Monday, June 3, 2013

New Books

This is the stack of new books that I got at my used bookshop a few weeks ago, on a visit with an old childhood friend that had come to stay for the weekend.

I don't usually find so many books here, and rarely does this particular store have any good non-fiction. This time, however, I found a variety of different genres.

So, going down the stacks...

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - I've heard a lot of good things about this book, and it's sometimes compared to We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, which I loved. This particular copy had a stamp from a library in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher

Light in August by William Faulkner

The Works of Voltaire - While browsing through the classics section, the eccentric bookshop owner, Mike, came over and, in the midst of enthusiastically acting out scenes from Anne of Green Gables, pointed out this book and said that either of us could adopt it for free, as it was in too bad a shape for him to sell. I thought that it was beautiful. It has a pretty red leather cover and was published by Walter J. Black in 1927.

The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh - You can never have enough Evelyn Waugh.

The Man Behind the Book by Louis Auchincloss - A book about books and literary writers. Certainly my type of reading.

The Arabian Nights - I already owned a Penguin edition of this, but I just love the gorgeous Modern Library editions, so I bought this one as a replacement.

Persian Nights by Diane Johnson - To keep Arabian Nights company.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Toole - One of my friend's top recommendations was this book, and she told me about how her favorite author, Walker Percy, had published it. While we were at the bookshop, we went searching for a copy. They had only one in stock, which we laughed over, as the cover is pretty ridiculous. She called it "the worst cover I've ever seen for this book," but bought it for me and encouraged me to read it.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey - I bought this book warily. Will the Duchess of Carnarvon prove to be a great writer, unlike the writers of the latest season of Downton Abbey? I suppose I'll have to find out. And even if Downton Abbey is a bit... messy... there is no denying that the setting is just breathtaking.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif - Arabic literature

The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman - Penman is my absolute favorite writer of historical fiction. This is the third book in her "Welsh Trilogy." I also own the 2nd book, Falls the Shadow, but so far, I haven't come across the first book! And so, I am left with these no doubt amazing Penman volumes sitting on my shelves but unavailable for reading.

Indiscretions of Archie by P.G. Wodehouse - I recently discovered Wodehouse, and fell in love. He is hilarious, oh-so-British, and just perfect. This one, I believe, is a stand-alone book not in the Jeeves series. It's also a reproduction of the original, first editions of Wodehouse's books.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann - I just read this a few months ago, and was fascinated. I haven't been that excited about a book in a long time. I was elated to find my own copy.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters - I loved Fingersmith by the same author, and I love her for popularizing lesbian fiction. This one, I've heard, is even more naughty...

Baudolino by Umberto Eco - I already owned a translated copy of this book, but this one is the original first edition in Italian, also in perfect, crispy new condition. Eco is one of my top three favorite authors of all time, so I was pretty excited about this find.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking - I love Hawking, and this book, but I've strangely never owned a copy before this one.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

Title: The Stranger
Author: Albert Camus
Genre: Literature
Publisher: Vintage
Published: 1942 (as L'√Čtranger)
Pages: 155

Rating: 7 out of 10

This philosophical piece of French literature opens with the main character, Meursalt, announcing frankly to the reader that his mother is dead. While at the funeral, he seems to find stirring his coffee or observing those in attendance far more interesting than his deceased family member.
The next day, he meets a beautiful girl named Marie, and immediately, a mutual attraction between them flares up. When Marie learns that Meursalt attended his mother's funeral just one day before they were having fun at the movies and in bed, she is slightly put off, but they remain together.
While on the beach one day in French Algeria, Meursalt, feeling mildly annoyed at present circumstances because the sun is in his eyes, takes out a gun and repeatedly shoots an Arab man who is laying on the sand.
He appears surprised that he is actually arrested and now finds himself being shuffled between police stations and lawyer's offices. He does not view his crime as serious, and seems to be puzzled as to why anyone else would.
He is tried for the crime, and given the death sentence.

This book was so interesting to read. Even though it is well known that Camus rejected the popular association he was given with existentialism, I can see how the label stuck to him. The book touches into other areas of philosophy as well, and I liked picking them out as I read.

Meursalt is a fascinating character study. There are a lot of small details in things he says, or thinks, that would probably be very easy to miss. He mentions things so passingly and quickly, never with emphasis or passion, that they appear automatically unimportant. I passed over many of them without thought, but stopped to wonder about them after finishing the book.
Whenever anyone asks or consoles him about his mother's death, Meursalt always feels that he must say "It wasn't my fault," though most of the time this statement is irrelevant.
When he and Marie witness a crime in the streets, Marie urges him to call the police. He declines, because he "doesn't like police."
And what is his connection with sunlight about? It is mentioned a few times earlier in the book, but of course it stands out most memorably in the terrible murder scene, where his main motive actually does seem to be "the sun was in my eyes," as he later testifies in court.
Why would he be so baffled at being arrested for his crime? He seems to be aware that murder in general is morally wrong, but he never sees his own crime as being the same type of thing.
Up until the very end - literally the last few lines - of the book, Meursalt appears to be void of all emotions, simply existing rather than really living, and so he was difficult to figure out.

Even though I knew it was coming, I was still shocked at the murder scene. Not because it was bloody and graphic (it wasn't), but because it was so utterly pointless.
No background story about the Arab man is given, and he had not been involved in the story or with any of the characters beforehand. We know nothing about him, but even so, I found myself wondering what his life was like, if he had a wife or children, and exactly how old he was. Meursalt himself wonders none of these things, acting as if shooting a breathing human being is as unremarkable as casually firing at a random target. His indifference and disregard for human life made me feel all the more sad over the man's death.
I was not expecting the murder scene to be so beautiful, either. For such terrible events, the language and writing Camus used to illustrate the scene was dark and lovely. It has a building rush of momentum and furious eloquence, which feels all the more dramatic compared to the bland preceding chapters.
I thought to myself that it was the first time Meursalt had actually seemed alive.
And indeed, this shock of vivacity is likened by the main character himself to a beginning, as a door. He says of the four shots he fires into the man: "It was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness." (page 59).

During his trial, attorneys pounce on the discovery of Meursalt's detachment from life and common, normal emotions. They paint him as a depraved, cold villain, which greatly sways the severity of his sentence.
Are they right, or has he been misunderstood and twisted into something that he's not? It's hard to say.

Close to the end of the book, as he awaits his execution, a chaplain visits Meursalt's cell and speaks with him about God, urging him to repent and believe. Meursalt rejects in no uncertain terms, and reveals himself to be an atheist (if he must be labeled). Although I didn't find this shocking, readers in the 40's would have found it a bit more controversial. After the rejected chaplain leaves, Meursalt thinks about God and religions and beliefs and life. His pondering was, again, interesting to read.

All in all, this was a fascinating book about a seemingly emotionless man, a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, and about life itself.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Title: The Sealed Letter
Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Mariner Books
Published: 2009
Pages: 416

Rating: 5 out of 10

In Victorian London, Emily "Fido" Faithfull randomly runs into Helen Codrington on the street one day. Years before, the two were inseparable best friends, but their close relationship faded away when Helen's military husband was deployed overseas, and Fido's letters were met with no answer. Now, Fido has grown up into a respected female publisher, and Helen is still the same married woman. After their chance encounter, the two begin their friendship where it left off, which had Helen unhappily married and Fido caught in the middle of the distressed couple.
Things turn out not to have changed much, because soon enough Helen reveals that she has a lover and is still unhappy with her husband. When Helen begins drawing Fido into the affair, Fido struggles between being a good friend and with doing the right thing. Eventually, things culminate into a messy, very public divorce proceeding, which Fido is also unwillingly drawn into when Helen reveals a devastating secret.

A snippet review I found online said that this book was about "British Law in the 1800's." For some reason, I thought that that sounded fascinating. I pictured musty courtrooms and piles of papers piled on desks, about to fall over. It made me think of meticulous detail and political maneuvering.
However, this book was much more lightly written than I anticipated, and while it isn't chick-lit, it can get 'fluffy' at times.

Within the first few pages, I was struck by the immaturity of the characters. Two grown women meet on the street after years of separation, and Fido snottily asks Helen who has "taken her place" as a best friend. This feeling continued through-out the book. I cannot recall exactly how old the characters were, but I know that it was closer to 25 than 15. That didn't stop them from behaving like silly little girls. Helen was supposed to act this way, as that is the way she was written, but Fido seemed juvenile to me as well. She is portrayed as the more sensible, mature of the two, which for the most part she is. But she sometimes broke out of character to do something silly, which ruined any chance of her becoming believable.

As this book is about early divorces, and women's legal rights in court, I was expecting a strong book about strong women. But rather than a book with brave female characters making their way through a man's world of both publishing and law, I got more a feeling of two silly girls running about bashing men.
Fido runs a printing press that publishes material aimed toward women, a revolutionary thing in her day and age. Fido runs her business with an iron hand, and the author seems to want us to think of her as a 19th Century businesswoman. I thought it suspicious that the few male employees Fido had were all either stupid and useless, or conniving and evil.

One thing I did like about the book was Helen. I wouldn't call her well written, but she was entertaining reading material. I rolled my eyes at her swooning over Anderson - it is pointedly obvious that all he wants from her is sex, but she is too naive to realize it. Helen is extremely selfish, and in the few scenes where we see her interacting with her two daughters, she seems to concern herself only vaguely with them, and in turn the two little girls treat their mother with an offhanded dismissal that Mommy is too "distracted" or "stupid" to bother with.
Helen's abuse of Fido's friendship was appalling. She comes by her friend's house and then says that she has invited Anderson over (without asking). At Fido's horrified objections, Helen makes up a lie that she is planning to break up with him. Reluctantly, Fido agrees, but then she hears the two of them having sex in her parlor. When she furiously confronts Helen about it later, Helen leads Fido to believe that she was forced. Later, when things escalate and she is found out, Helen blames Fido, saying that if she had only let her keep meeting Anderson in her parlor (snicker), her husband would never have found out. You have to admit, Helen hasn't many scruples, and it admittedly does make for entertaining reading.
I was truly shocked at how low Helen sinks in her lies to Fido during the trial. She truly would have said anything and hurt anyone - even her best friend - in order to get what she wanted.

*Mild spoilers - you can just skip to the next paragraph* I was annoyed at the revelation toward the end of the book that Helen and Fido had had a sexual relationship in the past. It was utterly pointless to the story, and to me it just seemed like a gratuitous, exaggerated furthering the not-quite-right feminist leanings this book had. Already written man-hating, hearty women who always seem to outsmart every male in the book? Looking to go further? Why not randomly throw in the fact that these women are also lesbian at the end! Sigh.
Feminism isn't about being lesbian or how stupid men are.

I like when characters refer to period books that they are reading, and here, Emily and Fido discuss their reads together. It was a fun, tiny little piece of their conversation, but I was annoyed at a small bit of inaccuracy. Helen says that her favorite scene in Lady Audley's Secret was when a woman pushes her husband down a well. However, there is certainly no such scene. I know this and I read the very same book only a few months ago.
On the other hand, besides the tiny mistake, it gave me a good feeling to hear Victorian Londoners talking about reading the same books that I read today, and the characters mentioned a book that I hadn't heard of called East Lynne. I thought that it sounded very good, and was pleased to find it was a real book when I looked it up. If nothing else, I'll have gained some new Victorian reading material.

In short, though, this book never impressed me. It was alright, I suppose, and the legal proceedings that took up the second half of the book were intriguing and not such light page turning as hearing about Helen's reckless secret meetings with her flippant lover. Average, I suppose.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Title: One Thousand White Women
Author: Jim Fergus
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Published: 1999
Pages: 320

Rating: 5 out of 10

In the 1870's, a Cheyenne chief traveled to Washington to make a proposition to Ulysses S. Grant himself: allow the Cheyenne a 'gift' of white women for them to marry, in order to integrate their cultures together. The request was, of course, denied, but what if it hadn't been? This is the idea that One Thousand White Women embellishes upon. It is the supposedly recovered journal of May Dodd, a young woman who has been unjustly imprisoned in a mental hospital by her own family. When she hears about the 'Brides for Indians' program, she jumps at the chance to escape her dismal existence and travel into a new life. Accompanied by an eclectic group of women also hoping to begin afresh, May becomes a part of the Cheyenne tribe. Though she can see herself enjoying this new lifestyle, the peace she has found in the prairie is interrupted by the spell new alcohol has cast over the Indian braves, and by the way May has been drawn to a handsome army Captain.

I just loved the new, fresh idea of this book. I have read books where white women marry or fall in love with Native Americans of course, but this one had a new twist.
I enjoyed it, but unfortunately, there were an array of things wrong with it, making it neutral for me.

Fergus was skilled at writing endearing characterizations, quaint and charmingly heartwarming in a style that reminded me of Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie. He takes on quite a few different accents to go with certain characters. At first they annoyed me, but after I got used to them, they added to the characterization. However, though his first-impression caricatures were very nice, most of the time they weren't able to carry through the rest of the book. Little quirks of physical characteristics seem to define most of the characters, and by the time the book is nearly over, Fergus has come to lean on them very heavily. For example, Gretchen is strong-armed and tough, Phemie is "graceful," Narcissa is strictly religious.
Our main character are narrator, May, was perhaps too modern, but overall, she was okay. The author never gave her any of the familiarizing little quirks that he gave so many of the other women, and I didn't like her as much as other, less important characters. May's ideas seemed a bit too suspiciously ahead of her time, such as her lack of religion, her feminist ideas, and other minor things such as her skill at horseback riding, and not sidesaddle!

Sometimes, a lack of thorough editing emerges. When remembering assaults at the mental hospital, May says "I prayed to kill him..." as the event was taking place. So... she is praying that God will kill the man? That God will let her kill him? That God will kill him later?
Another clunky sentence was: "When her part in the deception was discovered, as it surely would be, Martha knew that she faced..." Wait, has her 'part in the deception' been discovered yet or not? Because it "was" discovered, and then it "would be" discovered, and then Martha "faced..." instead of "would face..."
At another point, May says that her female companions "all know by now the reason of my incarceration." But how would they ever be able to find this out?

I also found quite a few disturbing aspects to this book. The author took up an armful of stereotypes and ran with them.
Gretchen, a German woman, was incredibly stereotypical. Because aren't all German women brutishly large in size, crass, blunt, strong-armed, and fond of beating up their poor husbands?
Phemie, the only African American woman in the group, could hardly be mentioned without having our attention called to her "black skin," her "lithe grace." At one point, another character even says that black people are fast runners. And look at that - it's true! Phemie is the fastest runner of them all! Another later says that all black people have natural rhythm. And would you believe it, there Phemie is dancing and swaying to the Indian music with the grace of a born dancer. It is also remarked that African Americans have good voices, and sure enough, you guessed it, Phemie has a beautiful, rich voice.
The religious woman, Narcissa, is the typical Bible-pounding conservative, offensive and annoying, that we see portrayed in so many other volumes.
A genteel lady from the deep South is given the obvious character of a self-righteous, extremely racist, whiskey-swilling prude.
Really, couldn't the author have been more inventive, and realized that many of his characterizations were in fact teetering on the edge of "typical" and falling into "offensive?"

Another disturbing thing I found was that very bad scenes in the book were later brushed off casually, without repercussions.
There is a horrific, drunken night, in which the Indian braves become intoxicated on liquor given to them by white men, and go about terrorizing the camp - beating wives, setting things afire, and raping women). A particular girl named Daisy is raped multiple times by a group of men. In another scene, a man assaults May and attempts to rape her. Another character later dies, and a man is at one point discovered of "buggering" little children.
All of these things are terrible - obviously.
Does the author see it this way?
Perhaps as he is writing them, but after that, they seem to vanish from his (and the character's) minds.
Most of these events happen and that is the end of them. A few paragraphs later, they are forgotten, without anything ever coming as a result of them. I couldn't believe it once I noticed the pattern.

Thirdly, I was disturbed by May's past being erased. She was placed into a mental hospital by her parents, for having children out of wedlock and living with a man to whom she was not married. Her children and lover are taken away, never to be seen again.
Though she tells us that she misses her children a couple times, I never quite believed her. Of course she misses them, but what kind of mother would just forget about her own children? Her parents do not live on the ends of the earth - they are still right there, in Chicago. Couldn't May have made some sort of effort to get back, or even visit, her children? Wouldn't she have placed seeing her children over everything else? I thought that in the end, they would be re-united. But just as the author erases his character's minds of other things, he so erases the memory of May's children from her memory, and from the story. This just struck me as sad, and wrong.

And lastly, I was a bit disquieted by the fact that May, while still mourning the loss of her partner/boyfriend, has sex with a man she has known for 2 days, while engaged (technically) to another man (one of the Indians she is traveling to wed). I rolled my eyes when May convinces herself that she is now in love with this man. Then she has sex with her husband, once she marries him, passionately and with much enjoyment. But is still in love with someone else. It just annoyed me a bit - mostly the fact that May thinks herself and the Captain a couple after two days in each other's company.

Many improbabilities, stretching the imagination just a bit too far, popped up through-out the story. To name a few, the author randomly places a black man in the Indian tribe (wow - so probable!) for Phemie to marry, because I suppose it would be so unthinkable for her to marry interracially. I can't imagine why, or how this could be considered likely, but it happens. Even worse is that two twins, Maggie and Susan, are married off to twin Indians. Well, of course! And May herself, our main character, is matched with the chief of the tribe.

So if there were so very many problems with One Thousand White Women, why did I still manage to enjoy it? Well, it was easy to get through. It was good light reading, while still maintaining that historical atmosphere that can often mask shallowness to being virtually undetectable. And despite all the racist and stereotypical characters, many of them were quite endearing, and I always sympathized with them and wished them all the best. There were some warm, funny scenes, and the author is admittedly quite good at making the reader like his characters. The pictures of the wild, beautiful prairie were well done.

In short, this is a book that should have been marvelous, but is reduced to average: and that's only if you can get past the uneasily glossed over offensive aspects of it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: Othello by William Shakespeare

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Classics / Plays
First published: 1622

Rating: 7 out of 10

This tragic play by Shakespeare is one that I read as a child, but didn't quite understand. So last night in Barnes & Noble's, I decided to re-read it.

This is the story of a Venetian nobleman named Othello, a Moor from Northern Africa, who made his way from slavery to wealth and power. His sad story and noble character inspire Desdemona, a beautiful young woman, to fall in love with him. The two hastily marry in secret, to the disapproval of many. Othello's personal attendant, a man named Iago, is meanwhile hunting for a way to bring about his master's ruin. Iago feels that Othello promoted another man to a higher position that should have been his, and dwells on a rumor that Othello slept with his wife. For this, he actively and purposefully sets out to usher in Othello's destruction. He plants doubts in Othello's mind about his wife's faithfulness, and goes to great lengths to set up an entire story of her alleged affair.
Though Othello believes his wife to be loyal, he eventually allows the smallest doubt to creep into his mind, which Iago coaxes into certainty with his clever words and twisting of events.
Eventually, Othello decides that he must kill Desdemona and her supposed lover.

This play was, indeed, very tragic and sad. I would even go so far as to say that it is the saddest Shakespeare play I have ever read. For some reason, the idea of a perfect couple being torn apart by an outsider seemed even more horrible than the Romeo and Juliet plot line.

I thought at one point in the story: Poor Othello, poor Desdemona, poor Cassio! Really, all of the characters played out a very unfortunate story, and met an equally unfortunate end, all because of one scheming man.

This man is Iago, who everyone believes to be a loyal, mostly good individual, even if he does have a negative view on women, as is witnessed by his wife and Desdemona.
Iago has heard rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. He has no proof, and he never tells us where exactly he heard these rumors. In fact, he seems more interested in picturing his wife cheating than actually trying to discover if the rumors are true or not.
With this already in his mind, he takes the advancement of Cassio as the last straw. Cassio is a younger, less experienced man, who has just been promoted in the army. Iago feels that he deserves the job, and that it was wrong of Othello to forget him.
Though he never voices this like his other complaints, Iago also seems to have a racist grudge against Othello, who is black. At the time, serving under a black man would have been unusual and controversial, and Iago makes a few snide remarks in the beginning that pertain to Othello's race, mostly in the form of name-calling.
So Iago does not like Othello.
But he takes it much farther than a simple dislike toward someone. He truly hates the man, he loathes him, he obsesses day and night over how to bring about his ruin. This is not done over just a few days, and nor does Iago simply come up with one plan and go through with it.
Iago's plans are complex and extremely involved, taking enormous effort. Because his plans are so complicated and rely heavily on how others react to them, Iago's plots must adapt constantly, and require much quick-thinking.
Iago has a way with words. Simple everyday acts like greeting someone politely, laughing, walking, or making a new friend are twisted into terrible acts of wickedness by his silver tongue.
Shakespeare uses Iago's character to do what he does best: clever dialogue, which no can do quite like him, still to this day.
An example of this is the scene in which Iago tells Othello to listen to him speak to Cassio (who is supposedly cheating with Desdemona, Othello's wife). Iago asks Cassio about his whore, knowing that Cassio will assume he is referring to Bianca, who actually is a whore and can thus be accurately referred to as one. Iago also knows that Othello, listening, will assume that Iago is referring to Desdemona, who is not a whore, and thus is being insulted. Cassio speaks lightly of her, laughing, just as men normally do when speaking of their latest conquest. However, Othello takes this to mean that Cassio is shameless and thinks that cheating with his master's wife is a joke.
Scenes like this are scattered through-out the play, and if the topic at hand weren't so grave, they would be extremely funny in how witty they are.

Othello is a Moor (meaning that he is from northern Africa) who is honorable, respectful, and logical. He does not seem like a jealous man, and at first is doubtful that Iago can possibly be right about Desdemona's unfaithfulness. However, I believe that even a trusting man married to an angel would have eventually grown suspicious with Iago's tricky words leading him on.
Othello also shows himself, farther on in the story, to be very passionate, which was actually what made Desdemona attracted to him in the first place. Yet another sad little fact: The thing that made her fall in love with her husband is also what ruins their relationship. Othello becomes utterly enraged by the idea of another man touching his wife, and the thought consumes him as he does his best to dismiss it. By the time Iago is done, Othello completely believes the story he has been told, and is driven even to murder.

Cassio, yet another of Iago's victims, is another character whose life is ruined simply by Iago's word choice. One day, he is a handsome, charismatic young ladies man who has just been promoted to a prestigious new title. But the next day, he has been falsely labeled a drunkard and a brawler, is thought to be an adulterer, and has two men scheming out how to murder him.

Iago's third victim would be Desdemona, a pretty young rich girl who fell in love with Othello despite the public opinion that they were an ill match. She risks and endures her father's disownment of her just to be with Othello, only to have her romance torn apart by Iago's lies. The injustice of it all is a sense that is strongly felt through-out the play, particularly in the scenes involving Desdemona, due to her innocence.
Desdemona is completely unaware of the schemes being plotted against her, and the suspicions that her husband is needlessly drawing up about her.
She struck me as naive, angelic, and very sweet. This cherubic character only served to make the audience pity her even more.
At the end, when Othello voices his thoughts about her cheating, she remains devoted to him, a touching and heartbreaking scene.

I think that every single character in this play suffers in some way (mostly in a very large way) due to Iago.
Jealousy is a prominent theme here. Iago is jealous of almost everyone, seeing himself as deserving of whatever pleasures they may have. He uses other men's admiration of Desdemona's beauty to prod them into jealousy over Othello (who is certainly sleeping with her, since he is her husband) or of Cassio (who is allegedly sleeping with her just because Iago says so). Understanding jealousy inside and out and being an apparent expert on the subject, Iago skillfully weaves other men's jealousy into yet another way of getting what he wants.

Though the entire play is about jealousy and cheating, it appears that none of the characters actually ever cheat.
The first woman who is accused of cheating by Iago is his wife, Emilia, but this is presumably not true. No evidence to it being true is ever even hinted at.
The next is, of course, Desdemona, who is unquestionably innocent.

This is a sad play that sets off Shakespeare's style and abilities perfectly. I would recommend it highly.

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classics / Gothic
First published: 1898

Rating: 9 out of 10

I chose this chilling short story by Henry James as the 2nd of my three annual Halloween Reads for 2012.

It is the story of a young governess who is hired to take care of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at a large manor house in the Essex countryside. The children have been handed over to their estranged uncle, who wants little to do with them or any contact with them. The governess whom he hires is more than happy to adopt the two innocent youngsters as her own, and grows to love them dearly. However, she begins to see strange things happening about the house where she now lives, and continually sees a mysterious man and woman lingering about the estate. Both the man and woman have a horrifying, terrible expression and atmosphere to them, and when she describes them to her friend Mrs. Grose, the woman recognizes them instantly. They were lovers who once lived at the house, and they both died a few years ago, though no one knows how. The governess becomes convinced that the ghost couple is after little Flora and Miles, though she can't understand why. The children insist that they do not to see the ghosts, but the governess is convinced that they are lying due to how frightened they appear whenever she questions they about it. The harder that the governess tries to protect her charges, the farther distanced from her they become.

I very much enjoyed this brief, chilly tale, and I loved the antiquated way that it was written, which really gave it a cold, "ghost story" air that more modern writing simply cannot capture.

In the beginning of the story, it didn't occur to me that the governess' ghosts may not be real, but by the middle of the book, I was convinced that they were simply figments of her imagination. However, at the very end, I didn't know what to think.
I love stories that end just when the plot isn't quite closed out yet, leaving the reader to wonder - what happened?
This story was certainly one of those, and I still can't decide if the heroine was crazy, or if the "horrors," as she called them, were really there. Perhaps they were, only they were real flesh and blood people who she wanted to think of as ghosts.

Miles and Flora play their part well as the innocent, helpless little children who are very in need of protection as they drift obliviously toward horrific danger.
Nowadays, every horror movie seems to cast an obligatory child, but when Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, such themes weren't yet common.
I especially loved Miles, who is a more filled out character than his younger sister Flora. He is a charming boy, who wants very badly to be "bad," in spite of how good he is. He even stages an event where he goes outdoors at night, and schemes at how to get the governess to witness his little crime, in an attempt to show her how "bad" he is.
However, Miles is also very wise. Even though he never exactly tells his governess anything - he is always frustratingly vague - his little hints at deep, perceptive topics make him even more interesting.

The unnamed main character was a bit annoying, and I felt that she was at times contradictory. She is normally terrified of the ghosts she is seeing (which is understandable), while at other times she speaks of them lightly and does things that make it seem as if she doesn't fear them at all.
Her fierce protection of Miles and Flora was touching, and I couldn't help but wonder what made her care for them so much and so quickly, as if they really are her own family. Was she abandoned as a child? Did she always want children, but never married?

Speaking of speculation - there is much of it to be done within James' short story. There is, of course, the matter of the alleged ghosts. Are they imaginary? Real people mistaken as spirits? Or are they ghosts, after all? I think that everyone will ask these questions, but there are so many more to wondered about, if you look deeper.

For instance, it seems apparent by the end that Miles and Flora are extremely afraid of (or even hateful toward) the governess herself. The governess seems to think that this is because the ghosts are controlling the children's minds, while Mrs. Grose hints that it is because the children have been influenced by an evil presence. But what if the evil presence is actually the governess, and she simply doesn't know it? Perhaps this is a bit too M. Night Shyalman, but could the governess have been a ghost herself?
All of Miles' vague speeches, in which he is always saying things to the governess such as "you know what I mean..." could also be hints of this. Maybe she doesn't know what he means, and they are both talking about completely different things.
In the middle of the story, I even thought that Miles had a schoolboy crush on his guardian, which was what he kept referring to, even though the governess assumed he was speaking about ghosts. If you read their conversation with this possibility in mind, it would actually fit quite well, though toward the end I had mostly dismissed this idea.

All in all, I believe that I will keep wondering about The Turn of the Screw for a long while, and being so short, I know I will re-read it again in hopes of unlocking further clues that may help me solve the mysteries I found there.

This was a great Halloween read, though I would highly recommend it for anytime of the year.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Elsie Dinsore by Martha Finley

Title: Elsie Dinsmore
Author: Martha Finley
Genre: Children's / Religion
First published: 1867

Rating: 1 out of 10

The Elsie Dinsmore books must be some of the most ridiculous that I have ever read.
Everything is very over done and dramatic, but worse than that is an overarching sense of self-righteousness, both from the author and from Elsie herself.

Dinsmore introduces Elsie, her heroine, as the impossibly perfect, prim, innocent-of-all-wrongs little Christian girl. Elsie is strictly devout in her faith, and the author seems to delight in casting her as a martyr of sorts. Her secular cousins and relations are always belittling her for her religion, and Finley revels in it. I can imagine the author as a little girl, wallowing in self pity, and cheering herself up by telling herself how heroic she is.

Really, the morals of this book become more and more disgraceful the deeper you examine them.
Not because Elsie ever embraces anything inappropriate - oh no, far from it! Rather the opposite. She is simply too perfect. I find it hard to believe that any girl could honestly say that she could relate to Elsie when reading these books.

Elsie is tortured by guilt after she plays in a field that her father told her not to enter, and it is made into such an enormous drama that you'd think Elsie had gone and committed murder or something.

When a coach careens off the road while Elsie and her cousins are inside, her cousins marvel in awe at how calm Elsie is. Elsie jumps at the chance to impart her gratingly irritating wisdom to them: She isn't afraid of death, because she knows she will go to Heaven. Indeed, she practically says that she wishes the carriage had crashed, because then she'd be dead and with the angels.

Though the religious aspect of her little speech glosses it over, little eight year old Elsie has basically just told the reader that she wishes to die, all in very cheerful, casual tones.
This can't possibly be right.

Another quite memorable scene is when Elsie refuses to play a song on the piano, which her father asks her to play.
What! Little perfect Elsie, disobeying her father? How can this be?
Well, actually, Elsie decides that it would be an even greater sin to play the song. Why? Because it is the Sabbath, and the song is not a christian one.
Now, I cannot remember exactly what song her father asked her to play, but I sincerely doubt that he was requesting songs about drugs and sex. It was probably more along the lines of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Harmless, in other words.
But can Elsie play it? No. Absolutely. Not.
Her father tells her she will sit at the piano until she produces the supposedly evil song. Elsie is determined not to do anything of the sort, and so she sits there piously, pitying herself and praying.
I really could hardly bear to continue the book at this point. Of all the characters that I have ever, ever read in any book of any sort - Elsie Dinsmore without a doubt takes the place as my ultimate most hated.
Her stubborn, disgusting self-righteous attitude is bad enough, but the way that she (and the author) defend it as an admirable way of pleasing God, and the martyr attitude that they both cling to, is sickening.
The scenario escalates when Elsie, fatigued from sitting at the piano (wow, such hard work), faints and hits her head.
Again, furthering the martyr feeling.

I had to ask myself if Martha Finley was actually serious at many points in this book.
If Elsie is the example that mothers want to set before their little girls, I hope that they are prepared to raise girls who aspire to be spoiled, prudish, arrogant, self-pitying, and impossibly self-righteous little things who twist religion into a way of feeling sorry for themselves.