Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Declaration of Independence edited by Michael Hardt

This edition of Jefferson's writings, prefaced by an essay of Hardt's, insists on separating Jefferson's political thoughts from the inconsistencies in his life. Furthermore, the selections are carefully chosen to reflect Hardt's own ideas about how Jefferson ought to be read--as advocating a model of democracy with revolutions every 20 years and then training the citizens for democracy with a ward system.

The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

This edition of The Hobbit is handsome, generously illustrated, and has notes containing more of Tolkien's poetry, details of his life, and similiarities to Norse epics. Reading the story for the 10th time, I think, I noticed more structure this time than usually--Gandalf uses reverse tricks to convince Bilbo and Beorn to help the dwarves' quest, and as Bilbo must be saved from the trap of the trolls, he saves the dwarves from the spiders and elves. A great story.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien's son published the writings about the origins of the elves, in which Tolkien found people less than interested during his lifetime, in this book. The Silmarillion is obviously less polished than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both of which read gracefully. This volume includes five overlapping texts: Ainulindalë, Valaquenta, Quenta Silmarillion, Akallabêth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. Despite the lack of continuity--which makes the reading slower and less enjoyable than the polished works, these stories constitute a faithful continuation of the history of Middle Earth. Tolkien still values beauty, moral goodness, and making choices, and constructs his world such that choices have to be made--no one, except possibly Ilúvatar has it all.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

This drama is domestic and vicious. Reading it is like watching A Lion in Winter.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein

I found this play entertaining reading, but I'm not convinced that it completely works in the end. I like the art history lectures, and the idea of telling the story through vignettes of Heidi's life, but the politics of the play are fairly predictable and routine and Wasserstein strikes such a reasonable, middle-ground sort of point, that I'm not entirely convinced she's saying much of anything at all. Ultimately one of those works far more interesting for its flaws than its successes.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

This mystery was fairly compelling. The red herring was particularly well done; I spent so much time paying attention to her that I nearly missed part of the murder. Some of the math discussions dragged on a bit too long and some of Martínez' work covering up the clues that would give away the mystery was a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise a quick, smart read.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

This novel is perhaps the worst of the His Dark Materials trilogy, though of course one couldn't appreciate the trilogy without reading this book. Pullman has constructed a church so evil, it's impossible not to hate organized religion, which is all well and good--except that it makes the moral decisions in the book too easy. Also, the book is filled with easy ways out--between the knife, the alethiometer, and the spyglass. While Will and Lyra make a hard decision at the end, by the time they get there, these other flaws in the books make that decision far less significant than it could have been.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I found this populist fairy tale quite enjoyable. At times simple, and definitely written to be understood and enjoyed by children (though their parents ought to follow the allegory), the book tells a pretty good story.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This book is clearly rich: there's a lot a careful reader could do with the ideas in it, the images Vonnegut uses to get to the ideas, and the humor. While I appreciated the aesthetic value of the book, and found its ideas about stasis, free will, and the effect of war (and destruction like Dresden more specifically) on the human spirit compelling, I don't all out adore the book. The style doesn't quite resonate as it could.

Lord Peter by Dorothy Sayers

This complete collection of Dorothy Sayers's short stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey is simply delightful. It's easier to leap to the proper conclusion in the short stories than in the novels, partially because there's less room for things to unfold, but the stories are uniformly written with the wit and grace that makes Sayers's writing so enjoyable. This collection would be especially good if one didn't have the time or energy to read an entire novel. I particularly liked the story solved by a crossword puzzle, the story whose key lay in an old book, and the story in which Lord Peter showed off his fine palate.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Eros and Psyche by Karen Chase

This study contrasts three psychological novels: Jane Eyre, Bleak House, and Middlemarch. While all three write the character of the individual into the fabric of the book, Chase is careful to preserve differences and distances between the authors. The readings seem spot on, and Chase gracefully links her arguments together.

The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Leguin

I found this collection of short stories enjoyable but uneven. I enjoyed the two Earthsea stories, "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names" (uncollected elsewhere) the most, but I also really liked "Winter's King" and "April in Paris." I had a hard time getting into some of the most hardcore science fiction, and her fantasy/science fiction writing remains much more compelling, to my mind, than her realist fiction. The collection would be worth picking up and skimming, and then reading only the appealing ones.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

I was surprised by this collection of short stories. They aren't all about Mowgli, and not all of them are even set in India. Kipling includes a lot of verse, some of which is more compelling than the rest. The Mowgli stories and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi are the best; they all focus on the way that the jungle works--through a Law which all obey. Overall better than I thought they would be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Rape of Clarissa by Terry Eagleton

I found this study to improve as it went along. It begins by setting Clarissa in its cultural context, in an introduction almost as long as the book itself. Then the first part of the main text is a Freudian reading of the book, focusing on the sexual/textual metaphor. The second part of the main text (and the real reason to read this book) is a rollicking attack on previous readings of the rape. Eagleton certainly doesn't hold any punches here. He concludes with a coda on Sir Charles Grandison.

The Circus and Victorian Society by Brenda Assael

I found this study to be well organized and strikingly informative. Assael starts with a chapter on the origins of the Victorian circus and then examines the circus through five classes of performances: the nationalist/patriotic equestrian play, the incorporation of the exotic (animals), clowns, female acrobats, and child acrobats. Remarkably well-supported by particular detail, Assael's theories address both the relation of the circus to the coming of industry and British imperialism, and the gaze and gasp of the spectator watching dangerous acts.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Three Vampire Tales edited by Anne Williams

This edition brings together three vampire tales from the early to late nineteenth century. Williams includes a thorough introduction, and lots of contextual material first. John Polidori's The Vampyre is perhaps most notable for the circumstances surrounding its creation: when the Shelleys and Lord Byron read Coleridge's "Christabel" (excerpted in this volume) and decided to write their own ghost stories, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Byron started a vampire story. Polidori, his doctor at the time, finished it, and published it, so it's sometimes mistakenly attributed to Byron. The volume also includes Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, but its centerpiece is, of course, Bram Stoker's Dracula. The terror in all three of the stories comes, at least in part, from the doubling and repetition of the vampire's attacks. Beloved women are particularly susceptible to the vampire (who attack the men via their daughters, sisters, and wives) whether the vampire attacking is male or female. Dracula itself has a complex structure, and includes a fascination with travel, the combination of multiple strands of the plot in complex ways, and a superb use of Gothic horror. The juxtaposition of the tales is quite interesting, but Dracula is the jewel of the collection.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

I liked this Lord Peter mystery. In some ways it seems unfair to the reader, as a motive for the murder appears midway through as the result of a change in inheritance law. Lord Peter is brilliant as ever, of course, and I didn't see the mode of death coming at all. It raises some interesting moral questions, but answers them pretty well by the end. Overall an enjoyable mystery.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The second installment in His Dark Materials clarifies the Miltonian and Biblical roots of the series. Lyra meets a boy, Will, who also functions as an orphan. At times, the use of both the alethiometer and the subtle knife seem a bit forced, and the power of the forces of the Authority seems a bit exaggerated as they respond so quickly to some things and completely miss other things. Overall, an enjoyable middle book that moves the trilogy along.

The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman

I found this book intriguing. Lyra lives in a world very much like our own, except that consciences take external, animal forms called daemons, and the roots for electricity and amber have been switched (though we don't find that out till The Subtle Knife). The book is frankly anti-authoritarian and anti-church, although one has to keep reading to get the full extent of Pullman's alternate theology. This book is carefully plotted and well written. It is much more subtle and sophisticated than the movie.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I found it difficult to get into this novel at first. Although I was hopping into the middle of a cycle, I think it would have been as difficult as if I had come at it with more experience with the fictional universe: the world of Winter is certainly eccentric, and the explanations don't really come until mid-way through the book. I found the book bizarre, but rewarding eventually. I liked the development of the relationship between Genly Ai and Estravan, but didn't recognize it as central to the book until at least halfway through. Le Guin's speculations on pronouns at the back are interesting, though I think "e" (say: eh) reminds me too much of "he" to be effective as a non-gendered singular pronoun. Worth pursuing even if the first chapter doesn't grab you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin

I enjoyed the last, at least for now, book in the Earthsea Cycle. Like Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea, it retains the psychological focus, and continues reworking and re-imagining the connections between magic and gender, between humans and dragons, between life and death. It's exciting to see Earthsea grow and change as Le Guin matures and spends more time thinking about it. I do think, despite their flaws, the first three books work so well as a unit, that the big plot that develops in the second three feels a bit off. J.K. Rowling said of her Harry Potter series that she doesn't want to write any more novels because she has already written her epic battle for good and evil, and anything else would either make that battle less important or be less important itself. So it feels a little funny to me, to write a series where Ged breaches the wall between life and death, then heals it, and then, only after you've gone through all that thinking the world is healed but Ged isn't, to find that the wall is the problem in the first place. But, loving the characters and the world as I do, it's always a delight to return.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

This collection of short stories continues the Earthsea cycle in the direction of Tehanu. Le Guin uses these stories to investigate and challenge the sexism inherent at the school on Roke. The stories span a wide range of history: they begin with the founding of the school on Roke and end after the events of Tehanu. Unfortunately, this collection does not include two of Le Guin's Earthsea stories, which are published in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, but otherwise, the collection is solid, and well worth the read.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

I enjoyed this installment in the Earthsea (trilogy no more) Cycle, but it's very different from the first three. The magic, to the extent that it exists at all, is very understated: Ged has lost his (and is absent for much of the book anyway), Tenar, to the extent that she participates in Hardic magic is untutored, and Therru/Tehanu only shows hints of power. Instead, this book is much more psychological, focusing on the healing of three wounded and scarred individuals. Although Le Guin says that this book brought Earthsea up to present-time as she was writing, and she apparently meant to stop, its ending has an unfinished feel to it: it's more like a pause than a full stop.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

On Revolution by Hannah Arendt

I think this book is fantastic. Arendt attempts to provide a theoretical framework for reading revolutions using both the American and the French Revolutions. In addition to her useful distinctions between liberation and freedom, Arendt usefully and skillfully draws examples from history and literature. Literate, engaging, and articulate, Arendt makes you feel like you're engaging in a great conversation with a smart friend.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

This novel, the third in the Earthsea cycle, offers an ending to the first three books. It's about the line between death and life, and the necessity of death to make life meaningful. It's also a coming-of-age story, as Arren grows into his kingly self. Le Guin takes the story as far as it needs to go and doesn't waste a lot of time wrapping it up or writing epilogues (although she has written three Earthsea books since this one ended the trilogy).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre

This gothic novel is not as compelling as The Monk; the plot comes together too quickly--which is to say, it starts with the destruction of a family of four, narrows its focus to the sister, and then brings the brother back in halfheartedly at the very end. Indeed, the book becomes more interesting for its flaws than for its successes. Although there's a seduction by the devil, the bargain is never explicitly Faustian--and the devil, Zofloya, isn't introduced until Victoria is already well on her way to wickedness.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita

Although this novel seemed a bit too pat, too forced at times, I enjoyed reading it. Yamashita has arranged her story over the course of a week, from the perspective of seven characters, and each character has a chapter a day. Everything seems to converge, or almost to converge at the end, and while she doesn't tie everything entirely up, there were moments when I felt like the deck was stacked against the reader. Otherwise, I enjoyed following angels, oranges, and maps across the apocalyptic landscape of Los Angeles (almost a character in its own right).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

It was an unequivocal pleasure to return to this book after nearly a decade. I found it more intriguing and more tragic than ever. One cannot help loving Tess, even as she remains veiled from Angel and from her readers. This time through, I found the series of bad omens and the investigation of inheritance and family particularly compelling.

The Quest for Middle-earth by Dirk Vander Ploeg

I am having a hard time thinking of anything kind to say about this book, unless kindness consists of warning readers away. Its sloppy grammar, inconsistency and inaccuracy in its citations, and wildly ineffective and inappropriate transitions make the act of reading difficult. As one wades through the bad prose, one realizes that the content is even worse. Vander Ploeg's selective use of a broad range of mythic, scientific, Biblical, archaeological, historical, and fictional sources demonstrates his poor understanding of all of these sources at best, and a deliberate attempt to construct evidence which simply does not exist at worst. Save yourself the hassle and enjoy Tolkien himself instead.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

I really enjoyed this gothic novel. Although there are definitely campy moments (and Lewis was only 19, after all, when he wrote the book), the books is a lot of fun to read. I particularly enjoyed the story of the Bleeding Nun. There's an obvious vein of the Faust story running through the text. Even the supposedly "happy" bits of the ending are quite disturbing and the final image is no less than a reversal of the creation story in Genesis. Overall well worth the read.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

These plays are powerful. In the two parts, Kushner creates a fractured, but resilient community among a variety of people uncomfortable in their own bodies living in New York City in the mid-1980s. Although these people are more and less self-absorbed, egotistical, and harmful to one another, Kushner has created a work that highlights dignity, decency, and respect by the end. While fully acknowledging the imperfections of this world, the plays ultimately joyously affirm life.

Phoebe Junior by Margaret Oliphant

This novel started slowly for me. However, by the time I reached the end, I was impressed by how neatly the plot fit together. I found Phoebe a bit mercenary for my tastes, and I was sorry she came out firmly in favor of class over family. Overall, though, quite an entertaining read.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Clarissa's Ciphers by Terry Castle

This analysis of Clarissa struck me as very smart. Castle opens with the fragmentation of Clarissa and draws a striking parallel between Clarissa's body and Mrs. Sinclair's as each woman dies. The majority of the book dealt with letters, signs, and readers. The book builds well on itself.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

When I first picked up this book with the intention of reading it, I quickly gave up: it was hard to follow and tedious. Coming back to the book after several months, though, I cannot believe what I was missing. The very parts I found boring and irrelevant are actually wildly funny. One has to be patient with the digressions--indeed the novel is more digression than anything else--but everything comes together much more neatly than one might expect. I also love the innovation in terms of the printing process: Sterne inserted a black page, a marbled page, several blank pages, and "tore out" a chapter. Further, he has very unconventional typesetting, dashes, and other printers' marks. This book demands its readers learn how to read again, and the fruit of the labor is well worth the work.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

The second installment in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, while less epic than the first, solidly continues the themes and expands the world of the first novel. This novel is set entirely in the Kargad lands, which we discover are barbaric in their religion; they worship the dark powers of the earth--powers akin to the shadow Ged loosed and the stone in Oskill. In the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, Le Guin gives a token that works as a reverse of the One Ring of Tolkein (offering unity and wise rule) and like the Sword that Was Broken, in that it must be reforged. Ged appears, but the story focuses on the development of Arha (the one that was eaten) back into Tenar.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Occasional Form by J. Paul Hunter

In this assessment of Henry Fielding's career, Paul Hunter situates Fielding's plays and four novels (Shamela, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Amelia) in the context of Fielding's culture and society. He pays particular attention to the various models Fielding uses to construct his stories, while still affirming Fielding's particular place in the development of the novel. He includes some particularly felicitous readings of Tom Jones. Although this book was written in the 1970s, many of its arguments are worth pursuing.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Sundays with Vlad by Paul Bibeau

Part travelogue, part cultural analysis, this book analyzes the forms and transformations of the myth of Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Count Dracula. The tone was often light and humorous, but Bibeau addresses more seriously questions of the movement of culture and intellectual and cultural rights to various figures. At times the writing comes out a bit stilted, as if it were overwritten, but this book is generally a pleasure to read, and often quite funny. I would have appreciated a little less of the modern-day vampire culture and a little more of the historical and literary underpinnings, but I suppose there are other books to read for that.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

This novel takes the whole of a town in provincial England just before the passage of the Reform Bill as its subject. Eliot exposes the egotism of most of her characters, while offering both idealist (Dorothea Brooke) and realist (Mary Garth) alternatives to a self-centered way of living. This time around, I kept getting the feeling that if they had met each other a little bit earlier Dorothea and Lydgate might have been good for each other.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I really enjoyed returning to this novel after several years. Earthsea is beautifully realized, and its magic is properly limited (for if magic can do anything, no stories are necessary). This particular story mixes elements of the epic lay and the allegorical, as it tells the story of a young man coming to trust in himself and to accept mortality.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far

I found this collection of short stories incredibly compelling. The stories address the problems of being and remaining Chinese in America around the turn of the last century. There are moments of great beauty and also of shocking violence. The stories affirm the validity of self-determination, even if that determination is to negate the self in accordance with non-democratic cultural norms.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers

I enjoyed this mystery. An elderly gentleman is found dead in his armchair at the Bellona Club on Armistice Day, and the time of his death becomes important for the resolution of his estranged sister's will. Lord Peter Wimsey agrees to step in and investigate. There's a partial solution about half-way through the book, which I was able to anticipate, but I was surprised by the revelation of the murderer. While not the best of Sayers's work, this novel kept me interested and guessing till the end.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

It's always a pleasure to read this rollicking romp through 18th century England. I particularly liked the narrator's comments and guidance of the story; the first chapter of each of the eighteen books is the narrator's introduction to the book. I like the beginning and ending parts (i.e. I and III) at Mr. Allworthy's and in London better than Part II, on the road between the two, but mostly because I delight in Blifil's evil behavior and his final comeuppance. Reading it for a second time, I could definitely see how careful Fielding had shaped his story to give one impression for the first read, but to reveal the truth to anyone who comes back and reads carefully. Overall a great read.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Sturdy Oak edited by Elizabeth Jordan

This composite novel, which like the parlor game, consists of a different author taking on each chapter, was written as part of the 1917 New York suffragist campaign. It follows the transformation which leads a young couple to embrace the cause of women's votes. While the story ends happily, with George, the husband coming around to support his wife and her interest in women's action, and with the marriage of the secondary couple, one might wonder about the effectiveness of the ending. George comes around very quickly, and the second marriage happens just as quickly--almost undermining the woman's prior decision to support herself (despite her large fortune) as a stenographer. The quest for quick and easy endings thus seems to undermine a truly radical position on women's rights.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

In this novel Wilkie Collins writes one of the first detective stories in the English language. Although a magnificent gem, stolen from India, prompts the action, the story is about England. The main characters are not entirely sympathetic and the first narrator (who tells the first half of the tale) is a garrulous old man who has read rather too much Robinson Crusoe in his day. The comic portrait of Miss Clack, a deeply devout, impoverished spinster who passive-aggressively scatters tracts wherever she goes is not to be forgotten. In addition to the joy of tracing out the mystery, this novel offers a critique of British colonialism.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson

I really enjoyed this look at the Lord of the Rings movie phenomenon. Thompson does a meticulous job tracing all sorts of aspects associated with the movie and its franchise. If you are looking for a cinematic assessment of the film, you will probably be disappointed, but I was very impressed by the care which Thompson takes detailing all aspects of the franchise from the factors that led to the production of the film at all to its associated publicity and merchandise and ending with its impact on the New Zealand film industry. At times I felt like she went into unnecessary detail providing background information on things like the connections between the video game and movie industries, but overall a fun read.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Christmas: A Candid History by Bruce David Forbes

I was disappointed by this book. The tone was vaguely patronizing and the metaphors used simplistic at best. Forbes gives a brief cultural history of the holiday, emphasizing that Christmas has always borrowed its celebratory aspects from other cultures and that Christmas is generally not a big deal in terms of its religious value. Although his point, we ought not seek to reclaim a strictly religious and non-secular holiday because such an event never really existed, is not poorly taken, I felt talked down to during the entire book.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs tells of her life as a slave in this narrative. She frames the story on either side with affirmations from people who have known her that her story is true and not exaggerated. She specifically seeks to engage the sympathy of the free women of the North; to that end she focuses on the experience of motherhood for a slave. Although she makes much of the fact that she missed the opportunity for formal education, she is able to deploy the style and grammar that white Americans would have used at the time. The book ends not with a marriage but with the freedom of Linda (the name Harriet uses in the book) and her two children; there's a nice development to that point on the ethics and practical concerns involved in buying the legal freedom of someone who considers herself free.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Saga of the Volsungs translated by Jesse Byock

I read this saga because it inspired both Wagner and Tolkien. The story will be mostly familiar to anyone who knows the story of Wagner's Ring der Niebelungen, although he did change his source material (and merge it with material from the more courtly, German Niebelungenlied in places). This translation did not distract from the plot, although at times the phrasing sounded clunky in English. This epic moves quite quickly for the amount of time covered. The introduction was decent; I particularly enjoyed the parts tracing the influence on Wagner. I thought Byock spent too much time on the possible historical connections. The notes were appropriate--neither too many nor too few.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Reading Clarissa by William Warner

This study first offers Warner's own reading of the text and then examines the critical history of the publication of Clarissa. While his reading of the text was informative, I far preferred the second half of the book, which focuses on the critical reception of the novel. Richardson published Clarissa in parts, and was in correspondence with (mostly female) readers about how the novel should end even as the final volume went to press. He declined to take the most popular suggestion (to marry Clarissa to Lovelace), but he did consider readers' input when publishing his second and third editions of Clarissa, which were edited to make Lovelace nastier and less likeable than before.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

The second novel in this omnibus edition, Through the Looking Glass continues Alice's adventures, this time organized around a game of chess. The backwards nature of the world through looking glass is particularly well-realized. Many of Lewis's most beloved poems, including "The Walrus and the Carpenter," and "Jabberwocky" appear in this novel. Tenniel's classic illustrations accompany this edition, and add a lot to the reading experience. The more adult themes that accompany this book include the question of whether language reflects inherent properties, and what's in a name.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice in Wonderland, the first of two novels in this omnibus edition, is generally read as a children's story. As delightful as children find this fantastical world, Carroll's text grapples with questions of identity, language, and reason that anyone could consider seriously. Particularly intriguing are Alice's continual questioning of who she is (as her size is constantly fluctuating) and the novel's critique of learning by rote.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

This epistolary novel rewards the reader proportionately to the effort put in. That is to say, one ought to be prepared to give the whole thing a serious and careful reading in order to derive pleasure or knowledge from the experience. If you're willing to put the time in, though, this novel has many rewards. The plot could be summarized in a sentence: the best and most virtuous girl in the world runs away with a rake, who rapes her, and then she dies of a broken heart. However, as one sinks into the ever more complex layers of meaning and signifier in the text, this novel becomes increasingly compelling and addictive.

Clotel by William Wells Brown

This book, generally considered the first novel by a former slave, consists of a pastiche of many different sources. While this construction makes it difficult to become engaged with the characters at first, it allows the author to show the degrading and cruel consequences of slavery over a broader spectrum of experience. This universalizing factor is important, as the book makes the persuasion of the British that American slavery is morally wrong a primary goal.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Communities of Women by Nina Auerbach

Nina Auerbach has quite a dazzling scope in this book. She looks at the development of communities of women in British and American literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She pairs Pride and Prejudice with Little Women, Cranford with Villette, and The Bostonians with The Odd Women, and then focuses her discussion on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the last chapter. These communities, she contends, grow increasingly more encompassing as time goes on: while the Bennett sisters are waiting for husbands, and the March sisters must be married off to finish the book, Miss Brodie's fascist leanings incorporate a militancy and a sort of political self-sufficiency.

I'm Not Making This Up, You Know by Anna Russell

Anna Russell, the British comedienne who could sing Wagner's Der Ring Der Nibelungen (a cycle of four operas which generally require 20 hours to perform over the course of a long weekend) in 20 minutes, takes the title of her autobiography from a line in that performance. In her musical parodies, she had a knack for presenting the music in a way that highlighted its most absurd elements. While her life-story is not as absurd as Wagner's convoluted plot, the same self-consciousness pervades her biography. Although always entertaining, Russell has a knack for keeping her reader at arms' distance at several places: she's continually vague about years, and she never even mentions her first husband's name. While this biography is quite entertaining and worth reading, it's important to remember that it reads more like one of her performances than like straight history.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

While I was initially skeptical of this mystery as the event in question occurred eighteen years before the action of the novel, the action became increasingly relevant as the novel progressed. There's a great connection to John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (a play well worth reading in its own right)--one to which I should have paid more attention. Although Miss Marple makes an appearance, the action occurs mostly on the South coast of England. This mystery is a solid read, although not my favorite Christie.

The Regatta Mystery by Agatha Christie

This collection of short stories has stories featuring Parker Pyne, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot. While it's always a pleasure to read Christie's crisp style, her novels are generally much better than her short stories. In the novels, the reader has a chance of following the clues she drops to solve the mystery before the detective; most of these stories were neat examples of the detective's skill without a chance for the reader to actively participate. "Through a Glass Darkly," my least favorite of the nine stories, had entirely new characters and was more of a supernatural love story than standard mystery. Overall, this collection should entertain Christie's fans, but would not be a good place to start.