Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Dead

Let’s start this post in good support circle fashion with the following;
“My name is Matthew, and I am a bloggin’ liar”

It feels good to get that off my chest. The reason I am a liar is because I am about to break something I wrote in my first post ;‘I will post when I've finished each text. So I won't be looking back at a text through the muggy glasses of time.’ Between a long weekend away (I’d say a relaxing and mature long weekend, but who am I kidding?) and a busy week, I have had no time to write about my two most recent reading adventures; William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (204 pages), and James Joyce’s The Dead (59 pages).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I have a love-hate relationship with Mr. Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always been at the top of the ‘love’ end of things! I can’t help but smile when I read the verses that fill this play. Especially when Bottom or Robin Goodfellow (although due to previous versions, I will always just regard him as Puck) are on the stage/ page (see what I did there?).

For example, I find Bottom’s tendency toward obviousness entirely hilarious. Take for example when he is acting as Pyramus in the play-within-a-play and tries to point out that Snout is a wall; “And thou, o wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,/ That stand’st between her father’s ground and/ mine,/ Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,/ Show me thy chink to blink through mine/ eyne.” (Shakespeare 5.1.183-8)

I think the reason I enjoy this so much is due to Shakespeare’s playfulness with the characters it isn’t bogged down with hubris-filled tragic heroes but filled with love triangles (well, more like a love square) and mythical creatures.

So, please all remember how much I spoke highly of this piece because I am taking a full-year Shakespeare course starting in September so you will likely be hearing some very nasty words about the playwright very soon!

The Dead

I don’t usually write about all the short stories I read because this blog would get so boring and would take up way to much of my time (for example, I read seven just yesterday) but I fell obliged to write about this particular James Joyce story because I have it in a little bound book on its lonesome so it deserve some special attention!

This book is a masterpiece of character studies. From Joyce’s use of the character’s thoughts about each other, their interactions with one another, and descriptions of them, this simple friend and family get together turns out to be an interesting look at how completely different individuals make up a group and fit together.

There is one character in particular that most intrigued me. She is plainly in sight throughout the whole short story and yet the person she really is seems hidden in shadows and mystery. This character is Aunt Julia.

Throughout the story it is insinuated that she is a somewhat unusual character, when compared with her sister Aunt Kate. Just look at this early description of her person; “the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going.” (Joyce 6)

However, quite suddenly in the story, out of nowhere (at least to the reader, although maybe not to the other party guests), she starts to sing with a “voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of grace notes.” (Joyce 22) How did this seemingly confused, feeble creature suddenly burst into elegant song? I can’t help but wonder who this woman once was. Especially taking into account the fact that she is singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Although I am unfamiliar with the song I found the lyrics online.

Arrayed for the bridal, in beauty behold her

A white wreath entwineth a forehead more fair;

I envy the zephyrs that softly enfold her,

And play with the locks of her beautiful hair.

May life to her prove full of sunshine and love.

Who would not love her?

Sweet star of the morning, shining so bright

Earth’s circle adorning, fair creature of light!”

Having this older woman, earlier described as holding a “large flaccid face” (Joyce 6), sing such a beautiful song just adds more to the mystery that enticed me.

The above is just one of the many characters we meet in the small number of pages this story takes up and I would very much advise you to read the story if you ever get a chance so you can learn about all the others.

This story was originally part of Joyce’s collection Dubliners. After reading this (and also The Boarding House) it is now only my books-to-read list (quite literally, I have a little book so I don’t forget books I hear about)!

The A Midsummer Night’s Dream edition I read was ISBN: 0-7434-8281-6
The The Dead edition I read was ISBN: 0-14-60.0082-X

Joyce, James. The Dead. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Print.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Turn of the Screw

‘I avoided it like the plague’; I can’t say that this common phrase exactly fits my feeling towards Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (271 pages). On the other hand, from what I had been told of this novel in the past I can say that I did avoid it like a sickness. But sadly being an English Literature student, my professors sometimes sneeze all over my avoidances by adding books like this to the syllabus.

Although I had no great love for this book, I did decide to start reading the novel with an open mind. However, I wasn’t exactly rewarded for my open-mindedness. I say this only because I did not fully enjoy the plot of the novella whatsoever.

The opening scene of the book, with it’s introduction of some terrible story, lead me to believe that I would be on the edge of my seat with a riveting story of peril. What I found on the majority of the pages were incredibly long and drawn out descriptions of the thoughts and feelings of the main character (the unnamed narrator); no of which gave me the remotest feeling of curiosity or excitement.

I found the two children, Miles and Flora, to be exceedingly annoying and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, couldn’t even be described as annoying due to the fact that her character was so boring and flat.

After pages upon pages of tedious, unnecessary descriptions the novella started to pick up, towards the end, but sadly ended on what I deem to be a rather expected twist.

I do apologize that this review has been so pessimistic, and as you can see on my previous posts I usually enjoy at least some aspect of a story, but Henry James appeared to have looked upon the success of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and thought ‘Hmm, if Poe was so successful with these horrors in such a small number of pages I will be ten times more successful if I pad my own story with many more pages.’ I can imagine Poe rolling around in his grave seeing that the horror of his The Black Cat, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Cask of Amontillado had evolved into this disappointing mess.

As you have probably noticed, from the photos I have on these posts, I buy many of my books used (either from used book stores, thrift stores, garage sales, or online at The one thing I love about getting these old, used books is finding bookmarks hidden in the pages, it is like getting that toy in the cereal when you are younger. The copy of The Turn of the Screw that I ordered came to me with a rather amusing bookmark containing the lyrics and sheet music of Amazing Grace. I thought it was somewhat fitting to have such a depressing song inside such a boring book! I also found it quite ironic that the bookmark pointed me in the direction of a religious website ( that I know would definitely not believe in the ‘ghosts’ of The Turn of the Screw.

The edition I read was ISBN: 0-393-95904-X

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1999. Print.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Private Lives

When reading a book it is easy to not think about how a movie version of the book would turn out (as most of them don’t live up to expectations) but when you read a play it is hard to not wish you were seeing it live. This is how I felt when reading Noël Coward’s 1930 play Private Lives (3 Acts, 90 pages).

There are two things I absolutely loved about this play; a) the considerable amount of dramatic irony used in Act One, and b) the fast paced, back-and-forth dialogue between all four major characters.

You should read, or watch, the play to see the irony in Act One, but I will delve a little into the dialogue. Most of the banter-like discourse between the characters and childish bickering that ensures constantly in each act makes it hard to not hold a smile when reading it, and even let out an odd giggle or two.

One of my favourite scenes is between Amanda and Sibyl, as they discuss them reuniting after divorcing years ago;

Amanda: Do you realise that we’re living in sin?

Elyot: Not according to the Catholics, Catholics don’t recognise divorce. We’re married as much as ever we were.

Amanda: Yes, dear, but we’re not Catholics.

Elyot: Never mind, it’s nice to think they’d sort of back us up.

(Act 2, pg. 42)

It is witticism like that which fills the play and makes it an enjoyable read.

As with many of the books I read I have found a new word to add to vocabulary; slattern. Basically a term to describe a ‘dirty woman’ or, if you’ll allow me, a slut.

Here is how it is used between Amanda and Elyot as they argue about the rights of men to hit their wives;

Amanda: I’ve been brought up to believe that it’s beyond the pale, for a man to strike a woman.

Elyot: A very poor tradition. Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.

Amanda: You’re an unmitigated cad, and a bully.

Elyot: And you’re an ill-mannered, bad-tempered slattern.

Amanda: (loudly) Slattern indeed.

Elyot: Yes, slattern, slattern, slattern, and fishwife.

(Act 3, pg. 72)

Although I don’t condone calling women sluts (let alone hitting them) this play is full of ‘dark’ humour like that. If I ever see this advertised as being performed near me I will be buying myself a ticket!

The edition I read was ISBN: 0-413-74490-6

Coward, Noël. Private Lives. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1999. Print.

Friday, May 13, 2011

British Museum Reading Room

I know this blog is dedicated to my thoughts about books that I am reading but through my reading about Olive Schreiner and Amy Levy, I have had the pleasure to learn about the British Museum Reading Room.

The Reading Room was used by a number of famous writers over the years and seemed to be the place to go for Late Victorian/ Early Edwardian writers to master their craft and meet with their intellectual peers. Although it isn't used as much for that same use now (to my knowledge) it is still functioning and looks amazing!

If you want to see a much bigger image of this beautiful panoramic you can find it here on the Wikicommons-

I won't say too much about it but, if I ever win the lottery and have the opportunity, I will buy the British Museum Reading Room and live there and read books till my heart's content; don't worry you're all invited!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Romance of a Shop

After finishing The Story of an African Farm I moved onto another female author of the ‘New Woman’ movement (late 1800s); Amy Levy. I read her novel The Romance of a Shop (278 pages) and found it to be a rather interesting story.

Many of the aspects of the novel gave me a feeling of Jane Austen. This was mostly due to the characters themselves; however, many of them managed to break away from the somewhat submissive female character type that fills Austen’s novels. The Romance of a Shop accurately captures the struggle women faced during this time to find their place between the domestic expectations from others and professional wants of themselves. This isn’t just captured by the action of the story alone but by the four main characters; Gertrude, Phyllis, Lucy, and Franny Lorimer. The Lorimer sisters all embody different elements of the transitions women where undergoing at that time; from domesticated Fran, to entrepreneurial Getrude.

I think the one reason this book was so great to me, personally, was the fact that it was centered around establishing a photography business. As an avid-photographer it seemed to be more interesting to me than if, say, the book had been built around four women establishing an animal shelter for abandoned budgies! The photography business backdrop allowed me to become more engrossed into the trial and tribulations of the sisters.

Like the Olive Schreiner book in my last post, this was a Broadview edition of the novel and had another of those terribly dry and lengthy introductions. However, knowing how it affected my reading of the previous book I made sure I didn’t worry too much about getting bogged down with it; and how happy I was to not!

My only qualm (and don’t I always need to have one?) was the final half a page of the book (pre-epilogue). I was thoroughly happy that, up to that dreadful half-page, Levy had allowed one of her main protagonists (it could be argued the main protagonist) to be left in a very unhappy state and it would have fit very nicely into the novel; showing the struggles of women during this time and proving that a happy ending wasn’t always in store for those setting the foundations for future women. Instead of doing that, Levy took those final few short paragraphs and established a miraculous happy ending. I spit on your happy ending Amy Levy! That being said, it was counteracted by her making a bold move and killing off one of her main characters rather unexpectedly; I shall give you your due for that Miss Levy.

All in all, this is a very good ‘New Woman’ novel and I quite enjoyed reading it. Although completely different than The Story of an African Farm it still managed to capture the same sort of struggles that change inevitably creates.

On a side note;

I mentioned in my last post that I would write again if the Appendix of The Story of an African Farm changed anything for me and the answer is; it did!

One of the Appendices attached to the back of Schreiner’s novel contained one of her very short pieces; Dreams.

This is a very allegorical piece regarding the progression of women in her age and into the future. The piece itself was very interesting to read, both from a literal image-based level but also its rooted themes. However, it wasn’t the piece I wanted to focus on but the fact that it allowed me to better appreciate the allegorical elements of The Story of an African Farm that I somewhat took for granted during my reading of the novel.

So apparently those big Appendices are worth a read after all!

The edition I read was ISBN: 1-55111-566-2

Levy, Amy. The Romance of a Shop. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2006. Print.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Story of an African Farm

I had never heard of Oliver Schreiner, let alone read any of her work before setting off to read The Story of an African Farm (363 pages) so I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get out of it. As I sit here after finishing the last page I am not even sure what I did end up getting out of it.

To give some background to the work; this novel was wrote back in 1883; when women writers were anything but the norm (Schreiner originally published the novel under the male pseudonym Ralph Iron), the Slavery Abolition Act was still in its infancy (back in 1833), and the question of religion was very much debated and ‘up in the air’ so to speak in the minds of many English writers, philosophers, speakers, and everyday people. This puts African Farm in a very interesting place due to the fact that it; a) was penned by a woman, b) centered around slave-like labour (in South Africa) with racist undertones, and c) dives head-first into questions about belief. To make the novel even more interesting is that it doesn’t just hint at non-traditional ideas of the time but actively puts a male character in the forefront of controversy by having him not only experiment with women’s clothing but disguise himself as a woman (and not in a comedic, ‘acceptable’ Shakespearean way).

It is hard to have a strong reaction to a book like this when reading it in 2011 because the views expressed aren’t really the most controversial. However, it is easy to imagine the type of feelings it sparked in an audience of the late 1800s.

Sadly this book didn’t set me up to expect anything amazing; before getting into the narrative I had to submit myself to a 40 plus page introduction that drained any interest I had initially. Luckily, after starting the book, I found it to be quite interesting unlike the brain-sucking, interest-murdering introduction.

The book isn’t the most exciting, nor does it contain any thrilling action but it is a stimulating to read. Mostly, this is due to the growth of the two main characters; Lyndall, who tries to find her place in a male orientated world as a strong-willed woman, and Waldo, who tries to find his own place in the same world as he questions his understanding of religion and the world around him. The growth of these characters is quite compelling; for example, seeing Waldo go from a strict religious youth to an atheist adult and his inner struggle due to this change is very interesting to try and follow and appreciate. African Farm is mostly a commentary, by Schriener, on slavery, women’s rights, and religion. I cannot say I fully invested myself into this commentary due to the fact that every other footnote (and this is no understatement) direct me to a biblical passage and I’ve already mentioned, in a previous post, my dislike of going to the back of a book for references- so I definitely wasn’t busting out a bible to read this one!

There was a couple of passages however that did interest me a little bit more than the rest of this book.

The first, was a comment by Waldo after his mistreatment, for being of a lower-class, by the adults around him and then finding himself treated normally by a young girl, “If the world was all children I could like it; but men and women draw me so strangely, and then press me away, till I am in agony” (Schreiner 248). This sentence really summed up a huge element of the book for me; the fact that it is only in our most innocent, as young human beings newly in the world, that we are ‘good’. In a landscape filled by prejudice, rich against poor, Dutch against English, English against Dutch, and both the Dutch and English against the Native South Africans, this young girl is able to just enjoy the company of an ‘other’ by the fact that they are both human.

The second, is a comment made my Em (another character that grew up with Lyndall and Waldo) to Waldo regarding, what she views as, human nature, “Why is it always so, Waldo, always so?... we long for things, and long for them, and pray for them; we would give all we have to come near them, but we never reach them. Then at last, too late, just when we don’t want them any more, when all the sweetness is taken out of them, then, they come. We don’t want them then” (Schreiner 280). Before you bust out the sad violins for me this isn’t a view that I hold. However, the pessimistic view held in these two sentences make me feel sorry for those around that do believe they will never get what they want from life.

Also, on a happier note, I found a very funny little term in this book that I have never heard before. Apparently it was a somewhat racist expression when the book was written (it may even be now- but as an Englishman I don’t find it offensive so I’ll be repeating it here) but the description of it in the footnotes was what I found quite amusing. The word was uttered by Dutch man in this book about a English man; “Salt-reim”. I had never heard of this before but, luckily for me, the footnotes gave me this description, “Salt-reim is a variation on the derogatory term “soutpiel,” meaning an Englishman with one foot in South Africa and another in England so that his cock dangled in the salt waters of the Mediterranean” (Schreiner 252). Does anyone else get a inappropriate image of a giant in their head? No, just me I guess.

On a final note, I have technically finished the novel (at page 283) but as you can see in very first paragraph of this post the book finishes at page 363. You may be wondering what fills the rest of these nearly 100 pages; 5 Appendices containing a number of very tedious essays regarding historical, social, literary, and philosophical contexts, and reviews fill the final quarter of the book. Don’t worry I will be reading these eventually because I do believe they may add to my appreciation of African Farm (if it doesn’t kill it first that is) but I will wait to read them (as I have to read a few of them for a summer class in the coming weeks and I want to have them fresh in my head for some gripping discussions!). Who knows, they may give me some amazing insight I can share on here but, with the lack of enjoyment I held for the introduction, I very much doubt it.

The edition I read was ISBN: 1-55111-286-8

Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2003. Print.