Welcome friends! I have started this entry in the global technosphere because I have been in love with books since the age of 2. Among the busy business of being a new teacher, this is my outlet for sharing thoughts on a love of reading a wide variety of books. My inspiration can be summed up with a yearbook quote from a teacher written when I was 8: "To the only girl at recess I see reading a book. Good for you!"
My blog title is quoted from a classmate who asked me this once. Believe it or not, I've also heard it as a teacher :D

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Harking Back...Part III: University (Year 3)

Whew...!  I've been working on this entry a long time, constructing reviews for texts read in 5 English courses (3 of which were quite heavy-handed).  Enjoy!

19th Century British Literature & Culture
We did poetry in term 1, especially works by William Blake, John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  I absolutely fell in love with “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Keats (click the link for the complete poem).  Here is my favourite excerpt.  The last two lines are probably most familiar:

What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Here are the novels from term 2:

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Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde- Robert Louis Stevenson
I was excited to read this as I had always kept it in the back of my mind and was very interested in the parallels between good & evil, and the idea of multiple personality in the mid-19th century is an interesting concept, well ahead of its time.  The language definitely required some footnotes, but the story was so juicy, I think it rivals most classic mysteries with the sci-fi elements woven in seamlessly. 

At 62 pages, it’s more of a short story, but my Norton edition included critical essays and other background information.  It seems that Stevenson has also clearly woven together his dual education in medicine & law, which serves each character well in the complex mystery. 

I enjoyed this particular quote, and am wondering if any other mystery novel or movie has used it as it would be quite sinister if spoken by a good actor (but butchered by a bad one, LOL!):  “If he be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek.”

Rank:  (A)- Highly recommend

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Scenes of Clerical Life- George Eliot
This is not Eliot’s most well-known novel (that would be either Middlemarch or Silas Marner, both of which are on my TBR list), but historically it is the first published under the pseudonym for Mary Anne Evans.  Surprisingly, I came away liking this book more than I expected.  My professor was enthusiastic and shared a great deal of insight on the novel.  Without it, I would have been lost!

Firstly, it’s a compilation of 3 stories, and we only read “Janet’s Repentance,” which is a bleakly honest portrayal of a helpless woman abused by her tyrannical attorney husband that comes across as relevant as it could be today (like Sleeping With the Enemy set against the backdrop of Victorian England), it comes across as hauntingly beautiful.

I think this quotation tells it best:

“And so it was with human life there, which at first seemed a dismal mixture of griping worldliness, vanity, ostrich feathers, and the fume of brandy: looking closer, you found some purity, gentleness, and unselfishness, as you may have observed a scented geranium giving forth its wholesome odours amidst blasphemy and gin in a noisy pot-house.”

Despite a fair number of less than reputable or likeable characters, Eliot gives them equal face time with language that is deliberately stuffy, such as Dempster, the evangelical lawyer:

“An insolvent atheist, gentlemen. A deistical prater, fit to sit in the chimney-corner of a pot-house, and make blasphemous comments on he one greasy newspaper fingered by beer-swilling tinkers. I will not suffer in my copany a man who speaks lightly of religion. The signature of a fellow like Byles would be a blot on our protest.”

If you are a fan of Jane Austen and/or other works by George Eliot, this will satisfy your need.  Has anyone ever read this or the other two stories in the book?

Rank:  (A)- Highly recommend

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Mary Barton- Elizabeth Gaskell
I needed to seek out this title and fiddle with my Google searches until I came across it. I could have easily read this in another course, maybe Women Writers (see further down in this post). Not many memories about this one…any thoughts, readers?
Rank:  N/A (can't remember enough of this one to rank it)

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Caleb Williams- William Godwin
It was rather ahead of its time with themes of political corruption. And how smoking hot is that cover?!?
Rank:  N/A (can't remember enough to rank it)

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The Importance of Being Earnest- Oscar Wilde
This play is not only one of Wilde’s most beloved works, but amazingly it stands up even today. It uses clever language and witty, even downright hilarious, word play. It’s a breezy, quick read and though I’ve never seen it performed, it is probably just as funny acted out.  I haven't seen any of the movie versions (the most recognizable being the 2002 Reese Witherspoon star vehicle).

I only highlighted two lines in my copy (this is a good thing--if I highlight lots, I'm stopping & thinking, instead of allowing the whole work to flow naturally along).  I think I know why…They were familiar to me, because they were cited by Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka:

“The truth is rarely pure & never simple.”

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it lasts.”

While I’m thinking on it, with some help from my beloved Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB), set as my IE home page to show how much of a movie geek I truly am (LOL!), here are some other “Wonkaisms” and who they are originally attributed to:

“Is it my soul that calls me by my name?” ~ Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet)
"All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by” ~ John Masefield (“Sea Fever”)
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” ~ John Keats (“Endymion: A Poetic Romance”)
“Round the world and home again, that's the sailor's way!” ~ William Allingham (Homeward Bound)
“We are the music-makers and we are the dreamers of dreams” ~ Arthur O'Shaughnessy (“Ode”)
“Where is fancy bred? In the heart or in the head?” and
“So shines a good deed in a weary world” ~ Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice)
“Sweet lovers love the spring time...” Shakespeare (As You Like It)
“Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker” ~ Ogden Nash (“Reflections on Ice Breaking”)

Go ahead & watch the movie again, listening for the wonderful droll of Gene Wilder's voice as he cites them.  Ahhh...

Rank:  (A+)- A must-read (The Importance of Being Earnest, not Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory--that's a must-see :o)

Post-Colonial Cultures
A historical literary overview of invasion & colonization in Africa, Asia & the Caribbean.

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Things Fall Apart- Chinua Achebe
The title is taken from W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Nigerian author and scholar Chinua Achebe wrote this novel in 1959, but it is in the last 20 years that it has become a staple of African English fiction in university courses. It has the opposite perspective of Heart of Darkness (African over European) yet explores the same themes of tribal customs, brutal conflicts, cultures of marriage, birth, and death, and the impact of colonization & missionary religious groups who in the end reduce the tragedies and pitfalls of the tribal leader Okonkwo who “was ruled by one passion—to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness” to “perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph” by the white District Commissioner.  Simply unforgettable.

Rank:  (A+)- A must-read

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Heart of Darkness- Joseph Conrad
A very disturbing novella that comes across as incredibly racist and depicts mentally feral European characters that have no sense of acceptance or even tolerance for the African cultures they are invading. The text is often taught at face value, with only the European perspective, but through a post-colonial context, the novel withholds the African perspective, leaving an obviously slanted viewpoint as Marlow’s experience is less than half the story.

Rank:  (D)- Don't recommend (D for Disturbing)

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Nervous Conditions- Tsitsi Dangarembga
The title of this novel comes from Frantz Fanon’s controversial critique The Wretched of the Earth:

“The condition of native is a nervous condition.”

The novel is a highly personal account of a teenage girl in Rhodesia during the 1960s who yearns to leave her village for higher education at boarding school, but cannot easily relate to her British-bred cousin who has lived a much more privileged and entitled life yet suffers from a self-conscious addiction.

Here is the opening line as a teaser:  “I was not sorry when my brother died.”

Rank:  (A)- Highly recommend

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Autobiography of my Mother- Jamaica Kincaid
Jamaica Kincaid is an Antiguan-born author who explores issues of girlhood in novels, such as Lucy, Annie John (scroll down for my review of this book) and this challenging, often disturbing novel. The title is ironic in many ways: obviously no one can write an autobiography of another person, but also the character never knows her mother. After this sad occurrence, a string of darker events occur that alter her life’s course. It may be too depressing for some, but it’s well-written. If this doesn’t appeal to you, I highly suggest another of Kincaid’s novels, Annie John, so that you may at least experience the author's work aside from its content.

Rank:  (C)- Just Okay

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The God of Small Things- Arundhati Roy
A strong debut novel by Indian-born author Arundhati Roy that criticizes the alienation and separatism of the caste system through the experiences of fraternal twins as they grow up through the 1960s and into the 1990s.

Rank:  (A)- Highly recommend

Studies in Women Writers
A great array of writers from different periods, some a bit out of my comfort zone, but otherwise a wonderful course!

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A Room of One’s Own- Virginia Woolf
The opening book for this course was not your typical venture into Woolf’s mysterious work, such as Mrs. Dalloway (which I still haven’t mustered the courage to try), but this was a satisfying glimpse into how women writers (and scholars) were treated as Woolf considers herself and other women writers of her generation as would-be successors to the struggles of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and (in her opinion to a lesser extent) the Brontes.

What started as an essay expands into a manifesto of 111 pages that begins with a hint of feminism in her thesis:

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”

Her answer, in short, is that without privacy, the rights of space, freedom (i.e. being unmarried), isolation, and equality, a woman cannot write. Women writers, such as Austen, were constantly bothered by household duties (oh me, oh my), yet produced pieces of classic literature that hold up just as strongly as the work of any independent male writer who does not have the same responsibilities.

Woolf spends a great deal of time considering the role of women in society and how men perceive the opposite sex at different levels of class, citing that it ultimately makes no difference—women in her time were equal parts child and servant. No wonder Eliot had to use a male pseudonym—do you think her work would have been published, let alone read by anyone, if she went by her birth name of Mary Anne Evans?

Along with a continued pity for the lack of women writers, Woolf ends her essay critically by suggesting that the doors to a successful academic life for women are slightly ajar, so why aren’t more women taking advantage of it? Questions abound that are still considered today: “What effect does poverty have on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”

She hopes that modern women writers will not be overcome by prejudicial barriers and will disbelieve and fight against the label of inferiority that the "powerful" male writers have placed on the “inferior sex.”  Woolf was hopeful for the future, but knew it would be some time before the rights of women were fully recognized and their writing would prosper beyond the constrains of “life [conflicting] with something that is not life.”

Rank:  (A+)- A must-read

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Little Women- Louisa May Alcott
A joyful coming of age tale about the 4 March sisters: Meg, maternal & kind-hearted; Jo, bookish & sharp; Beth, sweet & fragile; and Amy, girly & vain, raised lovingly by their mother Marmee as their soldier father is away during the Civil War.

This is one I may not have read entirely, yet the ending is very well-known, so I can piece it together. Still, this should be a TBRR (to be reread) for me. I found a neat trick with this book: I tend to bend (not break) the spine when reading, and it seems that even without a bookmark I can find my old place! I still want to experience it again from the beginning…so many books, so little time…

There are several movie versions. The 1994 movie starred Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as Beth, Christian Bale as Laurie, Kirsten Dunst as young Amy, and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. It was beautifully directed by Gillian Armstrong with a cozy, glowing set design. A well-known 1933 film version starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo (nice casting!) and was directed by her close friend George Cukor.  In 1949, the notoriously catty Elizabeth Taylor was Amy (see also Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—similar characters, in my opinion with a smokin’ Paul Newman), whiny June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg (I think those roles should have been reversed—Allyson would have made a better Meg, Leigh a great Jo), sweet Margaret O’Brien (adorably wicked in Meet Me in St. Louis) as Beth, and Mary Astor as Marmee (she was the femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon).

Rank:  (A+)- A must-read

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The Color Purple- Alice Walker
An epistolary novel told through letters to God about the wrenching experiences of Celie, a bright, tortured girl who tries to learn to read & write amidst a life of incest, decades-long separation from her sister Nettie, being sold to an equally abusive Albert (whom she calls Mr. ___), raising bratty children that are not her own, and learning what love means through her friendship with the mysterious Shug Avery, Albert’s ex whom he still pines for but can only ruin. An incredible coming-of-age tale against a backdrop of the nastiness Celie endures and how she is beautifully repaid for being forever hopeful.  The 1985 movie directed by Steven Spielberg is a heartfelt adaptation, true to the novel with an amazing performance by Whoopi Goldberg.  This story works & is best enjoyed both ways.

Rank:  (A+)- A must-read

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The Female Quixote- Charlotte Lennox
Challenging to say the least! I don’t even think I finished this one.  I remember learning that the title is pronounced "QUICKS-OUGHT," rather than "KEY-OH-TEE" (despite it being related to Don Quixote).  Probably because the British pronounce aluminum "AL-YOU-MINI-UM" :oD

Rank:  N/A, did not finish (can't really give this a D as I didn't read enough of it)

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Annie John- Jamaica Kincaid
I enjoyed this novel more than the disturbing Autobiography of my Mother. Annie is a sweet-hearted but mischievous child who grows into a skin independent from the wishes of her mother, forming a bond with a tomboy friend nicknamed “Red Girl.” Annie soon becomes emotionally abusive towards her mother as she tries to distance herself from the close bond they once had, struggling to grow up without what used to be a necessary lifeline. The joyfully sad ending left an image in my mind that brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.

Rank:  (A)- highly recommend

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Ana Historic- Daphne Marlatt
A melting pot of novel, poetry, feminism, and historical nonfiction about coming to terms with conventions of writing & society whilst struggling to find more information about a character minimally referenced in a history book. Identity is a primary theme that is written from a feminist, historical viewpoint with lush, poetic language, absent from structured templates of novel-writing. A challenging but provocative read.

Rank:  (B)- Recommend

Update:  I watched A Serious Man last night & it sparked my memory!  The novel I remembered is below.

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The Romance Reader- Pearl Abraham
A stunning portrait of a teenage girl's struggle to escape from the orthodox traditions of her Hasidic family in hopes of a more autonomous life for herself.  Without being offensive or bigoted, Abraham gives a semi-autobiographical perspective through Rachel's feelings of being ostracized by her family: the rabbi father who has dreams of building a synagogue from which he can reach out to the masses; the miserable conformist mother who belittles her husband while longing to be accepted by the exclusive neighbourhood groups; the sister who sympathizes with Rachel's plight but feels tied down herself; and the greater community, both Jewish & goyim, who are split on the issue.  A series of attempts to break free of the constraints Rachel feels are limiting her independence is fed by a love of reading romance novels, hence the title which is beautifully framed by the contrasting black-and-white & coloured hues of a woman seemingly trapped in a longing gaze.  While uncomfortable with the limitations set by her religion & culture, Rachel conforms to an arrangement that could make or break her wish to choose her own path in life.  You cannot help but cheer for Rachel's quest, but sometimes feel for the sister & even the mother, who is so tied to tradition that she must lash out at it from time to time.  I went into this novel without much background on Hasidic Judaism, but it is explained throughout and is not limited to Rachel's antagonism surrounding it.  There is a sense of guilt-mongering & force in conforming to the customs of the faith, and it is hard not to cringe at this, but if it comes across as offensive to those who are part of the denomination or a similiar belief system, it is only one perspective after all.  For those outside of the faith, like myself, I find it to be more of a young woman's journey to create & apply options for herself and not simply fall in line as her family dictates.

Rank:  (A)- Highly recommend

I don’t remember any other books from this course, but such an awesome selection, eh? I’ll attempt to brainstorm & add more if they come to me.

Contemporary Popular Culture
Taught amateurishly but had a thought-provoking book attached to it.

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The Corporation- Joel Bakan
Along with its excellent companion documentary, The Corporation is a skewering look at how American business & economy was conceived and continues to obliterate the masses with its scheming propaganda and how CEOs have the gall to push the envelope to protect the money-making machine known as capitalism. In short, Bakan’s initial thesis is “the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

Shockingly, Adam Smith denounced the corporation in his Wealth of Nations manifesto in…drumroll…1777 and it was banned in England for over 50 years, yet by the 19th century railroad boom and the industrial wave that followed overshadowed his inevitably correct prediction. Bakan goes on to analyze the advent of corporate practice, citing milestones such as FDR’s New Deal, the rise of the automobile industry, the computer industry, and the Enron disaster. He cites examples of incredibly disgusting commercial profiting off of children, and even 9/11 (yup, that’s sick). Worst of all, corporations have direct financial ties to government; in essence, they feed the beast, otherwise it would starve.

Unlike most critically-based nonfiction books, Bakan does suggest methods of releasing the chokehold that corporations have on society, including the reinstatement of government regulation that will protect against human rights violations, while improving environmental health & safety, and union organization. He even goes so far as to suggest (maybe naïvely) that corporate-governmental ties be cut or at least financial support be regulated. I can’t see that happening anytime soon, given the influence of support it has had since the industrial revolution, but with Obama in the White House, I’m starting to believe that anything is remotely possible to undo 8 years of Bush damage.

Despite it being 6 years old, I highly recommend reading this book, especially if you are a follower of Michael Moore’s books & documentaries, and/or are a union member and/or are interested in living a life not tied to the puppet strings of capitalism.

Rank:  (A+)- Excellent

Gender & Sexuality
Highly interesting course with a focus on concepts of masculinity & homosexuality.  After we (the straight females) got over some initial awkwardness, it was quite an engaging course.

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History of Sexuality- Michel Foucault
I really cannot comment on this. It was highly challenging, sometimes downright impossible to understand, and I’ve forgotten everything I know about it (probably because of the first two reasons!). I avoided the course’s essay topics for this text like the plague!

Rank:  (D)- Don't recommend

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Times Square Red, Times Square Blue- Samuel R. Delany
There is no other book I know of that accounts for the alienation of the gay community more than this, but then again, I am not often privy to books of this nature.  Are you?

In his preface, Delany argues that being gay is still nearly not as acceptable as one would think, even in a place like New York City where “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” The proposed reconstruction of Times Square, a Mecca of gay cultural history, is “not only a violent reconfiguration of its own landscape but also a legal and moral revamping” that will whitewash a seemingly irreversible history.

TSR, TSB is divided into two parts with those titles.  Blue is a memoir of Delany’s encounters on the streets and in the theatres along 42nd Street.  Red is a scholarly thesis that cites many statistics that soon grows tiresome to read, so I will focus my review on Blue, ironically (and perhaps deliberately) the title of a Derek Jarman film about a man dying of AIDS, though any reference to the disease is hardly mentioned by Delany. The stories are often explicit and won’t be recanted here, but he demonstrates how a diversity of gay culture exists & thrives.  By removing these venues simply because of empty moral objection, Delany argues, adds to the continuing problem of homophobia that cannot be overcome without at least a modicum of tolerance. 

Delany’s book is not for the faint of heart and I would only recommend it to those interested in the issue, not as a leisurely read. The stories of Blue tend to be explicit.  The argument is highly personal for Delany as an openly gay man attempting to save what is left of the Times Square culture by arguing for tolerance, if not acceptance, and freedom of assembly.

Rank:  (B)- Recommend (please read above paragraph)

Coming soon...Year IV.

1 comment:

  1. I just read your post on Woolf's A Room of One's Own-I enjoyed it a lot-Woolf speaks not only of the relatively poverty of women's economic status but their poverty of experience-I also great enjoyed the God of Small Things-if you have not yet read any of her work you might enjoy the work of Katherine Mansfield-