Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens’s last and unfinished novel. It was inspired, supposedly, by Dickens’s brush with death while riding aboard a train with his wife. The train derailed, and Dickens and his wife literally watched as people were flung from a bridge, to their watery deaths. The early draft of Dickens’s second-to-last novel, Our Mutual Friend, was imperiled in the cabin ahead of his own, and that cabin was hanging over the edge of the bridge; Dickens risked his life by climbing into that cabin to retrieve the manuscript and bring it back to safety. He was reportedly haunted for the rest of his life by a dark shadow (Drood) which is said to have been the ghost of a murdered man seeking resolution/vindication from the mortal world. The back-story and history is enough to get anyone interested; but the novel itself, though unfinished, is also quite extraordinary. The prose is the most natural and flowing of any Dickens novel I have read. The situations are believable and the sometimes fanciful or caricatured personalities are done away with. The novel’s eponymous character, Edwin Drood, disappears about mid-way through the completed portion of the story. A suspect is brought in, but the readers are led to suspect another. Whether Drood is murdered, however, and, if so, who the actual culprit is, has been left to speculation because the narrative never reaches its conclusion. My edition of the book contains the famous “Trial of John Jasper” play, which was staged by some of the literary giants of the time, following Dickens’s death. Writers and critics such as George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Waugh, and G.K. Chesterton, took parts in the play, which developed extemporaneously and was one of the most popularly watched events of the day. As it is not a portion of the original book, however, I am not including it in the review (though it is highly interesting – so if you are intrigued by the story and the history around it, it is not to be missed). Lastly, the dangers of opium addiction begin to be clearly established – and Dickens’s own personal experiences with the drug in later life, including a possible self-consciousness about his own use of it and his witnessing the addiction of his good friend and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins – are brought into play. This makes the novel, though incomplete, rather powerful to me, due to its honesty and sensitivity.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

As I mention above, Dickens seems to have developed a stronger sense of true characterization in his later career. His earlier novels employ many literary devices, such as grotesques and caricatures, which are in a way cutely identifiable as “Dickensian” but which are, to me, sometimes rather annoying. While Dickens does lash out vehemently against the Philanthropists (as he does in other works) here, he is blunt and direct in the approach; he does not exactly employ a character and warp that character into representing Dickens’s vision of “The Philanthropist” but, instead, just bashes the group as a whole. There is a Philanthropist in the novel, and he does embody many of the elements which Dickens has stated in the narration are deplorable, but he is more a character than a caricature. Dickens does a great job of differentiating the many different characters, even those who come in near the “end” and are not well understood because the story is cut off prematurely. The characters are described in such a way as to be identifiable, with familiar ticks or physical quirks. Their slang and dialects are distinct, as are their mannerisms and features. What would have perhaps enhanced the characterization further, other than having completed the novel, would be a bit more time spent on development. Drood, for instance, who we pretty much understand, is not really missed when he disappears. This is a shortcoming, since he is the crux of the plot and the one person (aside from, perhaps, his “Pussy” – Rosa) whom we should care about. Similarly, Neville, the supposed antagonist, is relatively underdeveloped compared to the minor players – like Durdles and The Deputy. John Jasper, Mr. Crisparkles, and Mr. Grewgious, however, are all very well done.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I mentioned previously how impressed I am with Dickens’s apparent growth from his earlier works to this one, in terms of his prose and style. I am easily annoyed by some of his trademark characterizations and burlesques, but seeing what he does here in Edwin Drood makes me extremely interested, and much more compelled, to read more of his late works, like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House or Hard Times. This was also visible in Great Expectations, though I think it is most prominent here. Dickens employs a rather straightforward style, and his prose is much more conversational and accessible, though still beautifully wrought. He introduces snippets of letters and song or poetry to break the monotony of prose, which advances the story quite well and adds a welcome and entertaining level to the story. This edition also includes original illustrations which are beautifully done and allow the reader a pictographic point of reference, as it were – an image of the scene, with characters drawn in the style of the times, wearing the clothes and expressions of the period. I was highly receptive to their inclusion.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

What I found most intriguing about this novel is the personality which Dickens gives the work overall. I am deeply saddened that the book was never completed, because I truly believe it may have been one of his crowning achievements. Dickens was always a writer who exposed social injustices, particularly in regards to poverty and religion, having experienced a childhood of nearly absolute deprivation; but he gets even more personal with this work. Many believe the character, John Jasper, to be a re-imagining of Dickens’s feelings toward his embarrassment of a son, Sydney, who racked up enormous debt in Dickens’s name and was ultimately banished from the Dickens home. Also, it is believed that one of Dickens’s great regrets was marrying so young – which is clearly expressed in the tormented relationship of Edwin and Rosa, which is eventually broken off, mutually, by the two. And, of course, as I mentioned above – Dickens’s mental anguish and torment since his brush with death, intensified perhaps by his (likely) use of opium, are all present within the text. The amount of “self” which Dickens exudes in this work is touching and painful, like a scarred wound, unveiled at last by an old writer to his loyal but ignorant readers. It is almost as if Dickens was writing his own eulogy – a farewell in swan’s song, putting his mind at rest before the long, terrible, and permanent final rest.

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.”

“Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.”

“Stranger, pause and ask thyself the question, canst thou do likewise? If not, with a blush retire.”

Thoughts: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

1065804The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 55

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the third in the Sherlock Holmes series, following two novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) and a collection of short stories (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). It contains eleven stories, in total, which, much like the previous titles in this series, tackle a range of social, political, and ethnic topics, all the while entertaining the reader with witty narrative and engaging, sometimes surprising mysteries and detective work.

My edition is, unfortunately, true to the revised original American edition of the collection, which edited out a story called “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.” The story is now printed in American editions of the collection titled “His Last Bow,” which I do have, so I’ll get to it eventually. Of course, I’m a purist, though, so it irks me very much to have to read stories out of the order of original publication or author intention.

That being said, the collection is a good one. I particularly enjoyed “The Yellow Face,” which was a story of ahead of its time, in my opinion. This one tells of a young American woman who meets a young British man, they marry and move to England together. Soon enough, the woman’s secret history is uncovered, and the revelations are (for the time) shocking. As a modern reader, however, there is a certain delight and admiration for the risk Doyle took, here, and for the stance that the narrative takes on issues of equality and human decency. It was a pleasant surprise.

Others in the collection which I rather enjoyed include “The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” both of which had interesting elements of darker, Poe-esque mystery; also, “The Reigate Puzzle” and “The Naval Treaty,” both of which had elements of heightened daring, danger, and suspense. Finally, of course, there is “The Final Problem,” which is not only a wonderful short story, but, knowing the history of the series, a moving read. It adds a very deep, personal element to the character of Sherlock Holmes, a human side which his character sometimes (intentionally) lacks. Even knowing that the series continues, it was a difficult read and a sad ending!

All this taken into consideration, I still prefer, over all, the first collection in the Holmes series. I was bothered by the very close similarity of “The Stock-broker’s Clerk” to an earlier Sherlock Holmes story (“The Red-headed League”). The two stories seemed like the reworking of a very similar plot. Of course, Doyle wrote from a standardized formula of sorts, but even still, it felt to me much too similar, in this case. Perhaps to Doyle, too, considering where he tried to go with “The Final Problem.”

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collection is an interesting piece to the overall Holmes collection. As in the previous works, this one is narrated by Watson, but many of the stories find Watson specifically trying to point out just how unremarkable Sherlock Holmes is – how lucky he sometimes gets, how even he can be stumped, at times. The purpose of this is probably two-fold; first, to set up readers’ expectations for the last story in the collection and second, to round out and make more realistic the Sherlock Holmes character in general. Perhaps there had been some instance that Doyle make Sherlock Holmes seem less of a superhero – how interesting can a character with no flaws be, after all?

Ultimately, I continue to be pleased with these stories and every time I revisit the next book in the collection, I find myself wondering what took me so long to get back to it. These are always some of the most fun, entertaining, and engaging reading experiences, and it rarely takes me more than a few days to get through the entire book. Doyle’s writing, in Memoirs, remains fresh and accessible, and he continues to push certain boundaries, which adds depth and intrigue to books which might otherwise be simply light, “pleasure” reading.

One final note: I may or may not have known this (though I certainly didn’t remember), but the title from another favorite book of mine, by Mark Haddon, actually seems to have come from one of these stories! In “The Silver Blaze,” Colonel Ross asks Sherlock Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” and Holmes replies: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Wow!

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Mystery, Detective Stories, 19th Century Britain, Social Justice, Crime, British Fiction, Short Stories, 1,001 Books.

Notable Quotes:

“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” (“The Gloria Scott”)

“Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.” (“The Yellow Face”)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” (“A Case of Identity”)

“It is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you.” (“The Final Problem”)

“I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” (“The Naval Treaty”)

“It’s every man’s business to see justice done.” (“The Crooked Man”)

Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

340793A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf
Final Verdict: Perfection
YTD: 22

I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?

I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.

A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.

Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.

Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.

Notable Quotes:

“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).

“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).

“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).

“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).

A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.

Thoughts: As You Like It by William Shakespeare

386383As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 14

I have been away from Shakespeare for far too long. I have taken two courses in Shakespeare, one in college and one in graduate school. In both cases, we spent the majority of the time studying his histories and tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Henry V, etc.), as well as the history of the period, his contemporaries (Marlowe, Jonson, Lily, Nashe, etc.) and some of the sonnets. In only one class did we read a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I firmly believe we only read this one because a) the instructor felt it necessary to include at least one example of Shakespeare’s comedic work and b) the instructor was also interested in mythology. So, I went into this play not having read any Shakespeare in more than 4 years and having very little experience with his comedies, though I’ve read quite a bit of his oeuvre.

While it is impossible to know just how much of As You Like It is still in its original form (this play, like all his others, was changed multiple times to suit stage needs and audience feedback, prior to having been printed for the first time), it is clear that it was likely written around 1599 (near the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign) and that it fits into the genre of the pastoral, which is inspired by ancient Greek literature. As in other pastoral stories, this one includes high-ranking members of society who must flee from court and hide in the countryside, for fear of imprisonment or execution. They abandon their princely lives to become shepherds, farmers, shopkeepers, etc.

As the play begins, we learn that Sir Rowland de Bois has died and his power and property have passed on to his eldest son Oliver. Oliver is charged with taking care of his brother, Orlando, but the brothers are not friends and Oliver instead completely neglects Orlando, leaving him without education, without property, and without any training which might allow Orlando to advance in the world and make a life for himself. There is a wrestling match at court, which Oliver attempts to “fix” so that the master wrestler, Charles, will kill Orlando during the match – but Orlando wins and during the match catches the eye of the beautiful Rosalind (who is the daughter of Duke Senior, who has been usurped by his brother, Frederick). After the match, Orlando learns that he must flee for his safety, so he heads for the Forest of Ardenne, where Duke Senior happens to be hiding, and is soon followed there (unknowingly) by Rosalind and her bosom friend Celia, both of whom are disguised (Rosalind as a boy, Celia as a darker-skinned peasant).

fraynglobeUltimately, Duke Frederick orders Oliver to find Orlando and bring back Celia (Duke Frederick’s daughter), and threatens him with destruction and poverty if he fails. In the Forest of Ardenne, Orlando meets Rosalind as Ganymede (that name should ring some bells!), who says he will pretend to be Rosalind so that Orlando can practice courting her. This is some of the most elaborate gender-bending in literary history and is somewhat shocking to find in a 17th Century play. Rosalind will eventually become the mastermind of a community wedding, where four couples get married, after agreeing to her terms (given as Ganymede) the day before. There was a woman in love with Rosalind (as Ganymede) who agrees to marry another man, if Ganymede can convince her not to want to marry him (which he does by revealing himself to be a woman) and an agreement from her father, Duke Senior, that he will allow his daughter, Rosalind, to marry Orlando, if only they could find Rosalind (which, again, comes true after Ganymede takes off his disguise).

It gets even more complicated when we recall that, at the time, women’s roles would have been played by boys. So, here we have a boy playing Rosalind, who then – in the play- pretends to be a boy (so a boy playing a girl playing a boy), who then reveals himself to be a girl (all the while still a boy in real life). Talk about a sense of humor!

The primary theme of As You Like It seems to be the complexity of life and the tongue-in-cheek spoofing of conventional romances, where men are love slaves to their ladies and where love itself acts like a disease, disabling its sufferer. This play is littered with arguments, possibilities, choices, and dichotomies, all of which are presented as realities of life, without much (if any) preaching on Shakespeare’s part. There are plenty of binaries, but few didactic absolutes – it is as if Shakespeare is saying, “these are the many ways man and woman can live, the many choices they could make, and who are we to say which is right or wrong?”

My thoughts are all over the place on this one, because there is so much going on (within the play) and so much being said (by Shakespeare, through the play). That being said, the plot and story are surprisingly easy to follow, despite the play’s complexity. It is also highly entertaining and enjoyable because of the novelty of the story, for its time, and also because of its farcical nature and its ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of love, all the while being a love story. Enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking, and funny. Classic Shakespeare.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +

Interest: Gender Roles, Primogeniture, Patriarchy, History, Comedy/Drama, Identity, Homoeroticism, , Cross-dressing.

Symbols/Motifs: Ganymede, Poetry (Orlando), Cuckoldry; Exile, Artifice, Homoeroticism.

Dichotomies: City (Court) vs Country; Nature vs Fate; Realism vs. Romance; Old vs. Young; Noble Birth vs. Social Advancement; Reason vs. Foolishness.

Notable Quotes*:

“The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.” (11)

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (25)

“I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it.” (33)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” (44)

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (89)

*Page numbers correspond to the 2000 Pelican Shakespeare edition, ed. by Frances E. Dolan.

Thoughts: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

394731The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 12

Graham Greene is considered by many to be one of the most important 20th Century English writers. His novels are always highly masculine and usually carry a complicated but unambiguous Catholicism. For me, either of these “types” of literature could be highly repellant, but there is something about Greene’s ability that draws me in, something about his works that speak to me – even though I’m appalled by the misogyny and unreceptive to the religious overtones. The End of the Affair is, as its protagonist states at the outside, a story about hate. This, of course, means it is really about love – but a love which causes pain and heartache. The story takes place in England during the bombings of World War II, so there is always a sense of the uncontrollable – the powerlessness of man and the fleeting nature of life. The main character and narrator, Maurice, is a writer who falls in love (which, for him, means possession – sex!) with a woman named Sarah, who just happens to be another man’s wife. The two have a torrid affair which ends (not a surprise, considering the title of the book), but in a rather unconventional way. When it is over, Maurice and his lover’s husband become strangely close, almost coupling in a transitive way through Sarah.

The story is narrated in the first-person, from Maurice Bendrix’s point of view. Maurice’s anger and biases, as well as his own admission that he will choose what to include and what to leave out of the story, make his narration somewhat unreliable. That being said, he does come to an ultimate truth at the end and, despite his anger, admits to himself, to Sarah, and to the reader the very thing he had hoped to avoid throughout the story. Sarah, the love interest, as well as her husband, Henry, and a private investigator (Parkis), plus an atheist leader (Smythe) are all very well imagined and executed. They each have distinct personalities and their own parts to play in the story (as do other of the minor characters, such as the Catholic Priest and Sarah’s mother). For those interested in masculinity studies, for instance, one can clearly find representatives for the four principal categories of Hegemony, Complicity, Subordination, and Marginalization.

Like much of Greene’s work, The End of the Affair is a story about power and its prose matches that theme. Greene’s style and language are strong, direct, and highly “male.” He struggles a bit, I think, with the first-person narration. This was his first novel written in first-person P.O.V. and the story is also based on his own affair – the book was dedicated “To C”, which refers to his mistress, Lady Catherine Walston; so, given the first attempt coupled with the very personal nature of the story, it is not surprising that Greene may have been a bit uncomfortable. Still, the story would have been very different in the third-person – the anger may not have come across as genuine, the jealousy filtered through a narrator might not have been as raw, and certainly the condescension Maurice hold for all other males would not have been as pronounced.

What I enjoyed most about the book was its purity of sentiment. What I mean by that is, in this book, anger is anger. Jealousy is jealousy. Kindness is kindness. The book is like one raw, exposed nerved, pricked in different ways by different characters. It is also a good example of modernism, particularly in its structure (starting the story not at the beginning, but after everything has happened, the narrator trying to make sense of it all after the fact – reminding me of The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier). Ultimately, I responded well to this book, as I did to The Power and the Glory. And, I must say, this troubles me greatly.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Adultery, Catholicism, Religion, Jealousy, Sin/Redemption, Power, Masculinity.

Notable Quotes:

“What happens if you drop all the things that make you I?”

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”

“I refused to believe that love could take any other form than mine: I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all.”

“It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death: I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.”

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”

“Pain is easy to write. In pain we’re all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?”

“Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust.”

“I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.”

The End of the Affair is Book #10 for my Classics Club Challenge & Book #5 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

Thoughts: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

85635 (1)Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 10

Jane Austen is perched on a curious point in the literary timeline, caught somewhat between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both of which influenced her work. She greatly admires Samuel Johnson (as demonstrated by the many Johnson quotes & references that can be found in her various works), and many, if not most, of her works are about a woman attempting to –or somehow finding herself- climbing the social ladder, out of her station and, through marriage, into a higher one. This is largely an influence of eighteenth century works, such as Pamela. Still, there is much of Romanticism and the nineteenth century in her works, as in their preference for intelligence and natural beauty over traditional wealth and caste systems. Austen’s work also dips into the Victorian concerns of sensational-realism, which is where Mansfield Park and its Pragmatism are mostly situated. In its exploration of modernity, shifting family dynamics, city and suburban lifestyles supplanting the country manors, parties, and public scandals, and politics (such as the Slave Trade and aristocratic corruption), Mansfield Park is much wider-reaching and more concerned with society and the world-at-large than her earlier works (whose simplicity and blind-eye caused her to be much maligned).

At the center of the story is Fanny Price, who leaves her parents’ home to live with her aunt and uncle at Mansfield Park. Fanny’s mother, though once beautiful, has been run ragged. She married beneath her and, soon after her marriage, her husband became permanently disabled and a drunk. Fanny, at first, is a black sheep at Mansfield. Although she is kind and mild in temperament, her female cousins tease her mercilessly and her ridiculous Aunt Norris spites her at every occasion. Eventually, through natural charm and beauty, Fanny does manage to win over her hosts, Sir Bertram and Lady Bertram (who is her mother’s sister) and also her cousin, the youngest brother of the family, Edmund.

Unlike Austen’s other works, which are largely episodic (likely because they were originally written or imagined in epistolary form), the style and structure of Mansfield Park is much more aligned with the traditional novel, with lengthy chapters and regular progression of time. Austen manipulates time and chronology in clever and subtle ways, so that the reader is navigated through the story without being given many direct reminders of where she is in the calendar. This is something typically Austen and can be seen in her other novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice; and though a simple thing, this control of time and keeping it both relevant and in the background truly helps hold the story together by maintaining the fictive illusion and also the structural integrity of the work.

In Mansfield Park there are balls and plays, flirtations and scandals. While most of Austen’s novels are rather complex, Mansfield Park is perhaps the most complex of all her work and is probably an inspiration for later Victorian novels (many of which are concerned with child orphans, their patronage and rise from nothingness into seemingly-unachievable stations). Fanny, like other Austen heroines, is a young woman on the verge of adulthood and who will find her place through her soon-to-be husband. Unlike other of Austen’s novels, though, which are primarily interested in the act of courtship, family, and love, Mansfield Park also tackles ideas of nature vs. nurture (what makes a person who they are?) and true positive qualities, in family and friends (both Edmund and his father, Lord Bertram, learn much about themselves and about others, by the end of the story – because of their growing appreciation for and admiration of the quiet but naturally classy Fanny). The book is also interested in the nature of vice and it uses two polar locales, the city and the country, as backdrops for “bad” and “good.” Surprising, for readers of Austen’s other works in particular, are the inclusions, though subtle, of sexuality (what we will eventually see from Freudian symbolism), of social and political morality, and of graphic poverty.

Ultimately, I found Mansfield Park to be one of the least exciting, most dense of Austen’s novels; however, it is also the most complex, the most daring, and the most revolutionary of her works. She takes many risks, borne out of disillusionment and hardship, which would likely inspire the next generation of Victorian novelists who would champion the lower classes and write for social justice. It was a difficult read, being slow-paced and simultaneously familiar to and wildly different from other Austen works, but while it may not be as perfectly constructed, entertaining, or accessible as her most popular work, Pride and Prejudice, it might just be her most important.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Pre-Victorian Novel, Nature vs. Nurture, City vs. Rural, Caste System, Scandal, Slave Trade, Pragmatism, Romanticism.

Notable Quotes:

“I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.”

“We do not look in great cities for our best morality.”

“Good-humoured, unaffected girls, will not do for a man who has been used to sensible women. They are two distinct orders of being.”

“Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

“She was not often invited to join in the conversation of the others, nor did she desire it. Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions.”

“I was so anxious to do what is right that I forgot to do what is right.”

“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

“Varnish and gilding hide many stains.”

“When I am out of doors, especially when I am sitting out of doors, I am very apt to get into this sort of wandering strain. One cannot fix one’s eyes on the commonest natural production without finding food for a rambling fancy.”