Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

tale_two_cities_coverThis past year, I immersed myself in the study of the history of the world, a mighty feat that required exhaustive hours of reading and memorization. As with most students, I, at times, found this endeavor dry and lifeless, yet, conversely, often I was so captivated by a figure or civilization or event that history ceased to be a chore. To illustrate, an example of such an historical topic is the French Revolution.

Throughout all periods of history, there has been change; for stagnancy is something we humans seem incapable of maintaining. Nonetheless, at the end of the 18th century, change took on a form more radical than ever seen before. Shortly after its American counterpart, the French Revolution consisted of rapid metamorphoses in government and society, spurred by turbulent times and the boiling anger of the French People.

It is easy to find and study these happenings in history books, but the best way to understand the general sentiment of the period, in my opinion, is to read Charles Dickens’ immortal work, A Tale of Two Cities.

Set in both Paris and London (hence the title) at the onset of the French Revolution, Dickens’ tale chronicles the occurrences surrounding a small group of characters, most notably the long-imprisoned Dr. Manette, his near perfect daughter Lucie, and her husband the, as the reader comes to learn, French noble Charles Darnay. In the first book of this three-part novel, Lucie and the Tellson’s Banker, Mr. Jarvis Lorry, travel to Paris to retrieve the former’s father, who was previously thought to be dead but has, instead, been released from a lengthy imprisonment in La Bastille.

This action sets the basis for the rest of the tale and the second book, where, as it commences, the reader is introduced to Charles Darnay, who is being tried for treason against England. Upon his acquittal, Darnay begins a life in England and eventually comes to wed Lucie. Yet simultaneously, in France, the reader observes the wine-shop owners of Saint Antoine, Madame and Monsieur Defarge, who are at the forefront of the revolution as they lead the storming of the Bastille and the resistance against the French nobility. A son of the aristocracy, Charles is summoned to help by the proprietor of the estate of his uncle, whom we know as the Marquis. Yet, as both an immigrant and a noble, Charles is imprisoned in Paris, and so Lucie and her father travel to the aforementioned city in a desperate attempt to save their loved one.

I shall not discuss the climax and conclusion of the novel; that, reader, is for you to discover on your own. But I warn of the turmoil of the events that transpire subsequent to the actions stated above. The revolution is unrelenting in its wrath, and quite frightening, especially as it is manifested in the character of Madame Defarge herself. Ultimately, however, the indomitable spirit of the tale’s protagonists yield them a bittersweet refuge from the terror of the new French Republic.

Dickens is truly innovative; through the lens of a few characters, he is able to summarize and recount a whole period of turbulence, and, in so doing, seems to provide his own critical view of an epoch we now see as influential in the establishment of liberty and democracy in the west. One may read this novel for the entertainment of the gripping plot and richness of the majority of the novel’s characters alone, yet there is much greater historical resonance to A Tale of Two Cities below the textual surface. It is this ingenuity Dickens offers that has allowed his novel to obtain its status as a timeless classic of English literature.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Book Review: Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut

galapagos_coverThere is an archipelago, six hundred miles from the western coast of South America, isolated from the rest of the world. For some, this remote location is a destination sought in the pursuit of relaxation, others engaged in the hunt of research. Yet most uniquely, this island chain is the focus for a novel written by one of the 20TH century’s greatest authors.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, his eleventh elongated tale, remains a true example of his characteristic cynicism and caustic humor which have long attracted a devoted audience, including myself. At a rather superficial level, Galápagos is extremely humorous for those with an attraction to keen wit. Yet upon delving further into the text, one comes to grips with the more profound revelations Vonnegut has to offer. At its deepest level, Vonnegut prophesizes, criticizing the society celebrity-worshipping cult of “big-brained” buffoons that he observes. This is where Darwin comes into play; Vonnegut incorporates evolutionary ideas to suggest that our noggins have outgrown their necessity, and have driven us into despair. And so, as our author predicts, we shall regress to the animalistic state of furry ocean-dwellers.

Vonnegut’s scattered scenes mimic the geography of the story’s setting, and while occasionally disorienting, they lead to a comprehensive narrative regarding the tale of the crew of the fictional Bahía de Darwin who take on a sort of Noah’s Ark as the survivors of the human race. Stranded on the island of Santa Rosalia, the outcasts ultimately are the ancestors of a new species that inhabit earth, which Vonnegut continuously visits a few thousand years in the future. In this way, the only true antagonist of the story, the brain, is victorious.

While not a challenging read, Galápagos is advanced in its writing and revelations, but should be intriguing to any curious teen. There is no doubt that Vonnegut sparks some compelling questions: What is our relationship to the rest of creation? Are the fittest really the ones who survive? Have our brains become the enemy? Surely the author has his own opinions and predictions, but we are not necessarily compelled to agree. Rather, Vonnegut seeks to entertain us, his rhetoric present only under jocularly sardonic remarks and plot.

-Sebastian R., 10th grade

Book Review: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

enders_game_coverIn my nearly fifteen years of life, I have read a good deal of literature. I can recall from my unconscious the many titles I have read without great difficulty, yet there are a few novels that, upon recollection, produce a certain nostalgia the others lack. One of these is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

In retrospect, I find it problematic to discern the source of my enthrallment with this work. Neither Ender’s Game nor its author will not be remembered as comparable to Shakespeare, Twain, Tolstoy, or the writings of that lot, but it I believe it is a fundamental piece of literature to the young adult of this age.

I read Ender’s Game in some of the most jubilant and prosperous days of my life thus far, a circumstantial factor that likely influences my opinion of the work. Yet I feel that almost any reader would be able to connect with and place himself or herself in the context of Ender’s Game as easily as I did. Continue reading

A Journey Through English Literature

bookstack2I have long maintained an affinity for words, a love of reading and language itself. To a large degree, my passion has been sponsored by my education in the arts of literature and composition, a trend has persisted even to this, my sophomore year of high school.

Since last September, my classmates and I have chronicled English literature as it has developed throughout the ages. From  a linguistic standpoint, it has been extremely interesting to see the advances of our language in vocabulary and syntax, yet even more so the changes in storytelling and style have enthralled me.

As the year began, we delved into the ever-classic Beowulf. Though not as ancient as The Odyssey or tales of other archaic civilizations, the epic emanates a similar air of inhumanly heroics, which, although often unacceptable to modern audiences for its lack of realism, is enjoyable for its archetypal characteristics. As with many if not all of the works I will discuss, Beowulf is a true portal to another time, imparting on the reader the same awe which the people of old felt in experiencing the tale of this epic hero.

gawainMoving from the Danish isles to those of England, we next read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Marking the beginning of the presence of knighthood, the tale is one of many surrounding King Arthur and his Round Table. Exemplary in its symmetrical structure and symbolic usages, Sir Gawain most notably gives insight into the values and beliefs of the time. Yet these are perhaps the most outstanding qualities of the work; in reading Sir Gawain, one comes to understand the values of chivalric times, if not the plot, story, and other thematic elements.

From here we read a few books and the prologue of Chaucer’s immortal Canterbury Tales. As opposed to the anonymous composers of the retrospectively conservative aforementioned tales, Chaucer is revolutionary, a critic of the age’s corrupt church. This quality of subtle rebellion has resounded throughout history in various arts. Furthermore, in addition to providing an accurate representation of the social structure of England at the time, Chaucer’s writings, the Miller’s fabliau, the Pardoner’s allegory, are truly entertaining.

othelloShakespeare furthers the role and characteristics displayed by Chaucer in his tragedy, Othello: Moor of Venice. Novel in its portrayal of an African as its protagonist, the work explores racial and gender themes, and is notable for these characteristics. Yet most riveting is the tragedy’s antagonist, Iago, a deceitful and charismatic villain who, despite leaving his motives unstated, acts solely to rue Othello with such spite and  yet such cunning that the audience is singularly and wholly captivated.

Our penultimate novel then was Jane Eyre. Moving to the near-modern age, Ms. Brontë’s novel is romantic, a true pleasure in which to delve, except for its lengthiness. This faux-autobiography is unique in the lot of works that have been discussed for its first person perspective, which provides a unique look into character not seen previously. In many ways an aspersion of Victorian beliefs and customs, Jane Eyre resembles Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a tale of true romance, and though occasionally melodramatic, is enjoyable for this purpose.

As we now look to end our year with Darles Chicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, I believe I have come to truly appreciate English literature as a whole. The diversity of the genre’s development has been incredibly interesting to observe, yet textual analyses aside, I have become engaged in the stories and have transported myself to other times. Yes, the texts have been dense and at times dull, but overall this escapade has been well worthwhile.

-Sebastian R., 10th grade