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.