbourne – a dashing young soldier and Emmy’s intended from childhood. He is wealthy, fickle, extravagant, vain, and selfish. Emmy will ever adore him, and is too simple to see his true character.


The entire Crawley family – headed by Sir Pitt, the Baron into whose household Becky will become governess. Sir Pitt, is an English gentleman, gentleman, please understand, only in the traditional English meaning of landed gentry. He is a gentleman in no other way. He is an odious old boor and miser. The rest of the Crawley family is only slightly better. Becky becomes a member of this “noble” family. She – and they – deserve each other.


And dear old William Dobbin – a fellow soldier in Georges’ unit, decidedly NOT dashing.

He had very long legs, a yellow face, and a slight lisp, which at first was rather ridiculous. But his thoughts were just, his brains were fairly good, his life was honest and pure, and his heart warm and humble.


Dobbin is the steadfast hero of the tale.


Let me circle back to Becky. Some feel she is the hero, or at least the antihero. I will call her neither, though she is indeed interesting. She is a bit like Scarlett O’Hara – beautiful, charming, intrepid, manipulative, and dangerous. There is only one person whom ever really truly earns Becky’s affection – the one person who ever truly showed any to Becky. In the end, Becky redeems herself in one altruistic moment, to secure the happiness of this one friend.


In short, I loved it. As I said, it’s a reread and I knew I would love it, but it was better this second time around.


Have you read Vanity Fair? What did you think?

(There are numerous film renditions…any recommendations?)


A few other observations. Thackeray seems to have put bits and pieces of himself into many different characters – unflattering things. I admire a man that can see his own faults. Thackeray was apparently a fan of The Tempest, as he makes several allusions to characters from Shakespeare's play.


Other Excerpts:


…we may be certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion.


But my kind reader will please to remember that this history has “Vanity Fair” for a title, and that Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falseness and pretensions.


And, as we bring our characters forward, I will ask leave, as a man and a brother, not only to introduce them but occasionally to step down from the platform, and talk about them: if they are good and kindly, to love them and shake them by the hand: if they are silly to laugh at them confidentially in the reader’s sleeve: if they are wicked and heartless, to abuse them in the strongest terms which politeness admits of.


If people only made prudent marriages, what a stop to population there would be!


Centuries hence, we Frenchmen and Englishmen might be boasting and killing each other still, carrying out bravely the Devil’s code of honor.


…in Vanity Fair the sins of very great personages are looked at indulgently.


Film Renditions: 2004 starring Reese Witherspoon is pretty good, pretty faithful except that they try to wrap the story up far too quickly. The last 5 or 6 chapters are portrayed in about 10 minutes. Skip the movie, read the book.


Double Spaces after a Period - UGH! NOVA this week

Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).

I wasn’t going to post NOVA this week. I hadn’t come up with a topic, and I have a book entry later today anyway, but then something happened at work that I am going to use this space to vent about.

I’m a writer of sorts for a government agency. It’s boring day job stuff, not accessible to the public, but published material nonetheless. As such, it is seriously scrutinized before publication: peer reviewed, senior reviewed, editor reviewed.

I am fortunate that current standards align pretty well with certain little pet peeves of mine. I posted here not long ago about the Oxford Comma. I’m an advocate and so are my editors, so we’re all happy.

Another little writing thingy – one of those thingys that are not clear cut right or wrong thingys, but can go either way, matter of style preference thingys: to add or not add, an “s” to possessive nouns ending in “s”.

I love Dickens’ novels  vs  I love Dickens’s novels.

For the record, I do not like adding another “s”. Well, that isn’t quite true. I hate, loathe, despise, and abominate it. It sounds awkward to speak it, and it looks silly to write it, and I just hate it.

Style guides vary though. Again, I am fortunate that my editors don’t like the extra “s” either.

But alas, they have one preference that is just…ugh!

Two spaces after a period. I KNOW…RIGHT?! WHO DOES THIS?! It is the 21st century, we are not TYPING on IBM Selectrics. Word processors actually put in a little extra amount of space after a period. Two spaces after a period is unnecessary, and what’s more, it is totally STUPID!

I’ve put up with this silliness for years, but something made me think we were sort of letting this go…so I submitted a paper just yesterday without the stupid double spaces. But no, my bosses boss sent it back insisting on the double spaces.

She’s not an unreasonable person though and I decided I was not going to give up so easy. I made my way to her office and we discussed it. To be honest it was playfully combative, but she actually conceded that if our senior editor approved she would capitulate. I got not only the senior editor to approve, but I also produced the Chicago Style Guide which unequivocally states against the double space. (I have to be careful using the Chicago Style Guide though, because it goes against some of my other pet peeves.) In this case though it served and I won!

Yay! Small victories…gotta take em and enjoy em when ya can get em.

Until some petty bureaucrat produced the AGENCY writing guide – 2017 revision even – that clearly states two spaces after a period.


So, if you ever notice double spaces after a period on this blog – it’s an occupational hazard.

Monday, May 22, 2017

10 Books I Have Read...or have I?

#10Books is a meme, I first saw at Brona's Books. In fact, if you hurry over there you still have a chance to get a guess in.

How well do you know my reading habits?

1.  Lost Horizon
2.  The Covenant
3.  The Hunt for Red October
4.  The Alchemist
5.  Inca Gold
6.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog
7.  Lassie Come Home
8.  Something Wicked This Way Comes
9. The Fall of the House of Usher
10. The Valachi Papers

Feel free to join in and leave a link to your list. I'll be sure to venture a guess.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Move the Stars to Pity - NOVA this week (May 20, 2017)

Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).

I seldom watch awards shows, but for reasons that I’ve long since forgotten, on 3 March 1993, I watched the First-Ever ESPY Awards; I will always be glad I did.

I was privileged to watch possibly the best speech I’ve ever heard. Jim Valvano was awarded the first ever Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Valvano was the legendary basketball coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack. He had retired from coaching three years earlier and was dying of cancer. He was helped to the stage by his good friend Dick Vitale, and then gave the following speech.

It’s eleven minutes; trust me, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Coach Valvano died less than two months later.

The reason for my reference to this speech – NOVA this week, Part II.

In my quest to read the greatest novels of all time – and blog about my experience, I’ve often struggled to find the correct word to describe a book. The urge is to say “I liked” or “disliked” it. These work in some instances, but not in others.

There are books filled with injustice, inhumanity, violence, despair, death, destruction, and the like, that I can’t really say I enjoyed.

And yet, I have given some of these 5 Stars.

What does that mean? if not that I liked it?

It means, I thought it was a great book.

And then you should ask, but what does THAT mean?

And to THAT – I have an answer. And THAT is why I began this post with Coach Valvano’s speech.

Coach V or Jimmy V as he was affectionately known, says that we should do three things every day: Laugh, Think, and Cry. Coach V asserts that if we do these three things, we will lead a full life.

I agree.

So I want a book to make me THINK or FEEL. A great book will make me do both.

A fellow book blogger recently pointed out the difference between book reviews and book journaling. I’d not made the distinction before, but I realized I am more interested in journaling than reviewing. My blog entries about the books I’ve read are a journal of what the author made me think and feel.

In my opinion, reviewing art is largely a futile effort to evaluate the skill of the artist. If not futile, it is undeniably never definitive. (Which is very close to the definition of futile.)

But when I journal my thoughts and feelings of a written work – it is quite definitive. Someone else may have very different thoughts and feelings about the same written work – and by the way – isn’t that grand! But my thoughts and feelings are indisputably my thoughts and feelings.

This is not to say, unchangeable. I love to hear from others who felt or thought the same. But I love to hear from those who felt or thought differently as well. They’ve altered my perception on more than one occasion.

I must note however the distinction between: I felt (or thought) differently, here’s why and No, no, no…you have it all wrong. Here’s what you failed to comprehend. Semantics? Since you asked…No.

In my day job, I’m an intelligence analyst and I do a lot of writing. It is imperative that my writing be as free from subjective interpretation as possible. This day job imperative runs contrary to my book journaling pastime and caused me some exasperation in the past. I want to classify things nicely and neatly, such as my book ratings:

5 Stars = LOVED IT!
4 ½ Stars = Loved it
4 Stars = Liked it a lot
3 ½ Stars = Liked it
3 Stars = Ambivalent
2 ½ Stars = Not a fan
2 Stars = Disliked it
1 ½ Stars = Hated it
1 Star = Hated it a lot

But this no longer works. Actually, I was never quite happy with it, but I hadn’t put my finger on precisely why. It isn’t about how much I liked a book. It’s about how powerful a book was intellectually or emotionally. I’m keeping the 5 Star rating, but scrapping the definitions. 5 Stars means simply the book is among the most intellectually and emotionally powerful books I’ve read. 4 ½ Stars is just slightly less so, and so on.

…the human word is like a cracked cauldron upon which we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity. ~ Gustave Flaubert