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The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life Hardcover – 15 Aug 2006

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 9 reviews
84 of 91 people found the following review helpful
Women Who Write and Emotions in the Individual Life 23 Aug. 2006
By Tom Casey Reviews - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Every so often a book appears with a fresh approach to familiar classics

which reinvigorates our belief in the importance of literature to the

experience of culture. Edward Mendelson is a Professor of English and

Comparative Literature at Columbia University. As the subtitle declares,

The Things That Matter revisits seven novels with an aim of exploring a

central theme from each that can tell us something about how to

interpret emotional challenges that beset us in the course of our

lifetime. Frankenstein is offered as an examination of birth, Wuthering

Heights of childhood, Jane Eyre for growth, Middlemarch for marriage,

Mrs. Dalloway for love, To the Lighthouse for parenthood, and Between

the Acts for the future. Mendelson's premise is flexible enough to avoid

heavy-handed exegesis; what he has given us is a literary roadmap into

moral and emotional conundrums that the authors of these books have

confronted through story and character.

The selection spans two centuries and the authors are women. Three of

the books were written by Virginia Woolf. Mendelson believes that women

"had a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against

the generalizing effect of stereotypes..." He makes a good point:

certainly the authors of these books took great pains to examine the

emotional life and its influence on actions and choices.

One gets from his book a keen sense of Mendelson's reverence for the

individual experience, whether as a reader, a writer, an artist, or

merely a soul confronting contradictions; and he seems to be saying that

the best literature offers visions in lieu of answers, and that the

visions given here have something of emotional truth derived from what

women know especially.

Authors exist in a relationship to their characters that creates a

second dynamic to the narrative. "The novels that I write about in this

book all emerged from their authors' arguments with themselves." From

this can be inferred arguments that authors have with their characters,

disapproving of their behavior even as they create situations that allow

it, and with their readers, for whom the story is told. It is precisely

the interpersonal aspects of literature and the visions that emerge from

speculation that excite Professor Mendelson, and he has given new light

to familiar books in this thoughtfully insightful meditation.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
seven tastes of greatness ! 9 Feb. 2007
By James Neville - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I just read "The Things That Matter," having seen it on my library's shelf and picked it up out of curiosity. I loved this book not only for its content but for the timing with which it showed up for me to read. My brilliant-at-math-and-science-stuff child was having a challenge with English Lit class; this book has given me a way to relate to them the value of novels to real life stuff, especially thinking about how "universal ideas" in life play out in personal actual life.

I found Mendelson's critical reviews of "What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life" timely and well written. I highlight below several points that struck me.

. I have never, never, NEver realized the intricate complexities of "Frankenstein" til I read Mendelson's analysis. I had heard that the authoress (Mary Shelley) was brilliant and accomplished and connected in her time, but to be honest all I could image in my mind prior to this book was the film treatments of a) Boris Karloff, and b) Mel Brooks. Suffice it to say I have a whole new appreciation of the rich ideas and paradoxes Shelley wove into her story!

. Mendelson does a fine job of weaving seven stories into seven Stages of Life (Birth, Childhood, Growth, Marraige, Love, Parenthood, The Future). Never mind the excellence of each chapter's analyses; the crafting of the whole book, and its demonstration by example of its meta-theme that "things that matter are written about in great literature," excite my professional admiration for a job of craftsmenship and talent well done.

. Further exciting my admiration are several points mentioned in the preface and in the essays as Mendelson distinguishes "universal ideas" that these authoresses (Mary Shelley, Emile Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf) present in their narratives:

1) He chose all woman authors because "it has nothing to do with any fantasy that women have greater moral and emotional intelligence" but rather "a woman writer [in the 19th and 20th centuries] had a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against the generalizing effect of stereotypes." This is still an issue today for ALL of us, I think, whatever our personal circumstances or lifestyle choices.

2) That opposite life principles may be equally true, that what is publically espoused may be privately doubted. Or said colloquially, "The opposite of a Great Truth may be in itself a Great Truth." Examples include, in "Frankenstein," the espoused principle that a good upbringing of a child will result in a good character of an adult. But: "The opposite may also be true."

To read Mendelson's "take" about these works and their authors has made me feel more acquainted with seven "tastes of greatness!"
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant! 13 Feb. 2007
By Bruce Oksol - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I echo Tom Casey's review below. I read some of these novels thirty years ago, and started re-reading them two years ago. What perfect timing, then, for Edward Mendelson's very interesting approach on these novels. On the surface this book does not appear to be the typical academic work it is, but each chapter on its own could have been a doctoral thesis. To tie these seven novels into passages of life is quite remarkable. In addition, footnotes, though infrequent, shed light on very important issues of the times that are easily overlooked. To enjoy this book one should have a fairly good knowledge of the novels. But you can read the essays in any order that you want; each essay stands alone. Highly, highly recommended.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Such an interesting read 31 Jan. 2008
By Armchair Interviews - Published on
Format: Paperback
"This book is about life as it is interpreted by books. Each of the chapters has a double subject: on the one hand, an English novel written in the nineteenth or twentieth century, and on the other, one of the great experiences or stages that occur, or can occur, in more or less everyone's life." These opening lines of Edward Mendelson's work of literary criticism - The Things That Matter - encapsulate his intent. A study of seven classical novels by Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Mendelson's essays present his thesis that novels provide insight into specific stages of life and, these novels, when viewed collectively present a "history of the emotional and moral life of the past two centuries."

Mendelson has aimed his work at readers of any age, the only prerequisite being knowledge of the seven novels. He writes in a conversational manner, as if lecturing directly to the reader. Theories and supporting arguments are presented within the text, footnotes included only when critical. Woven throughout is information about the prevailing theories and literary themes of the period.

In the section on Wuthering Height_s Mendelson explores Brontë's idea of romantic childhood, tracing its roots to the romanticism of Wordsworth and Freud. His _Wuthering Heights is a very different one than the one commonly studied in high school. Heathcliff and Catherine are desperate to recapture the total unity experienced as children, to merge two selves into one. Whereas the commonly held perception is of a novel of thwarted passion and cruelty, Mendelson believes Brontë deliberately led readers to this conclusion and away from her true meaning. "She disguised Wuthering Heights as a story of doomed sexual passion perhaps because she regarded her potential readers with something close to contempt...they could not understand what this book tells them."

Each of the authors is examined with the same focus, each essay meriting its own review. Mendelson states that he "could easily imagine a similar book to this one made up of entirely different examples."

I'll keep my fingers crossed that inspiration strikes and Mendelson shares more of his thoughts on life and literature.

Armchair Interviews agrees.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A Tribute to a Collection of Great Writers, Who Are Women 2 April 2007
By Erol Esen - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In case you ever thought less of women writers than their male counterparts look no farther than Mendelson's review of seven classics all written by women who wrote what matters in life with vivid, vibrant language.

Starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that is the result of an inspirational motto by Mary Wollstonecraft: "A great proportion of the misery that wanders, in hideous forms, around the world, is allowed to rise from the negligence of parents," to early attachments in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, to early disattachment by Charlotte Bronte, to the humdrum beats of ordinary life in Middlemarch by George Eliot, to the realization of life's illusions in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, to a rebellion in To the Lighthouse, also by Virginia Woolf, and finally to the disillusionment met in Between the Acts, yet again by Woolf.

Great books as can only be understood best by this book.
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