This is one of those classics I always vaguely meant to read — I think my mother or aunt’s copy was hanging round in the room I always used at my grandparents’ house, so it was sort of in the back of my mind. I finally got round to it because of K.J. Charles’ queer retelling, which is apparently more fun if you know the original. So, in I plunged. And it is good fun — it speeds by, with the various implausibilities (the likeness between the two Rudolfs) being skated over, and any moral ambiguities too. There’s some intrigue and sneaking and adventure and fighting, there’s some doomed romance, etc, etc. It’s not the most substantial stunning piece of literature ever, but it does its job of being fun, and manages not to suffer too badly from being sexist or racist or any of those problems which can dog some classics.
So yeah, plenty of fun, and I can’t help but be somewhat charmed, or at least intrigued, by the villainous Rupert of Hentzau. I kinda want to know what’s going on in his head.
As a kid, The Secret Garden was the most magical thing I could think of. For some reason, I never read A Little Princess back then. Perhaps I would have liked it more then; as it is, I found it preachy and tedious. It’s very… Victorian: a child is in good circumstances, has a fall from grace, but her own merits of character finally result in a restoration. Unlike Mary from The Secret Garden, Sara Crewe is tediously saccharine and goody-goody.
I don’t really see why other people love this so much — especially if there’s no element of nostalgia. At least The Secret Garden’s Mary has character — Sara Crewe feels like, well, a Mary Sue. I am a little scared to ever reread The Secret Garden, now…
I came very late to an appreciation of Austen’s work — via a copy of Northanger Abbey some previous student had annotated with rather astute observations, actually. Emma is definitely not my favourite of Austen’s works; it seems to drag, and the whole situation is just embarrassing, with Emma being so stuck up and arrogant, but so naive. I’m not honestly sure why the character she marries in the end actually loves her, since he is a man of taste and discernment. Sure, she realises she’s been an idiot, but I’m not entirely sure she realises why and how not to do it again.
Since I get really bad second-hand embarrassment, then, it’s perhaps not surprising that Emma isn’t my favourite Austen, nor Emma my favourite of her heroines. Austen’s writing is still witty, her eye for character and the ridiculousness of people exacting, but… I just don’t like it. I’m glad I’ve now read it, but I wouldn’t read it again, and I recall enjoying Austen’s other novels rather more than this one, which felt like a chore.
There, Mum, are you happy I’m not a cuckoo in your nest now?
The Decameron is obviously a hugely influential piece of literature (actually, it’s just plain huge), so it’s no wonder I’d get around to it eventually. I’m not a huge fan of Chaucer, really, but I did recognise a couple of the source texts he used in this, and I imagine that the choice of frame narrative for the Canterbury Tales might’ve been suggested to Chaucer by The Decameron. Certainly The Decameron was an influence, anyway.
The Decameron also inspired a song by one of my favourite singers, Heather Dale, ‘Up Into The Pear Tree‘, about Pyrrhus and Lydia and their trick on Lydia’s husband. It’s a lovely song, playful and quite in keeping with the tone of The Decameron.
Despite its length, The Decameron is very easy to read. It’s a collection of a hundred short stories — or perhaps a hundred and one, if you count the frame story — split into ten ‘days’ with the conceit that a group of ten young men and women meet outside Florence during the plague years, and to entertain themselves, they elect a king or queen from their number each day, who dictates a theme for the stories that they tell. The stories are quite similar at times, when they revolve around a specific theme, but overall there’s a lot of different stories, often funny, and often to do with sex. You get the impression that no women in medieval Italy (with the exception of Griselda and Zinevra) were ever faithful to their husbands!
Being a medieval work, it’s unsurprisingly not terribly good about subjects like rape or feminine strength. Sometimes it praises women to the skies and at other times blames them for what isn’t their fault, or what certainly isn’t a fault in all women. Still, it didn’t make me uncomfortable most of the time, and there are plenty of clever and strong women in the tales as well.
The Penguin translation, by G.H. McWilliam, is extremely good, in the sense of always being very readable and entertaining, rather than dry, and this edition comes with a wealth of notes on context and on each specific story. There are maps and an index, too. Even if you’re not reading this for study, it’s worth getting — perhaps especially so, because it explains things clearly no matter what your level of expertise on the subject.
Seeing Maximum Pop!‘s review of trying out the app Serial Reader gave me an idea for a discussion post, since it looks like that’s one of the things people are looking for around here! Serial Reader, if you hadn’t heard of it, is an app which breaks up various classic books into chunks of about 10-15 minutes reading time, and delivers them to your phone at a set time each day. I started using it a couple of weeks ago, and have already read Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and got almost halfway through Austen’s Emma.
Do I like the experience? Yes, actually. My problem with some books has been that I don’t really want to sit down with them and spend any appreciable time with them. Like Anthem, for example. Whereas reading just an extract a day — which takes me rather less than 10-15 minutes, usually — is easy. The divisions usually come in reasonably sensible places, like the end of a chapter or poem, and because I get a notification every day, I find myself reading classics very coherently by installments. I don’t think it’d work for me if I just tried to read the book a chapter at a time or something: it’s the little nudge that makes it easier.
My best experience is perhaps with reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry; I’ve never particularly enjoyed it, but with a very short selection every day, there’s no harm in focusing on what you do get. And while I haven’t suddenly been converted, I’ve enjoyed it more than I expected.
There’s quite a good range of books available on the app, too. One of my next up is On the Origin of Species, because it’s really high time I read that. But there’s also Sherlock Holmes stories, Gothic novels, American classics, H.G. Wells…
I’m not so sure about paying the (admittedly small) onetime fee to get access to the ‘read later’ and ‘read ahead’ features — after all, most if not all of these books are public domain, and you can get them free and read ahead as much as you like — but they’re not really essential to the basic idea, which I plan to stick with. I just keep my list of books to try later in my BulletJournal!
I think this is only my second work by George Eliot (the first being The Lifted Veil), and I didn’t find it as compelling as that novella. It’s basically a bit of a morality tale, as far as I can see: don’t be like this guy who pretended to be someone he wasn’t, because it will come back to you. And don’t fuck around with your family’s affections.
Overall, it’s more a little character sketch than a story, with predictable consequences. George Eliot’s writing doesn’t particularly shine here, and I can’t say I’m encouraged to read other books by Eliot.
I haven’t read much of George Eliot’s work at all, which I should probably be more ashamed of. Still, a friend passed this and Brother Jacob on to me after she was done with it back at university, and I finally got round to actually reading it. I was surprised to find that it’s a supernatural story, in a way, dealing with clairvoyance — and not just as a societal trend, but one character truly is clairvoyant. I didn’t think Eliot wrote anything speculative like that at all, which is probably my own ignorance. (My only defence, as a holder of two English degrees, is to protest that this was emphatically not my period at all.)
Given that it isn’t my period, I still found this pretty interesting, because it explored the implications for a person who discovered they had such an ability, and because the loveless relationship with his wife — whom he married because he couldn’t see into her mind — had real moments of pathos. It does feel at times like an early Men’s Rights Activist screed when it talks about Bertha: the way she beguiles the narrator:
And she made me believe that she loved me. Without ever quitting her tone of badinage and playful superiority, she intoxicated me with the sense that I was necessary to her, that she was never at ease, unless I was near to her, submitting to her playful tyranny. It costs a woman so little effort to besot us in this way!
Eh. I’m pretty tired of the femme fatales who can do that — trust me, I have never found anyone that easy to wrap around my little finger, even if they thought I was pretty. Give it a rest, men are not at the mercy of their gonads.
Anyway, it’s an interesting speculative story, though it’s too short to really bear the weight of much observation — there’s no whys and wherefores to be found as regards the cause of the narrator’s clairvoyance.
The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier Originally reviewed 9th August, 2012
I don’t know why I’ve always been reluctant about reading Daphne du Maurier’s work: I don’t know what I thought it was going to be like, because both this and Rebecca were atmospheric and intriguing. Slower than your average thrillers maybe, but I do think there’s something in them that captures the mind. A little patience works wonders.
The narrator’s background contempt for Vita, not fully realised by himself, is both well written and discomforting: the hints at the end that it could have been all in his mind are interesting — it seems almost a cliché looking at it that way, but it read well here, and oh, the ending.
I got into the medieval story than the modern one; like the narrator I found it more real, full of passion and life — which really, I suppose, shows it to be a fiction, or at least that the narrator experiences it in the episodic manner of fiction, while his real life remains unsatisfactory. Like the narrator I’m glad to have experienced Roger and Isolda’s stories. And I can understand the draw of them for the protagonist, and how prepared he is to throw what he has away to see them, to know them.
I’m half wishing I was writing the dissertation on time travel we all joked about in the first semester of my MA. It’d give me an excuse to keep on thinking about this book.
This has always been on a vague list of ‘I should read this sometime’ books. I knew it as a classic, and I knew a very little about the setting, but mostly I just knew that it was famous as a post-colonial novel from the African continent. Well, there was a challenge on Habitica related to John Green’s Crash Course videos, I spotted it while browsing the Kobo store, and… decided it was about time I fixed my ignorance on this front.
Reading reviews of this book on sites like Goodreads may be rage inducing, by the way. Just a warning. Of course it’s not perfect, but I can’t think of a book that everyone would agree is perfect. It’s important, which is different; it means a lot to a lot of people, and it reflects on things which happened in Nigeria both at the time the book was set, and at the time the book was written. It’s a hybrid of Nigerian and “Western” storytelling; even the title alludes to Western literature, so if you didn’t get that clue, you might be a little puzzled.
I don’t think it’s even trying to be authentically an Igbo story, a kind of non-fiction novel. The story is based in real events, but of course the literary flourishes are here — hubris, hamartia, heck, even ‘daddy issues’. It’s a reflection on a lost world, a world that’s being lost even during the story; it’s not looking back with rose-tinted regret or forward with optimism, but placing the two societies side by side and watching them affect one another. Watching how they critique each other, their incompatibilities, the appeal for people from each side to cross over.
The simple, sometimes colloquial storytelling style is a purposeful, literary device; it’s a simplified version, almost a fable, of a complex history.
I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, so hurrah that I finally got round to it. It’s a classic of gothic/horror stories, though to the jaded modern eye, it might not be that creepy at all. Of the stories, I liked ‘Carmilla’ and ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’ the most — the mystery in the latter spun out satisfyingly, even if I did sort of guess how it would end. ‘Carmilla’ is mostly famous, I think, because it’s an early vampire story and because there’s a lot of homoerotic content. It’s not the most gripping reading, and the ending is pretty anti-climatic: there’s no real confrontation, but quite a tame denouement with a fairly toothless (ha) vampire.
Le Fanu was good at that sense of unease/uncanniness stuff, even if it seems like weak (or green? the jokes never stop in this review) tea now. The frame story about the Doctor seemed a little pointless to me, but I think it was probably written as a way to make it a little more creepy — as if these stories were real and collected by a real person because of their topics. I’ve always thought it a pretty good device, ever since Animorphs used to give me that moment of doubt as a kid.