So, every once in a while, I go totally geeky, and read a book like this. Notes on the Underground is, in short, a cultural history of technology, focSo, every once in a while, I go totally geeky, and read a book like this. Notes on the Underground is, in short, a cultural history of technology, focusing particularly on underground spaces, particularly in the 19th century. Why? Because underground spaces are the perfect example of something (generally) manmade and devoid of 'nature' in the traditional sense, so it's a perfect place to see how people throughout the period grappled with technology. Taking a pretty loose definition of underground (20000 Leagues Under the Sea is included, for instance, and that makes more sense in the book than it sounds), the book covers a lot of ground, talking about everything from labor practices to architecture to Thomas Edison to androids.
I loved this book, simply because of the sheer breadth of what the author undertook to describe. A book that is this cross-topic does a great job of making you think of connections betweem vastly different disciplines. In a sense, it reminded me of Building Jerusalem, which I read a few months ago. Unfortunately, the breadth sometimes comes through as a sort of dissipation of the theme, and the book has stretches where it feels unfocused, even irrelevant to the topic at hand. Nonetheless, if you're interested in literature (particularly early scifi like Jules Verne, HG Wells), or architecture, or cultural history, or the industrial revolution, you'll find a lot to chew on in this volume. If nothing else, I added several books to my to-be-read list, just by reading this one... ...more
So, it's not that I'm being lazy, but I'm rolling both of these reviews into one. I was going to write two, but the subject matterOriginal Review here
So, it's not that I'm being lazy, but I'm rolling both of these reviews into one. I was going to write two, but the subject matter is so similar, and I really don't know if it's subject matter that will interest other people at all, and it just seemed easier, since I finished them a few days apart.
My nerdery is in full, giddy bloom with these two books! Quick synopsis. Both of these books are nonfiction, classics (more or less) in the field of folklore and mythology studies. Golden Bough is the older of the two, and one of the first really indepth studies of myth, and many of the ideas Frazier made in it (sympathetic vs imitative magic, for instance) are still (I think) very influential. The book studies a particular tradition, and travels deeply through world mythology and folk tradition to try to to purport a reasoning for it. Fairies in Tradition and Folklore (which should, by the way, be required reading for any fantasy writer who wants to write about fairies, I think) is a survey of prevailing folklore and literary references to fairies, elves, etc throughout the British isles, from the time of Shakespeare onward (for before Shakespeare, Briggs wrote another book, talking about the traditions that lead to Midsummer's Night Dream, The Tempest, and other Fairy Shakespeare, which I'll have to read eventually, too). It begins with talking about the general groups of fairies (fairies that represent the dead, for instance, or fairy plants), then discusses prevailing story types (the fairy midwife, fairy lovers, brownie stories, etc), and finally talks about how these have been integrated into literature (homily stories, 'whimsy stories', thoughtful poetry, etc).
Both books were E for excellent. Both authors have a lovely gift for taking what could be a very dry, academic study, and infusing it with a distinctive voice and character of their own. Their essentially several hundred page long research papers, but they don't read like it. Frazier has a fascinating gift for corollary, for taking a thousand differentideas, and drawing conclusions about their similarities (too much at times, but he was practically inventing the field from scratch, so you have to give him a little break). Briggs has an eye for fascinating details that draw you in, and illuminate the generalities of her categories with a vividity that makes you want to read more fairy tales (and how bad a compulsion can that be, really?).
Frazier feels dated, however, as well he would given the amount of time since the book was written (Edwardian period). While he does a remarkable job, considering the circumstances, of pointing out that European folk traditions are as savage and heathenish as any other continent, he cannot fully escape the ethnocentric mindset of the day - if I read this book and were an Australian Aborigine, for instance, I'd be pretty offended. From the part of my brain that knows a bit about the time period, I can appreciate that the book was leaps and bounds an improvement over it's contemporaries, but it's definitely written by a 20th century British white man.
Briggs' work, partly perhaps because it confines itself to the British Isles, does not suffer from this fault - in fact, her impartiality and open=mindednes were so powerful that, quite frankly, I wasn't sure by the end if maybe she believed in the Fairy Folk herself, which offered a very sympathetic and beautiful way to collect the folk tales from people who obviously DID believe in fairies.
Most fascinating, however, is the two opposing conclusions of the two books. At the end of Frazier, he discusses how Magical thinking progressed into Religious thinking, and Religious thinking has progressed into Science, and man continues to advance from there - his final supposition is that eventually something more comprehensively correct and wise than science will come and supplant it, which was a fascinating idea to me. Briggs, on the other hand, doesn't see folklore as a slow ascent from the savage to the civilized, but rather cyclical, and points out how, all through history, men have told stories of how the fairies are dissapearing, but how they always bloom back and reappear. In the Puritan period, for instance, fairy belief was quashed, and fairies were presented as demons and witch's familiars, but as society moed on, people did not forget the fairies, they bloomed them back in the same way they always have. It made me wonder deeply about our own day, not if people will find a way to wonder about the invisibile world, but rather how they'll do it.
All in all, both of these books were beautifully done, and well executed, and I'd recommend them to anyone interested in religion, mythology, folklore, or anthropology. ...more
If you've heard of this book, there's probably little new information I can offer you in this review - the great strength of The JunOriginal Review...
If you've heard of this book, there's probably little new information I can offer you in this review - the great strength of The Jungle is that it is what it is without any pretensions of being something else. What it is is a muckracker novel - a novel meant to shock the public into rethinking a social issue. It's an expose in the shape of fiction.
Specifically, The Jungle begins as an expose on the meat-packing industry in Chicago, noth in terms of the way it treated it's employees, and the way it treated it's customers (an example - he describes a man falling into a cooking vat, and, since it was too difficult to fish him out, having him processed into pure leaf lard). The book was heavily researched, and carefully constructed to disgust, horrify, and shame the reader.
And as an expose, it's extremely effective. It's been 100 years since this book was written, and I hardly want to eat meat anymore.
What was interesting to me, however, was that he DID actually pay attention to the characters as well. Having read 10 Days in a Madhouse earlier this year, I was ready to see the characters as a great mass, but the greatest strength of this book, for me, was that you actually felt the feelings of teh characters. At the beginning Jurgis, the main character arrives in America, and discovers all the nasty, dishonest cruelty of the American capitalist system, and you really, deeply want him to succeed. And then, slowly, carefully, Sinclair destroys Jurgis, bit by unavoidable bit, until he becomes as ugly as the ugliest member of the machine, until he becomes the sort of cheat who was his nemesis at the beginning of the book. The brutality of the world he lives in is real because Sinclair allows him to be human, to be damaged in the way a real soul would be damaged.
The books wasn't perfect - it WAS a polemic. It had some moments in it that had the stink of preaching. But, nonetheless, at the end I was left wishing books like this were written today....more
I fully expected to think well of this book - I did, though not at all for the reasons I expected. I thought this book would appeal to my long interesI fully expected to think well of this book - I did, though not at all for the reasons I expected. I thought this book would appeal to my long interest in Haiti - it is a novel, after all, about a group of foreigners in Duvalierist Port-au-Prince. The novel did a fine job of telling how horrible Haiti under Duvalier was - and it certainly was.
However, the novel is great beyond that - after all, one could learn plenty of gruesome facts about Haiti from... well... almost any book that has to do with Haiti. The real pervading part of this book, for me, was the theme of truth and illusion throughout. None of the characters is who they seem to be, and that's common enough in a book. But what was compelling to me about this book was that you begin to realize that it doesn't matter, really, who these people in the protagonist's life really are, because he does not talk to them, he talks to the people they are playing, and the people he has cast them as in his life narrative. So, when each character in turn reveals more about their real selves, the narrator (and in a sense, the reader) feels a sort of dissapointment, a very profound sort. In the Comedians, everyone is the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain, and there is no Glinda to send Dorothy home at the end. There isn't even really a wicked witch - Duvalier, after all, is a wizard too, holed up in his palace, afraid to show his face, forever divining which of his henchman wants to take his place.
I have not always been the most honest person in my life, and watching this long procession of liars was heart-wrenching - at least for me, it was easy to recognize each of them, from the mild, shrugging lies of the protagonist, to Majro Jones, who desperately wants to prove his lies true, who ruins his greatest strength by using it to pretend he has other strengths that he utterly lacks. Each of these drifting souls sags slowly through the novel, never really finding a place to moor, just finding a new corner to slink into, quietly, and try to live. Noone in this book is really hateable, short of, perhaps, Duvalier, and noone is loveable, they are all, nakedly human. The questions Greene raises about justice, about how injustice is destroyed, about what it takes to be courageous, about the close alliance of blind faith and sheer stupidity, of heroism and selfishness, are chilling and sobering.
PS - I could tell you I picked the image because it has a lot to do with this book 0- I could bs a connection between the two. I actually picked it, because it reminds me of my reviewing style. ORiginal Review...more
Original Review... Looking about at the commentary on this book, most of it discusses not the novel itself, but rather the rightness or wrongness of DiOriginal Review... Looking about at the commentary on this book, most of it discusses not the novel itself, but rather the rightness or wrongness of Dickens' political premise in writing it. This is understandable, I suppose - the book is, without a doubt, meant to be a political one. The novel discusses the interweaving stories of several industrial titans and a poor worker and his friends, in a fictional industrial English city, called Coketown. The book is meant to be a damning indictment of the Utilitarianism of the industrial magnates, trying to figure up all life in figures and statistics, down to how children should be raised, or the acceptable levels of injury and death in their factories. Having just finished Building Jerusalem, which discusses the idea of the industrial English city at some length, I'm sure I could bore you with my expostulations on socialism, utilitarianism, and all the other isms that are in this book. But I won't.
Instead, let me tell you about the story in this book. It was, in classic Dickens style, very engrossing. The characters are real-and-yet-false in that Dickens way, where the people aren't like people, but they're like the parts of people that you want to learn about, puffed up into extraordinary size. The characters in this book could have been played, I would simply say, by the same repertory troupe that is performing every other Charles Dickens novel. But, the novel is different in its way. In away, this difference is bad. There are some scenes with dialogue that is so obviously meant to tell the reader what Dickens thinks of the book, that it becomes a bit embarrasing. There is some obvious middle-class bias. But, not all the differences are bad - or at least, they were lovely, some of them. In a way I've not read in other books, Dickens sounded frustrated, and that was a wonderful revelation. Dickens (and I say this as someone who really does like Dickens) was, I think, rather fond of the idea that, as an author, one can be the God of a little self-created world. There is a feeling of apartness and benevolent omniscience in the (very distinct) voice of his narration in all his books. Dickens certainly tells you what he feels, but he speaks in a sort of grandfatherly way, not so much trying to convince the reader as to elucidate what he's quite sure they must already agree with him about. This book was different. It had it's moments of that. But it had this strange, fading frustration, that's hard to put a finger on, a feeling that Dickens WANTS this little world to be different, but just can't make it that way, a feeling that Dickens is writing a book that will not let him find a father for an orphan and a happy ending for everyone. For once, Dickens, who is NOT shy about manufacturing the most unbelievable circumstances up to save his characters, must let some of the characters fail.
He loves marriage, but must be content that the female leads leaving her marriage is a good thing, all in all, and that she must content herself with caring for Cissy's children. He hates Bitzer's soul-less calculations, but must admit that the boy will find a pleasant situation for himself at the end. He can humiliate Bounderby, but he cannot destroy him, because rats like Bounderby always find a way to survive. And so on.
So, all in all, I enjoyed this book. I didn't always agree with it, and if I'd read it first, I wouldn't think it was the best book, but it adds a great deal to my affection for the other Dickens books I've read....more
This book was sort of like if I wrote a novel about the ways people abuse desktop support technicians. Only, without the jokes. AndOriginal Review...
This book was sort of like if I wrote a novel about the ways people abuse desktop support technicians. Only, without the jokes. And with a more talented and sincere writing style.
Honestly, from a review standpoint there is little else to say about. I did learn, quite surely, that it sucked being a governess, and it was wonderful to see poor Agnes find a lover at the end. But review-wise, I don't know what else to say.
That being said.
This is my first Anne Bronte novel, and I am a little embarrased to say that I had NO idea who Anne was. I always got the impression that Anne was sort of the quiet, polite sister. Actually, she reminds me of my sister Tenille. Tenille was stuck in a family, with my brother, who is very easy going, my little sister, who just finished her degree in mountain-climbing-and-kayaking-in-the-yukon (and I say that with pride, not a sneer), and me, who is... well, you know. Let's not get into that. And my sister, is this very earnest, hard-working person, who thinks things ought to make sense. I always felt sorry for her having to wade through us (me, most particularly, but only because I'm self-centered about these things, I guess). That's how poor Anne seems. Anne wants to write somethign that makes sense, that's 'relevant'. And so, she sounds sort fo continuoustly frustrated. It definitely doesn't surprise me that she was more in the Emily circle than the Charlotte/Branwell circle (I'm more the Branwell type... :/). It was a lovely book to read, if you like the Brontes, though if you don't, and if you don't like 19th century social history, I don't know that you would enjoy it as much, now. ...more
The book Cranford begins by describing Cranford as a city of Amazons - the men of the higher classes of Cranford are perennially out of town, and theThe book Cranford begins by describing Cranford as a city of Amazons - the men of the higher classes of Cranford are perennially out of town, and the society is a society of women almost entirely. Amazons? Perhaps. I felt more like it was a city full of Mrs. Bennets from Pride and Prejudice, each of whom grows older and dottier as the book progresses. Only quieter.
Actually, I say that jokingly, but one of the interesting aspects of this book to me was that, while each character fit (and was obviously meant to fit) a particular stereotype (the busybody, the snoot, the shy violet, the know-it-all, etc), Gaskell surprises you by convincing you that you like each and every figure she bothers to examine closely - so that by the end of the book, one is fairly convinced they might be taught to like nearly anyone, if only Ms Gaskell was along to instruct in the ways of liking.
More than anything, this peculiar tendency (at least in my mind) speaks to the central stylistic conflict of the book: on the one hand, this book has the indelible stamp of someone who has read a good deal of Jane Austen, it's different from Austen, in that Austen is always so terribly careful to maintain that charming bit of warm indifference to her subject. She smirks gnetly at you, as she admits to all the worst faults of everybody. Gaskell, in Cranford, is clever, and a good observer, just as Ms Austen is, but her observations are endearing, not witty. One feels as if Gaskell lays out difficult woman solely for the pleasure of showing us how very nice they really are, only different from the reader. Characters I came across in the first fifty pages who seemed like the likeable, counterpoint heroines are quietly, gently married off and moved out of the Amazon scene, and women who seemed like little more than playful comic counterpoints obtain a depth and brilliance of portraiture that makes them sweetly, simply, wonderfully human.
The book is far from perfect - there are spots in which one feels they might like a bit less sugar in their literary tea, certainly, and a few of the odd coincidences one comes to expect from a dear friend of Charles Dickens. Additionally, if you like books that have, say, a cohesive plot, keep walking. This book isn't a story. It's a series of very picturesque anecdotes. For me, though, the plotless musing became almost a blessing - it let one sink back and enjoy the characters, without worrying about the possiblity of such characters changing over time.
This is something worth bringing up - the characters don't change, not really. The world changes, the situation of the characters changes, the characters themselves are obstinately, humanly static. The literary genius of the book lies in this, in examining what happens to human beings who wish to quietly live out an old world in the midst of a new one. The bonds of the old aristocracy, throughout the book, breakdown, the intense horror at the idea of commerce and middle-class propriety (very different from upper class propriety), these things come, and these women, who at the beginning seem to base their whole existence, on the idea of their own nobility, somehow manage to take it all in stride. Outside the book, it sounds like nonsense. Inside, it's lovely, because, in a subtle sort of way and without the characters themselves being aware of it, we see the outer layers stripped away, the worldly mental and emotional baggage put down, and peer quietly at naked souls. Not particularly exciting souls, just normal little souls, going about and trying to figure out where they belong in the world. It was a wonderfully enjoyable way to remain to quietly remember the humanity of everyone around me, not just the romantic or interesting.
If you are a fan of Jane Austen, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you liked, say, Anne of Green Gables, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you liked listening to stories from your grandmother, and she was very proper and small and neat, read this book, I think you'll like it. If you're Hamilcar, the part in the middle where they all get attacked by zombie-dwarves kicked butt... who would have figured Gaskell for the Zombie Dwarf type? Original Review...more
(Original Review) This is the sort of book that strikes me cleverness dumb. So I will simply begin by telling you what the book is.
If Not, Winter is a(Original Review) This is the sort of book that strikes me cleverness dumb. So I will simply begin by telling you what the book is.
If Not, Winter is a collection of all of the known works of Sappho - almost entirely fragments. Sappho was, in ancient Greece, considered one of the two greatest lyric poets, alongside Pindar. However, probably in part because she was a woman and in part because she appears to have been bisexual (her home was Lesbos, and the words lesbian and sapphic come from her), only one complete poem of hers survives, and then a series of fragments. The book, then, is a collection of those fragments, some salvaged bits of papyrus, some quotes (sometimes just a quoted word) from her contemporaries.
Of all the books I've ever read, as a physical book, this is probably the number one most beautiful, in terms of words, I've ever seen. The concept and layout is beautiful, sparse, and extremely powerful - it is a book that proves that books themselves are still pertinent and meaningful. The beautiful thing is, without the layout, honestly, most of these fragments would feel meaningless and orphaned. The way the fragments are presented conveys the feeling of loss, the frustration of something we can never have in ways that description cannot. Fragment 107 is a good example. Each fragment is composed of facing pages, the left in Ancient Greek, the right an English translation. Fragment 107 is an empty, white page, with 107 on the top, and simply the fragmented sentence:
"do I still yearn for my virginity?"
Similarly 126 just reads:
"may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend"
Sometimes there is more, as in 104, where there is enough to get a fleeting echo of a voice in it:
Evening you gather back all that dazzling dawn has put asunder: you gather a lamb you gather a kid you gather a child to its mother
of all stars the most beautiful
Of course, in isolation like this, that seems silly. But it isn't! I saw a review that likened it to trying to hear a poorly tuned radio station. To me, it's more like sitting outside of a concert, slowly realizing that they're playing something beautiful, and then having the concert end before you can get in the door. Ther are lines, sometimes:
138: stand to face me beloved and open out the grace of your eyes
sometimes, there is even enough to catch the gist of a tune:
94: I simply want to be dead. Weeping she left me
with many tears and said this: Oh how badly things have turned out for us. Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her: Rejoice, go and remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want to remind you ] and beautiful times we had.
For many crowns of violets and roses ] at my side you put on
and many woven garlands made of flowers around your soft throat.
And the brackets! I ahve never had a relationship with a piece of punctuation like I've now developed with the square bracket, which signifies, in the text, a lost block of text, illegible or destroyed:
] heart ] absolutely ] I can ] ] would be for me ] to shine in answer ] face ] ] having been stained ]
And so it is, the entire book. Whenever you read a poem in translation, there is a certain feeling of loss - in this case, Carson takes that loss and uses it as a tool, instead of an impediment, uses it to show it what it actually means to be blind to beauty, or even worse, to destroy it or prevent it. Every frustrating break, every meaningless half sentence after a beautiful unfinished metaphor speaks in this powerful white space, whispering, "This beauty was and is no more. A man, like you, destroyed it. History is a damaged cloth, and we, we men, are moths..."
By the end of the book, the fragments have sheared themselves into single words, it's like listening to the broken soul of a mad person, these bursts of meaninglessness, meaningful only because we wish they were, empty, but pregnant with impossible loss:
of the Muses
gold anklebone cups
And that's the end. gold anklebone cups, and the book of history closes, a woman is put into a little book (it take about two hours to read), and tucked away into a mass of whitespace, and the shreds of what she was. If you love poetry, and you want to remember why you love it, and what life would be without it, read this book....more
Original Review The first part of the 20th century was the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the time of many of Russia's greatest poets both inside and ouOriginal Review The first part of the 20th century was the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the time of many of Russia's greatest poets both inside and outside the Soviet system: Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, and lots of other folks that we, as Americans have never heard of (except for Pasternak, and that's for his novel, after all). Marina Tsvetaeva was one of these poets. Born into a well-to-do but very unstable family, and coming of age just as the Russian revolution came to fruition, married to a man who was first a white Russian officer and later a Soviet spy, friends with Red and White Russians and distrusted by both sides because of it, Marina Tsvetaeva had a very tumultuous life.
This omnipresent feeling of pain in Tsvetaeva's life is inescapable in her poetry. BUT. So a sort 'I burn my candle on both ends' lust for living. It's this tension, between love and hopelessness, between life and death, that gives her best poems power:
A kiss on the head--wipes away misery I kiss your head.
A kiss on the eyes--takes away sleeplessness. I kiss your eyes.
A kiss on the lips--quenches the deepest thirst. I kiss your lips.
A kiss on the head--wipes away memory. I kiss your head.
It crawls, the underground snake, crawls, with its load of people. And each one has his newspaper, his skin disease; a twitch of chewing; newspaper caries. Masticators of gum, readers of newspapers.
And who are the readers? old men? athletes? soldiers? No face, no features, no age. Skeletons--there's no face, only the newspaper page.
All Paris is dressed this way from forehead to navel. Give it up, girl, or you'll give birth to a reader of newspapers.
Tsvetaeva's poetry (as you can see in the first one above, particularly) is inextricably tied up with the idea of love, which to her is always forbidden (partly this is because she was bisexual, partly because she never seemed to find someone willing to burn as bright and fast as she did). To her, the world is a great, grey place, dotted with the beautiful streaks of color, and life - the poet's life particularly - is a struggle to bathe in that color as long as possible.
Tsvetaeva despite her intensely political surroundings was not a politician - which, in a sense made her the best political writer possible. Her best friends were poets, and she loved them whatever their political stripe. Her politics, such as they were, were based in a love for beautiful things, for a world that makes beauty sacred. Thus, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, a nation that she had been happy in and loved deeply during her exile from Russia, her voice woke up to the world and spoke outside her deeply introspective daily life:
They took quickly, they took hugely, took the mountains and their entrails. They took our coal and took our stell from us, lead they took also and crystal... Bullets they took from us, they took our rifles minerals they took, and comrades too. But while our mouths have spittle in them the whole country is still armed.
This poem is from 1938. A year later, she and her family returned to Russia. Her daughter Alya was seduced by a man she did not know was an NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agent, who married her in order to spy on the family. Alya and Tsvetaeva's husband were executed for espionage shortly thereafter. Tsvetaeva was forced to leave her home during the German invasion and subsequent migration in World War II. Two years later, deprived of a living by the government who suspected her poetry of being disloyal, forced into an unfamiliar town in the middle of nowhere, completely alone, living in a broken down hovel (which one can still visit, apparently), Tsvetaeva hung herself from the rafters of her house. ...more
A few months ago, I got a meme in Facebook, asking me to talk about my favorite books. The experience was a very dark, painful afternoon of thinking aA few months ago, I got a meme in Facebook, asking me to talk about my favorite books. The experience was a very dark, painful afternoon of thinking about books. Books are too much like friends for my relationships to be terribly healthy with - God knows I mistreat my friends. But in that meme, I wrote about Emily Dickinson, about how it was difficult to seperate the woman from the poetry. I have this sort of purist mind that tells me that's asign of weakness, that I'm conflating good writing with a good backstory. But, reading isn't a numbers game, and as Dead Poet Society puts it, poetry isn't American Bandstand. Honestly (Mr. Barca) I think that's why I don't like put ratings on books (the recent foray into it on Goodreads has already felt traumatic). I mean, I could rate how good my friends are too, with a star system, but in essence, I'm not rating my friends, I'm rating their friendship to me, aren't I? And if books or friends are to be judged by how well they can keep up good realtions with me, than... well, I wouldn't wish that standard on anyone. I feel cruel rating a book, because I'm passing a judgement on the book that has more to do with me than the book (The Lair of the White Worm being excluded from that sentence...). Imagine for a moment, after all, that everyone on earth was given the value their mother's attached to them... how unfair would that be? How meaningless? Why put on a star, if it means nothing? The only reason to put a star on is because it means something, and if it means something, it means somethign I don't feel good expressing.
Emily Bronte suffers from this disease in my mind - I do not love Wuthering Heights, I love Emily Bronte, and thereby love her children (which isn't to say I wouldn't love Wuthering Heights if it were by someone else...). When I read Wuthering HEights, I'm not on the moors with Heathcliff, I'm very small, and in a little parsonage, looking out on a storm with my dear one, Emily, who's murmuring out this story to me (Emily Dickinson, on the other hand is sitting very quietly in her garden and letting me read a little slip of paper she's taken from the pocket of her apron. I'm embarrased and awed, she is calm). There is something intensely personal in the writing of my favorite authors, a feeling that makes me feel that I have a friend who is much wiser and greater than I am.
If reading Wuthering Heights then, makes one feel as if they are a Bronte, reading this book is like constructing your childhood in reverse, starting with the evening listening to your sister read to you just before she died, and falling backwards through all the years of having her for a sister, 'remembering' who she was, how she grew, remembering the little corners of the mind that you only know in your siblings, remembering the experience of realizing that someone you love has a spark of the divine in them. When the title of this book says 'complete', it means it - this is not the collection of all the poems that have been published. This is more like reading through your sister's old notebooks - everyhting is here, the half finished scraps, the hammered out perfected poems, the things she never meant for you to read. Everything.
My favorite aspect (short of the sheer enormity of gorgeousness in Emily's writing) was the presence of the Gondal poems, along with an excellent introduction explaining them. The Bronte sisters spent the greater part of their lives writing prose, maps, plays, and poetry that related to a shared paracosm - at first one that all the siblings shared, called the Great Glass City, and after Charlotte went to school, a seperate world that better suited the inclinations of Emily and Anne, called Gondal. In Gondal, the two sisters constructed a vast, sprawling, and utterly incomplete epic, surrounding the life of a beautiful, tragic, strong-willed woman and her love affairs through a period of war, strife and decay in Gondal. The poems have little in the way of plot - most are meant to be more more lyric than narrative - but there was a soul in these characters (each recurring frequently) that spoke of deep, long work and love, and of a soul that sought an escape into the imaginative landscape of her own creation, much like I'm seeking an escape into the imaginative landscape of her relics. This feeling of double immersion - into the imagination of my imagined imagination, as it were - was dizzing, thrilling. Liberating I guess, in a weird way. To imagine as someone else, for just a few minutes, is both revealing and ecstatically anonymous. Suddenly all the strange thoughts and terrible secret selves are on someone else's stage, all the churn and bustle of internal life can manifest without the interference of the mind, because it's not your mind anyway - it's someone else's.
Emily Bronte truly had 'no coward soul' - her poems are the poems of a secret self forever diving deeper and deeper into itself, forever plucking from the deep lightless pools of selfness the pearls that are such a risk to draw up. Reading her pearls, I can almost feel a sort of mirror passion, almost. Many books make you cry at the end. This book made me cry that it had an end, the sort of crying you'd do over a lost sister, forever wishing you'd only taken more photographs, forever knowing no volume of keepsake could be sufficient for the lack. ORiginal Review...more
I know, I'm very purply in my prose when I talk about books, and I have a tendency to say everything is beautiful. I know this probably takes awayWow.
I know, I'm very purply in my prose when I talk about books, and I have a tendency to say everything is beautiful. I know this probably takes away from the impact of when I really find something life-changingly perfect. Do not let my larkety-la-ti-da writing style in reviews, however, stop you from putting down whatever you're reading, and immediately adding this precious book to the store of books you've read.
I can honestly say that, if the other things William Blake wrote are as beautiful and honest as this book, that he will be the first male poet to sit in the circle of my heart with Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, E.B. Browning, et al. This book is an image of what poetry ought to be, this book is, when I wish that modern writing would remember what it means to be vulnerable, the book that I would beggingly throw before the writers of the world.
I read this book in one day, it doesn't take very long. The book is divided into two sections, Songs of Innocence in the first half and of Experience in the second. The first half is poems that are the purest palest, most childlike of poems, pastoral in the dearest sense of the word - I have to tell you, honestly, if the book had only been this half, it would have been lovely, but imperfect. The second half was these songs that were... well, it was strange. Let me give you an example:
THE GARDEN OF LOVE
I went to the Garden of Love, And saw what I never had seen; A Chapel was built in the midst, Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut, And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door; So I turned to the Garden of Love That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves, And tombstones where flowers should be; And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, And binding with briars my joys and desires.
But, then, the fascinating thing is, that most of the poems hearken back directly to the poems in the Songs of Innocence - sometimes they even have the same titles. Like this:
THE DIVINE IMAGE (From Innocence)
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, All pray in their distress, And to these virtues of delight Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, Is God our Father dear; And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, Is man, His child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart; Pity, a human face; And Love, the human form divine: And Peace the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime, That prays in his distress, Prays to the human form divine: Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form, In heathen, Turk, or Jew. Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell, There God is dwelling too.
A DIVINE IMAGE (Experience)
Cruelty has a human heart, And Jealousy a human face; Terror the human form divine, And Secrecy the human dress.
The human dress is forged iron, The human form a fiery forge, The human face a furnace sealed, The human heart its hungry gorge.
The poems all interrelate, and they all tell this story, in a way that is at once extermely simple to comprehend and deep so far beyond my real understanding that I could study it for the rest of my life. The poems in this book - no the book itself, because the poems are so much more empty outside their context - have the sort of power that scripture should have. Reading these poems, I felt this sudden, overpowering sense of ... I don't even know what! This is, without a doubt, I can unabashedly say, the best book I've read in at least 10 years. And I'm only 29. The. Best. Book. HAnds down. I cannot write things that will make you understand how beautiful it is, all I can do is beat you over the head with it, so you go read it. Seriously. Even if you hate poetry, even if you've never read a book of poems in your life, even if you think William Blake is a nutjob, even if you've read it in college and hated it, go close your door for two hours, and read it. Then, come back, and tell me if I'm just crazy, or if this book was great. OK, shutting up now. Sorry. Original Review...more
After about 50 pages, I really thought I aws going to hate this book. In fact, I will with quiet shame admit, I had HOPED to hate this book. My recentAfter about 50 pages, I really thought I aws going to hate this book. In fact, I will with quiet shame admit, I had HOPED to hate this book. My recent review of William Blake had revealed to me the embarrasing fact that I very frequently leave unclear what my opinion is at all, and that I have a tendency to gush on and on about prettiness, and such, in a way that must get tiring. I had the good fortune (?) to read Beowulf next, which gave me opportunity to present that I don't just like everything, and I had supsicion after those fifty pages, that I would be able to reinforce that review with one on Eugene Onegin.
It is not to be. Eugene Onegin is a truly fascinating, surprising book.
Nabokov, apparently, was a huge Onegin scholar, and in fact wrote a translation of the poem (in typical Nabokov style, his edition spans four volumes. The poem itself is part of the first volume of the four, apparently). After reading this book, this doesn't surprise me. Pushkin has a stunningly Nabokovian ability to snigger at the whole world down his nose while simultaneously cuasing the reader to feel an enormous compassion for the characters. His Russians are not black and white, they are extremely imperfect -- frustratingly foolish even -- throughout the book, and in ways that anyone who has read a Russian novel since will recognize (in fact, I have now become convinced that every Russian novelist in the last 200 years is pretty much just writing variations and extrapolations on Eugene Onegin... ;) ). I won't give away the plot, as it's a fairly short and enjoyable read, but there is //SPOILER// a scene with a duel in it, where, after the pages of my unsurety about the book, I was suddenly, viscerally reminded how human, how real and pitiable, and familiar these characters area //SPOILER//. The genius of this book is in Pushkin's startling ability to combine a familiar, joking tone with the universality you expect in an epic poem. Like I told Amanda yesterday, it's sort of like a combination of Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Homer. Recommended to anyone, ESPECIALLY if you like Russian lit. Original Review...more
When I read my first epic poem (The Odyssey in a horrible prose translation, and only in excerpts, in high school), I remember the teacher telling us When I read my first epic poem (The Odyssey in a horrible prose translation, and only in excerpts, in high school), I remember the teacher telling us that epic poetry was, historically, meant to tell the stories that might inculcate the values of a nation into the people. In other words, an epic poem should tell you something of the character of a nation. The Ancient Greeks believed in universal humanity as shown by their sympathetic descriptions of the Trojans in the Iliad, but also in the penultimate importance of martial prowess in the measure of a man, for example.
If Gawain is a national epic, I'm not sure what this says about the British.
This is not to say the book wasn't good, and in truth, I'm being a little bit facetious. The book quite clearly lays out the conflict between the two romanticized codes of feudal Britain - the law of chivalry, and the law of courtly love. But the fascinating thing is that the book seems to, more or less, say that these two lawas are endlessly incompatible.
The story (Umm... yeah, all spoilers here) walks through the tale of Gawain, an Arthurian knight who is challenged by a mysterious green knight to a strange contest - Gawain can take a swipe at the knight with an axe provided that, in a years time, the Green Knight be allowed to take a swipe at Gawain. Well, Gawain takes his swipe (in chivalry, one does not turn down a challenge. Chivalry is sort of like trademark elementary school codes of honor, except you don't say 'double-dog dare' or 'missed-me, missed-me now you have to kiss me'). He cleaves off the Knight's head, and the green knight proceeds to pick his head up, laugh at Gawain, and gallop off.
So, a year later, Gawain goes to make his rendezvous, and ends up sleeping at a palace close to the chapel where he is supposed to mee the knight. In this castle, the lord of the castle makes a deal with him - the lord is going to go out hunting while Gawain is to stay home and rest. Whatever the Lord captures he'll give to Gawain, and whatever Gawain captures he'll give to the lord.
Well, when you're lying in bed, there's only two things you can catch, and Gawain isn't abstract enough to give a nap to the lord, so you can guess what happens. The lady of the castle comes in and, in no uncertain terms, kisses him and tempts him to other... acts. This goes on for three days, and every knight the lord give Gawain whatever prize he killed that day, and Gawain gives the lord a kiss. The mind reels, btw, over the implications of taht one.
Well, finally on the last day, the lady tries to give GAwain somethign to remember her by, so she tries to offer her girdle. He refuses, until she tells him it's a magic girdle that will make it so he cannot be injured. Convenient...
Of course, chivalry says Gawain needed to keep his promise, and give the girdle he took to the lord of the castle that knight. Yeah, well, he hides it and forgets to mention it. So, it all turns out that the Green Knight was the lord, and when he can't chop Gawain's head off on account of the girdle, Gawain is embarrased and ashamed, and they all have a good chuckle over it. The end (okay, so that's simplified, but I don't want this review to be TOO long).
The interesting thing about this story is that Gawain's taking of the girdle (which is, pretty clearly, MEANT to have some sexual overtones) is actually what keeps him from getting his head lopped off. What is it that this teaches the humble listener? WEll... if you're going to erm... borrow the girdle from your friend's wife, you better make it worth it? There is no possible way to honourable do all the right things in this world without getting your head lopped off? The mind reels... Original Review...more
Okay, so... I understand, Beowulf is like at the root of the English literary tradition. I know, it's totally different from poetry now, that it is suOkay, so... I understand, Beowulf is like at the root of the English literary tradition. I know, it's totally different from poetry now, that it is supposed to be alliterative instead of rhyming (which admittedly, is really interesting), I know that people in the whatever-century had a far different culture from us today. So, don't take this as some sort of judgement of Mr. Anonymous, who has, after all, contributed so much to the world.
Only, the thing is, I really didn't like this book.
I mean, the Iliad? Sure, it was all about people getting together to kill each other, I know, but at least those people wer einteresting people - and the poeple on both sides had personalities. I can only take so many pages of bloody baldrics held by mighty earls o'er their high=plumed helms before I just get a little irritated. I mean, I don't totally agree with the moral lessons of Homer, but the only moral lesson of Beowulf, to me, seems to be that you should be loyal to your relations - which in the book, means, you should either kill or get blood money from anyone who kills your people. OK, so whatever, but SERIOUSLY, there has GOT to be more than life, even in Old Scandinavia, then that.
I don't mean to imply there was NOTHING good. The constant theme of death coming for all men, the structure of the battles, where we see what it is to fight as a young whelp looking for glory, then what it is to fight as on old man trying to live out your days in peace... sure that had soem merit. This doesn't descend to the level of Scrappy-Doo Badness that say... the White Worm did (shudder). But anyway. Bleagh. And I LIKE epic poems! Still, bleagh! Original Review...more