31 December 2008

28. Hamlet by the lord my god William Shakespeare

Hamlet! I hadn't read this in such a long time that I almost forgot what happened. And what happens is bad.

Hamlet's dad dies, so he comes back from university to attend the funeral. Before the funeral meats are cold, his mother has remarried his uncle, his father's brother. So his uncle is actually his stepdad and his mom is his aunt.

Then one foggy night the ghost of his dad comes and tells Hamlet that he didn't just die, but that he was killed by his own brother, Claudius, the new king (Hamlet's uncle-dad). The ghost wants Hamlet to avenge his death.

Then Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia suddenly stops talking to him (as her dad (Polonius) and brother (Laertes) request).

Hamlet has trouble completing the ghost's mandate, and this has caused the play to be interpreted solely about a man's inability to act because he thinks and thinks. But there is so much more here: Fathers: Hamlet Sr, Polonius, and even, sort of, the King of Norway gets involved; Sons: Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras; and spying (everyone seems to be spying on everyone else).

Rather than reading it, I recommend the Branagh movie version. He's such a great actor and he faithfully presents the play in all its length (4 hours). Shakespeare is meant to be seen, so see it.

27. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Isabel Archer is a classic individualist. She is unique and exotic. And everyone wants to marry her.

She grew up in Albany, NY, but we follow her story as she lives and moves about in Europe. She resists the advances of an industrialist New Yorker who follows her to England and the advances of a British nobleman, too.

Finally, after she inherits a great deal of money, she feels free to make choices without the influence of material wealth to come.

And so she marries, and marries badly. Does she flee? Does she stick it out?

I am really giving this novel a short review because I could speak about it for days and days. It's James, so it's dense and about much more than a simple tale of an expat getting married. We also have the observer character in the form of Isabel's consumptive cousin, who arranges the inheritance as an experiment on Isabel, to see what such a unique and rare person will do with such opportunity. And we have the idea of place - why England? And why does Isabel have to be an American? How does this novel fit into the James pantheon? And American literature?

I'm'na have to reread it to even come close to those answers.

26. Beast in the Jungle by Henry James

What an idiot is John Marcher!

All his life he believes that "something wonderful," to borrow a phrase, is going to happen to him. So for all of his life he waits, watching, wondering when this momentous event will occur.

Eventually he meets and remeets May Bartram, who, for reasons of her own, agrees to watch with him.

So they live as life-long friends, each of them watching the events of Marcher's life, until one day May is diagnosed with a fatal blood disorder. By this time she has also figured out what beast is stalking Marcher. But she won't tell him; he has to figure it out himself. And of course, Marcher, selfish to the last, believes that this, May's fatal disease, is the terrible thing that is to happen to him. And then, when she won't reveal what the horrible secret is, what the beast in the jungle actually is, he believes that that is the terrible thing, that May will die without revealing the secret, and so he'll never know.

And then, sadly, May dies; Marcher is left to watch alone.

I won't reveal the ending, but here we have James's observer character taken to the extreme: all Marcher does is watch.

And he's a first class idiot.

This was a great book with a moving ending. Not just for English majors!

25. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Poor Jane Eyre!

Misfit! Everywhere she goes!

Separated into five sections, each set in a different area, this book chronicles Jane's attempts at fitting into her world. Four attempts at figuring out who she is and where she belongs end in failure. Until finally things swing her way. But in classic 19th C. british lit fashion, not until the very last second.

I really quite liked this book. The writing is divine: her descriptions of places small and large are excellent.

And because Jane knows herself so well, or expresses herself to herself so well even if she doesn't know exactly what her conclusions mean, the inner voice of the character is portrayed really well. We are with Jane all the time, and yet we never tire of her. I usually resist first-person narratives, too, but not here, in the hands of an expert like Bronte.

24. Daisy Miller by Henry James

Another book for the Hawthorne-James class.

Young Daisy Miller is an American living in Europe and she is not quite behaving herself abroad. In fact, her behavior is quite scandalous. In one scene she goes for an unchaperoned walk on a busy street with a man who is not her husband!

How does one maintain individuality amid such rules and customs and traditions? Is it possible?

And again we have the Jamesian observer who is content to sit and watch, to experiment without judging. An observer stuck wanting to join the revolution yet held back by rules, customs, and the expectations of the defenders of the status quo. Cowardice? Prudence?

23. Dubliners by James Joyce

Technically, this is a reread.

And another read for my Irish Renaissance class.

And still delicious bites.

Read it.

22. Washington Square by Henry James

Poor Catherine Sloper.

Her dad won't let her date who she wants. And with good reason, Morris Townsend is after Catherine's money (really, mostly, her dad's and hers when he dies). How will she handle it? Will she defy her father? Or will she submit?

But the real question the novel answers is whether or not impressions and feelings can count as experience: do we have to act to have an experience?

21. Some Irish Plays

Not really worth an entry by themselves because some of them are three pages long, I list and comment on them here and count them all together:

The Rising of the Moon by Lady Gregory: A cop with a family to feed has to decide if he turns in a rebel for a reward and promotion or lets the man go. If he lets him go it's good for a free Ireland. If he turns him in the cop is just a bitch for the British, the Man, and the oppression of the Irish.

Cathleen ni Houlihan by Yeats: An old lady comes to a tavern on the eve of a man's wedding and tries to persuade him to fight for a free Ireland. She is not just an old lady, but Ireland herself and the man can never come home and is likely to die. implied is that this is the question all young Irishmen must face.

Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge: Set on the Aran islands just to the west of Galway in the violent and stormy Irish Sea. With three sons already gone a mother tries to persuade her only remaining son to stay home and not go fishing.

Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge: This play set off riots when it was played in Dublin because the main character says that he is so in love with a girl that if some one set up all the girls in Mayo in front of him, and them wearing only their nightgowns, he would still choose her. Scandalous. A guy comes to a small pub and tells a story of killing his dad. The daughter of the pub owner falls in love with the wild traveler and breaks up with her steady, local boy. The townies celebrate his bravery and honesty. But then the traveler's dad shows up very much alive and the townies try to run the son out. But then the son actually kills the dad! And then the townies try to hang the son (for doing the very deed they were celebrated but an hour ago)!

Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey: Might be my favorite of the lot, though I do like the ethical dilemma posed by The Moon Rising. First, paycock as in peacock pronounced with an Oirish accent. We have a family here on the brink of disintegration. Father: drunk, lazy, selfish. Son: a rebel, haunted by the fact that he turned in his best friend (who was killed) for being a rebel. Daughter: dating a fancy-pants Englishman. Mother: working hard to keep it all together. Then a settlement is promised and the dad goes on a spending spree. Settlement falls through! Daughter gets knocked up! Englishman flees! Son is abducted by his fellow rebels for being an informer! What's a mother to do?

These were all part of an Irish Renaissance class I was taking. I quite enjoyed the curriculum and I'm glad I read these. I had read Riders to the Sea a long time ago, what with it being about boaters and fishermen and men of the sea and all, but I absolutely did not get it. I definitely needed the economic and political context that I got from being in the class. I also benefitted from the Norton editions of these plays. I do not work for Norton. But the Norton anthologies give tons of context and criticism, the bread and butter of literature students and teachers, without overdoing it and killing all the joy of discovery of the lit.

I liked the symbolism of Riders to the Sea and Cathleen ni Houlihan, and the gritty realism of The Moon Rising and Juno.

20. Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne's memoir-ish tale of the Transcendentalist experiment in socialist living at Brook Farm, not far from Concord and Salem.

More than just an observer/participant's commentary and reportage on what happened this fictionalization is about the act of observing, commitment, manipulation and community, and social change.

And you don't necessarily have to know a lot about the Transcendentalist's to understand the events at Brook Farm because this, like many of Hawthorne's stories, can serve as an allegory for the limits of reform and social change. The course of the experiment is not as bad as, say, Orwell's Animal Farm, but it ends in failure anyway (as you already know because you've probably never heard of it unless you majored in English or 19th C. history).

19. Hawthorne by Henry James

Henry James critiques Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I read this book for my class, and hadn't heard of it at all before this. I haven't read any of James's longer works (in fact, I've only read one or two short stories), so it was interesting reading something by him that is non-fiction and about another author.

I think I learned as much about James as I did about Hawthorne. Mixed with some praise is James's scorching criticism of American Literature as it stood in 1879. James had moved to Europe by then in an attempt to reinvent the American novel as something of World Lit and not merely American. James felt that because America was still relatively young, and that the land hadn't been fully civilized, that no American literature could be any good: even Hawthorne, who James thinks basically invented American literature, is a provincial upstart. Because he has nothing to say about America, Hawthorne is forced to write allegorical tales that speak about the human condition more than they speak about a place and time, so Hawthorne's literature fails to even be uniquely American - it isn't essentially American.

This is a good book if you have read just about everything by Hawthorne and have a good understanding of what James was attempting to be/do. Knowing what James's aims were is essential because it gives his criticisms context.

19 December 2008

18. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

I had already read the Dubliners and quite enjoyed it, so this was a book I was looking forward to, and one that, as an English teacher, I should have under my belt (along with about 100 others).

This autobiographical novel was published in 1916, a fact that Joyce insisted on because of the political events in the same year. That was the year of the Easter Rising, the beginning of the end of the British dominance of Ireland.

This was a tough book, and I’m still trying to figure it out. I suspect that I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. And I’ll be teaching it, so I will have the opportunity to talk about it at length later in the year. That definitely helps with understanding a text.

The novel is divided into five sections, each of them covering a time period of young Stephen Dedalus’s life. This is the kind of novel that we English teachers call bildungsroman – just a fancy way of saying that the character is trying to find his way in the world, trying to find where he fits. This book is a great example of that theme (along with, say, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Jude the Obscure by the great Thomas Hardy, two books that I am also teaching this year).

Joyce leaves a lot of the political and social context out which makes the book a bit harder to get into. But I found it to be quite liberating. If I wanted all of the context to be handed to me in the text I’d read Dickens. And I was taking a course on the Irish Renaissance – my reason for reading – and so I had a lot of that knowledge from the others. I strongly recommend a heavily footnoted edition, or better, a Norton copy that has political and background documents in it.

I’ll leave you to discover the subjects and themes of the five sections, but we follow Stephen as he grows up. We begin as he is getting ready to go to boarding school and we leave him as he finished college and decides to leave Ireland for good.

I don’t really even know what to say about the book except that it follows Stephen’s struggle with home, church, and state. Set in the early 1900s as Ireland and England are battling for control of the Irish state, we have to deal with issues involving Stephen’s mom, his feelings about the church (as he contemplates becoming a priest), and his feelings about his Irishness.

It’s complicated.

But the writing is most excellent.

Here’s a section from Book II, where Stephen and his father have traveled to Dublin together on a train:

“At Maryborough he fell asleep. When he awoke the train had passed out of Mallow and his father was stretched asleep on the other seat. The cold light of the dawn lay over the country, over the unpeopled fields and the closed cottages. The terror of sleep fascinated his mind as he watched the silent country or heard from time to time his father’s deep breath or sudden sleepy movement. The neighbourhood of unseen sleepers filled him with strange dread though they could harm him; and he prayed that the day might come quickly. His prayer, addressed neither to God nor saint, began with a shiver, as the chilly morning breeze crept through the chink of the carriage door to his feet, and ended in a trail of foolish words which he made to fit the insistent rhythm of the train: and silently, at intervals of four seconds, the telegraphpoles held the galling notes of the music between punctual bars. This furious music allayed his dread and, leaning against the windowledge, he let his eyelids close again” (II 967-83).

And here is another section, this from Book III. Stephen has spent his time in sinful, sexual pleasures with himself and others. After hearing a hellfire sermon he goes back to his room and feels sick. As soon as he can he heads into town, to a strange church where he won’t meet anyone he knows so he can give a confession. Here, he has just stepped into the confessional and the priest has slid back the bolt:

“His blood began to murmur in his veins, murmuring like a sinful city summoned from its sleep to hear its doom. Little flakes of fire fell and powdery ashes fell softly, alighting on the houses of men. They stirred, waking from sleep, troubled y the heated air” (III. 1422-27).

And another section, this one from Section IV. Stephen is torn about joining the priesthood, and as he thinks he wanders down to the beach. He paces along the beach, looking for some kind of answer, and finally he comes upon a beautiful girl fishing in the shallows. Stephen has his answer! He walks to clean his mind of the image of the girl.

“He climbed to the crest of a sandhill and gazed about him. Evening had fallen. A rim of the young moon cleft the pale waste of sky like the rim of a silver hoop embedded in grey sand: and the tide was flowing in fast to the land with a low whisper of her waves, islanding a few last figures in distant pools” (IV. 916-22).

I’ll leave the last book to you to discover; it’s a very satisfying end.

And now I have to go read Ulysses.

09 December 2008

17. Goin' Down the Road by Blair Jackson

I liked this book so much that after I read a library copy I bought a copy on the amazon. For $2!

Subtitled as "A Grateful Dead Traveling Companion," this is a collection of some articles and interviews from the Golden Road newsletter, a fan newsletter organized for the fans of the Grateful Dead. The book has an interview with each of the band members, a section on the history of all the traditional folk songs songs that the Dead have covered/reinterpreted, and a section that highlights concerts of note for every year the band played shows.

This last section is what drove me to buy the book. I mean, I surf the Archive every day, looking for specific songs, shows, or song combinations, and see what interesting shows were recorded that day. And I'm sure that I could have found some sort of comprehensive review of concerts online instead of buying the book. But having a copy, with the pics of the band, and Jackson's comments on some of the shows, is interesting. What I especially liked was knowing when the first Stella Blue was (1972), or the first show after Pigpen died (3/15/1973, at our very own Nassau Coliseum). Stuff like that.

It's a good reference book, especially if you are a collector of Grateful Dead shows. Like, say, you want to hear Janis Joplin singing with the Dead, or the darkest Dark Star, or the very first live version of Eyes of the World, or a 17 song first set. You could find these things surfing the Archive, and reading the comments, but that takes so freaking long.