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The Idiot (Oxford World's Classics)
The Idiot (Oxford World's Classics)
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ponderous portrait of an amoral society with flashes of brilliance: but it's so long., 16 Jan 2012
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Returning from years abroad where he's been seeking treatment for mental instability, Prince Lev Nikolayevitch Myshkin enters the upper echelons of Russian society; unfortunately for this innocent, but fortunately for the reader, (see later), into a clique where many of the men are ill mannered buffoons. Myshkin's reputation and reluctance to assert himself earn him the title of the Idiot. Naïve he may be, the prince is anything but an idiot. Nor is he the ` hero' to whom the author refers; rather a foil for Dostoevsky's depiction of an amoral society in that the novelist sets Myshkin against a mixed bag of characters, their buffoonery and boorishness targets for his philosophical discourse of good versus evil. The Prince, around whom the novel revolves, endears himself to the reader in his modesty and self-effacement in the face of barefaced rudeness. His good natured handling of the contumely of those who feel the need to slanderously probe into his personal business borders on the saintly. Virtue that leads to his fall and the fall of others.

Compared to Crime and Punishment, tauter, and Devils more dramatic, The Idiot is an amorphous structure, a labyrinth where the reader may wander, confused by the ebb and flow of the various plots. And there is a hole in the middle, for at the end of Part One a chief protagonist disappears, save for a couple of very brief appearances, one `when a frightful scene took place,' only to reappear towards the end of the story when things finally wind up. In this way the reader is deprived of much of the drama generated by the scandalous behaviour and ploys of the alluring Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova, so the important influence she has needs to be in absentia. Part Two begins with a twelve page rather prosaic summary of previous events and conjecture as to the truth or not of certain rumours: and Part Three includes a thirty page monologue by the obnoxious Ippolit Terentyev (only a little of which contains any deep philosophy), plus two pages in which he debates whether or not he should read it. So the book is dull? There are passages that could well be excised without detriment. Unworthy of equal footing with Dostoevsky's other great novels? Maybe.

There are redeeming factors. The novel shares a common trait with much of the author's works, of dark malevolent powers lurking the background, menacing, frightening, demoniac; biding their time And they're subtle; no Gadarian swine here. But one never knows when the demon will strike in the form of murder, suicide or the mental derangement that drives people to act beyond themselves. Against this background Dostoevsky creates some compelling reading from a novel short of narrative substance. And there is great skill in this: he creates atmosphere, and deranged characters who engage in outrageous conduct that the author appears to find shocking, hence the `frightful scene'. Although one feels Fyodor Mikhailovitch has his tongue in his cheek here; and the humour in that today the scandal would be considered pretty mild, only seems to add to the fun.

The reviewer believes this vast novel with its loose plots and long dialogues is a feast for readers who enjoy `literature.' There are beautifully written passages and a host of unusual and entertaining incidents. However, she also believes that it will be enjoyed more by those who have already read Crime and Punishment and Devils.

This Oxford edition has a list of characters, a useful aid until the reader gets used to the patronyms, and the translation is crisp and modern.

Germinal (Penguin Classics)
Germinal (Penguin Classics)
by Émile Zola
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing, exciting, deeply moving, and intensely readable., 5 Dec 2011
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It's 1866. Etienne Lantier arrives at Le Voreux coal mine. He sees an old driver toiling to and fro with his horse on the spoil heap, lit only by the light of three braziers, while all around the night wind keens over a featureless dust blackened plain. The driver tells him there aren't any jobs, but soon Lantier finds employment there as a miner, and lodges with the Maheu family, the central protagonists of the novel.

Thus begins Emile Zola's masterpiece; written with passion wrung from his soul by the poignancy of human endeavour against impossible odds. The bravery the miners show in facing up to hunger and danger frequently moves the reader to tears. This is not the degrading crime ridden poverty of Dickens' London, but more Tennyson's `honest poverty, bare to the bone.' It's 4am on a typical morning. The Maheu family from Village Two Hundred and Forty are getting ready for their shift; Maheu and his children, Zacherie 21, Catherine 15, and Jeanlin 11. Although suffering from the debilitating effects of hunger they're buoyant and exchanging ribald jests with each other. Below, far from the shaft and little hope of escape in an emergency, the men hew coal while the children wheel it away down long tunnels; tunnels barely allowing room to stand. They work semi naked in oppressive heat, choked by dust, soaked by water cascading from overhead (for the menacing underground sea known as the Torrent is eternally trying to break through), at risk from rock falls and the insidious firedamp. All for wages depressed to subsistence level. Poor little Catherine evokes the most sympathy as, `more sinned against than sinning', she stoically stands up to abuse that goes from bad to worse.

Zola explores in graphic detail the miners' lives and loves, and set against vivid portrayal of the insatiable mine as it gorges on its diet of human flesh, the narrative unwinds in steady acelleration towards the cataclysmic finale.

Apart from the miners stand the mine owner, (some mysterious power far away that nobody knows how to contact), shareholders Gregoire, manager M. Hennebeau, engineer Paul Negrel his nephew, and M. Deneulin a small entrepreneur who owns Jean- Bart, the mine adjacent to Le Voreux. Zola deals objectively with relations between labour and capital, although showing his contempt for the naïve attitude of the Hennebeau and Gregoire daughters. Not all the miners are good. Nor are all the capitalists bad. For when Lantier, moved by the appalling conditions incites a strike, hunger degenerates into famine. Bands of miners roam the area pleading for bread. Saboteurs attack the mines heedlessly ignoring the danger they're exposing their comrades to; until a wanton act destroys the mine completely. Deneulin, a reasonably benign employer for the times, is ruined when his own mine is sabotaged, and Negrel turns out to be a hero.

The strike fails and Lantier loses his influence. But there is hope, for as he leaves on a Spring day by the road he arrived on, he senses his comrades toiling away beneath his feet, wresting the coal from the depths of the earth; 'a black army of vengeance' that one day will rise and have its way. As the seeds rise from the earth--- Germinal!

Harrowing the novel may be. It will haunt you. It will tear at your heart. And you will want to read it again.

The House of Mirth (Wordsworth Classics)
The House of Mirth (Wordsworth Classics)
by Edith Wharton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Exquisitly written: pure genius, 17 Nov 2011
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When this book appeared in 1905 it was received with high acclaim from both critics and public alike. Completion of the first chapter alone is enough to leave the reader in no doubt as to the feast to come, and why The House of Mirth merits its place among the highest ranking novels of the twentieth century. The reviewer has never read one she liked better.

It's said that you can't judge a book by its cover. No more can you assess it by its title, taken here as the introduction tells us, from the book of Ecclesiastes. According to the ancient scribe, such a dwelling is attributable to the abode of fools--- and fools there are aplenty; fools who subordinate their natural desires in order to conform to the stifling etiquette of nineteenth century New York high society. And those who contribute to its moral decline. Acceptance as an elite socialite requires descent from the right family, membership of the right club, and most of all money. Old money; and lots of it.

Among this clique arrives twenty nine years old Lily Bart; single, tall, sophisticated, strikingly beautiful, and endowed with all the grace and charm of a goddess. She comes from a `good' family of modest means compared to the society she's entering, and it soon becomes apparent that her looks are going to take her further than her money will. She needs money to support her expensive tastes, which are why she's still single: for only a rich husband will do; a very rich one. And to boot, she will only marry for love. She relies on invitations to join her rich friends at their houses, or in their migrations between America and Europe according to the `season'; her world one of luxurious mansions, Paris, the French Riviera and the transatlantic yacht of the family who will eventually destroy her.

True Lily has many faults, but principles too, and her charisma and vulnerability elicited the reviewer's support. She enjoyed the wit and perspicacity Lilly uses to defend herself from unwanted suitors. She mourned for her when the hardyesque misunderstanding and spite her pride allows no retaliation against, starts her on the slippery slope to ruin.

Despite her looks tact and charm, marriage evades Lily. Among the eligible bachelors only smart lawyer Lawrence Selden truly loves her, but his lack of true wealth eliminates him. Sadly for both of them Lily, who adores Selden, restrains her own love. Whenever they're together the air is charged with feeling. Wharton--`But something lived between them also, and leaped up in her like an imperishable flame: it was the love his love had kindled, the passion of her soul for his.'

Nothing this reviewer can say can follow that.

Barchester Towers (Penguin Classics)
Barchester Towers (Penguin Classics)
by Anthony Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pygmy spites of the village spire, 4 Nov 2011
Tennyson's aphorism could have been written for this novel, a tale of the clash between rival Church of England hierarchies, when the comfortably established conservative clergy of Barchester find their complacency disturbed by the newly arrived bishop and his aggressive entourage.

This was the reviewer's first read of Trollope and she found the book extremely enjoyable. She found herself turning the pages, eager to learn how the characters were going to react, and looking forward to the worst of them receiving their comeuppance. Particularly the slippery Mr Slope, from whom the author gradually unpeels layers of greed and duplicity as the newcomer to the parish sets the cat among the pigeons.

There is nothing here of the ponderous verbosity of the times; no multi page descriptions (with the exception of Mr Thorne's house) so much the penchant of Victorian novelists. In fact the pace is positively racy at times. The story unfolds free of distractions, in clear unadorned prose, the ideal vehicle for the novel's aim to poke fun at the church's hierarchy in their attempts at self- aggrandisement. At arrogant dictatorial archdeacon Grantly: henpecked Bishop Proudie and his overbearing spouse; sly unctuous chaplain and wanna-be dean Mr Slope; the sophisticated Stanhopes with their femme fatale daughter the signora Neroni; naïve beauty Eleanor Bold; and the pathetic Quiverful family.

There exists criticism from some of his contemporaries, Henry James included, who considered Trollope's habit of occasionally addressing the reader personally irksome. This reviewer disagrees, finding the link with the writer pleasant as he reaches out from the past. Others may experience a similar feeling, as from time to time `author and reader move along together in full confidence with each other' he accompanies them on the journey.
Masterpiece as this towering novel is it is seems calumny to offer any censure. The punning surnames are a trial, although they add a touch of humour. But farmer Subsoil?

If there is anything to reprove it is the lack of poetry. Trollope's primary concern is concentration on the cut and thrust between the protagonists; and these self-interested clergymen are perfect subjects for his satire. And therein lies a fault. Satire is not the greatest art form, and here it exists at the expense of lyricism. The Old Hospital, hub around which the main theme of the work revolves, bathed in moonlight looked "lovely." There is no poetry--nothing that really tugs at the heart. One yearns for a glimpse of gaslights in the foggy close: for 'two hearts beating with a single stroke;' for a touch of Edith Wharton's magic paintbrush. It may well be argued there is no room for it and the reviewer respects that view. Atmosphere there certainly is; for instance in the scene where the signora defends herself from Mr Slope's advances with rapier like wit and cold logic, having discovered his concurrent interest in rich widow Eleanor Bold.

It's obviously presumptuous to recommend Barchester Towers. Posterity sets the author among the immortals. But I have to; he's so entertaining. Not all of them are.

The Portrait of a Lady (Oxford World's Classics)
The Portrait of a Lady (Oxford World's Classics)
by Henry James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow!, 4 Oct 2011
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American Isabel Archer arrives in Europe; twenty three, tall, slim, elegant, highly attractive and with the world at her feet. At Gardencourt, the home of rich banker Mr Touchett, her likeable cousin Ralph falls for her. Stricken by lung disease which he knows will shorten his life and belief that cousins shouldn't marry, deeply philosophical Ralph substitutes gentle flirtation and a brave witty demeanour for lack of marital prospect. 'What's the use of being ill and disabled and restricted to mere spectatorship at the game of life if I really can't see the show when I've paid so much for my ticket?' For me Ralph is adorable, and his relationship to Isabel from the early romantic scene where he takes Isabel to show her his picture gallery to the finale when she races to his bedside is fraught with feeling.

Isabel deftly parries advances from would be lovers. Then,having inherited a fortune from old Mr Touchett through the generosity of Ralph, she goes touring the continent,settling in Florence with the world still at her feet. But not for long.
Onward from her marriage to fellow American Gilbert Osmond and her acquisition of stepdaughter Pansy Osmond, subtle changes begin to erode Isabel's happiness as members of her social circle conspire to manipulate her for their own ends. There are secrets to be revealed whose discovery sends Isabel from one dilemma to another as she refuses to have her honour compromised.

The novel is an absolute masterpiece; six hundred and twenty eight pages of exquisitely written prose and scintillating dialogue. James ability to extract so much meaning from a sentence can slow the read here and there, and there are a few long passages before the characters "come on stage again." These are soon passed over. For those who enjoy late ninetheenth century literature, this is an absolute must.

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