"Life in the Iron Mills" (1861) was one of the first major Realist works in American literature and created an immediate sensation in the literary wor...more"Life in the Iron Mills" (1861) was one of the first major Realist works in American literature and created an immediate sensation in the literary world when it was first published, though it was subsequently forgotten and only re-discovered in relatively recent times by editor Olsen. I'd read, and really liked, it already back in the 90s, when we were home-schooling our girls and I was preparing to teach American literature (I made it required reading!). Since the additional material in this volume consists only of two more stories by Davis, one much shorter, and Olsen's "Biographical Interpretation," I selected it to read this month mainly because I could finish it by January (when I'll be starting a common read in one of my groups). I didn't expect it to be a five-star read, but it earned every one of them.
We should note at the outset that this book doesn't purport to be a collection of "the best of" Davis' voluminous short fiction, let alone anything like a comprehensive or representative collection (though Olsen or someone else hopefully will someday produce one!) Rather, it's a thematic one, linking three very different stories that nevertheless have a common underlying element: a protagonist who has artistic (in the broad sense --sculpture in one case, music in the other two-- talent and temperament, but whose situation doesn't afford any opportunity for it to be developed. Olsen makes a very convincing case that Davis could identify personally with this aspect of her protagonist's experience, and that this was an important part of the author's consciousness (see below).
In the title story, set in her native Wheeling, WV (then part of Virginia) the crippling situation protagonist Hugh Wolfe faces is that of poverty: wage slavery, working in an exhausting and dangerous job 12 hours a day, six days a week, for subsistence wages, with no chance for leisure or education. This is the first work of American literature that focuses on the laborers in this situation, and the first social criticism of the treatment the Industrial Revolution was meting out to them. It's gritty, powerful, and tragic, and deeply informed by the author's Christian faith; the sympathetically-treated faith of the Quakers plays a key role, with a trajectory of despair and ruin contending with one of hope and Christian redemption. And the language and imagery of the ending strongly evokes the eschatology of the Christian faith, with a rare appreciation of its socio-economic significance. Davis' achievement in bringing all this to life in what we now recognize as Realist style is remarkable, given her background and resources: she had no formal education beyond "female seminary" (essentially a boarding high school for girls, with a fairly limited curriculum), her reading didn't include Realist models --she adopted that mode of expression naturally, without outside influence and against the Romantic current of all the literature she knew-- and with her genteel class position, the direct observation of working-class life that forms the matrix of the story took a lot of focused effort.
In the other stories here, we have female protagonists whose family responsibilities tie them down to a degree that precludes fulfilling their aspirations for a singing career, or for a life lived in a milieu of aesthetic and intellectual stimulation. But these are not simply stereotypical feminist tracts (because Davis herself wasn't a stereotypical feminist). They recognize the profound truth that loving family ties are what life is all about, and that we get deep emotional satisfaction in return for what we give to spouses and kids who need us, and whom at one level we need. Like many worthwhile things, this can require tradeoffs and sacrifices --but real sacrifices, as opposed to mock ones, involve some pain, some giving up something that has real worth to us, and Davis also recognizes that truth (at the same time that she sees that the grass on the other side of the fence isn't always as green as we paint it in imagination). She recognized all of this from the personal experience of a woman who sacrificed a lot, in terms of time for writing and artistic development, to the needs and wants of her husband and three kids (the youngest born when Davis was 41). That gives these stories a realism, an appreciation of shades of grey, that lifts them above white-and-black tracts (feminist or traditionalist) posing as fiction. And even though I'm a male, I can relate, because like Davis I pursue my writing in the bits and pieces of time I can grab in the midst of family responsibilities (including, in my case, a day job to support the family!) and family fellowship. (The alternatives don't have to be confined to just two, all of one and none of the other!)
At 89 pages, plus 17 pages of notes, Olsen's bio-critical material isn't a full-length biography (that remains to be written!), but it's substantial and fascinating, and added a good deal to my knowledge of this author. (It was written with access to Davis' own diary, and letters.) My only real criticisms would be that the placement of this section between the title story and the other two is awkward, especially since it includes spoilers for both the other stories (it would work better placed at the end, so it would be more apt to be read in that order, as I did in fact read it), and that as a Marxist scholar, Olsen isn't really able to sympathize with Davis' faith.
While Olsen considers the title story to be Davis' only really great work, and finds her subsequent productions mostly flawed, she makes a convincing case that at least some of them have enduring worth. Personally, I'd say that "The Wife's Story" and "Anne," which appear here, and "Balacchi Brothers" (which I've read elsewhere) are on a par with the short fiction of Jewett, Freeman and Garland. This book has whetted my interest in reading more by this author, and I hope eventually to do so!(less)
With a name like "Max Destroy," the viewpoint character here sounds like a pulp fiction anti-hero, or the central figure of a violence-oriented video...moreWith a name like "Max Destroy," the viewpoint character here sounds like a pulp fiction anti-hero, or the central figure of a violence-oriented video game. In fact, though, "Destroy" just happens to be a French last name, which only coincidentally duplicates an English word (and Max is short for Maximilien). :-) This is actually a serious, somber and even dark exploration of how far a human being might be led to yield to temptation if he/she holds a philosophy of "do what you will," and what role guilt might still play in the psychology of such a person. Given the title, it's no spoiler here to say that we're dealing with murder in the first degree. (Despite the Goodreads description, though, I wouldn't say that the "police procedural" element, to the extent that it's in the story at all, is very prominent.) Barbara's perspective seems to be that of traditional Roman Catholicism, with Max playing the role of his spokesman; but he mostly lets the story's events be their own commentary, with the exception of a couple of telling passages. One of these reads:
"In what way, then, am I more criminal than the so many others who present identical thoughts, if not in that I've claimed to be a more rigorous logician? I defy anyone to contradict me: When one is convinced there is no God, that conscience is only prejudice, that death is nothingness, what one calls crime is only relative, pain makes no sense, anything that can be done with impunity so as to save himself from it is permitted; there is well and truly only pleasure, and concern for playing with the law is only useful. Kill, steal, rape, be a monster, just so long as no one knows! Who will punish you? It's only a coward or an imbecile who can fear chimeras and phantoms!"
That pretty well sums up the central philosophical problem here (as well as giving a good example of Barbara's translated but still French-flavored prose style).
At around 86 pages, this is a fairly quick read, but it has to read with attention, and it doesn't have a very strong narrative drive; the plot moves slowly and deliberately, even broodingly. (The time frame here spans about 20 years, so "unity of time" is an Aristotelian convention that Barbara didn't observe here.) It's also very much a novella of ideas; Max and Clement discuss these a lot. And a fair criticism that could be made, IMO, is that Max is a rather passive character, in both his interactions with Clement and Madame Thillard, where a more active character would have been more satisfying. Being a modern translation, the diction here isn't as archaic as it probably is in the original French (indeed, expressions like "For Pete's sake" have a modern feel); but it still has a formal quality to it. If any or all of these qualities strike you as off-putting, they probably will be. But if any of this strikes you as intriguing, you might find this an intellectually or even spiritually rewarding read.
Readers familiar with world literature will recognize common themes in this work and Crime and Punishment: the idea of a nihilistic criminal motivated to his behavior by philosophy, a crime that's difficult or impossible for the police to solve, and the role and meaning of guilt in the life of the perpetrator. The question of direct influence, I think, would depend on what evidence there is that Dostoevsky might actually have read this tale. But even for a reader like myself, who's only read part of Crime and Punishment, it's evident that Dostoevsky's handling of these themes is deeper and more adept. He's writing at novel rather than novella length, uses a more compressed time frame, and writes from the viewpoint of the killer, not an outside third party, so that we're in the former's head. (The Dostoevsky novel is also more grisly-gory.) Most importantly, (view spoiler)[ the later novel gives a much more explicit treatment of Christian redemption, whereas here, all we're left with is the clear (to Christian readers --but possibly not others!) implication that guilt-driven good works don't equate to seeking and accepting Divine forgiveness (hide spoiler)]. But it's nevertheless fascinating to see here an adumbration of the later classic, and to appreciate it in its own right.
By way of disclosure, I don't own (and don't want!) a Kindle, but the translator herself, my friend Krisi Keley, generously gave me a printable electronic copy, with no strings attached.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Oct. 2, 2009 For years, I've been dipping into this book off and on, and enjoying it. I've resolved that sometime next year (as part of a process I wan...moreOct. 2, 2009 For years, I've been dipping into this book off and on, and enjoying it. I've resolved that sometime next year (as part of a process I want to do of tying up the "loose ends" in my reading :-)), I'm going to read the rest of it; but I thought I'd take time now to review what I've read so far.
The Goodreads description above (which I wrote) gives the book's basic factual description. As it suggests, there are a lot more contributors than the Goodreads template's 50 slots allow to be listed; all 82 selections are by different authors. I tried to list all the well-known ones, but many more minor authors are represented as well (and their work may be as rewarding as that of the "major" ones). The full list is almost a roll call of British fiction writers up to 1930; even some who are known almost entirely as novelists, such as Dickens and Thackeray, appear here (and the stories by those two are each excellent in their own way). Rather than often-anthologized selections, the better-known writers are often represented by lesser-known, but good, stories that readers are more apt to have missed. For instance, the Conrad story is "The Inn of the Two Witches," a historical piece set during the Napoleonic wars (this has a similar theme to one of the earliest selections, a 16th-century novel excerpt by Thomas Deloney; contrasting them makes a fascinating study in the evolution of fictional technique over the intervening centuries). D. H. Lawrence is represented by his grim tale "The Prussian Officer." Some other choices are more conventional (but well worth a read also!), such as Stevenson's excellent "The Sire de Maletroit's Door," which I read in another anthology in my teens. George Eliot's novella The Lifted Veil (which I've reviewed separately) is included in its entirety; Sterne and Smollett are represented by excepts from their novels, which in keeping with my usual practice I don't plan to read --though I did read Deloney's.
Some of the selections are tragic and even heart-tearing. This is most often the case with the stories from the Romantic period, with their aim of evoking emotion; the emotions some of these aim for are sorrow and pity. However, many stories in the collection are more upbeat. The oldest story here, Barnaby (or Barnabe --16th-century spellings vary) Riche's "Of Apolonius and Silla," was the inspiration for Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night. Leigh Hunt delivers a worthy morality tale in "The Beau Miser, and What Happened to Him at Brighton." If you don't think a story can be built around a viewpoint character who's only looking into a house window from across a street, join M. G. Lewis in peering through "My Uncles' Garret Window." :-) And two of my favorites here are Thomas Love Peacock's "The Capture of Mr. Chainmail" (which is surprisingly, and refreshingly, free of the typical open wealth-worship and class snobbery of that day) and Rafael Sabatini's "The Ghost of Tronjolly" --which isn't a ghost story.
Genre fiction is well represented here, though, including ghost stories and other supernatural tales. The contrast between one of the first, if not the first, English ghost stories, Defoe's "True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal," and Scott's "The Tapestried Chamber," written about a century later, perfectly illustrates the contrast in the Neoclassical and Romantic approaches to literary style in general and the supernatural in particular: the one dry, pedantic-didactic, interested in the supernatural only as a literary means of lending symbolic authority to the ideas intended to appeal to the mind (and that describes Addison's "The Vision of Mirzah" as well); the other richly atmospheric, evocative, and unabashedly meant to be scary. My first acquaintance with Le Fanu was here, in "The Dream; and I've commented elsewhere on Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters" and Lord Dunsay's "Chu-bu and Sheemish." Doyle and Chesterton are represented, respectively, by Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories. And the Wells selection is one of his less-known gems, "The Stolen Bacillus."
The introduction is no more than adequate (its largest section is a spirited defense of the comparative quality of English short fiction as opposed to the Continental tradition --though I'm not sure many people in 1930 actually supposed the former to be inferior). However, the short bio-critical notes about each author that precede the stories can be interesting and informative. More next year! :-)
May 4, 2012 When I checked this book out to read the rest of it, there were still 50 stories here I hadn't read (another selection, the one by George Henry Borrow, is a novel excerpt). Since then, I've read 15 more; so I've decided it's time for another partial review.
Most of the 15 tales in this batch are by authors I'd never heard of outside of this book (the exceptions are Capt. Frederick Marrayat, G. P. R. James, and Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell). All of them, however, were at the very least good, diverting stories, speaking well for the editors' ability at selection. Chronologically, those in this group are all drawn from the the earlier part of the 19th century. Their 19th-century formal diction wasn't a problem for me; the linguistic challenge in some cases came from the authors writing dialogue in the colloquial style of the day, with considerable use of British (and Irish and Scots, in the case of Samuel Lover and Dr. John Brown, respectively) dialect and slang; but in most cases I could glean the meanings from the context. At times, the attitudes of the characters were more of a challenge; the class-obsessed snobbery in Robert Surtees' "The Cheltenham Dandy" and one narrator's frank intention of marrying a girl for her expected inheritance excite contempt. To be fair to the authors, though, that may have been an intended reaction; both of those stories and several others had a strong note of satirical humor, and indeed humor was the most common tone for these stories. (Very often it was gallows humor, or of an "irreverent" type that mildly surprised me, considering the period.) A few stories, though, were quite serious; a couple are tragic, and one might bring tears to your eyes (but as Tolkien has Gandalf observe at one point, "Not all tears are an evil"). Sexism occasionally rears its head, most egregiously in G. R. Gleig's "A Pyrenean Adventure," where one character comments that the killing of rape victims by their rapists was for the best, since their menfolk couldn't "receive" them back after they'd been "defiled." (If I'd been present in the flesh for that observation, there might have been a duel!) James' "Norfolk and Hereford," in happy contrast, has a strong female protagonist whose strength is sympathetically treated, and exhibits a pretty equalitarian view of marriage.
The latter was my top favorite in this batch, a stand-out historical story set in the rein of William the Conqueror, and centering around the conspiracy/revolt of Earl Waltheof; like Parke Godwin in Sherwood, James took what's known of the bare facts of this event and made his own interpretation of it --one that treats the principals in the conspiracy much more sympathetically than Godwin does! This was my first experience with James (as indeed with all these writers except Marryat, and I'd read only one other story by him), but it's definitely made me interested in exploring more of his work. With my fondness for the speculative side of fiction, two more stories here that I particularly liked were R. H. Barham's "Singular Passage in the Life of the Late Henry Harris, D.D.," a foray into dark arts and out-of-body experiences, and Gaskell's delightful "Curious if True," which demonstrates that tongue-in-cheek re-imagining of fairy tales wasn't invented in the late 20th century. :-) (This one most probably isn't typical of her overall body of work.) Other selections deserving individual mention are Brown's "Rab and His Friends," which isn't the kind of story I usually like, but which earned my approval anyway; W. Harrison Ainsworth's "Mary Stukeley," which could have been fleshed out more, but which still captures a sense of timeless human psychological conflicts between safety and adventure, constraint and freedom, duty and spontaniety; and Lover's "King O'Toole and St. Kevin," which purports to retell an Irish legend --though the slight anachronisms in it, and the questions as to the narrator's veracity, indicate at least some liberties. :-) (But the reference to "Fan Ma Cool," spelled as Fin MacCool in some old sources, suggests that the author did have some real knowledge of Irish lore.) Also memorable (though a departure from his trademark sea stories) is Capt. Marryat's "The Story of the Greek Slave," set in the Middle East in an evidently medieval milieu; speaking of gallows and irreverent humor, there's no better example anywhere! (Though there's no suggestion here of any mean-spirited ethnic prejudice, the author's also clearly no more interested in modern-style "political correctness" than his characters are.)
May 18, 2012 Henry James is treated as a British writer here, and he's represented by "The Special Type," which unfortunately shows him at his worst rather than his best. (Any of his ghost stories would have been a better choice.) I made an honest effort to read it, but after about three pages, which felt like 30, I concluded that while it was somewhat less unpleasant than hitting myself in the head with a hammer, there was no real point in doing either. However, I did read 18 more stories since my last partial review, ranging in date from the mid-1800s to the early 20th century. Many of the general comments written above would apply here as well, though purely humorous stories were less numerous in this group. Some were starkly tragic; but the tragic events are presented with so much sensitivity and compassion that they're invested with a kind of bittersweet poignancy that helps you to come to terms with it. Others are realistic tales of human family and social interaction that hold up a clear mirror to life; and the human realities they reflect aren't always pretty, nor do they always show virtue rewarded (though they may). Several stories (which is also true of those in the above group) have series protagonists, about whom the authors sometimes wrote entire books of stories; the most interesting of these has to be E. W. Hornung's Raffles, who's a burglar --but not without his principles. (Reading Hornung's "Gentlemen and Players" is like reading a Christie or Sayers mystery story, but from the crook's perspective.) Again, the literary quality of the 18 selections I actually read was pretty high. Only two were disappointing: W. Pett Ridge's "Oh, Liberty!" which I found psychologically implausible to the core, and W. J. Locke's "The Adventure of the Fair Patronne," in which I didn't like any of the characters and didn't care for the premise, attitude, or denouement.
A number of the authors were ones whose work I had read before, and several others are well-enough known even today that I'd heard of them. Thomas Hardy is represented by "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion," set characteristically in his Wessex, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars (the British army used German mercenaries in that conflict, just as they did in the American Revolution). Anthony Trollope displays his usual insight into character and his gentle humor in "The O'Conors of Castle Conor, County Mayo," which also has the distinction of making the family's butler a sympathetic character rather than part of the furniture. The W. Clark Russell selection is, naturally, a sea story. "The House of Silence" by John Galsworthy is actually more of a highly-critical sketch of the British prison system of that day than a real story; his "Quality" would have been a better choice, IMO. Rather than the often-anthologized "The Monkey's Paw," the editors chose to represent W. W. Jacobs with a non-supernatural, humorous story, "An Odd Freak," which is much slighter than the former, and not free of a taint of racism in its portrayal of a mixed-race character --though the satire and comeuppances are fairly evenly distributed. One of my favorite stories here was "There's Many a Slip 'Twixt the Cup and the Lip," by Charles Reade, a writer I'd only heard of before, but whom I'd definitely like to read more of.
Less well-known writers came through very well, contributing several of my favorite stories in this batch, and indeed in the whole book. Pride of place in that group goes to Louise de la Ramee' (who wrote under the pen name Ouida) for "Cecil Castlemaine's Gage," a romance set against the backdrop of the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715. It has a simple, linear plot, but the author creates genuine suspense and brings to it a really lush, descriptive prose style that adorns the narrative like the jewels on the heroine's outfits. And in Cecil, she created a strong, smart heroine atypical for that time (the story was published in 1867), and made her a dynamic character capable of growth. I also really liked H. Seton Merriman's "Sister," and Clive Holland's "The Wooing of O Sasa San." The former is set during the Boer War (it isn't named as such, but we can tell), and reminded me of some of the better episodes of the old TV series M*A*S*H; in fact, the premise was actually used in one of those episodes. Holland sets his story in Japan (in Nagasaki, which lends a particular tragic cast to his descriptions of the beauty of the harbor, etc.), and it's a stand-out, not least because it doesn't denigrate the non-white Japanese, and because the title character is a geisha who's portrayed with respect and dignity. (That's particularly praiseworthy for a story published in 1913, given that geishas, if I understand correctly, are courtesans as well as entertainers, and Edwardian society didn't view women in that profession with much compassion.)
June 4, 2012 Except for Benjamin Disraeli's "Popanilla," which I left for last due to its length, none of the stories I read in this final go-around date from later than the 1930s (or possibly the 1920s; they're mostly not dated). The Disraeli selection is pure tongue-in-cheek political and social satire, using the vehicle of a couple of undiscovered islands, one of them pretty much Edenic and the other only too reminiscent of early-1800s England, but in caricatured form. It's actually pretty witty, and marked by a scathing eye for sham, selfishness and stupidity. Most of the real-life referents are detectable to readers with a basic knowledge of the period, or of British history.
Given the time frame of the rest of the stories, it was harder for the editors to judge what might stand the test of time. A couple of these stories were, IMO, real clunkers: Ernest Bramah's "The Malignity of the Depraved Ming-Shu Rears Its Offensive Head," and "Cuvee Reservee, or, "The Widow's Cruse," a pathetically overwritten, dragging piece set during the Boer War and revolving around a shipment of high-priced wine that everyone wants to pilfer, by Gen. Sir Edward Dunlop Swinton, who wrote as "Ole-Luk-Oie." (Considering his lack of talent, his use of a pen name is understandable.) The former is part of a series set in China. (Why Bramah attempted to write in that setting, of which he was clearly clueless, is a mystery; his efforts to write Chinese dialogue are wince-worthy.) A few others are better, but flawed. Aldous Huxley is represented by "Cynthia," a very slight story that depends for its (weak) humor on a knowledge of classical mythology. "Old Joe" by Thomas Burke actually foreshadows the grim, gritty style of later American noir, but lacks the cynicism at its core. It's seriously marred, though, by the racist portrayal of Orientals; I don't mind Oriental --or Caucasian-- villains, but phrases like "drunken devils of yellow seamen" and "large, stooping Chinky" (in the third-person narrator's voice!) cross a line. Anthony Farley's "The Choice of a Profession" reads like a mash-up of two works, a satirical piece by an obnoxious representative of The Evil Oppressing Class --Farley was obviously a Socialist who took his social labeling of white hats and black hats with unrelieved self-righteous seriousness-- writing advice to his nephew and a dark account of outlawry in Belize (which would be pretty good by itself), and the two never really mesh. The humor in Stephen McKenna's "Pandora's Box," revolving around a couple trying to pretend to his employer to be something they're not, is real enough, but shallow (it reminded me of the weaker episodes of the old TV series Bewitched, to which I used to have the same reaction).
Even in this group, though, most of the stories were up to standard --though some are very dark indeed. A couple are laser-lit looks at cohabitating couples, and at the misery a selfish male jerk in that relationship can inflict on a woman (both women here earn the reader's compassion, but they react in very different ways). Another is a story of a woman's infidelity, and what that can do to her husband. (All of these realistically reflect the sexual revolution, which didn't start in the 60s --but they aren't sugar-coated propaganda for it.) The long shadow of World War I falls over three stories, all written by men who served as officers in that conflict. (One of these, F. Britten Austen's "A Battlepiece: Old Style," is probably one of the most horrific evocations of the nightmare insanity of modern war ever penned. It's not necessary to be a total pacifist to be in complete sympathy with his indictment.) Michael West, in "Cerise," delivers one of his characteristic (good) imitations of a medieval tale of magic and morality, which reads like the real thing. Saki is represented by "The Reticence of Lady Anne," which is hard to describe without a spoiler, but which perfectly illustrates his darkly cynical, deceptively humorous vision (his humor is almost always gallows humor). Finally, F. St. Mars' tale of modern-day (that is, post-1900) smuggling is one of my unabashed favorites here. :-) Other favorites included "Crab-Pots" by L. A. da Costa Ricci ("Bartimeus"), and A. E. Coppard's "Fifty Pounds," because of its strong heroine whom I liked --and respected.
I've shared some quibbles above regarding particular selections, and if I'd been editing the collection, I'd have included something by Katherine Mansfield. But no 1,047-page anthology will be perfect! It's an outstanding collection overall, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to either study the history of British short fiction or read it for pleasure (or both!). (less)
After listing this on my "read" shelf for years, I discovered last month that the "translation" I read as a teen was actually a very free adaptation,...moreAfter listing this on my "read" shelf for years, I discovered last month that the "translation" I read as a teen was actually a very free adaptation, which only loosely resembles what Aristophanes actually wrote. Naturally, I wanted to correct that mistake; and since I was looking for a short read right now, and had promised a Goodreads friend that I'd soon review the actual play, I worked it in over the past couple of days. Note: the above Dover edition is not actually the one I read; I read the translation by Charles T. Murphy, in the collection An Anthology of Greek Drama.
As the short description above suggests, this play was written and presented against the background of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (and their respective allies, which included pretty much the whole Greek world), which at the time had dragged on for 20 years. (It would drag on for seven more.) Though he was a patriotic Athenian, Aristophanes had no liking for the war or any of the suffering and evils that it brought in its train; he'd written other plays with the message "End it now!" This is the best known of his anti-war productions, in which he imagines the women of Greece "fighting" for peace with a very elemental, and quintessentially feminine, weapon: sexual blackmail.
In assessing the play itself, it should be noted immediately that it's not as salacious as the Goodreads descriptions of some editions imply. There's no explicit sex or outright obscenity; and though the women's vow includes non-marital as well as marital sex, the former is hardly mentioned; it's taken for granted that the usual setting for sex is in marriage. It's also taken for granted that, in that context, it's a natural and normal function that both genders like, a lot. (At the time this was written, while Pythagoras' physical world-disparaging, anti-sex philosophy was on the landscape, it hadn't made nearly the intellectual impact on the literate classes that it would from the time of Plato on; voluntary celibacy wasn't a common phenomenon, and virtually all adults married early by our standards.) That's not, in itself, an unwholesome fact to recognize. That said, the treatment here does include a certain amount of earthy humor, and some that descends from earthy to crude. (My impression was that some of this was pandering to the tastes of the coarser and less mature elements of the audience; the erection references, for instance, struck me as being on the intellectual level of the flatulence references that my grandsons imagine to be funny --but one's in kindergarten and one's in preschool. :-( Some of the dialog in this vein also came across as forced and unrealistic. (Of course, not all the double entendres are readily apparent to modern readers.) Aristophanes also exaggerates, to make his point, the effect that sexual deprivation would have on both genders; even for healthy adults who are used to regular marital relations (and these were actually greatly interrupted anyway by the mens' military service, a contradiction the author mentions but glosses over!), I don't think five days would suffice to reduce the males to the straits it does here. (Five months, or five weeks, maybe. :-) ) For me as a modern reader, another difficulty was that I couldn't follow all of the topical, cultural, and mythological references that the original audience would have understood immediately. (This edition doesn't have notes.) That's not a fair criticism of Aristophanes' work, but it did effect my own personal enjoyment, and hence my rating. (I also couldn't follow the thought of a couple of the choral speeches, which I found confusing.)
But though all the factors above cost the play a couple of stars, I liked it (my rating would actually have been 3 1/2 stars if I could give half stars, though I didn't round up). The anti-war message, and the reminders to both sides that they have reason to feel gratitude, not enmity, to the other, comes through loud and clear, and I give Aristophanes a lot of kudos for that. (He's a testament to the long and honorable heritage of anti-war conservatism!) Moreover, the treatment of women is outstanding, especially in the context of a very sexist culture that disparaged them! Lysistrata is depicted as a strong, wise born leader; male canards about women are punctured and lampooned, and the men get the worst of the physical confrontations (which, in performance, would have had a gloriously slapstick flavor). In Greek theater parlance, a "comedy" is any play that's not tragic; but this does have plenty of actual humor, both verbal and situational.
IMO, the modern adaptation I read as a teen improved the work in some respects. Alas, I can't recall the exact bibliographic information! (less)
Both my oldest daughter and her husband are fans of the Hornblower series, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the A & E movie productions that I've seen...moreBoth my oldest daughter and her husband are fans of the Hornblower series, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the A & E movie productions that I've seen of the Hornblower corpus; so I was motivated to read the books, and decided to begin at the beginning of Hornblower's career, with this novel. (My only previous acquaintance with Forester was from reading one of his short stories.) I'm glad to say it didn't disappoint!
Forester had a deft hand with maritime adventure (not all of it dealing with combat), characterization, and easily-readable Realist style. The movies based on parts of this novel don't always follow the book very closely; the Hornblower revealed here is a more complex character than the film version, younger (a teen at the beginning) and more callow, and definitely fallible. I could actually identify with him to a high degree --even though I'd never be able to do some of the things he did-- because he's portrayed as awkward and shy, and as pushing himself to the limit to do things that tax and scare him mainly because he fears other people's ridicule if he doesn't; and because he can make the same kind of absent-minded mistakes (like forgetting to cock his pistol when he's going into combat) that I could imagine myself making. One critic I've read felt that Forester is a less deep writer than his fellow maritime novelist, Melville, because he doesn't go in for symbolism and allegory. Nonetheless, his writing isn't shallow; he confronts his hero with several demands for moral decision-making. (And on these occasions, Hornblower comes through, earning the reader's respect and setting a good example.) The writing here is vivid; you get a really powerful picture of the hard and dangerous character of naval life in that day as you experience, along with the hero, the palms of his hands being flayed bloody by having to slide down a rough rope from a falling mast, or the winter cold and wet of the waves constantly breaking over him in an open boat.
Although this book is usually considered a novel, the structure is episodic enough that it could have been billed as a collection of short stories; though the chapters are placed in chronological order, they're each perfectly self-contained and could stand as distinct units. Since this wasn't the first Hornblower book to be written, it doesn't furnish any detailed information about his life before he went to sea, or why he decided on such a career; I'm assuming this would have appeared in the first book, but the lack of it here made for a gap in the character development. Also, if Forester ever explained the basic nautical terms of a sail-driven ship and its rigging and operations, he doesn't do it here; technical terms are used abundantly and you glean (or sometimes, don't glean) an approximation of the meaning from the context, unless you've picked up a definition elsewhere. (A sailing ship entry in a good visual dictionary would be a useful accompaniment to this read!) But these are minor caveats; I'm looking forward to eventually reading the next two books (in terms of Hornblower's life chronology) of the series, at least.(less)
Having previously read several of the stories in this collection, it didn't take as long as it might otherwise have to read the rest. (One of my Goodr...moreHaving previously read several of the stories in this collection, it didn't take as long as it might otherwise have to read the rest. (One of my Goodreads friends had marked it as to-read, and I thought he might enjoy having a review to give him an idea of what to expect!)
The most obvious quibble here is that the title is an exercise in false advertising: in nearly half of the stories, a supernatural element is either completely nonexistent, ambiguous, or purely nominal. Another one, "The Little Room" by Madelene Yale Wynne, presents a bizarre and seemingly impossible series of events which neither the reader nor the characters can identify as a product of supernatural or of natural causes --the total inability to suggest any explanation is what gives the story its eerie power. A second quibble is with the pretentious and unilluminating introduction (complete with footnotes, most of which I didn't read), which only occasionally achieves an insight, but more frequently tells us more about the sorry state of modern academic literary criticism than it does about the stories. Two of Bendixen's principal hobby-horses (which he rides until the poor beasts are lathered and ready to collapse :-)) are feminist subtexts and sexual themes; and if the actual texts of the stories fail to provide any basis for this, he readily resorts to deconstructionist inventions to create one. (The short individual introductions to each story usually contain more factual material about the authors, and are more informative.)
That said, the stories themselves are usually excellent; and the authors represented are mostly women whose work I had read very little of or not at all, making the reading experience particularly rewarding for me. Of the half-dozen stories I would characterize by the term "supernatural" (most of these are ghost stories, but reincarnation and psychic vampirism also provide themes for a couple of them), there is no doubt in the reader's mind (at least, this reader's!) as to the authors' intention to depict the paranormal, but even so, in many of them the supernatural presence is not dramatic or outre;' there is no blood and gore, and often nothing that a determined skeptic could not explain as "natural" and coincidental --even though we know it isn't! And often the ghostly or supernatural intrusion is not scary or menacing, but poignant and moving. IMO, the two stories by Freeman, "Louella Miller" and "The Lost Ghost" are among the best of the supernatural group here (both are taken from her 1903 collection The Wind in the Rose-Bush, and Other Stories of the Supernatural, which is a title I need to add to my to-read shelf). But Jewett's "The Foreigner" and Wharton's "Pomegranate Seed" are also outstanding.
The non-supernatural stories are also fine examples of quality short fiction in their own right, even if nominally out of place in an anthology with this title. Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a grim masterpiece, a chilling portrayal of a young woman's descent into madness, and a powerful indictment of the way that 19th-century society too often treated women (Bendixen didn't have to hunt for a feminist message here!). Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' "The True Story of Guenever" only uses the names and and a thin veneer of Arthurian fantasy to construct a story about marital interaction and fidelity in what is openly a contemporary setting; she actually pulls this off effectively (and presents a profoundly Christian message in the process). And to single out just one more for special mention, "The Amber Gods" by Harriet Prescott Spofford is a rich story of manners and human relationships in a Romantic style that also foreshadows aspects of regionalist Realism (it was published in 1863). Spofford's use of physical description of differences in dress, jewelry, lace and other accouterments to give the reader a sense of the contrasting characters of Yone and her cousin Lu is absolutely masterful, and belies the dictum that description of clothing is never worthwhile!(less)
Agatha Christie is justly regarded as the grande dame of the traditional Anglo-American mystery in the period between the World Wars. Both fans and cr...moreAgatha Christie is justly regarded as the grande dame of the traditional Anglo-American mystery in the period between the World Wars. Both fans and critics of writings in this genre from that time agree that, on the whole, whatever their merits, these novels usually do tend to follow a rather predictable, formulaic plot structure, and tend to be purely intellectual puzzles or entertaining stories which don't grapple with serious moral or philosophical questions. But neither of those generalizations apply to this book! That accounts for my five-star rating; and probably also has something to do with why this ranks as one of Christie's better-known works. (There have been at least two movie adaptations.)
As noted above, this "locked-room" mystery is the tenth of Christie's novels to feature her best-known series sleuth, Hercule Poirot, whose "little grey cells" will get a real workout here. (The Poirot novels and stories don't have to be read in order; the protagonist's character doesn't develop over time, and his life circumstances don't change in any significant ways.) The circumstances of the case makes the pool of suspects definite and limited, and nobody involved is going anywhere any time soon. But this is offset by a bewildering array of contradictory clues and physical evidence; readers of mystery fiction usually like to try to solve the case along with the detective, but to do that here, you'll have to really think outside the box. (And even though the train may be stalled, you're in for quite a thrill ride of successive surprising revelations!) This novel had, for me, more of a period feel than some of Christie's other novels; and she exhibits a real talent for delineating character traits with small details. (The deftly-pegged prejudices of some of the characters, and one American's casual use of the term "Wop," tell us more about their attitudes than about Christie's.) Traveling solo as he is here, Poirot doesn't have his usual foil, Captain Hastings; but Christie provides him with two others, a French acquaintance who's a director of the railroad line and a Greek medical doctor.
This is a masterpiece of the mystery genre, with an ending that may leave you sitting back and saying, "Wow!" Highly recommended!(less)
The above description (which I wrote --it didn't have one before, only an unilluminating, seemingly random quotation from the book) gives you a one-se...moreThe above description (which I wrote --it didn't have one before, only an unilluminating, seemingly random quotation from the book) gives you a one-sentence idea of the type of book this is, and the setting/milieu. Like his protagonist, Richard Hannay (who appears in other Buchan works as well), the author had spent considerable time in southern Africa, and led an adventurous life. Novels of espionage in 1915 were in their infancy; but the outbreak of World War I, and the climate of intrigue that led up to it, undoubtedly inspired such a tale and lent a creditable context for it. Buchan definitely influenced later practitioners of the genre (which is why not all of his plot devices strike the reader as freshly as they would have in 1915).
Lately returned to England from Africa, and at loose ends, Hannay is appealed to for help and shelter by a fellow lodger, an American ex- journalist who fears for his life, and who spins a tale of an impending assassination of a Balkan political figure which will plunge Europe into war. (Sound familiar? :-)) When the fellow's dead body turns up in Hannay's living room. pinned to the floor by a knife, our hero is forced to flee both from the killers and from the police, who suspect him of the murder. But the victim (whose notebook, written in cipher, is now in Hannay's possession) was lucky in his choice of an ally; a former Boer War intelligence officer and veteran of other African adventures, he's a man with considerable pluck and savvy, and resolved to foil the nefarious plot. But can he? This tale of escape and pursuit, disguises and codes, danger and duplicity will answer that question. :-)
Buchan's characterizations aren't deep here, nor his writing profound philosophically; the book doesn't purport to be anything but a really good, rousing adventure yarn. But it is that. The short length precludes much development of plot, characters, settings, atmosphere, etc; but it does guarantee a quick narrative pace that precludes any boredom. Hannay is really inventive in getting out of his various jeopardies, and the reader easily roots for him. One Goodreads reviewer complained of problems of credibility in virtually all of the plot. In a few places, Buchan does resort to coincidence with more convenience than the laws of probability would probably justify (though not to the degree that his contemporary, Edgar Rice Burroughs, often did.) In the main, though, I didn't find credibility a big problem. I think the other reviewer probably felt the readiness of characters in the book to confide, at times, in total strangers was unrealistic, but I didn't --in the first place, the despair of a life-and-death situation makes anybody pretty willing to grab at a straw; but more importantly, this was written in 1915, in a world that cynical moderns usually can't begin to comprehend. Men of the stamp of Hannay and other characters actually were socialized to hold ideals of patriotism, duty and responsibility, decency and fair play; they took it for granted (and could safely take it for granted) that these were the kinds of attitudes "gentlemen" could be expected to not only believe in, but act on if necessary. (The same goes for the automatic extension of hospitality by Highlanders to strangers, without desire for payment, in 1915 --though I doubt if a similar degree of generosity would be as apt to be shown today.) And the psychology of the climactic hurdle near the end actually rang perfectly true for me.
For the most part, I didn't have a problem with the early 20th-century British colloquial vocabulary; even if I didn't understand some terms, I could usually get a rough idea of what was meant from the context. My biggest complaint --and it wasn't very noticeable here, but cropped up occasionally-- was the ignorant and unconscious racism implied in the use of a phrase like "You're a white man" as a compliment, and the ethnic prejudice that can refer to a Greek as a "Dago" and that lurks in some of the characters' comments about Jews. But in this respect Buchan's characters (and probably Buchan) were children of their time.(less)
Note: I read this in a different edition than the above, a 1952 printing by World Publishing Co. with a serviceable four-page introduction by a Thomas...moreNote: I read this in a different edition than the above, a 1952 printing by World Publishing Co. with a serviceable four-page introduction by a Thomas Layman. It gives no information on the date or provenance of its translation.
Until this month, my acquaintance with Dumas' classic, like most people's, came strictly from our popular culture (where the musketeer motif appears everywhere from movies to candy bars!) --principally from movie adaptations of this novel and spin-offs from it. Since I've been an avid fan of these, I approached this novel with pretty high expectations. Unfortunately, it proved to be a disappointment; my rating wasn't nearly as high as I expected it to be (nor as high as those of virtually any of my Goodreads friends who've rated it); and if I could give half stars, it would slip down to two and a half. Part of the disappointment no doubt stems from the inaccurate expectations formed by the movies, and part from qualities inherent in the book itself.
The Gascon swordsman D'Artagnan apparently was a real person, though according to Layman his published Memoirs, with which Dumas was familiar, were actually written by one Courtils de Sandras. "Athos," "Porthos" and "Aramis" appear there as well, though Dumas believed (and states in the novel) that these were aliases disguising their real names. Some other characters and situations come from this source as well, though others derive from other sources or from pure imagination (Buckingham's romantic infatuation with King Louis' wife is in the latter category). The novel's rivalry between the king's musketeers and the cardinal's guards is drawn from the Memoirs; but the movies sharpen it and make it into a moral/ideological struggle between the minions of an evil prelate who's trying to seize power for selfish purposes vs. the devoted servants of a king who are supposedly fighting for a vaguely-defined nobler set of social goals. I always knew this couldn't have been a historically accurate picture; Richelieu had all the real power as it was, with no reason to want more nor to be dissatisfied with his puppet king, and his policies were aimed singlemindedly at strengthening the French state, not at his own interests personally. But it's a premise that did make for exciting and dramatic conflicts, and I always supposed it came from Dumas. In the Memoirs and the novel, however, the plot is much more grounded in reality; the two swaggering groups of sword-boys don't have policy differences as such, just a petty team rivalry and animosity like that between two rival high schools (except that these bunches of juveniles have swords and lethal combat training). So the novel doesn't have a broad social good vs. social evil framework.
Related to the above, the four main characters are much less heroic moral exemplars in the book than in the movie versions (where they're quite whitewashed), and significantly less likeable --though, to be fair, they also have their good qualities. In the book, the character Constance is married (though her husband is a contemptible louse); but that doesn't stop D'Artagnan from amorously pursuing her. While he's supposedly deeply "in love" with her, however, he's also bedding two other women, one whose favors he gets by a trick he admits was "unworthy of a gentleman," and the other whose love for him he shabbily exploits to deliberately use her as a tool. (Porthos, not to be outdone, is a gigolo with an unattractive mistress whom he strings along just to wheedle sums of her husband's money out of her from time to time.) Their attitude (and Dumas') towards their servants stinks. Athos affects a self-imposed silence on himself and his servant, so that they communicate only by hand signs; but if the young man happens to misunderstand the master's wishes (which he can't verbally ask about!), Athos beats him. When he can't afford to pay his "lackey" anymore, D'Artagnan, on the advice of his buddies, beats up the unfortunate servant and forbids him to quit; this supposedly wins him the impressed underling's undying loyalty. (As you may have guessed, Dumas himself never worked as a servant. :-( ) Novelist Norah Lofts once has a character say that people reveal much of their character by how they treat helpless animals. When the young man is about to set out for Paris, D'Artagnan's father gifts him with an old and faithful (though unattractive) horse, and charges him never to sell the animal, but to let it retire in peace to pasture. As soon as he hits town, practically his first act is to sell the poor beast and pocket the cash. He also avows his willingness, at one point when he's in a hurry to get somewhere, to ride a horse or two to death or maiming, since he has the money to replace them. (I hoped one would give him a good hard kick in a tender part of his anatomy, but alas, it didn't happen. :-( )
Overall, the novel has a number of other features that weaken it as compared to the film tradition. It's much less compact in time, spanning the years 1625-1628, with a 19th-century style epilogue telling us the subsequent fates of the characters. (Though in Dumas' hands, 1626 apparently just vanishes down the memory hole in a chronological slip; and after he has Buckingham assassinated on Aug. 23, 1628 --that's a "spoiler" only for people who slept through British history class!-- the author somehow flips the calendar of subsequent events back to Aug. 15.) The plot is a bit jerry-built, with the intrigue and danger involving the recovery of the queen's diamond studs given to Buckingham occupying only the first part of it. Much of the last part revolves around the historical siege of La Rochelle, Buckingham's assassination (in which Milady De Winter is involved, in Dumas' version), and Milady's sinister schemes for personal vengeance against our hero. In between, we have a fair amount of filler involving the reunion of the friends and their efforts to pay for equipping themselves properly for the La Rochelle campaign. (Some of this is intended to be comic relief, and some of it actually is, though it's not always as comic as Dumas thought it.) There are some cases of wildly unlikely coincidence or of unlikely knowledge on a character's part. Dumas doesn't develop the religious theme that could have been built around Aramis' struggle between his felt call to the priesthood and his more secular or carnal impulses (probably because the author himself didn't have the degree of spiritual interest or insight needed to do that). And for readers who put a premium on sword-fighting action, that motif is much less prominent here than it typically is in the movies. Rebekah De Mornay's Milady in the Disney movie is a much more round and nuanced character than the one here. (Though Dumas' Richelieu is a much more believable and realistic approximation of the real one than the Disney version's caricature; and Rochefort is much less a consummate villain here than he's drawn in the movies.) And the characters' readiness to engage in duels to the death over nothing, or over minor slights to their "honor" (usually confused with overbearing, chip-on-the-shoulder pride) gets old quickly.
On the plus side --and it has one, since I finished the book and gave it three stars!-- the last part of the novel (more so than the first) is a tense, gripping page-turner. Dumas' has a dry wit at times that can be appealing. His prose reads well; even though it can have some long sentences and complex sentence structure, and big words, it isn't as daunting as it looks, and could usually be understood easily enough by most intelligent modern readers if they'd give it a chance. (The exceptions are French terminology in several places --and, in this translation, occasional untranslated French words apparently retained for flavor-- but I was able to simply read around these, or deduce an approximated meaning from context.) For anyone who's seen the movies, comparing the two art forms can be fascinating (there are a number of details that are paralleled in the Disney version especially). Some passages are genuinely moving; and Milady's character, like a cobra in a glass case, fascinates even while it repels. (As the title character of the old Get Smart TV series might have remarked, "If only she'd used her talents for niceness instead of evil!")
In summary, this was, for me, a read that fell short of expectations; I'll always prefer the movie versions, and won't be searching out much of the author's other work (though I still want to read The Count of Monte Cristo). But it has an undeniable historical interest, and isn't without its merits; and others have liked it better than I did --you might, as well!(less)
Verne's works are difficult for an English-speaking reader to evaluate fairly, because he wasn't well-served by the English translations of his day --...moreVerne's works are difficult for an English-speaking reader to evaluate fairly, because he wasn't well-served by the English translations of his day --which are still the standard ones in print, which most people read. The translators changed plots and characters' names in some cases, excised passages they considered "boring," and generally took a very free hand with the text; so you never know how much of the plodding pacing, bathetic dialogue, and stylistic faults (for instance, what passes for "description" here is usually simply long lists of marine species whose appearance most readers have no idea of) to blame on them and how much on Verne. In any case, those characteristics are fully in view in the translation of this novel that I read, in addition to the basic 19th-century diction which will be off-putting to many modern readers anyway (my wife chose not to finish the book). The success of the book when it was written, in my opinion, owed much more to the novelty of the premise than to the execution of the finished product; and today, where submarines and undersea travel are commonplace, that factor doesn't operate. (This is a pity, because Captain Nemo is actually one of Verne's more complex and memorable characters, and deserves a better literary medium for his story!)(less)
Having recently reviewed Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which was clearly Montgomery's major literary influence in creating Anne, I thought this might be...moreHaving recently reviewed Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which was clearly Montgomery's major literary influence in creating Anne, I thought this might be an opportune time to review her masterwork as well. The two novels have a lot of similarities in conception and basic plotting. Both are excellent exemplars of Realist style; both follow an intelligent, sensitive, spirited girl attuned to the beautiful and the artistic (Anne and Rebekah aren't clones of each other, but they're soul sisters down to the bone), entering what's essentially a foster home, as a "tween," in a rural community up in the northeastern corner of North America, and growing to the cusp of young womanhood as we follow her experiences and maturing consciousness; and both are written with a warm and winsome tone that looks at life honestly but optimistically. Both authors exhibit great artistry in character portrayal, including their secondary characters.
There are, of course, differences. (Some of these are discussed in close detail in an excellent recent online article at the website Canadian Icons.) Obviously, the exact nature of the girls' individual escapades, adventures and challenges are unique to each book. (Anne, for instance, unlike Rebecca, is red-haired, and initially very ashamed of her hair color.) The difference between the American and Canadian settings exert subtle influences on the protagonist's attitudes. Of the two authors, Montgomery is the one who most employs literary symbolism, and in a very adept and subtle way. And unlike Wiggins, Montgomery endows her heroine with a romantic interest. (In Rebecca's case, while wealthy businessman Adam Ladd is obviously taken with her, the age difference militates against the likelihood of any romantic interest as such, and there's no direct indication of any.) My own experience of the two books was different as well: I first read the (slightly) older book as a child, with a child's less knowledgeable but more enthusiastic perspective, while I encountered Anne as an adult, more jaded but also gifted with deeper perception. (I'd also previously watched the outstanding Anne of Green Gables miniseries starring Megan Follows, so I had a very definite picture of the characters in my mind!)
There's a reason why this book, and its heroine, continues to capture the affection of readers more than a century after it was written. The story of the growing relationship between Anne and the aging sister and brother, Marilla and Matthew, and what they bring to each other's lives, is universal, touching, and emotionally enriching. Anne herself is one of literature's most special, endearing characters, and her experiences all make for great entertainment. Montgomery followed this novel with a series of sequels, which follow Anne into married life; my wife and I have read the second book of the series, Anne of Avonlea, and liked it. But our enjoyment of it wasn't as great as with the first book; I'd venture the judgment that the series opener is probably in a class by itself.
Not having read much Canadian literature in my life, I'm not in a position to assess Montgomery's place in Canadian letters. (Though it's an objective fact that she's among the Canadian writers with the widest recognition and admiration among readers internationally.) But I would certainly say that the disposition of some would-be arbiters of literary greatness to disparage her achievement, just because she's popular with (gasp, shudder!) the Great Unwashed of ordinary readers, is fundamentally misguided. (And I could add a few less restrained adjectives, but won't. :-) ) Ordinary people who like to read and appreciate reading that's likeable are, in the long run, generally better judges of what constitutes literary merit than ivory-tower critics well-versed in the latest critical fads and dogmas and in nothing else (and usually convinced that their ability to endure literary misery proves their superiority over the vulgar herd). If I'm right, in a couple of hundred years (if the world endures that long), I suspect that this book will still be avidly read, while today's latest critical seven-day wonders are lost to historical oblivion.(less)
Frequently retold, and adapted many times for both film and stage, this classic is probably Dicken's best known novel today (which might have surprise...moreFrequently retold, and adapted many times for both film and stage, this classic is probably Dicken's best known novel today (which might have surprised him :-)). There's probably no one who doesn't know the basic story of a miser's moral transformation as a result of his ghostly visitants --Dickens achieves a masterful re-casting of the traditional elements of Victorian ghost stories, to make the ghosts a positive rather than a sinister force-- and Scrooge is a household word. The story is so familiar that you sometimes have to will yourself to read it with fresh eyes, and experience it the way the first readers would have, without imagining all the movie versions (and I can say this from experience, since I've forgotten exactly how many times I've read it). Dickens offers, here, all the elements that make his writing a joy: brilliant characterizations, sharp social consciousness, moral clarity and passion, and the ability to tug at your heartstrings. Some critics have argued that Scrooge's abrupt turn-around is unrealistic, and that the motivation is purely external. But I disagree; the ghosts appeal to memories and buried feelings that are inside him. All he needed was a catalyst to bring them to the fore, and the experiences the ghosts supply do that.
It can also be argued that, for a Christmas story, this plot seems to have little direct relation to the birth of Christ. In fact, though, the "sacred character" of Christmas that Fred mentions is presupposed throughout, and the message of caring and giving reflects the thrust of Christ's own ministry and teaching. Tiny Tim's reminder of the One who caused the blind to see and made lame beggars walk isn't coincidental, nor is the fact that one of the first things the reformed Scrooge does is go to church. Another part of Dicken's message that shouldn't be missed is the assertion that, if you would "keep Christmas well," this ethic is for the other 364 days of the year too, not just for Christmas.
All in all, this is the perfect read for the holiday season! But in keeping with the sentiment just noted, it's well worth reading at any time of the year; and its message and appeal are genuinely timeless.(less)
As a teenager, Jewett was inspired to become a writer by her indignation over the sneering condescension with which summer visitors from Boston treate...moreAs a teenager, Jewett was inspired to become a writer by her indignation over the sneering condescension with which summer visitors from Boston treated the country people of her beloved native Maine. "I determined to teach the world," she wrote, "[that they] were not the awkward, ignorant set those people seemed to think. I wanted the world to know their grand, simple lives; and so far as I had a mission, when I first began to write, I think that was it." Most readers of these stories will feel that she fulfilled her mission admirably, creating gems of short fiction endowed with the same simple grandeur as her subjects, stories that make ordinary human character and life endlessly fascinating in the best Realist tradition, and which use a particular setting to illuminate universal truths in the best regionalist tradition. And, as the above quote shows, her regionalism (like that of many other writers, then and now) is a justified defense of genuine diversity, a ringing statement that the cultural attitudes and practices of our ruling snobocracy are not the "right" ones to which all the rest of the world needs to be forcibly assimilated.
The long title piece was, as Cather notes, actually unfinished when Jewett died, so as it stands it is more a series of prose sketches than a plotted story; but it contains some of her most vivid characterizations and richest descriptions of Maine life. At least one other posthumous collection of Jewett's stories has this title, but a different editor and different though overlapping content. Of the stories here, "The White Heron," an expression of love and protective care for nature that shows us the 19th-century roots of today's environmentalism, is no doubt her masterpiece; but all of the stories are good. My own favorite is "Martha's Lady," a beautiful study of the power of friendship and encouragement.(less)
Wilde deliberately cultivated the public persona of a cynical, amoral hedonist, much like the character of Henry Wotton here; but there are indication...moreWilde deliberately cultivated the public persona of a cynical, amoral hedonist, much like the character of Henry Wotton here; but there are indications in some of his writings that his real attitude towards faith and virtue was more approving than he let on (he eventually converted, very late in life, to Roman Catholicism). This novel could serve as exhibit A for that premise: the deformity and ugliness that comes to Dorian's portrait is not primarily caused by physical changes, but by spiritual and moral devolution --and if no other symbolism were furnished, the picture's ultimate hideousness expresses the author's judgment upon the changes in his protagonist; for a person as worshipful of beauty as Wilde, there could be no greater condemnation than depicting something as ugly. (Ever mindful of his image, in his preface he disclaims any moral message --but allows that a fiction writer is concerned with the moral life of his characters, which in practice is a distinction without much difference!)
Whether or not this is supernatural fiction depends on how the reader explains (Wilde doesn't) the granting of Dorian's wish; in the movie version, he utters it before the image of a pagan Egyptian god, whom Henry avers is fully capable of granting it, but this is absent in the book. For Wilde's purpose, whether the cause is supernatural, psychic, or some other natural force is immaterial --the crux of the story is the result, not the cause, and what that result has to tell us about how Dorian lives his life.
Stylistically, this book is written with typical Victorian diction; and it is not, for the most part, a novel of action --its horror results mostly from moral revulsion, not from violence (though there is some of that) or from scary apparitions. If those features would bother or bore you (they didn't me ;-) ), this wouldn't be the book for you. But if you appreciate the kind of fiction that forces you to think about what's important in life, and how and why it should be lived, Wilde's masterpiece will do exactly that.(less)
Actually, I read Tolkien's masterful Middle Earth fantasy corpus, beginning with The Hobbit in the early 70's and finishing the Lord of the Rings tril...moreActually, I read Tolkien's masterful Middle Earth fantasy corpus, beginning with The Hobbit in the early 70's and finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy almost a decade later, before this anniversary edition came out. (I also read all four books to my wife in the early 80's; she loved them too!)
This body of work is, of course, the genre-defining classic of modern fantasy --especially epic, or "high" fantasy -- which popularized the genre as the publishing market force it is today, exerted enormous influence over practically all subsequent fantasy authors (including R. A. Salvatore and Terry Brooks), and set the conventions readers would come to expect: a pre-technological setting, an epochal struggle between good and evil whose outcome is determined by magical factors, and a demand for personal moral growth on the part of the characters thrust into a pivotal role in that struggle. And Tolkien's depictions of wizards, elves, dwarfs, dragons, etc. became the template for all subsequent portrayals of these creatures.
Part of the success of Tolkien's work derives from the breath- taking scope of his world-building, which reflects his day jobs as a philologist and medievalist; he created entire languages and folklores for his "Middle Earth," as well as a detailed, millenia-spanning history. But more importantly, as a devout Catholic, he embodied his deeply Christian world-view in the writing: his fantasy world (though he doesn't employ the kind of explicit Christian symbolism that C. S. Lewis does) is the scene of conflict between and evil with world-altering significance, under a superintending Providence, in which the individual moral choices of both the high and the lowly have significance, and temptation is an ever-present danger.(less)
Actually, I read Dracula in a different edition than the Norton one (and so can't comment on that edition's critical features). I'd read a dumbed-down...moreActually, I read Dracula in a different edition than the Norton one (and so can't comment on that edition's critical features). I'd read a dumbed-down kid's adaptation of it as a child; but when I was in the process of writing my own vampire novel, I wanted to read the real thing, just to experience the roots of the literary tradition. I'm glad that I did!
Of course, Stoker's isn't the first treatment of the vampire theme in literature, though it became the first one to have world-wide popularity, and thus the fountainhead from which most of the subsequent treatments came. He drew on the work of earlier writers, especially John Polidori and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and like them he treats the vampire as an inherently evil entity, one whose human values and conscience are wholly replaced by a ruthless blood thirst, coupled with cunning. But much more than his predecessors, he brings out the Christian symbolism of the legend, inherent for instance in the vampire's fear of the cross and of Communion wafers. Dracula serves very well as a symbol of Satan; while Dr. Van Helsing, loyal son of the Church, is an archetypal Christian warrior against evil. Their struggle for the soul of Mina Harker --bitten by Dracula, but not wholly turned to evil-- becomes a spiritual tug-of-war, emblematic of the spiritual struggle for each of our own souls in the real world (where supernatural evil is just as real).
Not much of the violence here is directly described, nor does Stoker go out of his way to stress the erotic elements that are also inherent in the legend. This reticence is a feature of his Victorian style; so is the novel's epistolary structure and old-fashioned diction, which won't be to every reader's taste. But if you're not scared off by either his subject matter or his style, you'll find this a great read!(less)
For Morris (who was not only a writer, but an artist, scholar, and handicraft enthusiast as well), medieval Europe was a still --relevant social and e...moreFor Morris (who was not only a writer, but an artist, scholar, and handicraft enthusiast as well), medieval Europe was a still --relevant social and economic model for the regeneration of modern society. It also profoundly influenced his creativity. His fantasies, which are (along with those of Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald) among the most influential works in the genre before Tolkien, are set in a medieval environment that serves as an invented fantasy world. They're also written in a deliberately archaic, medieval-sounding style similar to that of his translations of the Icelandic sagas into English (which won't be to all readers' taste).
His plot here has a strong erotic undercurrent (and "erotic" is not a synonym for "dirty") and often considerable sexual tension, and it obliquely raises the issue, usually taboo in Victorian literature, of divorce and remarriage. But he treats this with 19th-century delicacy, and within the framework of an essentially chaste moral vision, so it does not come across as at all offensive. The story itself is an exciting, involving and appealing one, drawing elements from his study of medieval folklore and bringing them to life in imaginative ways. A masterful work, from a master of the genre!(less)
After reading a book or series of books, sometimes thinking over time about what you've read, mentally comparing it to other literature in the same ge...moreAfter reading a book or series of books, sometimes thinking over time about what you've read, mentally comparing it to other literature in the same genre, and being involved in discussions about it will lead you to value it more highly, and to give it a higher rating. That's what's happened to me with the Narnia series; my appreciation for it has steadily grown!(less)